A couple of weeks ago I wrote about love after kids and the very real challenges couples can face as they transition from a party of two to three or more. I know, from the feedback you sent me, that this resonated strongly and for that, I am so thankful. There was however, a big elephant in the room;
what about when it’s not just normal angst and common frustration? What happens when you are left asking yourself “Is it normal for my partner to get that angry?“
This may not be a question you’ve asked, or that you’ve been asked. However, unfortunately for many women, probably (almost definitely) women you know, this is a question they are asking.
In case you’re not convinced let me share some stats with you:
- One in four Australian women has experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or former partner (these are the reported cases, far more go unreported)
- Intimate partner violence is the largest contributor to death, disability and illness in women aged 15 to 44.
- It’s the largest driver of homelessness for women and a common factor in child protection notifications.
- An average of one Australian woman a week is killed by a current or former partner.
Can someone please tell me why this is not considered a national emergency?!?!?
Maybe because it’s hard. Like, really, really hard.
Maybe because unless there’s physical violence, we don’t know how to identify it. Indeed, all of the women I spoke told me that they didn’t realise what was happening until either right near the end of the relationship, or until after they had left it.
Maybe because we aren’t prepared.
Maybe because it seems so big.
So how do you help someone when they may not be aware of what is happening, and when you don’t have a clue about what to say?
I want to give you 12 things, pretty simple things that can enable you to be a beacon of light, warmth and support to those in your midst who may need that from you. These 12 things have been given to me by incredibly strong, brave women who have shared their stories with me and support workers from the field.
1. Don’t diss him.
I know it’s counter-intuitive, but one of the reasons it’s so hard to leave an abusive relationship is love. Your friend loves their partner, they don’t want to hear you slagging him. Focus on her, what makes her so amazing and wonderful and if you need to address him, talk about his behaviour.
Don’t say “He’s such a dick/loser/jerk/scumbag”
Do say “It’s not OK for him to speak to you like that/ hurt you etc…”
Don’t say “I can’t believe you married/moved in with this guy – I could tell he was no good from the beginning.”
Do say “I love you, I care about you, if you need somewhere to stay for a few days to get some space then I’ve always got room for you”
For other great suggestions on what not to say, read this.
2. Don’t judge
I don’t know about you, but I know that I’ve been in conversations about whether you’d stay or go if you partner cheated, if they hit, if they abused. The thing is, you absolutely cannot know what you would do in another person’s shoes, if it was a real life situation. Sweeping black and white statements about leaving can seem really judgemental and make is harder for your friend to open up with you.
Life is messy, ending a relationship is huge. Be clear, honest and loving, but don’t judge. What I have learnt about domestic violence is that abusers are masters at manipulation, at removing the confidence and self-worth of their partner. People in a domestic abuse situation have enough judgement in their life and so, to be frank, they don’t need anymore. The more you can support, love and build up your friend, the more you are able to help them rebuild their confidence and that is what they absolutely do need!
3. Listen carefully and ask “Mother Measure” questions.
“Mother Measure” questions touch on the particular love a mother has for her child, that might help to regain perspective about a situation.
For one survivor, Emma* the question was “Are you caring for yourself, the same way you care for your children?” Emma said, “Any mother knows how they care for their children so when I was asked this question, it was very revealing. My children were everything and I was nothing. This question helped me to start rebuilding my own self-worth and that was when I began to stop accepting the behaviour. ”
Another survivor, Rose* said “Something that really helped me leave was asking myself, is this how I want my son to treat his partner down the track? It was one of my stronger resolves, that I wanted to break the cycle of domestic violence that is on both sides of my son’s family by showing him that I am not going to accept or tolerate being treated that way.”
4. Take it seriously
I know this is probably a ‘captain obvious’ statement however in the face of really difficult topics, sometimes inadvertently clam up and appear to be dismissive (or laugh inappropriately which is what I do!)
It is hard, perhaps seemingly impossible, to think that the person you love, that you are building a life with is behaving violently towards you and/or your children. For a friend to bring this up with you is a huge, huge step. You don’t have to have the answer, it’s just about showing up and taking it seriously in that first instance.
One of the women I spoke with, Kate*, said she felt dismissed by friends when she talked about some of the challenges she was facing and so when she decided to leave she didn’t feel she had people in her corner. When you don’t know what to say, Kate suggests saying “It sounds like you have a real problem and I have no idea what to say but I’m here for you.”
5. Abuse is not always physical and this can make it even harder to identify.
As a society, we find it very hard to identify abuse when it’s not physical and unfortunately our judicial system is not well equipped to deal with it. Every story I have heard from domestic abuse survivors said that dealing with the police was just awful. More than one woman said “I know this sounds terrible but sometimes I wanted him to hit me because that would have made it more obvious.”
Just because it’s not physical, doesn’t mean that it’s not very real, and very damaging.
There is a checklist at the end of this article identifies lots of different ways in which abuse can manifest in a relationship. Some examples of non-physical abuse include:
- control over finances
- degrading, demeaning comments
- unreasonable jealousy
- checking your car for travel logs, reading emails or text messages, monitoring or limiting phone/email communication
- limiting time with friends or family members
If you feel concerned about the dynamic in a friend’s relationship then it’s good to recognise that just because someone isn’t being physically hurt, doesn’t mean the relationship is “OK”.
6. You can’t fix it
Human nature is to help. When a friend is hurting or worse still, being hurt, our instinct will be to make it better, to force action, to do anything and everything to keep your friend (and possibly her children) safe. Oh, I so so get that…but that’s not our job.
Our job is to be a supportive person. I know I know, I keep saying that but seriously, part of what enable us to look the other way when it comes to domestic abuse is that society says that women, and especially mother’s, should put themselves last and put everyone else first. We need to vocally challenge this idea. Because of this, it can be very hard to une into our personal voice which may well be whispering to you “this is not OK”.
You can’t fix what is happening in your friend’s relationship, but you can help her start to make a perspective shift, to see that she matters!
Kate said “Be honest, but tread carefully. Be willing to speak up – if my friends had spoken up when my ex insulted me in public it would have drawn my attention to it, and his. It would have helped me realise that it was not OK. No one ever defended me.”
7. Know what support is available
If your friend does know that she is in an abusive relationship, or if she’s got questions then know where to refer her. The bottom line is that if your partner gets angry in a way that you don’t like, or that scares you then it is not OK. This may not mean that you have to up and leave immediately but it does mean that it’s worth having someone supportive in your corner, to talk with and help you to develop strategies.
Domestic Violence Resource Centre 1800 737 732
WIRE‘s Women’s Support Line – 1300 134 130
8. Consider a Family Counsellor
As we’ve already said, considering that the person you love might be violent and harmful, is a hugely confronting idea and understandably one that is hard to come to.
Kate told me that she would never have spoken to a domestic violence counsellor as she didn’t see that she was in a violent relationship. It was in speaking to a family counsellor about the issues in her relationship, that the counsellor was able to identify the situation for her and this was much less confronting.
If your friend doesn’t recognise their relationship as abusive, she may still recognise that there are challenges in her relationship. By encouraging her to see a family counsellor for those issues, she can access professional support and who can help her see what else may be happening in her relationship. Most councils offer this kind of support so it would be a simple as googling the council your friend lives in. Alternatively, speaking to Relationships Australia would be a good place to start.
9. Don’t expect immediate action
On average, it takes someone in an abusive relationship seven attempts before they finally leave. Women who have had their self-worth crushed time and again, need to then muster, at their lowest point, this enormous strength to leave someone they love. Then, they need to know that they have a place to go. It can seem insurmountable (but it’s not!)
I know that this is hard to hear when you are watching someone you love suffer, but the only person who can make the decision to leave is the person who is living this experience. It is so important that the decision to leave is theirs. Having been in a dominating relationship, becoming dominant in your drive for them to take a particular course of action is not going to be helpful or effective in the long term. Respect your friend, respect their choices and do your best to build their confidence and self-esteem so they are able to make their decision.
10. Provide practical support
- Stay in regular contact
- If your friend is worrying about money and supporting herself or her children then you could help her to look for a job, help her find ways to retrain, do some research that she might find useful
- Invite her or her family over for a meal
- Go with her when she files an AVO, has to collect belongings, meet with police etc…. Rose said “Having moral support there when you have to tell your story can really help, especially if you can remain level headed and make sure you keep track of anything your friend forgot to say or what they need to do during the process.”
- For the blokes, offer to help with things that her partner might previously have been responsible for, go with her and the kids to the park and play with them, provide some of the male presence and steadiness that a father would usually provide.
- If you’re a bloke and you see your mate insulting or hurting their partner then speak up. Remember ‘the standard you walk past, is the standard you accept.”
- If your friend does leave, they may not be able to take anything with them – how can you help with practical things when this happens? Keep supporting her after she leaves.
- The DVRCV lists a number of other helpful suggestions.
11. Ask what would be helpful
They may say nothing, you may feel useless. Ask anyway.
12. Be a confidante
Be someone your friend can trust. Keep their confidence, don’t make it gossip. Be a regular and reliable presence in their life; they need to know that when the time comes, you will be there.
I know that some of you reading this will have first-hand experience of domestic abuse, either as a survivor or as a support person. Your insights and input would be greatly welcomed if you’d like to share them in the comments or via email. I want to say a huge thank you to the women who shared their story with me and contributed such valuable insights – you are amazing, strong women and it has been a privilege to hear your stories.
I also know that some of you reading this, may be in an abusive relationship right now, or know a loved one who is. I know this because the statistics don’t lie.
I want to say to you that you are stronger than you know, braver than you ever thought possible and that you don’t have to do it alone. Please, give Safe Steps a call and start a conversation. 1800 015 188.
I promised a checklist for those wondering if certain behaviours are OK or not. Here it is, with thanks to the folk at Safe Steps for letting me share it here…
If you answered yes to any of these questions then please call Safe Steps on 1800 015 188, and start a conversation.