The stories are incredibly unique and nuanced. Yet a thread of similarity strings them together. Despite the country one finds themselves in, the echo of strength, resiliency, and so much confusion can be heard in the voice of survivors. Their questions are asked both explicitly and implicitly through the stories they tell. What is violence anyway? How much is too much? Am I being too dramatic? Isn’t throwing objects and yelling normal? Such questions are frequently interwoven with statements like “He said he was sorry”, “She didn’t leave a mark”, and “I think, I mean, I hope he is serious about wanting to change this time”.
October is International Domestic Abuse Awareness Month. Domestic abuse is truly an international issue as no demographic can escape it. According to the UN “Domestic abuse, also called ‘domestic violence’ or ‘intimate partner violence’, can be defined as a pattern of behavior in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner” (UN). For more information on demographics, recognizing the signs, education on behavior patterns, and resources available to survivors please see the resource section at the end of this paper. This article will instead highlight the posture in which one approaches and empowers survivors of domestic violence to be the heroes in their own stories.
It can be overwhelming to step into a supportive role of someone experiencing domestic violence and individuals easily default into a savior or hero-type role. Most cultures love a good hero story. A story where an innocent victim is being terrorized by a soulless villain. The hero then swoops in, beating unbeatable odds to free the victim from the clutches of near destruction. The trouble with such stories, at least in the case of domestic violence, is that the victim remains a victim. Whether in one’s personal or professional life it is important to approach someone’s story of domestic abuse with intentionality and ultimately rejecting the pull to be a part of the grand dance of victim, perpetrator, and hero. Instead of donning a cape and being “a voice for the voiceless”, the supportive person’s role is to be a mirror. Reflecting the survivor’s own agency and voice. Unfortunately, instead of amplifying and strengthening the survivor, the supportive person can easily end up putting themselves in a place of opposition against the perpetrator. Striving to be the loudest voice in the survivor’s life by intellectually wrestling with the survivor and trying to convince him/her of what he/she needs to do. It’s almost always a lost battle. Even worse, it can lead to the survivor withdrawing from support and experiencing debilitating shame if he/she returns to the relationship with the perpetrator.
Practically, intellectual wrestling with a survivor can look like:
● Trying to align with the survivor against the perpetrator
● Demonizing the perpetrator
● Refusing to acknowledge the positive aspects of the survivor’s relationship with the perpetrator
● Defining the survivor’s experience “domestic abuse” before the survivor does
● Refusing to acknowledge that the survivor has perpetrated violence or emotional/psychological abuse against his/her partner
● Talking to the survivor like a child
● Treating the survivor as though he/she doesn’t possess the wisdom to discern the right choices for his/her life.
Instead, reflecting the survivor’s own agency and voice often looks like:
● Truly listening to the survivor as a unique and complex individual
● Clarifying unclear and vague statements with words like “tell me more about that”
● Holding space for both the positive and negative experiences the survivor has had in his/her relationship
● Authentically pointing out the survivor’s strengths
● Helping the survivor draw on the wisdom she/he has from previous experiences
● Answering the survivor’s questions about domestic abuse clearly without bashing the perpetrator
● Normalizing the survivor’s desire to return to the perpetrator
● Understanding the survivor’s situation is incredibly complicated and that there may not be a one really good answer
● Providing unconditional positive regard despite the choices the survivor makes
● Providing education on domestic abuse and allowing the survivor time and space to define his/her own experience
● Providing education on attributes of a healthy relationship
(Heartly House, Inc & Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria)
Often survivors will say the most destructive part of an abusive relationship is the psychological confusion it creates. In addition to physical force, perpetrators are often highly skilled at manipulation. Causing the survivor to lose all trust in his/herself and/or thinking that everything happening is his/her fault. These beliefs leave the survivor incredibly vulnerable to dependence on others. To truly be supportive of the survivor is to refuse an invitation to perpetuate a co-dependent relationship and help the survivor untangle and rediscover his/her own hero’s cape.
Resources Sighted in this article
Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria. Retrieved from
Heartly House Inc,.Tips for When a Domestic Violence Survivor Asks for Help. Retrieved from https://www.heartlyhouse.org/tips-for-helping-domestic-violence-survivor/
UN. What is Domestic Abuse. Retrieved from
General Resources for more information on Domestic Violence
International Justice Mission. Domestic Violence.
International Rescue Committee.