Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Smart Safety: Domestic Abuse - Warning Signs and Support

 Clare Alden is an educator, writer, visual artist, and mother.  Having earned a Master’s degree from an Ivy League university, raised a son, and survived relationship abuse, she is a committed advocate who believes in the power of education to fuel social change and to advance the lives of girls and women.  Books have changed her life by empowering her to speak her truth, own her story, and live her best life.  She hopes her writing will do the same for you.  Additional information can be found at https://www.clarealden.com/

I had a chance to interview her to learn more about domestic abuse.

Can you share a little bit about your story?

I grew up seeing my mother suffer in emotionally abusive relationships.  I was determined that would never happen to me, so I orchestrated my life to ensure that I would never be at subjugated in a relationship with a man.  I went to college, went on to get my master’s degree, got a good job, flourished in my career, only to realize, at the age of 40, that I myself was in an abusive marriage.  It was a long journey to freedom and safety and then another long journey to understanding how I had become enmeshed in such a situation.  Now, I dedicate myself to helping other women with similar experiences.  My big-picture dream is to participate in social change to create a world where abusive relationships do not occur at all. 

Why is it important for people to be aware of the warning signs of abuse?

Relationship abuse often goes unrecognized by friends and family and by the victim herself.  Even more difficult is that both partners make efforts, for different reasons, to hide the abuse.  

It is still a common misconception that relationship abuse is synonymous with domestic violence, when, in fact, physical violence is but one strategy for assuming power and control. Verbal and emotional abuse are widespread tactics that always precede physical abuse and, in many cases, fully achieve the objective of domination over a mate without the use of physical force.  

The impact on the entire family is devasting and is often perpetuated from generation to generation.  Still today, girls and women are often conditioned, primarily through their role models, to accept abuse, while boys and men are commonly taught a deep sense of entitlement.  

Being aware of the warning signs can help identify when a family is suffering if the abuse is not recognized by the victim and when effort is devoted to keeping abuse a secret within a family.  Breaking the interpersonal and intergenerational cycle of abuse requires everyone to be knowledgeable, observant, and empathetic.  

Even if people don't think they'll be involved in an abusive relationship, why do they still need to be aware of resources and red flags?

Given the prevalence of domestic abuse, most people probably know someone, even if they don’t realize it, who is suffering in an abusive relationship.  Many people who are in abusive relationships don’t understand that their love and trust are being exploited, often because they assume you must be physically assaulted to even consider getting assistance.  Women who are physically abused typically don’t think they are worthy of help.  In all these scenarios, whether victim or loved one who is suffering, you need to be aware of the resources and red flags to effect change.  

How can people support family members who may be victims of relationship abuse, both before they are able to leave and after they have left the relationship?

This is an important question, as I have found that many people, with the best of intentions, say and do things that make the situation worse.  Peoples’ initial reaction is often to tell the person suffering, “You need to get out of this relationship.”  While that may well be true in the long run, that is the most damaging message you can convey for both her emotional and physical safety.  

People trapped in an abusive relationship are constantly bombarded by messages that are directive, controlling, demanding and convey that they are dependent on others, incapable of making decisions, and unworthy of respect and self-determination.  Telling her what to do is sending a message similar to those of her abuser.  We need to let our loved one who is suffering know that she is capable of sound decisions and should trust herself and that we respect her and will support her.  If she thinks it is unsafe to leave—she is probably right.  

The period of time when a woman is leaving an abuser is the most dangerous time in the relationship.  The abuser escalates the severity of the abuse in order to maintain control.  Careful planning and support systems are necessary to enable an abused partner to leave with maximum safety and minimum likelihood of return.  

The best things we can do to support someone suffering in an abusive relationship include the following: 

  • Listen to her.  Do not argue or challenge her understanding of her situation.  Do not diminish her concerns or experience.  Just listen and validate her emotions, her thoughts, and her concerns.  

  • Let her know that you believe she is in the best position to make decisions about her life.  No other person knows her mate as well as she does.  She can use this knowledge to start determining what is in her best interest.  

  • Let her know that reaching out for help is OK.  The best help is from trained professionals who are the most well equipped to find the safest short- and long-term options for her situation and her family.  

  • The local or national domestic abuse hotline is a good place to start. 

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