Helping Victims of Domestic Violence

When ignorance isn't bliss.

by Bette Nordberg

When Nita moved in across the street, Susan was delighted to find that her new neighbor was also a full-time mom. Over time their friendship grew to include carpooling duties and occasional morning coffee.

Though Susan had never known anyone in a violent relationship, it wasn’t long before she suspected her new neighbor was in trouble. She noticed how fearful Nita was of her husband’s anger. She observed frequent bruises and listened to Nita’s labored excuses of clumsiness. Susan noticed how Nita’s children clung to her side, like frightened chicks, watching anxiously for their mother, eager to keep her always within their vision.

Though Susan suspected the worst, it was not until Nita appeared on her doorstep, battered and bleeding, that she realized how serious things really were. She knew she should help, but Susan didn’t know how.

“We took Nita to the emergency room, but I was terrified,” she recalls. “Afraid of getting involved. Afraid of her husband’s retaliation. So I never really talked about it with her. I shared my about faith in God, but I really didn’t help her with her problems. I wish I’d known what to do.”

Looking for signs

Susan’s first instincts were correct: Nita showed many signs of living in a violent relationship. Not as uncommon as we might hope, violent relationships are found in every community, in every social class, in couples of every conceivable color and faith.

Though most of us are vaguely aware of domestic violence, when it comes to our own friends and neighbors, we, like Susan, often have little to offer. Not knowing what to do, we choose the safest path: Do nothing.

The truth is, when someone we care about lives in an abusive situation, we have much to offer. Every person can do three simple things to help the victim of domestic violence.

Understand dynamics

The first task is to understand the dynamics of domestic abuse. For many, the culture of violence is as foreign as that of a remote African tribe. Begin by reading everything you can about the culture of abuse. Use the Internet. Call the domestic violence hotline in your county or a court advocate at your county courthouse and explain your relationship with the victim. Ask what specific things you might do to help the victim. Exposing yourself to the culture of violence helps you understand the dynamics of the abusive relationship.

Many who begin to care for victims of domestic violence are surprised to learn that abuse is not about anger; it is about control. Nancy Murphy, executive director and founder of Northwest Family Life, a Seattle-based therapy center for violent families, was once a victim herself. “The abuser never loses his temper in other situations,” she says. “These men rarely have trouble at work or in public. The violent side of these men is often a surprise to those who know them best.”

Murphy defines domestic violence as the use of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse to gain and maintain control over another in an intimate relationship.

Offer support

Second, when someone you care about is being abused, you can offer support. Victims need to know that you care, that you are willing to listen, and that you believe what they tell you. Caring requires that you be both available and compassionate without being judgmental.

Only when victims are convinced you understand their unique situation will they consider the resources you offer. This kind of caring takes both time and empathy.

Share information

The third step is to share information, not advice. When talking with a victim, guard against saying “You should.” The objective is not to stuff the victim with statistics or give her the rough equivalent of a degree in social work. The goal is simply to help her begin to think about safety issues. Ask her to be honest with herself and with you. Help her consider several emergency plans.

Some victims simply evaluate which rooms are safest to argue in, determined to draw their abusers away from potential weapons — like kitchen knives. Others have complete plans and tools in place for an emergency escape. A victim might hide an extra car key, money, and insurance (or driver’s license) in a safe place accessible only to her. This kind of emergency plan might have saved Nita from the brutal beating she suffered at her husband’s hands.

Dangers of leaving

What about leaving the abuser? Why not encourage all victims to just get out of the violent relationship?

Unfortunately, leaving a violent relationship is not always the safest answer. In 1992 roughly 75% of emergency room visits by battered women occurred after separation. One study found that men committed half of the homicides of female spouses and partners after their separation from batterers (Barbara Hart, nationally known speaker and legal advocate for victims of domestic violence, in her remarks to the Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect, April 1992).

This increasing danger in separation is partially explained in the book When Men Batter Women (Simon and Schuster, 1998) by Dr. Neil Jacobson and Dr. John Gottman. Their research describes two distinctly different types of abusive men. One type they call the cobra and the other the pit-bull. While the cobra is more dangerous to live with, the relationship with the pit-bull is more dangerous to end.

Life with the cobra involves frequent and extremely severe episodes of violence. Cobras often show sociopathic tendencies, and may have a history of trouble with the law. They are able to detach during the violent episode and remain unresponsive to their partner’s cries for help. The cobra seldom acknowledges the violent episode and rarely asks forgiveness, or promises to change. These men can and do kill their partners.

Pit-bulls are motivated by an extreme fear of abandonment. They apologize frequently after violent episodes, promising to make permanent changes. Jealousy colors their relationships with women, and its intensity increases to fever pitch when the partner moves toward separation from the relationship. The pit-bull may resort to harassment, stalking, and even fatal violence, especially when he believes a new love interest has entered his partner’s life. Not surprisingly, ending a relationship with a pit-bull is a highly dangerous choice.

Instinctively, the victim knows how safe she is to remain in the home. Advising the partner of a pit-bull to leave her abuser may actually escalate her chances of being severely injured, or even killed.

Seek support

There is frustration in caring for the domestic violence victim. Change is often excruciatingly slow. Despite intense effort and support, the family situation may continue to deteriorate. We are tempted to let our frustration show, further isolating the victim from the very love and help she needs. Nothing pleases an abuser more: Our withdrawal increases the victim’s dependence on her abuser, who wants more than anything to convince her that no one else cares.

When these feelings of frustration surface, seek support for yourself. Even helpers need help. The same counselors who support victims want to support you. Call the support line. Establish a relationship with someone who has successfully made changes in the abuse cycle. Ask an expert for help with your frustration.

Playing it un-safe

Susan wanted to save Nita from the physical pain and emotional struggle she faced, but she didn’t have the tools. “Eventually,” Susan said, “Nita moved away and I lost my opportunity. I have no idea what happened to her, if she is safe, or even if she is still alive. Of all the things I regret in my life, I regret not making the effort to help her.”

None of us has to live with this kind of regret. When we love those who are hurting — by listening and understanding without advising or correcting — we get involved. It may not be the safest path, but it is the best.

Resources for domestic violence

Scripture quotations marked NIV are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked New King James Version taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.