Your Winter Toolkit: Helping Survivors of Abuse
Survivors of relationship abuse need your help this winter.
Last spring, law enforcement and community agencies around the United States reported that the number of calls for help dramatically decreased as stay-at-home orders became the norm. That’s good, right? Unfortunately, it’s not good. Numbers went down because survivors were unable to leave an abuser and safely report the abuse. They were stuck at home, under an abuser’s thumb 24/7. The pandemic and its accompanying restrictions presented barriers to getting help. Because a survivor was with the abuser more often, they had fewer chances to seek outside help and support.
Why do survivors need your help this winter? As of this writing, all COVID-19 positive cases and deaths are increasing dramatically, and all indications are that another round of restricted movement is ahead of us. The difference now is that we know what this means for people in an abusive relationship, and we can help!
Statistics paint an ugly picture of abuse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of three women AND one out of three men will experience physical violence, contact sexual violence, and/or stalking in their lifetime. Abuse can be psychological, too. Nearly half of women (47%) and men (47%) report experiencing psychological aggression. This includes behaviors that are humiliating or controlling.*
Social isolation increases the risk of relationship abuse. It gives the abuser what he or she wants most: more control over their partner. It separates the survivor and keeps them from reaching out to resources for help. Research shows that stressors increase the likelihood of abuse.
The current pandemic introduced a cascade of new stressors, and for many, they are ongoing. These include job loss, decreased income, unemployment, loss of health insurance, and loss of housing and social support networks. These may be affecting your life, too. Imagine how much more difficult navigating the pandemic would be with the added layer of abuse, whether physical or emotional!
Right now, the stats quoted above are probably still in your mind. Like many people, you cannot name one person who is in an unhealthy or abusive relationship. I can all but guarantee someone you know is hurting. If that’s true, why don’t you know?
Survivors report many reasons for not disclosing what it happening to them:
- Feeling of helplessness, that nothing they do will stop the abuse
- Fear that no one will believe them
- Shame for what is happening and a belief it’s their fault
- Fear the abuser will find out
Becoming a safe person
Before we can help, we need to know who is hurting. Becoming a “safe” person is often not a fast process; it takes time to gain one’s trust.
The first important step is to become an active listener. A survivor will most often give hints that his or her relationship is abusive, but these are very subtle. It could sound like, “Things aren’t going well at home lately,” or “I wish Jane wouldn’t be mad all the time.”
Any time someone drops a little hint that their relationship isn’t okay, that is a clue that needs to be explored further. Ask them to tell you about that. If they want to talk, great. If not, don’t push the conversation. Let them know that you’ll be ready to listen when they want to talk more.
You can use active listening skills when you suspect a relationship may not be healthy. In this case, note what you see and ask if everything is okay. Then listen for the subtle clues. The signs of abuse are difficult to identify, especially when the only form of communication is by phone or video.
Some indicators of abuse include:
- Unusual quietness
- Personality changes
- Looking more anxious when the partner walks into the room
- Reduced frequency of calls or chats
As you build trust with someone, you may find that they become more open about what is happening. Continue to listen, be empathetic, and express belief in what they tell you.
How to help in the middle of a pandemic
The pandemic brings special considerations when helping someone in an abusive relationship. Working from home or unemployment may mean their abuser is a constant presence. You may not always know that they are listening because they are off screen or you’re on the telephone. Be aware of this and keep your questions very generic. Instead of, “Is Joe still yelling at you?” say, “I’ve been praying for you. How are things today?”
Ask if you can meet in person for coffee or a walk so you can have a more in-depth conversation. When the response to an outing is no, consider stopping by to drop off homemade goodies or a care basket. This gives you an opportunity to be with the person physically and increases their feeling of being supported.
Unless you know that your calls result in punishment for the survivor, continue to reach out regularly and often. Even when you feel pushed away at times. You don’t need to talk long, but a quick check in reminds the survivor that you’re concerned for them.
At some point you may find that the abuse is so bad that the survivor wants to leave the relationship. This is the time to connect them with the local domestic abuse shelter or crisis center. The survivor needs professional help at this point; your job is one of support. You can go to the shelter, too, to give that support. If shelter staff ask to talk to your friend alone, know that they do that for his or her protection.
Offer spiritual support
The spiritual needs of survivors are more important than the physical. A survivor has been told many times that they are unlovable. Some believe God doesn’t love them, too. As a support person, you will have many opportunities to give spiritual assistance.
- Share Bible passages that reflect God’s love or ones that offer hope and healing
- Offer to take them to church
- Talking to a pastor can be scary. Tell them you’ll gladly go with them if they’d like to let the pastor know what is happening
- Let them know that they are in your prayers
Research shows that the community of believers presents a unique opportunity to help survivors. When a survivor feels supported by their faith community, they are more likely to have feelings of well-being and less likely to remain in the abusive situation.** You are in a unique position to help fellow Christians!
This is also an important time to advocate for more church awareness of relationship abuse. Members needs to hear from their church that abuse is sinful, and the survivor is never to blame for the abuser’s actions. When the church talks about abuse, it makes survivors more willing to disclose what is happening.
Ways you can advocate to your church include:
- Ask to include information in the church newsletter or bulletin announcements about abuse. Kingdom Workers has information available for this use.
- Ask to place posters in the bathroom with hotline numbers and information about the local domestic abuse shelter. The national hotline number is 800-799-7233.
Relationship abuse is not an easy topic to address. It’s messy and confusing. The best way to help is to provide unconditional support for the survivor. Don’t worry about fixing the situation—that’s not your role. Your job is to let that person know that they can count on you, no matter what.
“Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:11.
Michelle Markgraf, community expert on survivor advocacy and safety, helped launch the Empowering Survivors of Relationship Violence program at Kingdom Workers. She previously worked as a volunteer advocate and later as the Executive Director of a rape and domestic abuse crisis center.
*Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Government Printing Office; 2017. Preventing intimate partner violence across the lifespan: A technical package of programs, policies, and practices.
**Nason-Clark, N., Fisher-Townsend, B., Holtmann, C., & McMullin, S. (2018). Religion and intimate partner violence. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.