How to talk about abusive relationships
When I tell people what I do for a living, they usually say, “Wow! I could never do that. It must be so hard!” I always respond with, “Oh, but it’s so rewarding.”
Every time this conversation topic comes up, I am struck by how intense people’s reactions are. Few people believe they would be capable of handling the kind of work that I do, and I want to change that.
I am a mental health counselor who specializes in working with people who have experienced sexual assault or intimate partner violence at some point in their life. Yes, these are topics that are hard to discuss, it can be uncomfortable, and it is deeply personal. That’s why I think we are so quick to push these topics to the side. We keep from talking about it at all and leave it to “the professionals” to provide any level of care. But I think people don’t realize that it’s not all horrible stories that I hear, I also hear amazing stories about the strength and resilience of the human spirit.
I don’t just see the ugly side of life; I get to see a beauty in others that some don’t ever get a chance to see. My job gives me the opportunity to connect with the humanity in someone else. Something I think everyone should feel capable of doing.
By saying you could never do what I do, you are discrediting yourself. You are removing yourself as a resource or sounding board for someone who is surviving abuse. While I understand people’s hesitancy to address this topic, I think we need to overcome our fears for the sake of the survivors.
The unfortunate reality is that domestic abuse and intimate relationship violence happens. It happens every day. In fact, it happens to multiple people every minute. That’s why we must talk about it. By remaining silent, by pushing the topic to the side, we are inadvertently pushing the survivors to the side as well.
It is so much easier to think of domestic abuse as an issue that affects people we don’t know, to refer to this issue as an “it” that happens to other people. We are reluctant to admit that “it” happens inside of our circles, to our friends, to people we know and love.
So, how do you talk about it? How can each one of us feel confident having conversations about violence, about sexual assault, about child abuse, in our own relationships?
Below are some recommendations to help us.
1. Talk about relationships and talk about them often.
Talk about what makes a relationship healthy, talk about things you see in movies or tv shows that upset you or encourage you. When we don’t talk about relationships, we give power to those who abuse others by not offering a competing message. If the only message a person has about what is healthy or unhealthy in a relationship comes from an abusive partner, the only logical conclusion is that abuse is what is supposed to happen in a relationship. Churches can be a part of setting the stage for what healthy relationships—what spiritually-sound relationships—look like, but only if we are willing to talk about it. What better place than a church community to help define what love really looks like.
2. Create a safe place for people who have been in violent relationships to talk about their experiences.
The greatest lesson I ever learned in graduate school was the definition of empathy.
Empathy is being present with someone’s pain, not trying to fix it.
It’s being a witness to the emotion, being witness to the person. There have been hundreds of times that I have sat in my office across from a victim who has just told me the horrific story of what they have survived, and I think to myself, “I don’t know what to say.” In these moments, I’m reminded that my words are not what fixes the pain. I have no magic words that make their hurt go away.
What fixes pain is connection, the ability to be present with someone else. And I believe we can all do that. We can all create a space where people feel safe to share their stories by choosing to listen empathetically, by believing what the survivor says. Doing this restores a level of humanity back to the survivor and it gives them power to begin to heal.
3. Know the signs of an abusive relationship and talk about it.
Intimate relationship violence doesn’t just mean physical violence. It also includes many different types of abuse. In fact, there may not be any physical violence happening in the relationship, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t abusive.
Relationship violence includes any sexual, emotional, verbal, psychological, financial, spiritual, or social abuse. Knowing how to recognize the signs of these kinds of abuse is a topic for another blog post, but there are several resources listed below for you to investigate on your own.
It is common for survivors of abuse to not define their own experiences as “abusive.” They typically won’t tell you, “He financially abuses me.” Instead they might say something like, “I can’t buy this without first asking my spouse for permission.” When we know what the different kinds of abuse look like, we can help define them. By defining what is and is not healthy behavior in a relationship and talking about this we create opportunities for survivors to say what is happening to them with bold clarity.
Both men and women can experience abuse in their relationships. While 1 in 4 women report their abuse, only 1 in 10 men do.*
4. It’s okay to ask about abuse—but be prepared to hear the answer.
People often ask me if it’s okay to ask someone else if they are safe or if there is violence in their relationship. My answer is always, “Absolutely, but be prepared to get an answer of yes.”
We often ask this question, assuming the answer is no and then are caught off guard if the other person responds that there is indeed violence happening in their relationship. So yes, go ahead and ask if someone is ok, but be prepared to hear their answer. Be prepared to hear their pain, to sit with them in the emotion. Even if you don’t know what to say, be prepared to listen to them as they share their story.
5. Connect with local resources.
Throughout the country hundreds of fantastic organizations exist that work with people who have been impacted by sexual and intimate partner violence. There is likely one in your area, and chances are they have worked with lots of victims and survivors. Use their resources, their experience, their expertise.
My grandfather used to say that “in the misery you find the power.” I’m reminded of this every time I hear the terrible stories in my office. We can choose to hear the misery, or we can choose to hear the power. We can choose to hear the strength, the resilience, the hope in the stories we hear. When we focus on that, it makes talking about relationship violence a little easier.
Here are some additional resources:
You can learn more about Kingdom Workers' Empowering Survivors of Relationship Violence program or reach out with questions or for help at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michelle Trent is the assistant director and clinical director at The Compass Center a rape and domestic abuse center in Sioux Falls, SD. She has been counseling survivors of domestic violence since 2014. Michelle heads the educational and community outreach efforts of the agency. She is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Dakota, teaching a Family Violence class. Michelle has a Master of Science degree in Counseling from South Dakota State University.
*Centers for Disease Control and Prevention