dear-dr-donna

Dear Dr. Donna,

My daughter is in an abusive relationship. Her husband is very controlling and there have been times when he has gotten physically violent with her. Periodically when it gets to be too much for her she will leave (we go “rescue” her) but she always goes back. I know this is not a unique story—a lot of women do this, but I don’t understand why. We want to help her, but it is hard for us to get her set up in her new life only to see her go back. We always help just in case this is the time she will finally go through with it, but we are emotionally exhausted and it is a financial strain as well. We don’t want to NOT help her, but we also aren’t sure our “help” is actually helping. Is there something else we can try? How can we be supportive to her in a way that is actually beneficial? And are there times when we should just stay out of it?

Thanks,
Fearful Parents of DV Victim

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Dr. Donna Says …

Dear Fearful,

From before they are born, our primary charge is keeping our children safe. It is a job that never ends. Once a parent, always a parent. It’s a mindset. It’s a heart-set. It becomes an integral part of the fiber of one’s being. Even when they are adults, perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, or even in charge of the care of their own little ones, there is a part of all parents that is connected to their children.

Paradoxically, one of the most important, and most difficult, jobs as a parent is letting go—encouraging them to stand on their own, make their own decisions and deal with their own consequences. That becomes especially harrowing when we can see so clearly that their decisions are bad, and even harmful.

The obvious question that we ask when confronted with a situation of domestic violence is, “Why does she stay?” Sometimes, the issues seem clear and straightforward—practical concerns such as finances, the care and feeding of children or the lack of a support system—render a victim with few options, or at least few that she can envision while deeply mired in her situation.

Other times, women with what appear to be adequate resources and options nonetheless choose to stay and endure repeated abuse. The bottom line is, regardless of the specific practical circumstances, intimate relationships, and more precisely, dysfunctional intimate relationships, are complex tangles of emotional, psychological and functional components.

When you observe someone you love (and feel responsible for) in a violent or potentially violent domestic situation, it can be confusing and frustrating. It is not uncommon for them to deny or downplay the situation, or keep returning to the abuser. These behaviors are all part of the complex cycle of abuse.

It becomes important that you support the victim, but maintain your own physical and emotional boundaries—something that is easier said than done in these difficult situations.

Here are some guidelines to help you think clearly about what you can and cannot do for victims of domestic violence:

DO listen and offer support in the form of a safe place for them to talk about what is happening to them. You may be the only person they are confiding in.

DO take their claims (or your observations) seriously. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (nacdv.org) 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime. 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Intimate partner violence accounts for 15% of all violent crime.

DO offer support in a non-judgmental way. Despite increased public awareness of the issue, there is still a stigma attached to domestic violence and a tendency to blame the victim still exists in many contexts. Express acceptance and empathy even if you cannot fully understand all that they are feeling,

DO be clear about your boundaries of confidentiality. Be a trusted confidant. However, you must also decide where you draw the line. Be clear and honest about your unwillingness to keep secrets if the physical safety of the victim, children, or any other parties involved comes into serious question.

DO reassure the victim that the violence is not their fault and be firm and clear in your assertion that violence is never an acceptable response to any so-called “provocation.” Victims are often told that their behavior caused the abuser to act out violently and they often internalize this guilt and blame, imagining that if they just “do better” the violence will stop.

DO encourage the victim to seek appropriate medical care. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (nacdv.org) only 34% of victims seek medical treatment for their injuries.

DO help them prepare a personalized safety plan. See What is Safety Planning?

DO NOT insist that they leave their partner or coerce immediate action. Despite how hard it can be to step back and let go, ultimately it is the victim’s decision about how to respond.

DO NOT blame yourself or take on the responsibility (practical or emotional) for the outcome. Remember that you cannot “rescue” them from this situation. You can only provide support and guidance.

DO NOT give up. Know that it often takes time for a victim to come to grips with the severity of the situation and feel confident in a plan of action for a better future. That said,

DO NOT compromise your own safety or the security of your own family. Be clear about what you can and cannot do for them and maintain healthy boundaries for your own well-being.

DO provide victims with resources:

National Crisis Organizations and Assistance

The National Domestic Violence Hotline
1-800-799-7233 (SAFE)
www.ndvh.org

National Dating Abuse Helpline
1-866-331-9474
www.loveisrespect.org

Americans Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center
International Toll-Free (24/7)
1-866-USWOMEN (879-6636)
www.866uswomen.org

National Child Abuse Hotline/Childhelp
1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453)
www.childhelp.org

National Sexual Assault Hotline
1-800-656-4673 (HOPE)
www.rainn.org

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-800-273-8255 (TALK)
www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

National Center for Victims of Crime
1-202-467-8700
www.victimsofcrime.org

National Human Trafficking Resource Center/Polaris Project
Call: 1-888-373-7888 | Text: HELP to BeFree (233733)
www.polarisproject.org

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Someone Once Said …

“She could just pack up and leave, but she does not visualize what’s beyond ahead.”
―Núria Añó

“The boys had always been her reason to stay, but now for the first time they were her reason to leave. She’d allowed violence to become a normal part of their life.”
―Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies

“Has he ever trapped you in a room and not let you out?
Has he ever raised a fist as if he were going to hit you?
Has he ever thrown an object that hit you or nearly did?
Has he ever held you down or grabbed you to restrain you?
Has he ever shoved, poked, or grabbed you?
Has he ever threatened to hurt you?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then we can stop wondering whether he’ll ever be violent; he already has been.”
―Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men

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Recommended Reading …

For more info on the topic of domestic violence take a look at these titles (synopses from Amazon.com):

Family and Friends’ Guide to Domestic Violence: How to Listen, Talk and Take Action When Someone You Care About is Being Abused by Elaine Weiss

Elaine Weiss, who also wrote Surviving Domestic Violence: Voices of Women Who Broke Free, notes that “It’s hard to know what to do when someone you care about is in an abusive relationship. Do you ask about it? What if you’re wrong? Do you offer to help? Even at the risk of interfering? If you have observed any of the warning signs from a family member or friend, she may be a victim. You can help her—and, you might be saving her life!”

Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft

In this groundbreaking book, a counselor who specializes in working with abusive men shows you how to improve, survive, or leave an abusive relationship. You will learn about:
The early warning signs
Ten abusive personality types
The role of drugs and alcohol
What you can fix, and what you can’t
And how to get out of a relationship safely

Helping Her Get Free: A Guide for Families and Friends of Abused Women by Susan Brewster

Ten years after its original publication, this groundbreaking and practical guide remains a wise, informed, and vital resource for those who want to assist a friend or loved one in her struggle to escape an abusive relationship. Susan Brewster, a longtime psychotherapist whose practice includes working with abused women and their families, recognizes that friends and family need specific tools and ideas to help them develop a relationship with their abused loved one that will ultimately benefit her, not control her.

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Questions for Dr. Donna? Send them to

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Donna Roberts is a native upstate New Yorker who lives and works in Europe. She holds a Ph.D., specializing in the field of Media Psychology. When she is researching or writing she can usually be found at her computer buried in rescue cats.