Walk a Mile In Her Shoes

Professionals and lay people alike often seem unaware of how hard an abused woman has tried to work things out and to make the best decisions she could make decisions that can cost her everything she holds dear. Leaving an abusive partner may put her and her children, maybe also her friends and relatives, in far greater danger than they were in while she lived with the perpetrator!  

Abusers usually threaten to physically harm or kill their partners when they try to leave. We hear frequent reports of women being stalked, beaten up, knifed, or shot by their former partners. They threaten to take the children away, to harm or kill them. One woman tried to stop her partner from physically abusing Sean, her child from a previous relationship. She told her partner that she would call the police if he ever hit Sean again. He replied, “If you call the police on me, you’ll never see Jamie (the baby they had together) again.” 

Threats like this are usual in situations of abuse, and they are often carried out. Vindictive former partners sometimes kidnap their children from school or play, or remove them from the country without their mothers’ consent.  Abusive men often torment relatives, friends, and co-workers of their former partner. They can cause such disturbance and disruption at her workplace that she loses her job. They threaten or assault anyone who gives their former partner a place to stay or who knows her whereabouts. And they will terrorise any new partner she takes in the future, because they see her as their own possession, an item of property to which they feel entitled.  

Statistics show that women who leave their abusers are at a far greater risk of being killed by them, than those who stay. Despite these widespread dangers and well-publicised statistics, people express disbelief, frustration, exasperation, and even disgust at an abused woman’s reluctance to ‘just leave’. Professionals continue glibly to tell abused women, “You have to get yourself and your kids out of there before something worse happens!” They boldly promise her that she will receive assistance from government agencies and charities, and then leave her to fend for herself when charities are overburdened, when agencies, police and the court system fail to function as they should. 

One report on domestic abuse raised several thought-provoking questions that we might use to counter anyone who carries on with blame and questions like, “Why didn’t you just leave?” “How could you let someone treat you that way?” or, as some callously assert, “A woman who returns to an abusive man deserves what she gets!” I have paraphrased them here: 

What other crime do we deal with by first expecting the victim of the crime to escape from the criminal, or by actually waiting until she escapes to offer her some assistance? In what other situation of criminal conduct do we expect or compel the victim to abandon her home, occupation, possessions, and family, even at a time when that victim is in deepest distress and most in need of security, comfort, peace, and stability; while allowing the criminal to remain securely housed, fed, clothed, and employed within his community?

We must also raise questions about our treatment of victims’ mental and emotional needs, and the reasons we fail to support them in escaping to safety. Let us begin with these: 

In what other situation do we ask the person upon whom the crime has been perpetrated to assume some kind of heroic victor or ‘survivor’ mentality? Don’t we, often, even expect the victim to behave in a particular way we want her to behave, before we will validate her right to justice, her right to be comforted, vindicated and compensated for her losses? In what other circumstances do we insist that injured people pick themselves up and ‘soldier on’ before assuring them of their human right to live free from abuse and terrorism, before we will boldly condemn the criminal and step in to prevent him from committing more criminal acts? Why do we impose the ‘Survivor, NOT a Victim!’ credo upon women who struggle to live with or escape from domestic violence? Why do we insist that they adopt it as a motto when they struggle through to safety? Why do we add this burden to their load as they struggle through long-term effects of abuse, in the face of stigmatisation, prejudice and injustice? 

Avoidance of PainHow Do We Cope With Human Suffering? 

It could be that people who wave the banner of ‘A Survivor, NOT a Victim!’ in front of deeply distressed and maltreated women, do so because such undeserved pain and predicaments are too difficult and uncomfortable for them to witness. Such suffering challenges and disputes the notion that an intelligent woman in a civilised, modern society can always control her own destiny.

What a harsh jolt of reality we experience when we meet someone who has been imprisoned in her own home, battered, physically overpowered, and prevented from calling for help, by the person closest to her, whom she freely chose as a partne—someone she felt she could trust! What happens then to our own sense of security, to our belief that we are strong, independent, modern women and men? What an unpleasant, disturbing awakening we face as we learn that the police did not always protect her; that her friends, co-workers, even family members, pretended not to notice or did not want to get involved for fear that they too would be harmed!

Worse still for us, to learn that her loved ones also blamed her and told her she should stay with the abuser, maybe actually saying it was her own fault when he battered her again. It is deeply unsettling to admit that such a fate can befall someone very much like us… or someone like our mothers, our sisters and our daughters…  It is terrifying to admit that we ourselves, or at least community leaders we admire and respect, have given or approved of such bad advice and thus put someone’s life at risk!

When will we accept this societal guilt as our own? When will we turn it around? At some point, many of us try to allay our fears and distance ourselves from the harsh realities of domestic violence by deciding that anyone who didn’t walk away unharmed at the ‘first sign’ of abuse, must have a weak character, a major personality flaw. Now she just needs to stop whining about it, take responsibility for her ‘poor choices’, ‘buck up’ and ‘put it all behind her’. No need to make a martyr of herself. After all, “No marriage is all sweetness and light.” and “It takes two to tangle!” (Just a couple of the ‘helpful’ bits of advice I was offered when I tried to talk to someone about what was going on in my home.) 

We are quick to look for things we don’t like about the battered woman which might support our theory that she provoked him to abuse her, or that “she gave as good as she got!” In what other criminal instance would we turn a victim’s anger at the perpetrator or her attempts to defend herself, into ‘evidence’ that she is in fact the guilty one?

My reply, looking back on all of these shameful responses, is a sincere use of another familiar phrase: “With friends like that (or indeed, counsellors, clergy, social workers, community and family members… you fill in the blank) who needs enemies?” Now, who can honestly blame any woman if she concludes, in this atmosphere of accusation and loveless scrutiny, “I just can’t win, for losing!”? 

Extending Compassion 

Some women may come out of an abusive relationship better than others do, because they have supportive families and friends. Maybe they had a source of income, savings or property, which enabled them to carry on with their life. A woman who has been loved and nurtured by her family is more likely to believe that she deserves to be treated well, and perhaps she can demand to be treated fairly by social agencies, even when she is exhausted and wounded from her partner’s assaults. 

In addition, for those with young children, their children may provide companionship, love, and a reason to carry on with everyday life. With a family, household responsibilities, pets, work, and/or education to attend to, it may be easier to get through the phases of trauma and recovery and to move ahead, just allowing the momentum of all those things to carry us along. It is tough to handle everything at once, all by oneself, with no real sense of purpose or direction. 

Whatever a woman’s situation may be, an important first step is learning to be kind and loving toward herself. Most abused women find this extremely difficult, because of the punishment they received for daring to do so in the past, or for showing any sign of weakness, vulnerability or pain. They have coped by shutting down instead of releasing their emotions. Once they are free from their abusers at last, they are allowed to break down only briefly, if at all. They can be excused long enough to have a few ‘good crys’, a bit of sympathy and an opportunity to tell their story to someone, perhaps… and then they are meant to pretend to all the world that their battered minds, hearts, and bodies are on the mend! 

It takes time and hard work to even unravel and examine the complex web of emotions and reactions that have accumulated. And for a long time, even after we leave, similar emotions and reactions continue building up as we struggle forward without all the resources we need, facing other people’s comments and prejudices. We experience their attitudes as just more abuse toward us. In a way, others are abusing us for having been abused!  It is such a familiar pattern, like the partner who punished us for crying, or for becoming angry and resentful, after he hit or insulted us. 

Finding Real Help: Guidelines for Us All 

So we really need to find our way toward self-love by receiving empathy and love from those around us. If real help does not come from a friend, then we must find it with a counselor, a social worker, a clergy person, or a doctor. How many women turn to first one and then another, never really experiencing the relief that only true compassion can bring?

Good intentions are not enough, and overextended resources are no excuse for harshness, ignorance or rude remarks from any professional. A good therapist helps the client to ‘be with’ her emotions and to experience them mindfully, neither prolonging them nor repressing them. A good counselor or friend does not merely attach labels and jargon onto us or our feelings. She does not discount our pain by calling it something other than pain, or use professional language to brush our concerns aside, or invalidate our human needs.

If you are in need of care and counsel, I urge you to walk away from anyone who speaks to you in a way that makes you feel humiliated or dismissed.  You will almost certainly be unable to win them over or convince them they are wrong. Trying to do so is a waste of your precious energy. But do keep looking until you find a real human being with an open heart and common courtesy to offer you. They do exist, but they may be in short supply. You will recognise such a person because they will treat you the way they would want to be treated if they were in your shoes. 

I am learning to focus on positive things, but I deeply appreciate it when others allow me to do that in my own time and in my own way. This is how we dignify and validate a wounded soul. To walk alongside someone in their grief and paineven just silently to witness and hear their feelings of utter hopelessness, may be the most healing thing we can possibly give them. Sometimes, we may only need to assure them they are not alone. But we must not insult them by saying those words and then walking away. We must not inflict more pain by telling them people care about them, and then demonstrating exactly the opposite. It is not wise to compromise our own needs and feelings, but neither should we diminish the importance of theirsno matter the intensity of their pain, no matter the discomfort we feel when we witness suffering. 

Believers of all major faith groups and secularists alike can agree to use the ‘Golden Rule’ as a guide for responding to their fellow human beings: “Treat others as you would want to be treated.” This rule demands that we extend compassion to one another. To become compassionate carers, we need to educate ourselves; but education is only a first step. True compassion results from empathy, the ability to feel what others feel, which is cultivated by imagining ourselves in their place. This will take time and willingness to experience a measure of the distress they suffer, to understand their wants and needs and consider how best we may respond. We must remain attentive to changing circumstances, open to learning and communication. We must walk alongside each other in times of trouble, working together as equals. 

Do you, as a friend, neighbour, relative, mentor, or support worker, have the courage to offer companionship and empathy, instead of careless words that wound the already wounded? May God help us to help each other.  

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  I would deeply appreciate your written comments on this article Please do not hesitate to leave them for me at http://edgeofraisin.livejournal.com  

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