As I write this article, I’m looking out the window in my office, observing a rain storm that began quite suddenly. Having looked out to see sunshine not 10 minutes ago, I now witness swirling tree branches, a rapidly darkening sky, and a heavy downpour of rain. This morning when I left home, the weather was predictably sunny and warm, conditions that told me the day ahead would be bright and calm. How many days do we step outside fully expecting that our day will progress without a storm? Unless we are given a prediction of inclement weather, or see it on the horizon, we often feel there is no reason to expect anything different than the status quo. We so rarely give much thought to how things could change over time.
We may think we’re equipped for the day we expect, but what happens when, without warning, our surroundings become dark, frightening, and dangerous? We would, understandably, be fearful; we might feel quite stuck. What would we find most comforting in such circumstances? I suspect it would not be particularly helpful if someone from outside of our storm said, “Just leave, get out!” or “I saw this coming, why didn’t you?” In fact, such a response might lead us to feel even more alone in our darkness. What if, on the other hand, a friend or family member reached out and told us, “I’m concerned for your safety, and I’m here for you whenever you need me.” Then, even if we weren’t prepared or able to find our way out of the storm at that moment, we’d know someone cared enough to take the journey with us when we’re ready.
As you may have guessed by now, we’re not really talking about the weather. Since October of 2016, I’ve had the privilege to volunteer at Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS) in Madison, holding one-on-one appointments and safety planning with clients who want to learn how DAIS and other community service providers can empower them as they live through, or as they decide to leave, an abusive relationship. Through training – provided by caring, compassionate staff members at DAIS – and conversations with survivors, I’ve learned that an abusive relationship never begins as abusive. Rather, there is a cycle of behavior on the part of the abuser (only some of which is abusive) that the survivor may not recognize for some time. Going through this cycle of escalation many times is traumatic, and presents numerous precarious obstacles to a safe exit. It is so important to recognize that no one chooses to be abused, and an abuse survivor never holds culpability for their abuse, regardless of when or how it occurs.
Each survivor has a unique perspective, one that not even those of us trained to recognize and respond to abuse can ever fully experience or understand. Acknowledging this is the first, crucial step for those of us who want to help someone experiencing abuse. We may have ideas about how or why the abuse is occurring, we may feel we know how best to respond to that abuse, and we may think that if someone doesn’t leave an abusive relationship they are somehow responsible for their situation, or responsible for it getting as bad as it sometimes does. All of these assumptions are faulty, and they can be extremely detrimental if we allow them to color our interactions with survivors of abuse. Instead, if someone discloses their abuse to us, or even if we just suspect it, we can show up in a way that will empower and support them. Here are three ways to do that:
- Take the time to listen, and offer a safe, comforting environment in which they will be believed and heard without judgment. Echo their language – it’s okay if they don’t call what they’re going through abuse, and they may not identify as a victim or survivor. Reassure them that it is a privilege to have them confide in you, that you will keep their words confidential, and that you are there to help if needed. If you are a clergy member, be honest about any reporting obligations you have.
- Practice active listening: Let the survivor guide the conversation and be the decision maker. Whether a survivor discloses or only implies abuse, let them know you’re concerned for their safety, and that you support them regardless of their decisions. Do not urge or push them into making a decision they may not be ready to make – doing so could put them in more danger.
- Provide community resources. Provide a blue wallet card – available at Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS), 2102 Fordem Avenue in Madison, and in the restrooms of many local churches and libraries – or recommend the DAIS Help Line (608-251-4445 or 800-747-4045), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. DAIS can help with safety planning, legal advocacy, support groups, and shelter. Consider calling the Help Line yourself with any questions or fears you may be experiencing.
There are other local organizations that can help victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault:
- UNIDOS (se habla español) – 24-hour Help Line offering support services in English and Spanish (800-510-9195)
- Deaf Unity – Email/Text Help Hotline (email@example.com; 608-466-2881) available 9am-10pm M-F; 24-hour National Deaf Hotline videophone (855-812-1001)
- Rape Crisis Center – medical and legal advocacy, counseling, referrals (608-251-7273)
- Briarpatch – counseling and other support services including temporary shelter for teens in crisis (608-251-1126)
- Freedom Inc. – advocacy and other support, including services for Hmong – Southeast Asian clients (608-416-5337)
In an article entitled, “Preaching About Domestic Violence Is Hard – But We Must,” Phil Haslanger (domestic abuse prevention advocate and recently retired pastor) provides important context for the call to faith leaders to respond to domestic abuse:
We say that while we take the commitments of marriage very seriously, those commitments may not be used as leverage to keep someone in an unsafe relationship. We say that while we value forgiveness, that does not free anyone from the consequences of mistreating another. We say that whatever understanding one has of the roles of spouses in a marriage, that does not give permission for one spouse to engage in violent or abusive behavior toward the other. We preach because if we keep silent, if we ignore the human cost and spiritual degradation of domestic violence, then we are failing the people we are called to serve.
As I finish writing, the sky has already begun to clear of clouds, not an hour after the storm began. How quickly my outlook turns sunny again. How quickly I forget that, for those whose lives are marked by frequent, unpredictable, violent storms, the sun grows ever dimmer despite its brightness for others, and fear of the next storm dictates so many of their decisions.
How vital it is for me to recall I can and ought to walk with those experiencing storms, without attempting to drag them along into my sunny perspective. Today I pray for those of us seeking to help that we may recognize people struggling in abusive relationships have the ability and dignity to discern when and how to move toward the brightness of an environment where the storms aren’t as likely to occur. I pray we rely on God’s strength and lens of unconditional love so that we might lend our ears to listen and our hands for support.
“Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10).