By Christine Murray, See the Triumph Co-Founder
Today’s blog post is for anyone who is currently in an abusive relationship who has tried reaching out for help, but when you did so, you were met with an unhelpful (or worse, harmful) response from the person you reached out to.
Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common occurrence for people when they reach out for help. We’ve heard it countless times from many of the hundreds of survivors of past abuse who participated in one of our research studies. Some of the survivors told us that, when they reached out for help, they were judged or blamed for their abuse, such as by being questioned about what they did to bring it on. In other cases, however, friends and family members simply didn’t know how to help, and therefore they provided less-than-helpful responses. Unfortunately, even professionals may lack awareness about the dynamics of abuse, as training on this issue may be lacking among certain professional groups.
So, what should you do if you’ve reached out for help because of abuse you’re experiencing, and you’re met with an unhelpful or hurtful response, whether it’s from a friend, family member, professional, or anyone else? Here are some suggestions for moving forward.
First, know that you’re not alone. Again, it’s not uncommon to encounter unhelpful or hurtful responses when you seek help related to an abusive relationship. Of course, just because this happens doesn’t mean it’s okay! In fact, I believe it’s a tragedy every time this happens. You deserve help and support, not judgment and blame. Keeping in mind that you’re not the first person to encounter an unhelpful response when seeking help for an abusive relationship can help you know not to take this experience personally. You are not to blame for your abuse--nobody deserves to be abused! Remember, when people judge or blame you, that their response says more about them than it says about you. If this happens to you, you can remind yourself that this unhelpful person most likely doesn’t understand the dynamics of abusive relationships. Acknowledge your feelings about the unhelpful response--it’s normal to be very upset if this happens!--but keep telling yourself that you don’t have to let it hold you back from moving forward toward safety.
Second, remind yourself of the strength and courage it took you to seek help in the first place. We know it can be very difficult to reach out for help if you’re in an abusive relationship. Many people who are in abusive relationships hide their abuse for a long time--years, even--before they reach out for help. There are a lot of reasons why people may wait to seek help, such as being afraid of being blamed, being threatened by the abuser, not knowing where to turn, and not feeling certain whether to end the relationship. It’s normal to be afraid to reach out for help. And, it takes a lot of courage to do so. If you reached out for help, and you didn’t get the help you needed, it’s natural to feel discouraged. You may even wonder if it was worth reaching out for help in the first place. Even in the midst of these feelings, try and remind yourself how brave you are for taking that first step toward taking care of yourself and reaching out for support. There were a lot of forces working against you to hold you back from taking that step--the fact that you did it is a testament to your courage and strength. That courage is still inside you, no matter what response you received when you reached out.
Third, tell yourself that you deserve to be supported by helpful, informed people and organizations that will help you get safe and get the resources you need. Ideally, any person who is in an unhealthy or unsafe relationship would easily be able to reach out for help, and they would find countless supportive resources at their disposal. When you’ve been in an abusive relationship, you’ve likely experienced a good deal of trauma and hurt along the way. I believe that people who’ve been traumatized deserve the very best support and resources available. There are many wonderfully supportive resources available to help you, but it may take some time and effort to locate the exact resources that will be most helpful to you. Even if you encounter some unhelpful reactions along the way, keep reminding yourself that the support you need is out there, and you deserve to receive it.
Fourth, if possible, find a supportive person to help you navigate the process of seeking help. This may sound like a counter-intuitive suggestion for a post on navigating unhelpful responses when you’re seeking help. Also, it’s normal through the process of an abusive relationship to become isolated and separated from your friends and family members, as this is often a part of an abuser’s tactics to keep someone in the relationship. So, it may not be possible to find a supportive person around you, or you may not know where you can turn to find someone. But, if you can think of someone who’s asked you if and how they can help you, one way they could support you is by helping you to navigate the process of getting help. For example, they could come along with you to meet with a victim advocate, to fill out the application for a domestic violence protective order, or to file a police report. If you don’t have any friends or family members available to be in this role for you, consider seeking help from a victim advocate at your local domestic violence agency or by calling a resource like the National Domestic Violence Hotline (http://www.thehotline.org/; 1-800-799-7233) to help you navigate the process of seeking help. The main point to remember here is this: You’ve been through a lot in your abusive relationship, and this can leave you feeling tired, overwhelmed, and discouraged. If you can find a supportive person to stand by your side as you seek help, they can help you navigate that process and provide you with encouragement along the way.
Fifth, consider all your options of resources for seeking help. The resources available to help people in abusive relationships vary from community to community, and in certain areas (especially rural ones), there may indeed be a lack of helpful resources nearby. However, there are a wide range and many different types of resources that may be available to you, including at the national, state, local, and organizational levels. National resources include advocacy organizations, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, Internet-based social media resources and support groups, and web-sites with educational information about the dynamics of abuse. State resources include state domestic violence and/or sexual assault coalitions and governmental agencies. At the local level, resources can include law enforcement agencies, court-based resources, domestic violence advocacy organizations, mental health agencies, and support groups. Organizational resources that may be available to you include those offered by your workplace, school, and faith-based organization. And, consider if you know anyone in your social network who may be able to provide more informal support, such as a friend or family member who has experienced abuse and understands what you’re going through. Once you've sorted through all your options, decide which ones may be most helpful to you right now, and try to figure out the best, safest place to start.
Sixth, keep trying until you get the help you need! If your first attempts to get help aren’t successful, or they don’t provide you with the support you need right now, keep trying. I know it can be very hard to stay persistent in seeking help when your initial efforts don’t pay off, but we heard a lot of examples from the survivors in our research how they continued their efforts to seek help and eventually found one or more supportive people to help them. Again, even though it can be hard to do this, try not to take unsupportive responses personally, and reach out to another source of support until you find someone who will be there for you and offer you support without judgment. If ever you feel that a professional you encounter along the way treated you in an unprofessional, harmful manner, you may want to consider talking with their supervisor. However, that step may be more than you are able to take on right now. Focus first and foremost on taking good care of yourself and continuing to take steps toward becoming safer.
Unfortunately, we still live in a world in which, sometimes, people who’ve been abused don’t initially get the help and support they need. This can be very discouraging, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Help and support are available to you, and you are worthy of receiving it!
By Christine Murray, See the Triumph Co-Founder
A safety plan is a basic tool that victims of domestic violence can use to identify risks to their safety and well-being and plan strategies for protecting themselves in the face of those risks. A couple years ago, my Family Violence Research Group at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro developed the Safety Strategies: Safety Planning for Survivors of Domestic Violence and Their Children booklet as a resource for professionals to use to conduct safety planning with their clients who face domestic violence. Our goal was to use the information we learned through our research with professionals working with 9 domestic violence agencies to present a comprehensive, practical approach to safety planning.
Ideally, safety planning is done with professionals who have experience working with victims and survivors, because they are trained to help survivors identify the most pressing risks and helpful strategies to reduce those risks. If you or someone you know is currently experiencing domestic violence, I recommend you reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline (http://www.thehotline.org/; 1-800-799-7233) and/or a professional in your local community to walk through the process of developing a safety plan that reflects your current circumstances.
Based on the Safety Strategies booklet, we offer the following safety planning suggestions to help people who are currently facing safety risks due to a current or former abusive relationship: