On the need to support survivors of abuse

Over at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog at The Atlantic, a few threads were going about the responsibility of people (women, specifically) in abusive relationships. Some of you may know that I’m currently an intern for San Francisco Women Against Rape, and I’m pretty passionate about this issue. I wrote a response to a commenter on that blog, I thought I’d share it. 

The commenter (excerpted):

I do think we need to, culturally or whatever, promote the idea that you need to consider your own wellbeing and take responsibility for it. If you’re in an unhappy, unhealthy relationship, you need to get out (if you can, and I recognize that that’s not always safe or financially viable). You (I mean this generally, I really do, so please don’t take it personally) don’t deserve to be hurt if you do stay, no one deserves to be hurt like that. But it’s not going to stop if you don’t make the decision yourself.

We need proactive prevention. To me, that comes with empowerment, agency, and education. If someone slips up and falls into a relationship, they’re human, no one deserves to be abused, forgiveness (should be) granted. No concerned party wants the abuse to happen again. But the only person who can reliably (noted exceptions and surprises aside) put a stop to it is going to have to be the person abused.

My reply:

Thanks for the comment – I can feel your passion here. I really like how you supported the need and use of “proactive” intervention, but I think that that statement is somewhat dissonant with the main thrust of your post, namely that what the rest of us do doesn’t influence the decision that an abused partner must ultimately make. My main contention is that you seem to downplay the importance of others helping survivors of abuse make their decision to leave.

I agree with you 100% that empowerment and respect of the self is key to getting out of and recovering from an abusive relationship. Several posters have explained that partner abuse and sexual violence do deep harm to the notion of the self, and may leave the survivor with feelings of low self-worth or worse. But I’m not sure that you realize how important proactive prevention and post-abuse help really are: we really can only define our self by relating it to others. Counseling, support groups, and even crisis hotlines are about allowing survivors to take back their narrative self by telling their story out loud, and hearing respect and acknowledgment in response (You seem to be versed in feminist theory; I’m leaning heavily on Susan Brison here if you’d like to take a deeper look).

Second, I don’t think that we should underestimate not only the issues of safety and financial stability, but the emotional and cultural norms that encourage staying with any partner, abusive or not. These are big exceptions that many, many abused partners face in the course of trying to get out of an abusive relationship. And as you note, abusers are aware of this position of power and milk it; abusers often take explicit steps to prevent the abused partner from leaving specifically by increasing the financial, physical, and social danger/disadvantage of leaving. This all makes the process of leaving an abusive relationship so much harder, and thereby a process that can benefit so much more from direct and proactive help and encouragement from others.

Surely it is a physical reality that the abused partner must extricate him or herself from the relationship, but the “proactive” supporters that you mention really make this possible. Having people listen, respect, and accept survivors’ stories helps them realize that they are a full person without the abuse – because we know they are hearing exactly the opposite from the abuser. Brison wrote regarding her own violent rape that she was not able to move on emotionally from that episode until she began to open up about it, and take back the narrative of her self. Similarly, with the exception of an admirable and steely few, abused partners can’t really be expected to arrive at the decision to leave the abuser solely through self-reflection and hard thought. They need support, and a network that will hear them, and help them make that tough decision. Relating their story to empathetic others makes “getting that self-worth up” and leaving an abusive relationship possible. And with this help should also come the means for financial, physical, and cultural safety that I noted were such a problem; this is why groups that support survivors of relationship and sexual violence are so incredibly important to our society as a whole. We are the concerned parties, and we should show survivors of abuse that we can help them make a tough decision, and not stand away and think that that person needs to get tough and make the call to leave.

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One thought on “On the need to support survivors of abuse

  1. […] for calling all abusers “he” in her piece on women in abusive relationships (the piece I wrote about the same issue and Hilzoy’s very worthwhile initial reaction was ultimately spurred by […]

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