I was on Radio 5 Live last Tuesday (at 1840) talking about domestic abuse with a man and a woman who had lived with it and a psychotherapist. There was so much to say and in even 20 minutes we didn't scratch the surface of all that could be said about the subject but here's what I know from writing the book. My book focused on women as I just don't have any experience of working with men so don't feel qualified to comment on their experiences.
Domestic abuse is everywhere. It doesn't discriminate between education, class, profession, age, ethnicity. It can happen to anyone. Men do suffer from it in significant numbers but one in four women will live with it at some stage in their life.
How it starts
The first stages of an abusive relationship are the same as grooming in child abuse. The perpetrator 'love bombs' their target, overwhelming them with flattery, romance, charm, seduction, attention, compliments, gifts and affection. This stage is like a dream, like a fairy story, where the prince has arrived and we are the princess.
Often this stage is accompanied with tales of woe. The poor prince who has been misunderstood, abandoned, wrongly judged, faced with a hard life and you, yes only you, can make him better, only you can save him. You have heard the songs about standing by your man, you have read the stories about how love conquers all, and so you make it your mission to mend this wounded soul.
How it continues
Once you are hooked, the abuse sometimes starts with extreme violence. One woman in my book described how very early on in her relationship, her partner put his fist through the wall when she wouldn't sleep with him. Why didn't she get out then? I think cognitive dissonance plays a part. This is when our beliefs are inconsistent with our behaviour or reality. We have built up the belief that he loves us because of the seduction and so when violence follows it makes no sense, so we write of the violence as a 'blip' and sure enough, the next day, he's back to being charming. Until the next time.
I also think Post Traumatic Stress plays a part. PTSD can be triggered when we feel threatened or like our life is at risk as the woman above did. When the event is traumatic, we an't process it, so dump it in out memory to be processed later,, but later never comes, because the next violent event adds to it, and so does the next, so the brain never has time to understand what is going on as it is just too busy coping.
Even ordinary stress effects our ability to think straight and make decisions. Any stressor puts our mind into fight, flight or freeze mode automatically and cuts off our neo-cortex; which is the part of our brain associated with rational thought. Therefore, the more frightened we are, the less we can think about what we need to do to get away.
Some abuse progresses incrementally, where the stress and the control happens so slowly that we don't notice. He tells us how to dress and we think it's because he loves us. He doesn't want us to go out with our friends because he wants us all to his self. He's grumpy when friends and family are around as it interferes with your 'together' time. It sounds so romantic and with his charm, we slowly stop seeing friends and family, we change what we wear and where we go to please him.
Then his moods change and so we adapt so we don't upset him, cooking food he likes, watching only what he wants on the TV, letting him drive, not questioning where the money is going. Milgram's research on obedience showed that when we incrementally relinquish control we are capable of doing and tolerating terrible things.
We slowly become co-dependent, adapting and accommodating your partner's bad behaviour because they have escalated incrementally and the stress is affecting our ability to see straight. Also, we want to survive and this is how we manage to do it.
Often women know they need to get out long before they do. Safelives says that 85% of women ask for professional help 5 times before it is effective and it takes someone living with extreme, life threatening violence 2-3 years before seeking help.
Fear, poverty, lack of support, fear of losing the children or having them taken away from us are what hold us back. Friends and family may be long gone, having tried to tell us and then washed their hands of us. Not all solicitors, counsellors, coaches, teachers, childminders or other agencies that women may confide in, know enough about domestic abuse to spot it and support someone living with it.
My experience as a coach is that schools are still very bad at making the link between child abuse and domestic abuse even though Safelives says that 62% of children living with domestic abuse will also have been harmed themselves.
Shame keeps victims locked in. Shame which is added to by what the abuser tells you, that you are wrong, rubbish, and unfit mother, ugly, a laughing stock, pathetic and worse.
The most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is often when the victim tries to leave. Rachel William's book 'The Devil at Home' starts with a description of how her husband shoots her at point blank range after she has left him.
How to help?
So what helps? The women I interviewed found that just being able to tell their story, in their own way, pace and words helped. It gave them some sense of control over the narrative, control which they had lost in the relationship.
Carl Rogers core conditions of empathy and unconditional positive regard are critical. Victims need to judgement, they have been living with it and will be their own worst judges. They need people who will listen and support them until such time as they are ready to leave.
Helping build their self esteem outside of the relationship can really help. Work can be critical for this, the opportunity to be valued and appreciated in at least one part of life is critical. Some women don't work, this can be part of the pattern of control so the community around the woman need to be looking for opportunities so support and encourage her.
Have you ever turned a blind eye when you know something bad is going on? People did in the stories I heard. Neighbours pretended they hadn't heard the screams or seen the bruises, they didn't want to get involved.
The Bystander effect is well researched, it is when we think that someone else will do something so we don't have to. Wrong. We do have to. If we think that there is abuse happening to our neighbours, our colleagues, our friends, then we can help them by notifying the police (101 if it's not an emergency) or social services if there are children at risk.
The women I interviewed all got out. Family helped them, their work saved them, having money to pay solicitors, having friends who would spend time with them. It takes a community to help someone escape abuse, we can all play our part.
Into the Woods
The process of writing the book has echoed the power of community and support found in some of the stories. So many people have helped bring the book to life. The talented Anita Wyatt has illustrated the stories and Kate Taylor has edited them, both of them gifting their considerable skills for free. The bookshop which is launching the book, Sue the typesetter, Andy the printer, Alex the legal reviewer have all greatly reduced their costs because they want domestic abuse to stop and want more people to understand it.
Domestic abuse is that will effect 1 in 4 of us women, and with those statistics it means that statistically speaking, you probably know someone who is living with it right now. Maybe you are that person. Connection is the solution. Reaching out to each other to get support and give support, to tell our story and to listen to other people's stories without judgement. We can not stand by and do nothing.
Into the Woods is being launched on 25th November which is the UN day to End Violence Against Women and Girls. All profits from the print book will go to DV charities. You can pre-order the book here. DV flourishes on isolation and ignorance, on judgement and distance.
I really want to make a difference. I want my grandchildren grow up in a world where domestic abuse seems as archaic as caning a child in school seems to us today. Change is possible if we all stand together against domestic abuse. Buy the book, read it, understand more about DV so you can be part of the connecting web which makes a difference to too many families who will have woken up today scared.