Releasing shame

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. This post will make clear one of the reasons why.

CW (domestic violence & abuse)

Sometimes memes say the right thing at the right time in the right way. That didn’t happen with this one. Sure, there are probably plenty of situations where this idea is true. But, when thinking about abusers, this meme is shallow…a lame attempt to sound meaningful while actually expressing damaging and very dangerous rhetoric.

Victims of violence do not bring that violence upon themselves. They are not merely lacking confidence or failing to stand up for themselves. Abusers inflict violence – in word and action – because that is how they maintain the sense of control and power they feel they are entitled to.

Domestic violence/intimate partner violence and murder by an intimate partner is predominantly an issue faced by women. Although men are at a much higher risk of being murdered (80% of murder victims are men), half of the women killed each year were killed by an intimate partner, as opposed to 5% for men.

Violence against women by men they know and love is rooted in widely-accepted gender norms about men’s authority in society and men’s use of violence to exert control. #FuckThePatriarchy

Perpetrators use coercion and threats. They use intimidation. They gaslight. They isolate the victim from supportive networks. They take control of finances or cause financial hardship so the victim feels dependent on the abuser, even when the abuser is unemployed. Abusers minimize and make light of their actions or outright deny them. They play off the compassion and sympathies of their victim and make the victim feel guilty for even thinking about leaving. And, they blame the victim for the abuse – just like this bullshit meme does.

Click here to download a copy of the Power & Control Wheel developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs, which gives details on the ways abusers control their victim.

What that meme fails to grasp is that victims are careful at every moment. They watch what they say and do at all times, walking on eggshells. They are navigating work and family and friends, as is everyone. But they do it while also attempting to maintain physical safety while juggling anxiety, depression, fear, anger, love, confusion, resentment, guilt, grief, shame, and a litany of other complex compound thoughts and feelings.

Victims are not “tolerating” anything, because that implies acceptance of what is happening or that they choose to allow it to happen. In my case, every tactic I tried fell short, with the worst being the justice system continually failing me in bigger, more astounding ways – even placing me in a more dangerous situation than before.

For me, there were two key aspects to #WhyIStayed. First, I truly believed he was sick and he had the desire to get better. Secondly, due to my previous job and my activism, I was already well-versed in the facts and statistics around violence against women. Prior to this relationship I considered myself lucky at never having experienced physical violence, by anyone much less a partner. And now that I did have that experience, whenever I’d start thinking about how I could end it, I’d think about this:


60% of all dating violence happens after the relationship has ended. When the abuser sees that their sense of control and power is coming to an end, they act impulsively and inflict more damage than during the relationship, with the result often being death. That is a fucking terrifying fact to think about when your desperately looking for ways to get out of a relationship steeped in emotional and financial abuse and increased severity of physical violence – even though the relationship was officially over, I didn’t feel safe cutting ties completely.

Here are some more facts:

Every day in the United States we lose 5 women at the hands of men and 3 of them are murdered by an intimate partner. Globally, it’s 137 women murdered every day, with 82 of those committed by an intimate partner.

A third of the men who killed a partner had an existing order of protection against them or had prior charges of domestic violence and/or other violent crimes. The system fails us, time and time again. My ex had a couple of domestic violence charges before we met – both cases were dropped and neither case was mentioned to me by mutual friends who knew about them. And, none of the instances where I called the police on my ex led to a conviction – well, not yet, any way.

Women who are killed by current or former partners often experience violent and brutal deaths – close proximity bringing about beatings, stabbings, or strangulation. If ever you hear a woman say her dude grabbed her by the throat, help her get out. That’s a predictor of further violence and potential death for her. (50% of battered women report getting choked.) Why do men strangle women? It’s difficult to detect and it creates a much deeper level of fear in her than pushing or hitting…a fear that quickly becomes a debilitating trauma which ensures more “compliance” and can strengthen his self-imposed position of power and control for much longer. Because, when hands are around your throat, with force exerted or not, you instantly realize just how easy it will be for him to kill you and that thought never leaves you.

How can you help a friend experiencing abuse at home?

In my situation, I made sure to talk about instances of violence with different people at different times. I always made sure someone knew what was happening. But, I never told one person about every instance. I felt a lot of undeserved shame at being in that situation, and I didn’t want to be an emotional drain on my friends. (In retrospect, I wish I had made a different choice.)

If ever you are confided in, be proactive. There are reasons she feels like she can’t act, but as soon as someone makes it clear that they are there for her in more ways than just a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on, it provides a sense of security and safety – something she has been lacking. My friend and colleague, Melissa W., has been a consistent pillar of emotional support and guidance. And, I regularly think back to the moment when Melissa G. held eye contact with me and intently told me that she was there for me and if ever I felt like it was time for me to get away, she would help. That was it. A simple brief statement, imbued with love and devoid of judgment. That was the moment I remembered I wasn’t alone and people love me.

If she confides in you but doesn’t bring it up again, then you follow up. Pull together some resources and offer to let her use your phone to call them. Ask questions, but don’t pry. Remind her of her strength, perseverance, and resiliency. Find ways to help her feel empowered. Don’t lecture her and don’t try to force her to do any particular action. One well-meaning and loving friend was always there in times of emergency, but in between he would not listen or validate my experience and would insist on me taking certain actions. I felt judged, even though I know he wasn’t doing that. But it prevented me from reaching out to him later on. As a support, you need to meet her where she is at and try to understand why she is in that place. Brainstorm ideas with her. Give her food for thought and share some options with her. It gives her a foundation to stand on.

If you’re not sure how to do that, or not sure what to say or do at all, then call your local battered women’s shelter and get some expert advice. Esperanza has amazing resources and skilled staff who can help you as much as they can help her.

Don’t make every interaction centered on the abuse. You are a healthy and much-needed escape. Use that time to remind her how awesome she is. Show her how good life can be for her again. Laugh with her. Have interesting conversations where she gets to express her opinion. Validate her feelings. Provide a space where she can relax. Make it known that she is seen, heard, acknowledged, and appreciated. It gives her a light to guide her out of the darkness.

Be patient and persevere. It takes at least 6 attempts to leave before she is able to do so. And remember that it will take more than leaving to reverse the damage and heal from her traumatic experience. Victims face a potentially long road and they need you by their side to fully recover.

If ever you become aware of the violence as it is happening, call the police. That’s a hard pill for me to swallow because I am not a fan of police – because they are a key component to maintaining systems of oppression. I debated whether or not I should call the police on my ex the first time around, particularly because my ex is a black man and involving the police could have amplified the violence. Plus, it’s difficult to see how police can help when you know that 40% of their households experience violence (compared to 10% of the general population.) But, after that first call, I learned that, at least in my situation, the present and immediate danger stopped as soon as police were called. (Just know that they don’t solve any problems. In fact, the police became a stumbling block more than once – one case was dismissed because the police never submitted evidence, and in the most recent instance, the police could merely submit their report on the assault and left me in an extremely dangerous situation where I was stranded with no money or means of communication while my ex had taken my car, cell phone, debit card, and a key to my house.)

It’s probably a good time to mention that we should all call police if there is any suspicion of violence happening with any woman anywhere at any time. I’m not sure why, but people tend to not get involved. In the year I experienced violence at home, my tenant/neighbor never called the police. She eventually skipped out on her lease in a manner that made it clear she blamed both of us for the inconvenience of enduring yelling and loud noises. Not once did she call the police, and she put me in a position of even deeper financial hardship. I am not blaming her, but I know the violence and relationship would have ended a lot sooner if she had called police every time she heard something. Thankfully, my new tenant is aware of my ex’s behavior and not only has called the police on him, she bought a taser.

It’s also painful to think about the fact that in all the times my ex got aggressive or physical in public, most people just blatantly ignored what was happening and a few would stop and look only to turn away and do nothing. Only a few people intervened. One woman threatened to call police if he didn’t return my car keys, two young men walking by distracted him long enough for me to drive away, and in the most recent incident a woman used her car to block him to allow me to get away. Remember that the police aren’t bothered if they’re called in to a situation where they are not needed, and if they are needed, you could be saving someone’s life.

How do we end this violence?

Prevention and education will help end all forms of violence that stem from gender stereotypes and social norms.

Invest in programs that do this work, such as the Education and Prevention Department at Solace Crisis Treatment Center (formerly the Santa Fe Rape Crisis & Trauma Treatment Center.) They have powerful programs they take to schools, after school youth programs, churches, and businesses.

Teach kids about healthy boundaries and healthy relationships at a young age. That means learning those tools yourself.

Actively breakdown those gender stereotypes that continually aid in systems of oppression and violence. Remember that this violence is about control and power. It is systemic – our society is built on it. And, while domestic and sexual violence can happen to anyone regardless of gender, race, age, sexual orientation, religion, profession, education, or socioeconomic background, we have to be intersectional when addressing it. Women of color disproportionately experience violence, yet resources were developed by and for White women. Black and indigenous women more often sustain severe injuries or death. Fewer women of color seek medical attention yet experience more damaging long-term impacts on their health. Intimate partner violence is a social problem, and so prevention and systems of care need to be reshaped to incorporate the culture, perspective, and experiences of women of color.

And, guys, you play a big role in ending violence against women. Be a positive role model for children AND adult men. Have conversations about this. Call out friends and colleagues who display dominant, controlling, or aggressive behaviors. Examine how your own attitudes and behaviors may perpetuate systems of violence, even if you don’t view yourself as violent. Help raise awareness. Don’t be silent any more. This is a problem women face and have been fighting for eternity, but it’s going to take YOUR active involvement to end it.

One thought on “Releasing shame

  1. Natalie Runyan

    Oh, my dear. Powerful. So IMPORTANT!. Your article is a testament to the value of being sensitive to signs that may be right under my nose, among my own friends, AND to me doing MORE to stop and interrupt when I see it possibly happening anywhere


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