What you should know about domestic violence

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Dr. Christine Murray, a counseling professor at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, answers common questions about abuse, how to help and why victims stay.

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Dr. Christine Murray

Recently, there has been a shift in people asking the question, 'Why do they stay?' to the more important question of, 'Why is their partner continuing to abuse them?'

October is more than just the season for Halloween, it’s also Domestic Violence Awareness Month. And the Centers for Disease Control’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey tells a scary story.

According to the CDC survey, over a third of women and over a fourth of men in the U.S. experience some form of physical abuse, sexual assault, and/or stalking within an intimate relationship. The same survey shows that about half of both women and men experience psychological abuse in a relationship.

“Those numbers are astounding,” says Dr. Christine Murray, an associate professor in UNCG’s Department of Counseling and Educational Development. “And yet, many people still view intimate partner violence as a rare occurrence.”

Murray co-founded the See the Triumph campaign to empower abuse survivors and help others see victims in a new light. She wants to keep the serious, widespread issue of domestic violence in the headlines continuously, not just in October or when a celebrity is accused of abuse.

So what should you know about domestic violence and how to help? Murray answers some commonly asked questions below.

What do I say to my friend if they tell me they are being abused?

First and foremost, be careful not to judge or blame your friend. Anything you say or do should be with the goal of providing support, listening to them, and offering to help them in the ways they most need to be helped. Some helpful statements you can make include the following: “I care about you and your safety,” “You do not deserved to be treated this way,” “The abuse you’re experiencing is wrong,” “Help is available, and I am here to help you get it,” and “It’s not your fault.”

It’s important to thank the person for telling you what’s happening with them. Most likely, it took an enormous amount of courage for them to get to the point where they could tell someone, and in many ways, it’s an honor that they feel safe and trusting of you to tell you their story.

How can I support my friend who is a victim?

The best way to help a friend who is being abused is to ask them what kind of help they need. Every abusive relationship is unique, and each person’s needs will also be unique. As such, there are no simple, one-size-fits-all solutions for how to help a friend.

Some friends may need help with transportation or child care. Others may need help navigating community resources. Others may be in need of help to make a plan to leave their abusive partner. It’s important to remember that the help you think they need may not be the help they think they need. Trust their judgment. They know details about the abuse and the abuser that you don’t know.

One thing everyone can do to help loved ones who are victims is to know what resources are available to help them in their local community. These resources may include a domestic violence agency and hotline, mental health counseling and criminal justice resources. However, keep in mind that people may not be ready to seek help right away, so offer to provide help and resources, but don’t force them on the person.

Why do victims sometimes blame themselves, or choose to stay with an abuser?

My colleague Allison Crowe of East Carolina University and I have done research with hundreds of survivors of past abusive relationships. Based on this research, we have learned that the blame victims face within an abusive relationship can come from virtually every direction — the abuser, friends and family members, the media, and even self-blame that people may come to feel about themselves.

The self-blame is understandable when you consider how many times they may have heard from their abuser that it was their fault that they were abused — it was something they supposedly said or did, or something that was wrong with them that led the abuser to hurt them. Of course, we must all remember that abuse is always the full responsibility of the person who perpetrates it.

People may stay in an abusive relationship for any number of reasons, and often there are more than one reason at play in any given situation. The reasons may include that they still love their partner and hope they will change, they don’t recognize that their relationship is abusive, they are facing pressure from family or a cultural group to not end the relationship, they are economically dependent on their partner, they don’t want to leave because they don’t think that would be in the best interest of their children, and they are afraid for their safety if they leave if they’ve been threatened by their partner.

Recently, there has been a shift in people asking the question, “Why do they stay?” to the more important question of, “Why is their partner continuing to abuse them?” But still, there are many people who unfairly judge survivors’ choices to remain in an abusive relationship. Leaving is extremely complicated, and often it is also very dangerous.

Is couples counseling a good approach when domestic violence is involved?

In general, couples counseling is not recommended when there is violence in a couple’s relationship. Couples counseling can be dangerous and lead to conflict that can trigger an abuser’s violent behaviors. Furthermore, treatment with both partners together can imply that both partners are somehow responsible for the abuse, and this takes away the responsibility of the abuser and blames the victim.

When there is abuse in a couple’s relationship, generally the best course of action is for the abuser to attend an abuser-specific intervention program, and the survivor can be offered supportive counseling and peer support groups.

My friend has confided in me that they are a victim of domestic violence. Should I report it, even though they have asked me not to?

Laws about reporting vary from state to state. In some cases, you may be required to report the abuse, even if they have asked you not to do so. In North Carolina, where all adults are mandatory reports of child maltreatment, elder abuse, and the abuse of adults with disabilities, you will need to report the abuse if children are witnessing the abuse (because the children’s safety may be in danger), as well as if the person being abused is elderly or has a disability. There may be other cases when you should report the abuse, such as if there is an immediate threat of dangerous, severe violence to the victim or someone else. These reports can be made to law enforcement and/or the Department of Social Services, depending on the nature of the abuse.

If none of the above situations apply, then in general it is best not to report abuse if they do not want you to do so. Reporting the abuse could actually endanger them, perhaps leading to greater violence. Most professionals who work to address domestic violence use what’s called an empowerment approach, which means that the survivors’ needs and choices are honored and respected. Some people take a long time before they are ready to report their abuse to social service agencies or law enforcement. I’d suggest the best approach in this situation would be to let your friend know that they can count on you for support if and when they are ready to report the abuse themselves.

My friend is engaged to an abuser. Should I confront the abuser now, before they get married?

It’s important for people to send clear messages to people who are abusive that their abusive behaviors are wrong and their responsibility to change. However, there are a lot of factors that would go into deciding whether and how to “confront” an abuser.

First and foremost, this should only be done if it can be done safely — for your own safety, the safety of your friend, and the safety of anyone else involved. Second, you should consider your friend’s wishes, as they may not want you to say anything, and they may feel that your intervention could lead to more abuse. Third, if you do decide to say something to them, you will need to think carefully about when, where and how to do so. A harsh confrontation may not be the best approach. A more conversational dialogue in which you offer resources (e.g., counseling or an abuser treatment program) may be a safer approach.

Access the complete interview with Dr. Murray at UNCG's news site.

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The University of North Carolina at Greensboro is a challenging, supportive and engaged community where learning is carried forward to Do something bigger altogether. Founded in 1891, UNCG is the largest and most diverse university in the Triad, serving more than 18,000 students. Standing apart from other universities, the UNCG community is joined together by a shared value: We define excellence not only by the people we attract, but by the meaningful contributions they make.

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Michelle Hines
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
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