Six messages abusers need to hear

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Dr. Christine Murray, University of North Carolina at Greensboro counseling professor, offers advice on what you can say to an abuser.

Dr. Christine Murray

Ask yourself, ‘If I’m not taking action against the abuse, am I actually helping to perpetuate it?'

Journalists and experts focus on victims of domestic violence, and rightly so, says Dr. Christine Murray, associate professor of counseling at UNCG and co-founder of the See the Triumph campaign to empower survivors. But, Murray asks, what should you say to a friend or loved one if they are the abuser?

“Assuming the person trusts and respects your opinion, you have an opportunity to send some powerful messages that could encourage them to stop the abuse,” she says. “Ask yourself, ‘If I’m not taking action against the abuse, am I actually helping to perpetuate it?’ By taking a strong stand against the violence, you have the opportunity to send important messages to the person that the abuse is harmful, it is their responsibility, and they can choose to change it and get help to do so.”

Message #1: “The abuse is wrong.”
Make sure, through both your words and your actions, that you make clear that you do not support the abuse in any way. Don’t laugh off the abuse or lead them to think that it’s okay that they’re using abusive behaviors. If you don’t feel comfortable saying anything to them, consider the possible impact of your silence. Be mindful that the person may think that, because you haven’t said anything, you think it’s okay or normal for them to treat their partner that way.

Message #2: “You are hurting your partner.”
You can play a role in holding the person accountable for their actions by pointing out the actual impact of the abuse. If that “little slap” left a black eye, remind them of the severity and say that you think it was a bigger deal than they’re making it out to be. If they claim that their partner is just being “too sensitive,” you can talk to them about how you think they’re responding in a normal, expected way to being abused.

Message #3: “There are other negative consequences of the abuse.”
It’s important to remind abusive partners of all the negative consequences they’ve already faced -- and could face in the future -- if their abusive behaviors continue.

This may include risking arrest and jail; risking their career if they face legal consequences; other financial consequences related to legal sanctions; losing relationships with friends and family members; and the embarrassment, tarnished reputation and loss of standing that may occur if other people find out about the abuse.

Message #4: “You are responsible for your own actions. You are also responsible for doing whatever you need to do to change them.”
We’ve heard so, so many times in our research that survivors of abuse were blamed for their abuse by their partners and others in their lives. Victim-blaming perpetuates the abuse by attributing the responsibility for changing it to the person with the least control over doing so. Remind the abuser of their own responsibility for stopping their abusive behaviors and for taking the steps needed to make this change.

Message #5: “There are resources available to help you stop abusing your partner.”
In most areas in the United States, there are court-sanctioned batterer intervention programs that are designed to educate and support people to change their abusive behaviors in intimate relationships. In many cases, these programs are also open to clients who are voluntarily seeking help. If you don’t already know whether this program exists in your community, contact your state domestic violence coalition to find out what resources are available near you. Keep in mind that, in general, couples therapy is not advised when there is violence present.

Message #6: “If you do not stop abusing your partner, I will….”
Where will you draw the line? At some point, you may face a decision to take action to try to stop this person’s abusive behaviors, even if it could mean hurting your relationship with them. For example, you may witness a severe act of physical violence. Will you call the police to report it? Will you cut off your relationship with them and lend your support to their partner? Of course, any decision you make should take into account their partner’s safety, as well as the safety of any involved children and yourself.

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October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. More than 1 in 3 women and more than 1 in 4 men in the U.S. have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to the National Domestic Violence Abuse Hotline.

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Michelle Hines
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
+1 (336) 334-3207
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