When Abuse Hits Home: How to Help a Victim of Domestic Violence

by Heidi Hess Saxton

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month! Did you know that in the U.S. a woman is beaten every nine seconds? Did you know domestic violence is the number-one cause of emergency room visits from women? Have you heard that 37% of all women have experienced battering, and that every day, four women are killed by a spouse or other intimate partner? Domestic violence has become a pernicious disease in our society; the USCCB has called upon faith communities to get involved in ending the cycle of abuse.

For many people, however, the realities of domestic violence hit close to home. In the following article, you will read of one woman's troubling story, find out how to recognize the symptoms of violence, and learn three messages every victim needs to hear so she will find the courage to end the violence.

The air was charged with excitement as my extended family gathered to celebrate a birthday. Some of us had traveled hundreds of miles, and we were all engrossed in lively conversation when a close relative I'll call "Kate" and her three-year-old daughter pulled into the driveway in a shiny BMW. "What is she doing with a car like that?" my mother wondered aloud. "Usually she drives such a clunker."

I was surprised to see Kate; she had already told us not to expect her, as her car was not up to the trip and her husband "Dan" couldn't bring her. My questions multiplied as she got out of the car. She and her daughter were both in their pajamas, and Kate's face was covered in bruises. All conversation stopped. Quickly I ushered Kate into the house, to talk with her privately. My family had long suspected that Kate's husband mistreated her. While they were dating, he had monopolized Kate's attention and controlled her every move, though she was always quick to defend him. "He's just insecure; it's how he shows me he loves me." They fought constantly; several times she tried to end the relationship, but he always managed to get her back. "I know you're too good for me," he would say to her, lavishing her with gifts. "But if you ever really left me, I'd kill myself."

Finally she did start dating someone else; Dan responded by stalking Kate's new boyfriend and his family. Although he cared about Kate, the new boyfriend felt he had to protect his family. They broke up. Then Kate discovered she was pregnant. Dan proposed marriage. Not seeing her other options, Kate said, "Yes."

A three-year nightmare followed. She kept most of it to herself, too humiliated to admit what was going on. After healing from one particularly severe beating (and not revealing the full extent of the problem), she went to her pastor for advice. "Well, if you want a better husband, be a better wife," the pastor told her. Disappointed, she went to stay with a friend - until Dan tracked her down and ordered her home, threatening to divorce her and take her child away if she didn't come back to their apartment.

She did go back, even though she feared Dan's threats- feeling that even God had given up on her. That night Dan began to choke her, muttering, "First I'm going to kill you, then that brat of yours. . . "

Beginning to black out, Kate gasped, "God, help me!"

Suddenly, they both heard footsteps in the hall. Dan stopped and threw open the door to see who was there.

The hallway was empty.

Thankfully, it was enough to calm his rage. And it was enough for Kate to realize God had not abandoned her, after all. It was a decisive moment.

The next morning when Dan left for work, Kate and her daughter got in the car and drove to the mall where she worked-when her car broke down. She entered the store, planning to ask for her paycheck and a ride to the bus station. Inside, her boss was talking with her boyfriend. He took one look at Kate and handed her some money and the keys to his BMW. "Here . . . take these."

Kate didn't understand. "I can't take your car. And I don't know when I'd be able to repay you!" she protested.

"Please. I insist," the kind stranger replied. "I have a sister, and I would want someone to help her if she was in your situation. Just go and be safe."

That unexpected grace was the first step on the path of Kate's healing and recovery. Today she is married to a man who adores her, and she has two beautiful girls. Best of all, God has redeemed the nightmare that was once her life, and she has become an advocate for other victims of domestic violence.

What Does the Church Say About Domestic Violence?

In a 2002 document entitled "When I Call For Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women" (http://www.usccb.org/laity/help.shtml), the USCCB charged faith communities with getting involved in ending the cycle of abuse.

The Catholic Church teaches that violence against another person in any form fails to treat that person as someone worthy of love. Instead, it treats the person as an object to be used. When violence occurs within a sacramental marriage, the abused spouse may question, "How do these violent acts relate to my promise to take my spouse for better or for worse?" The person being assaulted needs to know that acting to end the abuse does not violate the marriage promises.

Later in the document, the bishops acknowledge that this failure to intervene is actually responsible for a continuation of the cycle of abuse from one generation to the next:

Domestic violence is often shrouded in silence. People outside the family hesitate to interfere, even when they suspect abuse is occurring. Many times even extended family denies that abuse exists, out of loyalty to the abuser and in order to protect the image of the family. . Finally, we emphasize that no person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage. Some abused women believe that church teaching on the permanence of marriage requires them to stay in an abusive relationship. They may hesitate to seek a separation or divorce. They may fear that they cannot re-marry in the Church. Violence and abuse, not divorce, break up a marriage. We encourage abused persons who have divorced to investigate the possibility of seeking an annulment. An annulment, which determines that the marriage bond is not valid, can frequently open the door to healing.

What to Say When You Suspect Abuse

Dr. Angela Rosilio describes three stages women go through when confronted with domestic violence: denial (minimizing actions of abuser), enlightenment (recognizing the reality of her situation), and responsibility (taking steps necessary to keep her children and herself safe).

At each of these stages, victims of domestic violence need the loving and prayerful support of friends and family. While joint marriage counseling or therapy is often counterproductive in domestic violence situations, individual counseling can be an important first step to help the victim regain a sense of confidence and inner strength.

If you know someone in this situation, pray for her and with her, listen to her, and affirm her ability to make good choices. Pray for the wisdom to do and say the right thing - and ask God to give you discernment about what you should do.

Ultimately, the choice to end the violence must be hers. All we can do is give her the information and support she needs to make the best possible choice for her family. The first step is to educate ourselves about the realities of domestic violence, so we can recognize where she is in the process.

Denial and misplaced guilt. At this stage the victim minimizes the trauma with comments such as, "It only happened once," or "It was really my fault - he told me not to get him mad when he's been drinking, and I didn't listen." At this stage, the woman still tells herself that she can change or "save" her husband by managing her own behavior.

The message to give women in this situation is: "I'm concerned about you and your children." This is especially effective if it is given early in a potentially abusive relationship, before a permanent bond is formed. Parents and other family members should watch for signs of an unhealthy attachment: inappropriate exclusivity or jealousy, marked change in appearance or behavior (an outgoing girl becoming withdrawn, or a former "fashionista" neglecting her appearance), or a repetitive cycle of fighting and making up (often followed by extravagant gifts).

If you become aware of abuse within a marriage relationship, do not be afraid to get involved - especially if children are involved. The vast majority of children who witness abuse go on to become abusers (or victims of abuse). And women caught in the cycle of abuse are more likely to break free once they realize that their own children are being endangered. By voicing your concern, it raises a red flag that may help her change her situation.

Enlightenment. Because of the isolating and controlling nature of spouse abuse, the abuser teaches his victim to present a "false identity" to the world - what to wear, how to look, what to say and to whom to say it - that safeguards the terrible reality of what happens in private. However, over time this false identity begins to crumble as the woman gradually comes to admit the reality of her situation. When this happens, she may turn to a pastor or family member and confide in him or her. The most important message to give her at this time is, "I believe you." Recognize the courage it took for her to speak up, and be careful not to do or say anything that might lead her to think what is happening to her is her own fault. Above all, do not dismiss her claim. Oftentimes, acquaintances are shocked to discover that someone they know is caught up in the web of domestic violence: Abusers and victims are found in every conceivable social demographic, including Christian circles. Abusers often come across as charming, caring, and charismatic; victims too often suffer in silence, hiding the evidence out of embarrassment or fear.

Responsibility. At this third phase, the woman comes to terms with the reality of her situation, and takes steps to protect her children and herself. The single most important message she needs to hear from you is, "I care, and want to help you stay safe." The first step for the victim is to make a safety plan. If she decides to remain with her spouse for the present, encourage her to set up a safe room (with a lock on the door and a cell phone) or other safe place (such as a neighbor's house) to go with or send her children, should the need arise. Choose a code word for her to use on the phone if she needs you to call for help. Work with her to find available options (shelters, jobs, relocation, legal help, etc.). Encourage her to create a "safety kit" with cash and bank statements; spare keys for car and house; birth certificates, marriage license and other important papers; changes of clothes for herself and her children, and medical records (including pictures of her injuries). Remind her that she is a strong and capable person, and that her children need her to make good choices for them. Abuse tends to escalate as abusers sense they are losing control; if she does leave, it is critical to protect her privacy and anonymity. Support her choices, whatever they may be.

How Can My Parish Help?

October is "Domestic Violence Awareness Month." The bishops have asked pastors and parish staff to make the church "a safe place where abused women and abusive men can come for help." Consider what actions your parish might take to take a stand against this insidious social disease. The bishops' recommendations include:
Put information about domestic violence and local resources in parish bulletins and newsletters and on websites. Place local telephone numbers for assistance about domestic violence in the women's restroom(s).
Include a discussion of domestic violence in marriage preparation sessions. If violence has already begun in the relationship, it will only escalate after marriage.
Provide training on domestic violence to all church ministers, including priests, deacons and lay ministers. When possible, provide opportunities for them to hear directly from victims of violence.
Have an action plan in place to follow if an abused woman calls you. This includes knowing how and where to refer her for help. This will be easier if you have already established contact with local shelters and domestic violence agencies.
Dedicate at least one weekend in October to inform parishioners about domestic abuse. Make available educational and training programs in order to sensitize men and women, girls and boys to the personal and social effects of violence in the family. Help them to see how psychological abuse may escalate over time. Teach them how to communicate without violence.

Myths about Domestic Abuse

Myth #1: "She's exaggerating. If he was really hitting her, why would she stay?" Women stay in abusive relationships for all kinds of reasons. Some of these are based on practical realities (fear of losing the children to husbands with greater financial and legal resources, fear of reprisals based on past experience, or fear of losing financial support for herself and her children). Others are emotional, including the trauma associated with abuse and the embarrassment associated with being known publicly as a victim of abuse. The isolation and humiliation of domestic violence makes it difficult for a victim to believe she has options or support. Oftentimes, family and friends close to her are able to see the situation better than she can, because of what she has experienced.

Myth #2: "It only happened this once." In the first stage of victimization, the woman will often try to cover up or rationalize the behavior of the abuser. In reality, domestic violence usually escalates without intervention and treatment. What starts as insults and mental control all too often becomes physical abuse - and children become the target in more than fifty percent of all abuse cases. Signs of potential abuse often show up prior to marriage, while a couple is dating. Partners who are critical or controlling, who use name-calling and "joking" insults in public, or who isolate the woman from friends and family or church: All these are signs of an unhealthy relationship, whether or not physical abuse has begun.

Myth #3: "He's a great guy, with everything going for him. He's no wife-beater." In reality, domestic abuse affects every demographic of society: rich and poor, and of every cultural and social background. Abusers (who as children were often exposed to abuse or neglect at home) use charm and influence to create a "public image" that hides the truth. No one is immune, and not all victims have problems with self-esteem prior to the relationship (though many do as a result of the trauma).

Heidi Hess Saxton is the editor of Canticle and is closely related to a domestic violence survivor. To order Dr. Angela Rosilio's talk "Domestic Violence: Escaping the Trap" (Pgm #342) call the LHLA order line: 800-558-5452 or order it online at www.lhla.org.

© Spiritual Woman Press, 2006. All rights reserved.