***TRIGGER WARNING: Descriptions of domestic abuse and suicide.*** Twahna Harris was a sophomore in college when she fell in love with her prince charming. He was handsome, said all the right things, and had everything in his life in order––it was the perfect relationship. It wasn't until Twahna and her partner moved in together that things began to change. It was then that Twahna first felt his hand on her face:
"From that moment, my life was turned upside down. I was mentally, emotionally and sexually abused. He degraded me, he talked about me being overweight, and he stripped me of all of my power. I began to question my self-worth, self-confidence, and my true purpose in life. I thought of committing suicide many times. It was a way out for me."
The shame and embarrassment that Twahna felt meant that she carried the weight of her abuse on her own. Having been purposefully isolated and cut off from her family, friends, and support system, it took everything in her to reach out to a loved one. While she stayed with this relative for a short time, her partner convinced her to come back––promising change. But change never came: "One day he put his hands around my neck and began strangling me. It was like he was possessed. He said to me, 'I will kill you if you every leave again'. I saw myself dying at his hands."
Luckily, Twahna Harris survived her domestic abuse. After Twahna waited for her partner to leave for work, she gathered her things and never looked back. She is now the Director and Founder of the The Butterfly Society, whose goal is to educate, advocate for legislation, provide direct services, and to partner with other agencies to end domestic violence. Unfortunately, Twahna's story is not unique. Approximately every six days, a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner. Shockingly, 67% of Canadians say they have personally known at least one woman who has experienced physical or sexual abuse.
This article aims to address some of the biggest misconceptions that surround domestic abuse/violence. We spoke to Alicia Whyte, the Shelter Manager at Women's Habitat, a community-based, feminist organization providing vital support to self-identified women and their dependents who are survivors of violence and poverty, to gain further into the issue. Until Sunday, May 23rd at 9:00PM, 70% of all 'Mother Nature' print sales by Natalie Very B will be donated to Women's Habitat. Click to purchase.
Domestic abuse, also referred to as "domestic violence" or "intimate partner violence", can be defined as a pattern of behaviour in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner. Abuse can be physical, sexual, or emotional in nature, and includes economic or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviours that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure, or wound someone. It is important to remember that domestic abuse can happen to anyone of any race, age, sexual orientation, religion, or gender. It can occur within a range of relationships including couples who are married, living together or dating. Domestic violence affects people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels.
1. YOU CAN JUST LEAVE. One of the biggest misconceptions about domestic abuse that Alicia Whyte identified, was that "people can just 'leave'." This is one of the most destructive myths, primarily because it minimizes the severity of the abuse and implies that the victim is comfortable with it. Victims stay in abusive relationships for many reasons, including fear of the abuser (who often threatens harm if they do leave), lack of money, worry about children and lack of transportation. As Alicia Whyte explains:
"People do not understand the cycle of abuse and violence, the manipulation and coercion components, generational patterns and that most people are not raised in households that have healthy relationships and communication."
2. DOMESTIC ABUSE IS SOLELY PHYSICAL. Alicia Whyte explains that a common misconception is that if someone is not "being physically abused, it is not intimate partner/gender based violence". Other forms of abuse include intimidation, emotional withholding, property destruction, and harm to pets.
3. IT IS A CRIME OF THE POOR AND UNEDUCATED. Abuse does not discriminate and can impact anyone regardless of age, ethnicity, financial status or educational background. It is important to note that abusers carefully control their actions, choosing who and when to abuse. They may seem charming and polite in social settings but still abusive with their partner at home.
THE CYCLE OF ABUSE
Abuse does not occur in isolation. For decades, experts have relied on the 'domestic abuse' cycle set forth in the 1970s by psychologist Lenore Walker in her book “The Battered Woman" to assess patterns of abuse. It is based on anecdotal evidence from interviews with heterosexual women who had experienced abuse. This cycle involves four stages:
an incident of abuse
This cycle is used to establish and maintain power and control over an individual over time. Alicia Whyte provided a link to a wheel of power and control that defines abusive relationships. As Alicia explains, "It is a cycle, it starts off in the honeymoon phase where all is good and happy, then the tension building phase, the explosion (violent act), reconciliation and calm – this cycle can happen over years, months and weeks – depends on the level of abuse."
While abuse does tend to happen in a cycle, it is important to remember that it doesn't always happen in the same way––even in the same relationship. It is also important to remember that abuse is often not 'predictable', despite occurring cyclically.
HOW TO PROVIDE SUPPORT
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, it is normal to not know the right things to say or do. However, there are a few ways that you can provide meaningful support to someone experiencing domestic abuse:
1. Listen without judgement. You can start the conversation with your loved one by stating, 'I'm worried about you', 'I'm concerned about your safety', or 'I've noticed some changes that worry me'. Alicia Whyte explains that "believing them, listening, and asking questions–only if the person wants them to", can go a long way. Let them know that you will be discreet about any information they may disclose. This provides a safe space for the victim to vent their feelings and fears. 2. Believe the victim. For a victim, knowing someone believes them can provide hope and relief. As Alicia Whyte explains: "Know that abuse and violence can look very different depending on the abuser and that if someone is saying they feel they are being abused they are." Validate the victim's feelings with supportive statements, such as, 'I believe you', 'This is not your fault', and 'You don't deserve this'. 3. Offer specific support. Help the victim connect to vital support and resources if they are interested in doing so. You can also help the victim create a safety plan that can be put into action if violence occurs again or if they decide to leave. It is important to note that just the exercise of making a plan can help them visualize which steps are needed and to prepare psychologically to do so. It is important just to let them know you are there for them, available at any time. Alicia Whyte explains: "Know that the individual knows the abuser best and when they are the safest to leave, know that abuse and violence can look very different depending on the abuser."
If you or someone you love is experiencing domestic abuse, know that you are not alone. Ending Violence Canada has compiled a list of resources to help you escape the cycle of abuse. Click here to view.