Monday, August 8, 2011

Finding the fine line between respecting a victim's autonomy and a dangerous hands-off approach

[Possible domestic violence trigger in linked posts.]

I received an email from a friend two days ago that said my posts on abusive relationships had made her think. There were some people she knew that she was worried about, she said. What did I think?

I told her what I've always told people-- that it's better to talk to someone and offer support than keep quiet, even if you think they might lash out angrily or defensively. I have mentioned, in previous posts (here, here, and here), that I feel like I am in the minority when I say that. Much of the advice I have heard recommends that friends just watch and keep quiet, or make subtle inquiries, at most. A different (perhaps slightly cynical?) friend I spoke to hypothesized that this might be because most people can't be trusted not to say something rash or judgmental or make the situation worse (e.g. by saying something in front of the abuser or in a way that gets back to the abuser). But I think maybe we should give people more credit than that, especially if they're aware enough to notice and concerned enough to consider approaching a friend they worry about.

So it was very good timing that today I found two posts that discuss this situation very well. One is a post by a feminist who herself was in a violently abusive relationship. She talks about how the illusion of self-sufficiency can keep well-educated, independent, articulate women in an abusive relationship because they think they can handle it. She mentions how she said "I can handle it" to herself and to other people who cared enough to ask. And then she says she wished people knew not to trust her answers because relationship violence had changed her, affected her. This is important, so I'll say it again: abuse really does affect people physically and mentally (there is scientific proof of these biological changes), so while someone may be a perfectly smart, capable person otherwise, they may legitimately need help now, with this one situation. It doesn't reflect poorly in any way on their self-sufficiency in other situations.

This section of the post particularly resonated with me:

I needed the people around me to be more alert than I was capable of being. I needed them to not rely on my cues; I needed them to not take me at my word; I needed them to not treat me as though I were functioning at my best, fullest, most autonomous self. There’s a sentiment within the abuse-prevention community—- and the feminist community—- that we must respect victims’ autonomy, and it’s a necessary point when coupled with a solid understanding of abuse. But without that fuller understanding, respecting autonomy can too easily lapse into a hands-off approach. Which, when you’re concerned for someone who is in the fog of abuse, can lapse into the realm of danger.

I have personally experienced the hands-off approach, and I can say with certainty that it sucked. I spent months wishing that someone might notice, might care, might show they cared by approaching me.

The post also links to another article in Glamour that does a great job of approaching the topic of relationship violence as well. One thing I wanted to pull out from that article and state here is from the section called "Here's What You Can Say." Two simple phrases can do a whole heck of a lot.

  • "I am afraid for you."
This is a gentle, non-judgmental way to tell someone that the situation they are in is not okay, but that it is not their fault, and that you are listening and you are there for them. If the person has already had doubts of their own, it is validating, and if it hasn't quite occurred to them yet that they are in a harmful situation, it may get them to think without raising the defensive hackles that might come from a more pointed statement about them or their abusive partner.

  • "I am proud of you."
Leaving an abusive relationship can be really difficult, even when logic dictates otherwise. Support is of the essence. This phrase goes beyond support and also conveys your conviction that they have done the right thing. It's something I wanted and needed to hear every day after I left my abusive relationships and as I was recovering from sexual assault. It's a powerful phrase-- don't assume that the survivor knows it already, because even if (s)he does, it's still indescribably rewarding to hear.

One last thing I wanted to end this post with: I wanted to reiterate that an abusive relationship does not have to involve physical violence to be abusive. Both the articles I linked to dealt with physical violence, but physical violence is just one of many criteria for an abusive relationship-- when a victim is already plagued by doubt, the last thing (s)he needs is to read something about relationship abuse and come away with the idea that it has to be physically violent to be considered abuse. Abuse can be emotionally or psychological as well. Threats, isolation, intimidation, and control are all signs of an unhealthy relationship. If it doesn't feel right, listen to your gut.


  1. Good post. And I really liked the articles you linked to. Definitely a lot to think about there.

    My question though, is this: in the excerpt you quoted from the first article, the author says that she needed her friends and family to *not* rely on her cues or take her at her word. So what are people supposed to go by, then? A hinky feeling about our friend's relationship can only get you so far. At other places in the article, she says that people did reach out to her (or at least try to) on multiple occasions, but she pushed them away each time. So I guess what I'm wondering is what is a concerned friend or family member supposed to do in this situation? If we aren't supposed to rely on the cues she gives or the things she says, what are we supposed to go on? And if we do decide to ignore the the things she's telling us and try to reach out, and she pushes us away each time, what then? (I'm assuming that this is a case where abuse is suspected but the person trying to help doesn't yet have actual grounds to call the police or involve the authorities- they haven't actually witnessed something happening or anything like that). Don't get me wrong, I'm absolutely NOT defending the "hands off" position, and I definitely agree on the need to reach out to people you suspect are victims of abuse. I'm just kind of wondering what happens when you've sort of done everything you can/everything you know and the victim just won't let you help.

    I don't know if I knew you at the time you were in an abusive relationship (or at least, if I knew you well enough/was around the House enough to pick up on the fact that something was amiss) and I don't currently know anyone I suspect is the victim of abuse (thank God). But your posts have really gotten me thinking about this issue, and I want to do what I can so that if I ever do start to worry about a friend this way, I have a better idea of what to do to help them.

  2. Hi Ellie,

    Thanks for your comment. You make good points, and honestly, I don't know if I have the right answers, but I'll give it my best shot.

    For your first question, about how to decide if a relationship is becoming unhealthy, I think a lot of it is instinct (or "hinky feeling," as you so neatly put it). Sometimes there are obvious signs and sometimes there aren't-- but sometimes people's instincts pick up on something even when there's nothing obvious to point to. Even if you're not sure if something's wrong, I think it's still worth approaching the person anyway and just saying what you observe ("I" statements as opposed to "you" statements).

    And as for if your friend pushes you away, well, I guess the best thing to do is make sure your friend knows you're concerned, and if s/he doesn't want help, then the only thing you can do is retreat to a respectful distance and watch. It's unsatisfying, but I think you're right-- sometimes you just reach a point where you've done all you can and it just turns into waiting and watching.