We think we know what domestic violence looks like, but more than likely, what many of us actually know is a stereotypical view of abuse created by the media. That stereotype perpetuates a lot of myths about abusive relationships, victims, and abusers that need to be debunked. Because when we don't take a direct approach for talking about or dealing with domestic violence, we can miss the signs when it happens in our circles and do more harm than good when we try to help.
People are complex and complicated. Abuse is complex and complicated. And abusive relationships can look really happy. Abuse victims can be intelligent and strong. Abusers can look like community heroes. No abusive relationship looks like another. I know this for a fact, as I worked with tons of couples in my time as a Domestic Violence Victim Advocate and Planned Parenthood Certified Responsible Sexuality Educator. In fact, perhaps the most important thing I learned from both my training and experience is that much of the public conversation surrounding domestic violence and unhealthy relationships is wrong, one-sided, or biased. Here are some of the truths I learned from working directly with victims, and from being a victim myself.
1. Abusers Are Always Monsters
There are some true monsters out there. But even everyone's favorite "nice guy" (or girl) can be an abuser. Sometimes abusers are really nice and funny (until they're not). Sometimes they're your best friends, or the love of your life. Sometimes they're really sensitive, caring people who lose control once in a while. I'm not defending abusers or making excuses; it's just a fact. Sticking with the pervasive idea that abusers are monsters makes it easier to overlook those people who are in dangerous relationships with otherwise regular folks. Plus it makes it harder for people in abusive relationships to accept that they're indeed with abusers, because that's harder to swallow when your partner isn't a raging bear all the time. People are complex and complicated, but they're rarely all bad, all the time. Anyone can be in an abusive relationship with any type of person, at any time.
2. Abusive Relationships Are Void Of Any Love
Abusive relationships aren't void of love. They're often filled with really strong love, as a matter of fact. Instead, they're void of healthy love. There's a huge difference. In my abusive relationship, I was positive that I was with the love of my life, who just had some problems and a temper. I was wrong, of course, but it didn't feel that way at the time. You can't minimize or shame people who love their abusers, or who miss them once they leave. If someone you know says, "But I loved them and I miss them," the correct answer is not, "Are you an idiot?" It's something more like, "Yeah, we can love and miss people who aren't good for us and who can't be in our lives. It sucks, but it gets better with time."
3. Abusers Are Really Sorry & Want To Change
Abusers often apologize a lot and buy gifts and make big, sweeping excuses, and promise things will be different. And maybe they mean it, or it least it feels like they mean it. Some even try to seek help for their abusive behaviors. But it's also important to remember that apologies can be part of the manipulation cycle. They can often be tricks, and it can be impossible to tell if the apology has any real remorse behind it, or if they're just trying to keep their control over you. Whether they mean their apology or not might seem important to you, but apologies almost never actually mean that the abuse will stop. And if you listen closely, the excuses usually only apply to you, and not to their other relationships. For example, if they say they abuse you because of their childhood, ask yourself if that childhood trauma causes them to treat others abusively, or if it's just you.
4. Abusers Just Need Anger Management
You would think that, right? But according to The National Domestic Violence Hotline, anger management is not effective at treating domestic violence. Because in most cases, domestic violence is not an anger problem. It's a power and control problem. Otherwise, the abuser would lash out at everyone, not just their intimate partners. Plus, anger management focuses on controlling anger triggers, which the abuser can use to further blame the victim. This approach doesn't involve taking responsibility for the abuse, and it can actually make abuse worse, according to the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
5. An Abusive Relationship Is Always Unbearable, All The Time, No Matter What
Abuse is always awful, period. But abusers know that a person can't survive if their life is pure misery 100 percent of the time. That means there can be a lot of happy times. A lot of calm times. A lot of romantic periods. A lot of fun. Gifts. Trips. Compliments, even. This makes victims think that things are not so bad, or that they're at least manageable. So if someone you know is in an abusive relationship, and they seem happy and hopeful, know that this can be part of a greater manipulation. It's not that the victim is oblivious or dumb. And not all victims will be living in a pit of misery and despair all the time.
6. Someone Who Stays In An Abusive Relationship Is Dumb Or Weak
We've all had enough feminist Internet training to know that this is something you're never supposed to say. But a lot of people, whether they admit it or not, are still just totally creeped out at the idea that any person would tolerate abuse. They just can't wrap their brains around it, and they can't help but feel a little twinge of an idea that the victim is at least a tiny bit responsible. I used to think that, too. But now I know that there are so many complex variables about why people stay in abusive relationships that it would make your head spin.
It's scary to face not having a place to live, worrying if you will lose your kids, fearing harm will come to you or your family, or wondering how you'll survive if you have no income. Some victims are so worn down that they don't feel like they deserve anything else, or can't accept that leaving is an option. Some don't feel like they have a choice, and don't think it's possible to escape. Loneliness is scary. Turning your life upside down is hard (and scary). It's a big, tangled web, and it's never the victim's fault, not even if they go back, not even if they did something they know will make their partner mad, not even if they're on drugs, and not even if they chose to stay. Never.
7. There's Plenty Of Help Out There That's Easily Accessible For Absolutely Everyone
Some shelters have strict guidelines, like having state IDs, being able to not use drugs, or being eligible for government assistance. Some people have been kicked out of shelters for breaking the rules and don't have or know of alternative help sources. Some shelters have waiting lists. Some women don't have official custody of their children, and worry (or because of a law or custody agreement) that they can't bring them to the shelter with them. Some people can't or won't leave their pets. And some places don't even have shelters or emergency care services within a manageable distance. When you live in the big city, that seems like nonsense, but when you're on the freeway in the middle of Utah, and you haven't seen another house or car for over an hour, you can start to understand how remote many, many places can be. "Go to a shelter" isn't always the simple answer.
8. Victims Shouldn't Have A Choice About When They Leave
I do believe all people should leave their abusers, and it's so frustrating when they don't, but I also understand that nothing is that simple or black and white. Things sometimes have to happen in their own time. There can be times when it's far too dangerous to try to leave, or periods where a victim is gathering resources, support systems, and other essentials (like custody documents, housing, protection orders, etc) that will make leaving easier (or possible), safer, and more likely to be permanent. You can't find out someone is being abused and expect them to drop everything and go. We're often talking about life or death. Plus, victims deserve to feel dignity and respect, like they're in control of their own choices.
9. They Should Just Go To Couples Counseling
Couples counseling, for a relationship in which one person is being controlled by the other, is a nightmare of an idea. Not only is it likely that the victim won't feel safe telling the truth, but if the abuser doesn't like what the victim has to say, there can be dire consequences at home, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Batterer Intervention Programs have shown some success at getting abusers to change their behavior, but abusers have to want to change, have to acknowledge their behaviors, have to focus on the victim's safety, have to deal with emotional or mental issues, and have to take accountability for their actions. Then they have to re-learn the life skills involved in being in a healthy relationship, like trust and respect. It's not something many abusers are really lining up to do, and it's not something all abusers have access to.
10. Victims Are Bad Parents
There's no question that children raised in homes where abuse is present suffer, too. They suffer from increased depression and anxiety, have trouble in school, and struggle with complex emotions (and this is just the tip of that iceberg) according to the U.S. Department Of Health And Human Services. But it's unfair to accuse a victim of being a bad parent. Many victims do everything in their power to care for and protect their children. And children are one of the biggest reasons victims chose to seek help. Victims I worked with almost all felt deep shame for the things their children went through, and worried about being judged as bad parents.
11. Abusers Always Go To Jail
This doesn't really happen. It's a nice fantasy that victims can call the police and have their abusers arrested and call it a day. But often the police can't interfere unless the abuser is in the act of abusing the victim, or has already seriously injured them. Even then, they often get little to no time, or are plead down to lesser charges and given probation. And sometimes if the police aren't sure who is the abuser, and they just see two people fighting, they'll arrest them both, which further punishes the victim. Victims can get various types of restraining orders, but those just make it a crime for an abuser to contact a victim. It doesn't stop them. In fact, it often angers them and escalates their violent tendencies. Results vary by state, but, unfortunately, relying on the legal system isn't a perfect option.
12. Anyone Who Is Good To Animals Is A Good Person
This needs mentioning because it became a recurring theme to hear victim's say, "I thought he was so sweet, he was so good to his dogs." There's a pervasive and false myth that people who are kind to animals are kind people, and not likely to be abusive. I'm sure it's true that some animals are excellent judges of character, but you can't determine whether or not someone's an abuser by how well they treat their pets.
13. You Would Know If Someone In Your Circle Was An Abuser
It's a crazy concept, but abusers can be our friends, family members, co-workers, and neighbors. They can be wealthy and sophisticated, educated, well-traveled and super attractive. They can be gay or straight. There's no archetype of an average abuser, which is why we're so shocked and ready to disbelieve when a victim accuses someone we know of abuse. The reality is that false allegations of domestic violence are very rare. Bottom line, if someone tells you they're being abused, believe them.
Domestic violence is a complicated issue, but relying on stereotypes about victims and abusers helps no one.
Images: Pexels (14); Isla Murray/Bustle