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February 21, 2020

How to Help Someone in an Abusive Relationship

Episode 147

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The toll of intimate partner violence struck close to home this week and with this weighing on her mind, Jess discusses nine strategies for supporting a loved one who is dealing with an abusive partner. This isn’t a private issue, it’s a public health crisis and we have to do more to protect those at risk.

Content warning: I will be talking about violence and the death of someone in my community.

I will be reading some of the details of a recent death, so if you don’t feel comfortable hearing about intimate partner violence and death, please stop this podcast now. This may not be for you.

Last weekend Dr. Amie Harwick, a marriage and family therapist who focused on relationships and sex was killed. She was killed in her home and was found below a third floor balcony with evidence of manual strangulation according to news reports. Her ex has been charged with murder.

According to reports from court documents from 2011 & 2012, her ex choked, suffocated, pushed, kicked, slammed her head into the ground and refused to get help. He pushed her out of a car. He broke into her housing complex, smashed ten picture frames against her door, left 4 dozen flowers taped to her door and left a note warning that things would get worse.

A restraining order was enacted against him. It expired two weeks prior to her death.

I don’t know why restraining orders expire. I’m not an expert in legal protections against violent partners and exes. But my intuition is that they shouldn’t expire.

There is now a petition on change.org called Justice 4 Amie. The creator, suggests that some changes to protect those dealing with a violent or abusive partner begin with:

1. No expiration date or a longer protection term and to not be lifted until victim requests it to be cancelled. (In reference to restraining orders.)

2. Mandatory long-term counselling for the stalker/abuser. If they are deemed a harm to the victim or society, then institutionalization may be ordered.

3. Victims should not have to testify in a courtroom close to their abuser/stalker. There should be an option to live stream in a safe space in a satellite location for the hearing with the judge. It’s a traumatic experience that the victim is already dealing with and should not be subjected to it again if they do not feel they can. That is why many abusers get away with their actions: many victims back out of trial due to fear of facing their perpetrator.

Amie ran into this ex at an industry event a few weeks before her death.

According to a friend who is quoted in several news outlets, the ex went ballistic and was abusive and threatening. Amie said she was scared he would show up at her home. She went to the police, but they did not take it seriously.

You may have read headlines about Amie’s death or seen photos of her with celebrity comedian Drew Carey because they also used to date.

I want to read a message from a close mutual friend, Dr. Hernando Chaves that sums up what I’m thinking because I think he says it better than I will right now:

“She did everything she could do to protect herself, and this person still sought her out and was violent toward her,” Chaves said. “That is what people I hope are going to see — not the sensationalism of her dating Drew Carey or being a ‘Hollywood sex therapist’… but that our system is not protecting women.”

I’ve been really anxious since I heard the news. I’m angry. I’m so sad. I’m sad obviously for Amie and her family and loved ones who were closer to her than I was, but I’m also sad that in a world where we take so many precautions to protect the public, we still aren’t doing what it takes to protect those at risk of violence from their partners.

Amie and I had a lot in common. We were supposed to meet on Tuesday in Hollywood. She was so smart. I interviewed her for my podcast a few years ago and she helped me to manage some of my people pleasing tendencies on the air. I remember being in Kelowna, B.C. when we recorded and I recall that I was struck by how insightful she was – personally and professionally.

Amie also wrote the companion book to my book, The New Sex Bible. Her book was entitled The New Sex Bible for Women.

Amie was also a therapist to whom I referred friends and clients when it was a good fit. They raved about how much she helped them. The therapist and sex educator community are struggling with her death. And her clients, of course, are struggling too.

I find that I can’t get it out of my mind. I’ve woken up in the night thinking about it since I heard the news. I think it’s the gruesomeness of it. I heard that he broke into her home and was lying in wait, so I find myself feeling afraid. And I’m pissed that the law and our entire society doesn’t do more to protect people – and women, in particular against this type of violence.

Research tells us that women are far more likely to be killed by an intimate acquaintance or spouse than by a stranger. The most dangerous place in terms of threat of murder, is the home.

And so I want to talk today about ways to support those who are in abusive relationships. I’ve been thinking about it since Amie’s death and reading about it and so I thought I’d share some specific strategies that you that we can all use to support, love and help those who may be dealing with an abusive partner.

I want to be very clear that I’m talking about this because I feel personally affected – emotionally. This is just weighing heavily on my mind and the mind and hearts of so many folks I love and work with in this field. And it sucks. I’m processing. I’m not going to talk about all of my complicated feelings here and now. Instead I want to talk about ways we can support those who are dealing with an abusive partner.

I’m not using Amie’s death as an opportunity to seek any sort of profit. I won’t be taking sponsorship money for this episode. Instead, I’ve made a donation to RockToRecovery.org – This is a charity that that brings the healing power of music to people in treatment for addiction, trauma, and mental health concerns and I know Amie was a supporter of their work.

My hope is that someone will use some of the suggestions I’m about to share to find support or support a loved one.

To be clear, as Hernando said, Amie did everything right.

This is not on her. This is not on her friends or loved ones. This was an ex. From a decade ago as I understand it. She had a restraining order. She had security at her house. She had a roommate and friends who were aware of the situation. I want to underscore that as I share some strategies for supporting a friend or loved one who is in an abusive relationship, I’m not specifically relating this to Amie or her friends, who I know were supportive.

I’m choosing to talk about this now because I’m mad. I’m so sad. I’m anxious. So please let me be very clear that I’m not suggesting that Amie’s friends or loved ones didn’t do these things. I’m not suggesting that what I’m going to talk about now specifically relates to Amie and I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting that anyone other than the perpetrator and a system that continues to allow intimate partner violence to exist at alarming rates is to blame.

I’m choosing to talk about this now because I’m upset and I don’t really want to talk about anything else. So here we go. This is relevant to every last one of us because we can always offers some type of support.

I want to begin by reviewing the World Health Organizations definition of Intimate Partner Violence:

“Any behaviour within an intimate relationship that causes physical, psychological or sexual harm to those in the relationship. Examples of types of behaviour are listed below. Acts of physical violence, such as slapping, hitting, kicking and beating. Sexual violence, including forced sexual intercourse and other forms of sexual coercion. Emotional (psychological) abuse, such as insults, belittling, constant humiliation, intimidation (e.g. destroying things), threats of harm, threats to take away children. Controlling behaviours, including isolating a person from family and friends; monitoring their movements; and restricting access to financial resources, employment, education or medical care.”

Intimate partner violence (IPV) may include physical violence, sexual coercion, emotional abuse and controlling behaviour. Each of these factors has been shown to adversely affect the abused partner’s mental and physical health in a manner that persists long after the violence stops. IPV, which is most commonly perpetrated by men against women is also tied to negative outcomes for the couple’s children including anxiety, depression, poor academic performance and adverse healthy consequences.

If you believe someone you care about is in an abusive relationship, consider the following guidelines to offer effective and caring support:

  1. Set up a time to talk. If possible, find a private time and place so that you won’t be interrupted. If this isn’t possible, be creative and consider slipping away to the restroom or another private space knowing that an abusive partner is often watching closely and you don’t want to do anything to further incite them.
  2. Be straightforward and supportive. You might say something as simple as “I’ve noticed _________ (e.g. bruises on your arm, that you seem afraid in their presence, that they try to control what you say) and I’m concerned. What can I do to help?” You can offer assurance that you’ll keep your conversations private and ask them what they require in order to feel safe.
  3. Offer specific help. Can you assist with housing, child care, transportation, daily logistics and/or financial aid? Be specific so that they can make a plan that works for them. Ask them how you can help. If they ask you to do something that you cannot do, be honest and seek out additional sources of support (e.g. other friends, family members or local agencies) who may be able to assist.
  4. Whether they decide to leave their partner or remain in the relationship, continue to offer support. Don’t give up. Reach out regularly. Continue to ask if you can be of assistance without judgment.
  5. Offer support unconditionally. Do not place conditions upon your offer of support (i.e. offer money only if they promise to leave within a set period of time). You may think you’re helping, but being supportive means allowing them to generate a plan that works specifically for them — not for you.
  6. Let your concerns about rejection and personal discomfort take a back seat to your concerns for their safety. Oftentimes, intimate partner abuse is ignored as a private problem and friends, family and other potential sources of support avoid important conversations out of fear of interfering in so-called private matters. These fears facilitate abuse in the domestic sphere and further intensify the isolation in which abuse festers; if you’re concerned, speak up. Your discomfort pales in comparison to their fear of shouldering abuse in isolation.
  7. Be prepared. Connect with resources in your community in advance. Call the hotlines, contact housing support resources and reach out to potential allies in advance so that you can provide accurate and updated information. You may want to begin with the resources listed below. They may not be able to even search on their computer.
  8. Listen and believe what they tell you. You may have dozens of solutions in mind, but your first job is to listen and trust that the information they provide you with is accurate. They are the ultimate experts in their own experience. Support them in cultivating whatever skills they feel are required to cope/leave. Be patient and don’t expect them to embrace your idea of the appropriate solution/action.
  9. Validate their feelings and offer support to counteract victim-blaming. Remind them that they are not responsible for their partner’s abuse. Abusers are skilled at manipulation and reinforcing victim-blaming rhetoric, so if you’re given the opportunity to dismantle these beliefs, do so in a caring way. For example, you might simply say “It’s not your fault” or “You’re not to blame”. Do not further reinforce victim-blaming by shaming or judging them for staying in the relationship.

This is not an exhaustive list of ways to support someone dealing with a violent partner, but I believe it’s a start.

And if you’re looking for Intimate Partner Violence Resources and Hotlines, consider:

National Domestic Violence Hotline (USA) 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) and you can chat live online 24/7 on their website, thehotline.org.

I was reading through their site and you can call anytime. They take calls from those who are dealing with intimate partner violence and they’ll also take your call if you’ve been abusive. They offer supports on both sides all with the goal of reducing intimate partner violence.

If you’re in immediate danger, call 911. In Canada, you can find more info at ShelterSafe.ca, and internationally there’s the International Directory of Domestic Violence Agencies. I also found a site HotPeachPages.net that offers an international directory of supports in over 110 languages.

We were talking about this last night and although men can be both perpetrators and victims of intimate partner violence, how can they speak up and offer support? All of the other ways I’ve outlined are in no way gender-specific, but the other piece of dismantling misogyny and address behaviours and norms that reinforce and uphold patriarchal standards. And so, this has to do with not laughing at sexist jokes or speaking up when you hear a rape joke. Let’s dismantle gender norms related to both masculinity and femininity that are binary and toxic, and force people into roles that aren’t healthy and limit our self-expression.

Upcoming, I’d like to talk to someone about that. I was thinking about Dr. Hernando Chaves who is a fellow sex therapist and also a marriage and family therapist, I know he was close to Aime and is personally dealing with this right now, so now is not a good time. I would like to have that discussion in the future, about not only supporting people who are in abusive relationships, but dismantling the structures that uphold, reinforce and facilitate the acts of perpetrators.

This was preventable and really scary, anything to do with mortality is difficult to process. The reminder that we don’t have all the time in the world, and that we don’t know when our time on this Earth will come to an end. And of course, the trauma of it being such a violent, and preventable, and inexcusable death. I’m sure some of you may have known Aime as well, because I know there are folks in the community that tune in, and I appreciate that. So I encourage you to share this, share the resources as well. Speak up and know that you don’t have to be perfect. I know folks who counsel on domestic abuse don’t have the answers. There is no perfect formula, recipe, there is no bible because every situation is different. I think if we can let our voices be heard, and elevate these voices, folks will know we have their backs and they’re not to blame. Maybe we can see people supported more effectively than they are right now.

And once again, a reminder I’m not talking about people who were are not supporting Aime. I know she had a network of support around her and no one is to blame except the perpetrator and the system that allows for these things to happen. So I’m going to stop right there. I’m feeling a little tense, and a little awkward today, but perhaps some of these strategies will come in handy and that you’ll share them with a friend or reach out to a friend that may be in need.

So thanks again. I hope you’re well this weekend. If you are feeling alone, if you are feeling shaken and need a little love, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. I think that’s something we struggle with, and I think I see that change in younger folks. I’m hopeful for the future, I’m hopeful you are feeling safe and loved and that you have all the support around you today and everyday.

I will leave it at that, I will be back next Friday with a new episode. Wherever you’re at, I hope you have a great one.

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