Experts and Survivors Discuss Domestic Violence

October 30, 2015

Allyson Cartwright

In recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center has been sponsoring events on U.Va. Grounds in order to bring attention to this issue. One of these events included, “Survivors and Supporters Unite: A Panel about What Domestic Violence Is, What Its Effects Are, and What We Can Do”. This panel combined stories from two survivors of domestic violence and three experts in domestic violence counseling, including Associate Dean of Students, Nicole Eramo, Child and Adolescent Advocate from the Shelter for Help in Emergency, Lea Calvani, and trauma counselor from the Women’s Center, Cathy Erickson.

The survivors, who were U.Va. students, started off the panel by describing their own experiences with domestic violence. One of the students was in an abusive relationship with her ex-boyfriend. After coming to U.Va. and moving in with him, he began to isolate her from her friends, accuse her of not loving him enough, and harmed himself. With the support of her family and friends, she finally kicked him out of the apartment. Her story was one of confliction. She loved her ex-boyfriend and did have good memories, but ultimately she had to leave him for her own safety. I was surprised with how comfortable she was telling her own story. She is still affected by this abuse, as she admitted to trust issues when entering a new relationship; however she is overcoming this as she is now in a healthy long-term relationship with her current boyfriend.

The other survivor witnessed domestic violence within her family. After coming to U.Va., her father began drinking and physically abusing her mother. With a younger brother at home, this survivor was not only concerned about her mother’s safety, but concerned about his as well. Coming from an Indian family, she said, domestic violence is a hushed issue, which is why her mother has yet to seek help. This survivor had never divulged her story before this panel and her pain was visible. As someone who has never experienced domestic abuse in my family, I cannot imagine how unsafe it must feel for the people who are your protectors, your parents, to be in a dangerous relationship.

After these emotional stories, the panel moved to the experts who explained why domestic abuse happens, how to escape those abusive relationships, and how to help others. Calvani warned that many times victims of abuse miss the red flags because the warning signs mimic the way people behave when they really like someone. For example, texting someone all the time and wanting to know what they are up to or obsessively checking their significant other’s Facebook.

The experts explained that domestic abuse stems from a desire for control. Calvani said that abusers often lose control in some aspect of their own life, like losing a job or past abuse, thus they seek to control their partner. This control means the abuser will do things like make their partner dress a certain way, not let them leave the house, restrict who they are in contact with, or cause physical harm. Erickson said that it is important to recognize that manipulation is form of abuse that causes trauma just as much as physical violence.

People usually tell victims to “just leave!” but the experts in the panel explained that it is never that easy. The violence and/or manipulation cause trauma that further bonds the victim and abuser. Erickson said that in response to danger, humans have “fight, flight, or freeze” responses. In the case of domestic violence, that “self-preservation” means absorbing the blame and abuse to keep safe. However, it never actually works out that way. The cycle of abuse gets perpetuated and the danger remains.

One of the biggest perpetuating factors in this cycle is also shame, Calvani said. Victims ask, “How have I let this happen?” furthering the blame already forced on them by their abuser. Because of this shame, the victims sometimes will not reach out for help. It is integral for supportive family and friends who recognize the abuse to aid the victim in escaping the relationship.

How should you react to someone who is the victim of domestic violence or is a witness to it? The experts answered that you must not judge them and utilize the tools available, like CAPS, the Women’s Center, or the Ainsworth Clinic. Erickson’s final words of advice are simple and the most important first step when it comes to helping a domestic violence victim: “Believe them, listen, and be present.”

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