As some of you will know I have written various posts looking at counselling theory and using the radio soap The Archers to make things more accessible to the layperson. This post is slightly different, firstly, it’s in response to request from fellow fans of the show. Secondly it’s far more around practical advice, with the huge disclaimer that whilst I have training and experience in working with victims/survivors of intimate partner violence (often known as domestic violence) this is of course, just one person’s view point.
The storyline of abuse, rape, and coercive control, featuring Rob and Helen has certainly set the country talking, making headlines, and raising money for Refuge, a huge silver lining of such a harrowing topic. It appears to be reaching some form of climax, as Helen, self blaming, and self hating as a result of the abuse has finally opened up to someone about what has been happening. What should you do in this situation? If someone discloses to you what is the best course of action?
Are Children at risk?
First things first, if you believe a child is at risk, report, no ifs, buts or maybes. For far too long we took a wait and see approach to child protection. The focus of this post is if an adult discloses their own abuse, a friend or work colleague perhaps. If you suspect child abuse however silence is not the answer. If you are worried about your own safety you can always use the NSPCC anonymous reporting form.
Call the Police?
It might sound like the obvious answer, you suspect, or even have been told by the victim, a crime has been committed, so why not call the police? Unfortunately it is a lot more complex than it may at first appear.
Consider our fictional couple Helen and Rob. Through a sustained period of gaslighting Helen believes she is unable to trust her own judgement and emotions. Rob is used to manipulation, and presenting himself as the long suffering “victim” of Helen’s instability (which is very common in gaslighting and coercive control). Now imagine a police officer arriving at this scene; who is going to appear worth listening too and who is most likely to be dismissed? If there is no evidence of abuse (such as visible bruising) they are likely to leave apologising for bothering that nice Mr Titchener. Helen is in a state of denial, and would most likely defend Rob, as many victims do. Then, when the door closes, she is left alone with someone volatile, abusive, and unafraid to take out their anger on others. All too often victims are punished by their abusers for causing official involvement, even if they were not the one who made the call. A victim may be well aware of this pattern, and do all they can to convince the police to leave, hoping against hope that they will not be blamed this time.
It is also the case that certain groups, for example LGBTQ people or people of colour may fear police involvement. Even if the abuser is not present, the police may not be seen as someone a victim feels able to turn to. They may also fear the reaction of their community if they have been seen talking to the police. Research has also consistently shown that for many LGBTQ people “letting the side” down is a huge element of not reporting abuse. A very visible police visit may make them feel they have to keep the abuse secret, or risk being ostracised.
A disclaimer here, part of me has been shouting at the radio “Tell Tom and Pat” (Helen’s brother and mum). However I know it’s, again, rarely that simple. Like many victims Helen has been isolated, telling Kirsty was a huge step for her. Abusers often cut their victims off from family and friends. If your first act after promising to keep a secret is to break that trust it can make a victim feel there is no one they can turn to. If someone discloses to you, that’s a first, vital step. But it may also be the last step if they feel they cannot trust you.
Many of the things I previously discussed around the police also apply to friends and family. If a victim is still in a stage of denial, or fearing abuse at the hands of their abuser if the fact they have disclosed is revealed, the arrival of friends and family, riding to the rescue may be met with hostility, and endanger the victim.
Lastly, hard as it may sound, family is not always supportive. Never assume that family is going to be a safe refuge for a victim of abuse, because all too often it is not.
What Should I do?
After focusing on the things not to do, I think it’s only right to talk about what it might be helpful to do in this situation, of someone disclosing abuse to you. Kirsty in the show was a model of how to respond. Someone who is the victim of intimate partner violence/abuse is used to being blamed, to hearing “you made me do it”. So if someone discloses to you, try to avoid blame, and they why questions. “Why don’t you leave?” Why didnt you fight back?” but the blame and responsibility on the victim, not where it lies, on the abuser.
Also try not to minimize or excuse what’s happening. Sometimes people are so shocked by the idea that someone they know could be abusive they try to excuse it. Often the L word is used, for example “But he/she loves you”. An abuser may well claim to love their victim, they may even say they are acting out of love, it does not excuse abuse. Its also not helpful to frame abuse as normal arguments. If a victim fights back, it’s not between equals, its self defence.
Nor should you try to explain the abusers behaviour, no matter how stressed, busy, depressed, underpaid or overworked someone is, it does not excuse abuse. The victim has probably told themselves all these things already, to reinforce the idea they should put up with abuse because of how the abuser is feeling is not OK. On similar lines they do not need suggestions on how to change their behaviour to prevent abuse, victims are not to blame for abuse.
Listen, don’t judge, don’t blame, don’t excuse. Let the person disclosing know you believe them, and ask them what they want to happen next. Some victims may have a concrete idea, they may have a plan of escape and want support with it. Others, like Helen, may not be ready to consciously admit they are being abused. In this case, reassuring them you will be there, whatever they want is vital. It is incredibly hard to admit that someone you love has hurt you, denying it can seem easier, less world shattering. It’s an admission someone has to reach in their own time. In Helen’s case the fact she defended Rob when others saw through him, and has argued the choices he forced her into (such as giving up work) were her own, will impact on her faltering self image. To leave is to admit not just that she was victimized, but that the happily ever after was nothing more than a facade. She will be giving up on a dream.
Anyone in this situation needs to know they will be supported, not blamed, that there is still someone they can turn to. Kirsty has shown herself to be that person in the show, the many, many, real Helens out there need the same unconditional support.
The final thing Kirsty did was contact people whose expertise lies in helping survivors, there are some links at the end of this post. This is an incredibly useful thing to do. Even if a victim of abuse accepts they are being abused, they may not feel safe to google support organisations. Abusers who use coercive control, as Rob does, very often check phones and computers, monitor any contact the victim has with the outside world. You can be their google, find information they might need. Be aware though it might be dangerous for someone to take this home, and you might have to simply let them know you have it, if they ever need it.
Look after yourself
It can be hard seeing a friend or family member suffering, and it can be even harder knowing they are still being abused. If someone discloses to you make sure you take the time to look after yourself. Its the oxygen mask analogy again, you need to fix your own mask before you can help anyone else.
If you are a victim of abuse at the hands of a partner you can there are organisations who can help
Broken Rainbow (for LGBTQ survivors)
Remember abuse is never your fault, and we believe you.