Domestic Violence Awareness: 5 things you should know to help someone in your life

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If you see something, say something. It’s a message you’ve heard or read throughout buses, subways, and airports in order to keep public spaces safe. But behind closed doors, this idea might be a bit more challenging.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, which first began in 1981 as a way to connect advocates across the country and provide education. One of the most difficult parts of facing domestic violence cases is figuring out if or when is the right time to address any concern with what you perceive to be physical or emotional abuse. If you are a family member, friend, or even colleague, you may have experienced a moment of hesitation or helplessness, unsure of what steps to take or words to say.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, on average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men. And the people around them, whether it be in the home,  community or office spaces, are often left with the difficult decision: do I say something? The Grio spoke with author and domestic violence expert Zoë Flowers about what steps anyone can take to help support victims.

What is the most common reason victims of abuse are afraid to speak up? What issues within this context do Black men or women victims in particular face?

ZF: Today, many women of color are not believed and are still seen as traitors when they speak up about domestic violence or sexual assault at the hands of Black men.
Additionally, the women themselves often find themselves carrying the tension of wanting to protect partners who choose to use harm against them. Stories of police brutality, the over incarceration of Black men, coupled with historical and present day oppression makes many survivors reluctant to turn partners over to a criminal justice system. More often than not, survivors looking for justice and healing often find themselves re-victimized and traumatized when they become involved in the criminal justice systems, family court etc.

Many Black women suffer in silence because they associate asking for help as being weak — another message that many received at a very young age. This internalized message results in Black women staying in abusive relationships longer because they believe “they can handle it” even as the abuse escalates-which it usually does over time. Believing you are a strong women is aspirational but over identifying with superhuman strength is dangerous and is is literally killing us. In my opinion nothing is more beautiful than vulnerability and the ability to ask for help when it is needed.”

How can a person navigate speaking up about someone’s marriage/relationship when he or she believes abuse is a part of the dynamic?
ZF: A person concerned about the safety of a loved one can say something like, “I love you and I am concerned about your safety.” They can give the survivor domestic violence hotline numbers or information about shelters or programs in the person’s area. However, they must understand that the survivor knows their partner better than any person outside of the relationship. A person outside the relationship may think it is easy to leave –it is not. People need to understand this and should make it known that they will support the survivor through the process, whether the person chooses to stay or leave.

What are major things to consider NOT doing or communicating when approaching a victim of abuse?

ZF: Again, it is important to remember that you are outside of the relationship. It is important to take a supportive and nonjudgmental position. Telling the survivor “what they need to do,” withdrawing emotion and support under the guise of “tough love” is not helpful. A person in an abusive relationship already has someone in their life judging, controlling and giving them “tough love”. Remember, they are also judging themselves for being in the relationship. As friends and family our role is to provide information and support the person we love.

If the victim responds negatively or becomes confrontational, what are the next steps someone can take?

ZF: If a person becomes confrontational it is best to not take it personal. You may need to step away and regain your own composure and then come back. Or you may need to just give them information about shelters or hotlines and back off. The survivor could be embarrassed that you brought it up, they could be angry that you brought it up, they could feel protective of their partner. They may have a range of emotions and they have a right to feel all of those things. The person wanting to help has to know the survivor’s reaction is about them and not about the person raising the issue.

What can a person do after the woman/man has sought help?

ZF: A person can ask the survivor if it is ok for them to them to check in momentarily about the progress they are making or the steps they are taking to get safe — and that is pretty much it. I understand it can be challenging to watch someone we love experience pain but it is inappropriate to usurp what the survivor believes are the right actions. Again, the best thing a person can do is to let the survivor know they are not alone and that they will support the person in whatever decision they choose.

Zoë Flowers is a filmmaker, poet, Reiki Master, writer with the Huffington Post and CEO of Soul Requirements Inc. Her poetry and essays can be found in Stand Our Ground; Poems for Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander, Dear Sister: Letters From Survivors of Sexual Assault and several online journals. In 2004, she interviewed survivors of color about their experiences with domestic and sexual violence. From Ashes To Angel’s Dust: A Journey Through Womanhood is the book that emerged from the interviews. Now, with more than seventeen years of experience, Zoë works nationally and internationally, has appeared on NPR, spoken at Yale University, Smith College and other Universities on the issues of domestic and sexual violence. For more information visit