October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and it’s an important topic for me because I work daily with survivors of domestic violence. That’s the general reason why this matters to me, but another big reason why advocating for survivors of DV matters to me is because I also experienced & observed inter-family violence in the home as a child by my former step-father.
One thing about me is that when I want to understand why something is happening, I like over-do it and research it to death. These life circumstances were no different, and by the time I was in middle school, I would seek out books about DV in the library to try to make sense of what had happened/was happening in our home. During that time, I wanted to understand how this was a thing–like, how could a person physically harm someone they claimed to love? It’s kind of funny to me now, envisioning a little me reading about family violence while other students were reading Sweet Valley High (#TeamJessica), but grasping an understanding of things has always brought me peace. And it obviously helped me tremendously because reading about this taught me that 1) it wasn’t my fault, 2) it wasn’t shameful, and 3) there were options to get help.
Now that I’m older I know that DV results from various causes, but from my perspective so many of those causes stem from the fact that we live under a patriarchy. Now, I know there may be some who are rolling their eyes, but I contend that the patriarchy works hard to keep men and women in a hierarchy. It creates roles in relationships that we’re supposed to abide by–roles that place women’s autonomy lower than men’s. Those roles require that someone be the one in charge/in control and the other is supposed to submit. The patriarchy also gives permission to the “leader” to punish and coerce the lesser partner—we may no longer permit physical violence, but there’s still plenty of permission to keep women in line and under control of the male.
Domestic violence happens because men are taught that they are supposed to have dominion over their partner—this happens slowly and subconsciously, from a young age, where boys are given permission by family, friends, and society at large to exert that dominance. This is a build-up and for those men that do want to impose their authority over their partners, they can use these permissive excuses to strategically ensure that once they do decide to physically assault their partner that there will be little recourse for her.
I may seem more sensitive to what amount to small infractions, but that’s because I see on a daily how lethal, violent, and harmful domestic violence is within our community. And it is a problem in our communities, and in everyone else’s because–sad newsflash–domestic violence impacts everyone: all races, economic levels, sexual orientations; genders, and immigration statuses (and that’s because the patriarchy is all-encompassing, tbh).
But my focus today is the slow-build up that seems innocent, but actually lays the seeds for future abusive behavior. The slow build-up starts at a young age. Little things that seem innocuous—like telling a girl that a boy pulls her hair because he likes her—can create troublesome beliefs that open the door to abusers. In this hair-pulling example, a girl may start to equate her value to a physical assault and second, a young boy learns that when he strikes a girl, he won’t be held accountable for his actions. Of course, boys and girls hit each other for multiple reasons and sometimes it is due to unrequited crushes, but in any case it is the adult’s responsibility to teach better, appropriate behavior. It’s our responsibility to ensure a girl knows she has a right to not be struck and to teach a boy that he has to learn how to communicate without resorting to violence. I know it may seem hyperbolic to say DV behavior starts in the playground, but these little things can add up to bigger problems down the road.
In fact, the groundwork for DV moves on to tween/teenage years. I have so many clients who began dating their abusers in high school, and almost all of them have stories of emotional abuse that’s often excused by others as teenage drama. Boys that openly controlled their girlfriends; stalked them during extracurriculars; prohibited them from being friends with other people; coercing some of them into sexual relationships… All of these are big red flags, but often family and friends paint these behaviors as just young love. He’s jealous because he likes you. Men are supposed to be possessive. Etc. etc.
On jealousy– jealousy is totally a trait 90% of us have been sold into believing means the other person cares. And it’s an emotion that easily overwhelms–not just because we may view our partners as “ours”, but because the threat of our partner leaving us for someone else must speak to our value and worth. However, feeling jealous and acting out on it are two different things–the first is very normal and the responsibility of the person feeling it to control. But when, instead, they act out in harmful ways—like monitoring their partner, controlling them, accusing them, isolating them–all things I have seen that can begin in teen relationships–it leads to the possibility of future acts of violence, and that can’t be allowed.
To exacerbate this problem further, within our communities there is an ugly stereotype that Latinx are “fiery” and “passionate” partners. We’re just all totally crazy, right? It’s as if that gives us carte blanche to behave in ugly ways–and allows others to excuse abuse as if it’s truly our nature. No. We should all disavow this dangerous stereotype–it makes us seem animalistic and unable to control our rage. That’s an incredibly false and dangerous belief.
Aside from ensuring we are respectful and expect the same in our own relationships, there are things we can do to help alleviate this problem in our community:
One. Call out bad behavior. I don’t mean confront an abuser because that could be deadly. Instead, if you interact with youth make sure all of them know that no one has a right to control their partner; that they don’t have a right to punish them if they feel jealous; that name-calling; shaming them; or coercing someone into sex is not ok.
This also means that we should call out disparity between the genders at home. Are your sisters expected to clean/cook more than your brothers? Are girls encouraged to behave one way (prudently, modestly) but boys another? Are the men in your life given more credence, more permissions, more excuses then the women? Have a discussion about this. Maybe they’ll roll their eyes at their feminist relative, but maybe it will also validate the feelings some in your family are experiencing, but too worried to express aloud. Essentially, the closer we get to parity in how we raise & treat boys and girls, the more progress we can make.
Two. Be supportive. I think many of us have one or two friends that lose themselves to relationships, right? But keep your eyes open to isolation tactics. One big factor I see for why a survivor can’t escape a relationship is due to a lack of support. Abusers know this and work diligently to isolate and ostracize their victim. Just letting your friend know that you’re always available to talk, to help (if you can) can make a difference in whether or not they feel like they have the resolve and ability to end a relationship. I don’t want to act like all a survivor needs is a friend, because the sad truth is that there are many, many obstacles in the way to leaving an abusive relationship safely, but knowing you have some support is at least one way to outweigh the other negatives.
Three. Donate to programs that support survivors of DV. I cannot talk up the local agencies in Chicago enough. They provide so much support for my clients (often for free!). Donate money or time when you can. Small local agencies really depend on private donations and if we care about our communities, our children, and our future than DV is absolutely a blight that we have to conquer and we can do so by helping agencies that are in the trenches, doing the work.
Finally, I want to end this with a little message for those of us who saw DV in our home. Even just as observers, it can be hard to overcome the scars of it. Maybe there are still vivid, painful memories that are hard to forget that make moving forward difficult. When I was little and avidly reading about abuse what jumped at me was that all the books said it was a cycle. Girls that see it become victims & boys, aggressor. A simplistic viewpoint, I know that now, but one that was scary enough to make me anxious about what life would be like as an adult. While it’s true that statistically we may be doomed to repeat certain behaviors, I also know that stats can be beaten–we are proof of that every day in our educational and professional lives. So regardless of what your life was like, know that we are able to create the right path for ourselves. And I hope that for all of us, those paths include self-love and a strong sense of self-worth that doesn’t allow ourselves to be harmed, nor brings harm to others.