CN: extensive discussion of the experience of abusive relationships, physical abuse.
There are many articles about identifying characteristics of abusive relationships, what being abused feels like, and the aftermath of being abused. But making the decision to leave an abusive relationship is exceedingly difficult, and actually doing it is harder still since doing so safely often takes time and strategic planning. While you are still trapped in the world of abuse, you have to find ways to cope, to survive until you can figure out something better. Christina takes an empathetic look at these coping strategies, some of which are used to keep victims safe until they can leave, others that actually keep them in the relationship longer, but all of which are rooted in reasons that are significant to them. Scroll to the bottom for quick resources if you need help now.
The following narrative was awarded 2nd place in the non-fiction genre for the Central Oregon Writers Guild 2019 Contest
After any especially bad day in my marriage, I buy a new houseplant.
At first, it wasn’t deliberate, or even clear to me as the habit developed. I would walk in retail garden sections because I found them soothing, because it helped me feel somewhat calmer, somehow more myself. And slowly the plants came home with me, clutched like little leaf babies among the shopping.
Early conscripts were hardy, sturdy varieties; some guaranteed not to wither and go bad like my marriage. Perhaps I hoped they might impart that strength to me. Over months, an army of green formed ranks on my desk. As things worsened, the recruits grew bigger in proportion to the injuries – an overflowing bowl of Bromeliad in the living room, a tree-sized Peace Lily beside the couch.
When he broke my wrist I brought home an Areca palm that barely fit in the car. It casts frondy shadows on the honey oak floor from its bright place next to the south-facing window in the dining room.
When I realized that I was buying plants to cope, I continued, calling it self-care. But it’s not exactly that. It’s more like, these beings… they need my care.
They need me.
So I pot them and re-pot them, water and feed them, trim them and wipe the dust from their leaves.
At night the leaves throw shadows like a nighttime jungle on the walls, floors, and ceilings just for me. I am not alone then, when I sit up late in the dark peaceful house and think about how to leave, whether to take the plants in a great awkward truckload to some new place, or leave them behind as a coping mechanism no longer required if I’m alone.
He hasn’t noticed, or questioned the reason for this growing jungle.
I am not surprised.
We argued on my last birthday. I somehow found the words to assert myself at least a little bit – the tiniest bit. I declared that this year, I would not buy my own Christmas gifts. My words sounded weak, tiny to my ears. But that I said anything at all was apparently shocking.
I watched him think about it afterward.
He must have imagined he was thinking very hard, given that he’d never been challenged to think about it at all.
The weeks passed.
The morning came.
He gave me plants.
How and Why Abuse Victims Cope
As I reflect on my own abusive marriage and work to make changes in my life, I’ve been analyzing my coping behaviors and how they compare to the coping behaviors of other individuals living in abusive relationships. The full range of known/common coping behaviors in abusive relationships is quite vast and beyond my expertise, but here I hope to provide some insights that can be helpful to anyone who may know an individual struggling in an abusive relationship.
It’s common for friends and family to not recognize what coping with domestic violence looks like from the outside, and may struggle to understand why victims use coping behaviors rather than just picking up and leaving the abusive relationship at the first hint that something just isn’t right. It was my experience that friends and family members just didn’t see what I was doing as coping, and I’ve since learned why that was the case among the people close to me. Coping behaviors were serving a vital purpose for me as I worked toward ending the abusive relationship I was in, so I hope to share as much as I can on the subject here. *For brevity’s sake I’ll refer to domestic violence as DV.
Why Do You Stay?
The first question DV victims are asked is usually, “If it’s so bad, why don’t you just leave then?!”
DV often affects every aspect of the victim’s home life, especially including finances and financial freedom. Victims often stay when they don’t have the financial liquidity to seek other adequate housing, and the tiny local women’s shelters don’t have open space to accommodate them, and when leaving could trigger their abuser to lash out worse than ever before. When the choice is homelessness/extreme danger, or staying put, many choose to stay even when that’s clearly not a safe option and isn’t what they want at all.
The process of leaving an abusive relationship is the most dangerous time. Abusive partners lash out most violently when their control is threatened. When a friend or family member asks in the usual sneering tone, “Why don’t you just leave then?!” they haven’t been in the home to see all the work and effort the victim has put in, often over years and through escalating injuries trying to fix the problem while eyeing any possible exit in ever-growing panic. DV actively prevents the victim from sitting their abusive partner down for the sort of direct communication and breakup that non-DV individuals expect should be possible. In an abusive relationship, that just isn’t. Asking the question, “Why don’t you just leave?” keeps the blame and responsibility on the victim instead of where it belongs, on the abuser.
Living with DV is exceedingly complicated, so victims develop coping strategies that enable them and their families to function in everyday life. Some coping strategies serve the purpose of keeping the DV victim and their children as safe as possible, even under the constant looming threat of abuse. Other coping strategies serve to help the DV victim get their basic human needs met from sources other than their abusive partner or serve to hide the abuse in order to avoid the social shame that rains down when dirty relationship laundry happens to be aired out in public.
Coping behaviors and strategies can overlap into multiple categories, and it can be unclear to an outside observer which one is happening at any given time, but here are some common ones:
DV victims often believe that what is happening to them is a “normal” part of life and relationships, that it’s “just how it is”, or that the things they’re experiencing are no worse or different than what anyone experiences in any other relationship. They initially want the relationship to work out, when it’s only just begun to slide into abusive territory, and they think that it’s up to them to “fix” their partner, to save the relationship, to act in ways that will make it better. Victims work hard during the early stages of abuse to keep their lives looking and functioning as normally as possible, often continuing to work and socialize without sharing about the problems at home because they think all relationships go through bad times and nobody wants to hear their complaints. Acceptance is sometimes also called “Normalizing” for the way DV victims work to explain their abusive partner’s behavior as somehow normal.
Acceptance as a coping mechanism is especially common among Individuals who are young and inexperienced. These victims often say that they had no idea what to expect in an adult relationship because they received no education on what healthy adult relationships involve from school, family, or society in general. Once the abuse has started, younger victims report feeling that they had no help to understand what was happening to them because friends and family generally don't want to get involved, saying that it's the couple's problem, something they have to work out between them, that it's not family or friends business to get involved, etc. Acceptance of the abuse experiences can then distort their view of what a “normal” relationship is in the long run, thereby reinforcing the use of acceptance as a tactic.
Keeping the Peace
Living with abuse becomes a way of life. Victims describe employing tactics to keep the peace, to appease their volatile partner and cater to their whims and preferences, working hard to make them happy. Victims change their habits and behaviors even when the relationship isn’t what they expected. Victims often give their partner “chances” while working to anticipate and cater to/work around their partners' unpredictable moods. Based on abuse already experienced, victims have good reason to take the threat of their abuser’s anger very seriously. They walk on eggshells, working to avoid triggering abusive behaviors at all costs.
One of the tactics DV victims use to keep the peace is blaming themselves for the existing problems. Victims often believe that the best way to cope in an abusive relationship is to change their own behavior so that their partner will treat them better. It’s easier to change the person you are rather than admit it’s a bad relationship and not what you wanted, and struggle to get out. DV victims blame themselves for their partner’s behavior usually because their partner has manipulated them into believing the abuse was all their fault, that the abuse is the treatment that the victim “deserves”. The victim then believes they must work harder to become the person the abuser wants them to be, in order to deserve better treatment in the relationship.
Seeking Alternative Means of Getting Needs Met
For victims of DV, it’s plainly obvious that their basic human needs aren’t being met within an abusive relationship. Victims can find means of getting their needs met via activities like work, hobbies, or any activity where they’re permitted to express themselves, have a voice, and interact with others in a safe and respectful way. Many DV victims seek these resources in secret, knowing that their partner will react violently if they find out they’re looking for support. Victims may take up personal/isolated hobbies or habits that draw little attention either from the abuser or others as a means of a healthy outlet, or simply gratifying activity for themselves.
Some victims initially hide or accept the abuse, believing their abusers when they say it was just a bad day at work, a bad mood, a bad week. Over time, they experience shame or an unwillingness to face the painful reality of their situation, and seek to hide their partner’s abusive behavior both from themselves and from the outside world. As the abuse progresses, the victim begins to believe their own denials. They may think they’re being silly or unreasonable; especially if their abusive partner is constantly telling them so or otherwise working to blame the abuse on the victim. That constant messaging adds up with the victims own doubts to create a strong influence for denial.
This coping technique is also used when a victim knows their abuser will react with rage or violence if they find out information has been shared outside the home. The victim may put on a show so that other people don’t know the abuse is happening, including things like covering bruises with makeup or clothing. Other victims use denial to cling to their belief of their partner’s better nature, thinking they can still see the good person on the inside, or their abusers potential to be a wonderful partner.
Distraction can be a surprising coping practice for friends and family to witness when the victim throws themselves into succeeding or overachieving at work or in other areas of life, thus showing every outward sign of a successful individual. In doing so, victims are giving themselves something else to focus on so as not to have to think about the looming problem at home for some period of time. Distraction also makes it easier to keep the mask in place, so that others don’t see or perceive that the abuse is happening.
Focusing on work or pursuing a new hobby or other activities often help DV victims distract themselves from the abuse and their unhappiness. Work could be a good distraction for a DV victim as well as a place where they don’t have to talk about the problems at home and can act like nothing's wrong. Some DV victims keep a secret journal or log of the abuse - sometimes at the recommendation of law enforcement, a counselor or friend - to give themselves an activity that accurately tracks the facts of the abuse, and provides a safe outlet for their voice and feelings on the subject.
What I’m describing as Distraction has sometimes been wrapped into the Denial category by experts on DV, and distraction or denial coping behaviors can be a means of getting needs met. Coping mechanisms can serve multiple purposes at once. Personally, I found I preferred combining my coping behaviors wherever I could, to get the best bang for my buck as it were. So as I kept my log, I also began using the material for general writing so I could have a means of expressing everything I was thinking and feeling. That quickly led to opportunities to publish that writing, including the “Houseplant” piece at the beginning of this article.
Why Coping May Not Look Like Coping
For people outside the abusive relationship, what the victim does to cope in their life may not look like coping to outside onlookers at all, especially because many coping behaviors serve to hide the abuse from public notice out of shame or fear, which are very strong motivators in DV situations.
My growing a collection of houseplants and writing don’t necessarily look like coping mechanisms to deal with abuse, but the key thing to keep in mind is that the coping mechanisms of a DV victim work for them, in the unique dysfunctional situation of their home with their particular abuser. Coping mechanisms work best when the abuser doesn’t notice them. So if friends and family don’t notice, and the abuser doesn’t notice, and the victim gains positive social interactions, or even earns money to support their efforts to leave the relationship or better cope within it, that’s a successful coping strategy.
Friends and family often react with shock when they discover DV happening to someone they know and care about, especially when the above coping behaviors have succeeded at hiding the abuse from the notice of others, or when the abuser has worked to convince the people around them of their perfect sterling character while hiding what they do at home.
Whether the victim has left the relationship already, or is sharing information as part of their leaving process, there are ways that friends and family can provide crucial support without compromising the victim's safety.
If someone you know makes you aware of an abusive situation, ask whether you should keep the information private, especially from the abuser. Talk with the victim about what they need and want in that moment and going forward, especially if the victim is sharing about their plans to end the relationship soon. The reassurance that friends will not desert them is incredibly supportive to victims of DV.
Rarely, if ever, is it safe for the victim if a friend or family member directly confronts the abuser. This tactic is to be avoided if at all possible for the safety of the victim and their children.
Some friends and family members may be in a position to offer temporary housing or other physical support in the event of an emergency, while some may offer to accompany the victim to seek help via local support services. If the victim is separated from the abuser, offering to help them re-engage in social activities from which they were previously isolated could be very helpful. In many cases, victims need support in the form of an absence of victim blaming and shaming, and a simple willingness in friends and family to “be there” for the victim as they work to make changes in their life and relationship. Victims of DV may seek major support in the form of temporary housing or financial support from family or closer friends if in desperate need of that kind of help, but may also seek minimal support in the form of simple understanding from others, based on the needs of their unique situation. While there are many possibilities of how a DV victim may seek help and support, simply asking what they want and need is essential.
If in doubt about how to support someone you know who is involved in or leaving an abusive relationship, contact a local abuse support center in your area for direct information on support groups and counseling services, reduced cost or free legal services, and guidance on what friends and family members can do to help.
About the guest blogger: Christina Tavares is a resident of Eugene, Oregon working in small business website design and content creation. With the written content of hundreds of websites plus thousands of blogs behind her, she’s now publishing her writing across a variety of printed and online outlets in short non-fiction, essay and article genres. Connect with her via LinkedIn here.
Resources to support abuse victims: