Listen to, validate and believe that person’s experiences, experts tell Moneyish — but don’t ‘become a vigilante’
New York’s top cop Eric Schneiderman resigned Monday, hours after four women accused him in a New Yorker exposé of subjecting them to “nonconsensual physical violence” during romantic relationships. Schneiderman — who “strongly” contested the allegations and denied having assaulted anyone — was swiftly replaced by state solicitor general Barbara Underwood, who will serve as acting attorney general.
The two women who spoke on record, Michelle Manning Barish and Tanya Selvaratnam, alleged the ousted attorney general had repeatedly hit them — often in bed and after consuming alcohol — as well as choked and threatened to kill them. “It was a fairy tale that became a nightmare,” Selvaratnam said. “It wasn’t consensual. This wasn’t sexual playacting. This was abusive, demeaning, threatening behavior.”
But one unnamed Schneiderman ex-girlfriend also recounted her friends’ lack of support upon her disclosing the abuse to them after she ended the relationship: “A number of them advised her to keep the story to herself, arguing that Schneiderman was too valuable a politician for the Democrats to lose,” wrote reporters Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow. “She described this response as heartbreaking.”
Trying to minimize abuse or make excuses for an abuser is “inexcusable,” Gretchen Shaw, deputy director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told Moneyish. (In the U.S., about 35.6% of women and 28.5% of men have experienced physical violence, rape and/or stalking by an intimate partner over the course of their lifetime, per the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.) Here’s expert advice on how to respond to — and hopefully help — a friend or colleague you suspect has experienced domestic or intimate partner violence.
Look for red flags. Isolation and obsessive jealousy are common indicators of abuse, said domestic violence survivor and expert consultant Julie Owens, who has worked with entities like the Department of Justice and Bank of America. Watch out for “if he goes with her everywhere or insists on driving her everywhere,” she said, or if “all of a sudden she can’t go out with you anymore because she’s in this relationship.” Another red flag is a partner pushing for quick sexual intimacy, Owens said.
“Sometimes friends and family can see those things, and they might realize, ‘She’s changing, and she isn’t like she used to be; she doesn’t go out with her friends anymore; her lifestyle has changed dramatically,’” Owens added. The same goes for your friend’s or coworker’s phone getting “blown up all day long” because the partner is calling or texting incessantly: “It’s very intrusive behavior … almost like stalking, where she has to answer the phone. If she doesn’t answer the phone, he’s upset.”
With that said, there often aren’t any immediate signs. “This is such a private issue,” said Kavita Mehra, executive director of the New York-based domestic-violence prevention group Sakhi for South Asian Women. “There potentially are markers in which one could see signs of intimate partner violence, but it’s not always going to be the case.”
Establish trust. If and when you choose to approach this person, “it has to be in a safe space, in a private place, and that trust needs to be established,” Mehra said.
“So if you have a fairly peripheral relationship with someone, or if you have a relationship with someone where it’s mostly superficial, they’re not going to come out,” she said. “I would say work to establish that trust in a relationship, if you genuinely care.”
If you don’t feel you have the capacity to garner that trust — say it’s a coworker you don’t know well — “then offer to your HR department to bring in resources around domestic violence training or sexual assault training, and start the conversation in your office around what safety looks like without necessarily outing the person,” Mehra said. “Because that is further isolating.”
Don’t offer advice, Mehra said. Steer clear of language like “You have to and/or you should…,” “My opinion is…,” “I have been through this, and I know…,” and questions like “Why do you think this (or x) happened?,” “What did you do?” and “What are you going to do?”
Do listen to, validate and believe that person’s experiences, Mehra said. Ask questions like “What can I do to support you?,” “Can I help you find resources?” and “Do you feel safe?” Ask whether they have someone supporting them, she added, then follow up with, “I want to support you; how can I help?” Tell them they’re not alone and that you believe them.
Recognize the survivor might return to their abuser repeatedly before finally leaving. “Realize it’s completely natural that someone may go back to the relationship multiple times — I think knowing that that’s a possibility helps,” Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, told Moneyish. She recommended “knowing that you can’t save someone when you’re in that role — that it’s really their decision, and you can be there to support them, as incredibly frustrating as it might be.”
“Keep in mind that the victim breaking free from their abuser may be a very long process, and it isn’t always the case where abusers are these horrible people all the time,” Shaw added. “So while there can be periods of severe abuse and extreme abuse, that may also be countered by periods of time of joy and happiness and love … It’s not always the easiest process for a victim to just simply leave — or, more accurately, get away.”
Take care of yourself. Friends and family are “the second-highest caller type” to the domestic violence hotline, said Ray-Jones. “We’re a great resource for anyone to call,” she said. “We want them to take care of themselves, too.”
Remember, the survivor knows their situation best. “Survivors of domestic violence are experts in their own life experiences. They know what they can and can’t do in the moment; they know what’s going to best keep them safe and what’s going to keep their children safe,” said Connie Neal, executive director of the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Owens similarly advises that “every victim knows her abuser better than anyone else.” Don’t “become a vigilante” for your friend or coworker, Shaw said.
Be patient. “Let them reveal what they may be comfortable revealing to you in their own time. Don’t force them to tell you more than they’re willing to share; don’t make assumptions about what you think may be happening; don’t force the victim to take actions that they may not be ready to take,” Shaw said. “Be as sensitive as you can. … Help guide the conversation; help them think through what their options might be; help them create a plan of action.”
Help out however you can. Mehra urges fostering a dialogue between your friend or coworker and a trained domestic-violence advocate. But as survivors sometimes “don’t seek assistance through traditional sources,” said Shaw, you can certainly help them think through an individualized safety plan.
“We always recommend that they go directly to their local domestic violence program … But depending on the comfort level and dynamics of what that person may be experiencing, that simply may not be a choice or an option for them,” Shaw said. “Bystanders, friends (and) people who don’t have vast experience in this field can absolutely help, and may be pivotal to that person finding safe resources.”
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