The Wounds of Witnessing
To anyone who has been the recipient of a spontaneous disclosure of domestic violence, on behalf of survivors everywhere, I thank you for believing, supporting and respecting those who have experienced domestic violence of any kind. And remember that you are not alone.
Surviving an abusive relationship is one of the hardest things a person can go through. Trust me, I hear a lot of hard things in my office. The pain of not knowing when, at any moment, you could be injured or harmed in any number of ways (not just physically) creates and sustains an environment filled with anguish to the Nth degree. It’s quite shocking, actually, how human beings can change – and adapt - under this type of ongoing stress. Even more alarming are the rates at which domestic violence (DV) occurs.
Anyone who hears me speak at my lectures on domestic violence walks away armed with the knowledge that this issue is pervasive: 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience some form of domestic violence in their lifetime. These numbers astound me, every time I say them out loud. However, these numbers only reflect those cases which have been reported in some fashion, typically to a law enforcement agency of some kind. And many, many people never choose to report. The truth is, the actual rates of domestic violence are far greater than this. Think of yourself plus 3 friends. Or yourself plus 3 relatives. Or 3 neighbors. Or 3 other parents in your child’s class. That’s how pervasive DV is, based on reported cases alone.
My close friends are aware of DV better than most, due in large part, to my talking about it so often. They know that DV doesn’t discriminate, that anyone can be a victim, regardless of really any factors at all. Which made a recent disclosure to a friend of mine by a colleague – and my friend’s reaction to this disclosure – so important to call out. Even though my friend is aware of so many DV “facts,” she was still in disbelief when her colleague disclosed her story to her. “I can’t believe this was happening to her,” she said. What followed was the typical trope so often heard around disclosures of DV.
My friend’s colleague is a woman in her mid 40’s. She’s got 3 kids, she and her partner both work full-time, each makes well over 6-figures. She’s well educated and lives in a well-to-do community. She and her partner had been married for over 15 years. My friend considers this person to be her work BFF for the last several years. Sound like anyone you might know?
When my friend’s colleague unexpectedly took a prolonged leave from work, without explanation, my friend felt blind-sided. It wasn’t until her colleague’s return to work that my friend became aware of the reason for her leave.
Because DV rates are so high, spontaneous disclosures can and do, happen all the time. And sometimes when we least expect them. You may be on the receiving end of a disclosure from a friend, a family member, a colleague or a child. And the point here is, we never truly know what’s happening in someone else’s home – or in their relationship - unless we sleep under their bed at night.
My friend has had a rough time processing the news of what her colleague has been going through. She isn’t sure “how” to be there for her, “what” if anything she can or should say to her and most of all, is concerned to not do any further harm to her friend, in particular, by talking with her about it. This all makes sense because she cares about her. And she knows that DV is wrong. I’ve encouraged my friend to process these things with me, and not her colleague because a secondary survivor of domestic violence oftentimes needs just as much support as a primary survivor, but in a totally different way.
It is not easy to survive domestic violence. Not by a long shot. But it is also not easy to bear witness to someone else’s experience of abuse. During this Domestic Violence Awareness month, I encourage anyone who may be dealing with your own experience of another person’s trauma, a secondary survivor, to find a safe space where you can process your experience of bearing witness and find the support that you so genuinely deserve as well.