CHICAGO, IL (January 3, 2017) – Carol* still feels guilty that she didn’t know her daughter’s husband had been abusive for years. Her daughter, Sarah, lived 10 miles away, and Carol saw her often. The two always had been close, and Carol thought they talked about everything.
When Sarah’s husband left her for another woman, she finally told her mom the truth: he had pushed her around, yelled at her, and told her she was stupid. He had done that with their kids as well.
“To think that he had been in my home regularly, and all that time he was abusing my daughter and my grandbabies,” says Carol. “It still makes me sick.”
“I was too ashamed to tell Mom,” says Sarah, who is in her forties. She worked hard to hide the abuse, always trying to put on a good front when the families were together, wearing clothes that would cover any bruises.
Her two children, who are now teenagers, confirm her story. They have little contact with their father.
Even when family members do suspect a loved one is in a toxic relationship, it is often difficult to know when to act, says Yvonne DeVaughn, director of the Covenant Advocates for Victims of Abuse (AVA) ministry. “Even if abuse actually happens in our presence, we often avoid getting involved because we don’t want to be seen as intruding into others’ business, or we don’t know what to do.”
DeVaughn adds, “Many of us have grown up hearing ‘What goes on in the home, stays in the home.’ Often we know something may be awry, but we are silent because we are not sure that it is abuse or we don’t know what to say.”
Carol says she doesn’t know what she would done had she known about the abuse earlier. “What do you say?” she asks. “I would have said something, but I don’t know if Sarah would have listened to me. I don’t know if she would have pulled away from me or what.”
Sarah isn’t sure either, but adds, “I probably would have been upset. I was just so ashamed. Besides, I didn’t want to admit to myself it was so bad. I didn’t want her to think I was a bad mom.”
“Detecting abuse is not always easy,” says DeVaughn, “particularly when you are not around to see or hear the interactions between couples and families.” But she and other experts advise families to look for signs that abuse may be occurring, such as:
- The reasons given for bruising don’t make sense.
- The person makes sudden changes in appearance or personality.
- The partner begins to isolate from the rest of the family and friends.
- The victim blames him- or herself for whatever issues arise in a relationship.
- They make excuses for their partner’s behavior.
- They suddenly lose interest in activities that have been important to them.
- The partner denigrates the other publicly.
- The partner shows extreme jealousy.
DeVaughn and others also encourage parents and family members to research the dynamics of abuse so they can better understand why the abused child might react in a negative way and how to handle the situation. Some general guidelines for how to respond:
- Be compassionate and don’t judge. People in abusive relationships need to know they are loved and of value. Show respect by listening.
- Be direct. Talk about what you are feeling regarding a situation you perceive. When you talk about how you feel, it gives room for the person experiencing abuse to open up.
- Recognize that the number of men who suffer abuse—especially emotionally and verbally, but also physically—is vastly underreported. Men have an even more difficult time acknowledging the abuse.
- Be supportive. Be willing to take in an adult child and their children. Someone who is abused often feels that he or she has nowhere to go.
- Don’t denigrate the abuser. The feelings that a person who is abused has are complicated, and he or she still might feel love for the abuser.
- Don’t tell a person what they have to do. They may not listen, and such an exchange is likely to be counterproductive.
- Be willing to recognize that you can’t fix the situation.
*All names have been changed.