It's time to talk about visibility.

For a long time I have known that one of the things we need to do in this country is to wake up and take notice. About a lot of things, but especially about domestic violence. It’s incredibly difficult to tell your story of trauma and abuse, and when you start telling it, because the telling of it and being believed and supported is important to healing, the essential thing is that people listen and not look away. We have narratives in this country around abuse, and domestic violence. They are largely fallacious. That when people are in abusive relationships, to fix that we spirit them away. That we take them to a safe place where “he” can’t find them, and that they can just start their lives violence free and everything will be okay and we can just all get on with our lives. But this isn’t how it works. It’s never worked like that for most people. Because relationships, and how we feel about someone, are incredibly complex. (And research shows that love bonds in abusive relationships are even stronger because, amongst other things you have to reach harder for the “good” feelings).  

Our main model we use to “protect” women and gender minorities in abusive relationships is the Duluth model. It’s about safe houses, we used to call them refuges. The truth is that this model works meaningfully for only 20% of people who use those services. There are reasons for that but we won’t get into that here, that’s a conversation for another time. It mainly doesn’t work because people aren’t ready to be removed from everything and everyone they’ve always known, to give up their lives, their houses, their possessions, their habits, their everyday just to be “safe”. They want to be “normal”. They want, mostly, just to be in their comfort zone. Which may be a shit of a thing, but that’s what they know. 50% of women in this country are in, or have been in, abusive relationships. So that’s a lot of people who think they’re in a minority, because nobody ever talks about it and we have this image of the perfect relationship and....yes. 

Again, why people don’t talk about their abusive relationships is a conversation for another time. So back to visibility. The biggest problem with our services around domestic violence in this country, by and large, is that because they get MSD funding, because they are dealing with vulnerable people, everything has to be hush hush. And at the time people are dealing with acute domestic violence services, they don’t want to talk about it and they don’t really want to be seen as victims or be out about it for many reasons. Most of them, as I said, go back to existing relationships and if they’re not ready to start all over again, then they don’t keep it a secret for too long anyway.(Spoiler: Facebook, phones, safe houses aren’t a prison, the kids have to go to school, she’s not ready....) 

So. Now I’m going to talk about women I’ve worked with. Say she does get out and she’s ready for that new life. What then? How do we keep her safe, then? We don’t. Really. This is about protection orders, non association orders, and it’s her agency to use those protections or not. The protection order is just a bit of paper, he can still live with her, see her,  it’s up to her to enact it. Same as if he’s in prison – Corrections don’t automatically bar him from contacting her. She has to tell the prison she wants no contact. It’s entirely up to her. Agency and power.

He’s abusive, she’s still with him. That’s her agency and power. And when she’s finally ready, she’s out, she’s free. What then? Well, once again that depends. On her.

She wants the kids to see their father, or the family court forces contact. He still has a hold on her. But she’s not in hiding, usually. That’s almost impossible to achieve and very rare. I’ve dealt with thousands of women over the last seven years, and very few are in genuine hiding. They’ve learned how to keep safe. They don’t tell him their address, some may move cities  – but even then his family might tell him, If they know,  and sometimes in that case she has to bar grandparent access to the kids, and that requires strong boundaries which you’re not likely to have after an abusive relationship, because.......power and agency. You don’t think you’ve ever had any so why would you have any now?

So they block him on Facebook, they have safety alarms in their houses, they may have a safelet – a safety bracelet they wear at all times. They learn how to keep safe.

But as I said, that isn’t the case for most women who have emotionally let go of abusive relationships. Mostly he’s just lost interest. Or he’ll keep trying over the years to get to her, he may pop around unexpectedly, but by and large, he leaves her alone. Sometimes he dies. And that’s when she gets some of her sense of power back. And all along the way, she’s decided how visible she is. Or how invisible. She may have had continuing relationships with a refuge service. She may not.

She may start to tell her story. Post photos of the kids on facebook. Start to breathe again.  And neither you, nor I, get to stop that.

We don’t get to take away that sense of power and agency she’s just started to feel.

Because that is, quite frankly, the most harmful fucking thing you can do. So the next time someone tells their story, you listen.

The next time someone gives you permission to post a photo on social media, you do that.

Because she’s lived in the shadows long enough. She’s worn dowdy dark clothes, kept her hair long, hasn’t worn perfume or sexy underwear, has denied herself any care or luxury, for long enough. She deserves to be seen, to be heard. To shine, and have others acknowledge her shine. When’s she’s ready, she’ll tell you. Listen.