If You Think Domestic Violence Only Happens In Poor Postcodes, Think Again

The biggest challenge is to listen and not judge.

17/06/2016 5:47 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:54 PM AEST
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If your friend is in immediate danger, you must act right away.

"It all starts with a key in the door. You never know what's on the other side," she said.

Those are the words of my friend 'Grace', whose husband was abusive. He never hit her, although he'd threaten her with violence.

But it was the verbal abuse that traumatised her; an emotional tsunami that only ended when she fled the house with her handbag and car keys. Feeling like she had nowhere to go, she slept in her car for two nights in an affluent Brisbane suburb, woken by a friendly policeman who knocked on her window, asking her if she was okay.

"No, I'm not," she told him. "My husband is abusive. I can't stay in the house."

But when Grace explained that her scars are emotional and not physical, he shut her down.

"There's not much we can do unless he's hitting you," said the well-meaning officer.

To the outside world, Grace's husband was handsome and super-charming. Most people had no idea she was trapped in an abusive relationship because she only confided in two people. The verbal abuse was incredibly cruel. Sometimes it was screamed, other times it was whispered.

"I allowed him to treat me so poorly for far too many years resulting in anxiety and, eventually, a stroke. Now I realise his constant belittling was to compensate for his own anger and insecurities," Grace said.

I knew things were bad. But I didn't realise how bad until she left an upsetting voicemail message on my mobile phone. (I kept it for a year in case she ever needed it as evidence).

The message begins with heavy breathing, panting, as if she were running. It took me a few moments to work out what was going on. She was running! Then I heard my name: Libby-Jane! Please pick up, please, please PLEASE!

Later, she told me she was sprinting down her street, frantic, after being chased out of the house by her husband. She tried me. I didn't pick up. She tried another friend. She didn't pick up.

It was a Sunday night and I was watching 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' on TV with my three boys. The volume was up loud and I didn't hear my iPhone. When I finally checked my voicemail, my heart almost stopped. It was chilling. The voice of my friend. A woman at the end of her tether.

By the time I called her back, things had calmed down.

"Come to Sydney and stay with me!" I pleaded. But she wouldn't. Of course she couldn't leave her young child and she was worried about the repercussions of taking her daughter interstate.

It is not easy being the friend of a person who is the victim of domestic abuse. I felt powerless to help her. Nothing I tried was working. I'd spent hours and hours on the phone with her. Just listening. I quickly learned it's better to listen than lecture because your ears never get you in trouble.

I was angry that she hadn't confided in her family. But, when she did, they didn't really want to know. It was too upsetting, too confronting and too 'unbelievable.' Did she tell her family when her husband picked up her beloved cat and throw him against the wall? No. She only told me. I was so horrified, I yelled at her, "Get out! Get out now!" That strategy didn't work.

Another friend and I pleaded with her, face to face. "It's time to leave!" we declared. But that backfired because, we learned, there is no point telling somebody to leave until they are ready to leave.

"I keep hanging in there because every now and then I'd see snippets of the person I felt in love with," Grace said.

"One night he'd be screaming abuse at me and ripping a door off its hinges. The next day he would be calling me 'gorgeous' and telling me, 'I'm sorry about last night. I didn't mean to hurt you.'"

The bitter irony is that Grace actually works in an industry where she has had to counsel domestic violence victims. She told me, "I was listening to a woman telling me about her partner's abuse and while she was talking, I was thinking, "That's all he does? That's nothing! You should live a week in my house!"

But eventually she left. Eventually.

Psychologist Sally-Anne McCormack says if you are friends with a woman in a domestic abuse situation, it's important to let her know you are there. You are not judging, you are not criticising, you are simply there.

"It takes some skill but you could possibly try to ask questions or make statements that are not too intrusive, but allow her the opportunity to reflect on her situation. Make sure that you use a style of speaking where you are not showing judgment, you are stating things as SHE may be seeing them, and you are basically showing her that you understand how she must be feeling," McCormack said.

"If your friend is in immediate danger, you MUST ACT right away! Don't wait for her to ask for help – call the police – and then do whatever you can SAFELY do to keep her out of harm's way."

Another thing: I remember Grace being horrified to read a newspaper column that claimed domestic violence sufferers were mostly in lower socio-economic communities. Grace read this article from the balcony of her waterfront home and almost laughed.

Now that Grace is in a happier place, I asked her to let me know what advice she would give to people who are supporting friends who are victims of domestic violence.

"You should help the person to accept their reality because that is the first step to freedom. Make sure you have all the practical phone numbers, police and other support lines. And for the women in the abusive relationships -- stand up in your truth and say NO to the bullying and abuse. It's about acknowledging your own worth. You only have one life, so make a decision to live a life free from anguish."


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