Friends & Family Make the Difference (Part I)

This is the first of a three part series by a guest blogger.  This writer was interested in sharing some of the many ways friends and family helped her leave an abusive relationship.

~~~~~~~~

I went home to visit my family for the winter holidays. I had yet to identify my relationship as abusive or controlling– even though my then-girlfriend had thrown things (not at me), even though we got in fights almost every day, even though I had stopped going to some of the places I used to to go, even though I wasn’t hanging out with my friends as much, even though she yelled at me a lot.

I come from a family of arguers and yellers and as far back as I can remember we’ve all raised our voices during discussions and arguments. In some way, I thought that meant yelling wasn’t abusive. Being around my family for the holidays without my girlfriend, I observed how we all fought– how my parents fought with each other, how my brother fought with his girlfriend. I saw the raised voices, I saw how it happened and I thought to myself, “That’s different from my relationship.” I couldn’t quite put my finger on how, but knew it was different. It looked different somehow. It felt different.

A long table set with plates and glasses for a fancy meal.

I knew, then, that the arguments I was having with my ex were not okay. I started to realize that the way she yelled at me almost every day also was not okay. Even more importantly, this observation got me started in a process of noticing that it wasn’t just the yelling and the arguments that weren’t okay– what made the relationship truly and deeply not okay was that I wasn’t seeing friends as much, that I had stopped going to some of the places I wanted to go, that I had started to exercise less, that I had changed the way I dressed, changed the way that I ate. All those things (and the yelling, and the arguing) added up to a pattern of power of control that she was weaving around me.

My family may never know how important those holidays were. They never commented on my relationship and I never shared what it looked like, but being with them– seeing them in relationship to each other– started me on the path of looking at my relationship differently and exploring how I might be able to end the relationship with my abusive girlfriend, now my ex.


A History of F.A.R. Out…

Consider for a moment what our community would look like if we valued our friendships as much as we did our dating and romantic relationships. We would never ditch our friends when we started to date someone new. We wouldn’t be so quick to brush them off as “just friends.” We wouldn’t take our friendships for granted, assuming that they will always be there, no matter how much or little time and attention we put into maintaining them. We know that dating relationships are, often, fleeting… but our friendships can be our most precious and stable relationships. What would it look like for us to start treating them with as much intention and value as they merit?

Imagine if we had a commitment with our friends to share with each other anything and everything that was going on with our partners. Not that you would talk about everything, but that you could. And that agreement was not only clearly articulated amongst your friends, but also with all current and future partners. Having this shared value of opennes and honesty could have several potential benefits. It would act as a deterrent for us to be consistently behaving poorly in our relationships. It would also flag potential problem areas if you noticed there were aspects of your relaiotnship that you were reluctant to share with your friends for fear that it might cast your partner (or you) in a bad light.

How are these issues relevant to domestic violence? In 1999, the National Institute of Justice funded a qualitative research project that brought together the NW Network, Seattle & King County Department of Public Health, and the UW School of Public Health. The NW Network’s involvement in this collaborative project was led by Danica Bornstein, one of our community advocates. Through focus groups and one-on-one interviews with LBT survivors, we gathered a lot of information about their experiences, needs and gaps in services.

Time and again, survivors reported that isolation was a cornerstone tactic in their experiences of abuse. This isolation took many forms, but the end result was always the same– severed ties between the survivor and her support network. Without that access to support, perspective and feedback, the abuser has total, unimpeded power to dominate their partner.

For a survivor who’s considering leaving her relationship, the thought of rebuilding those lost connections and relationships can feel completely overwhelming and insurmountable. That’s where the NW Network’s project came in. Survivors in the research study repeatedly stated that they wanted concrete ways to increase the queer community’s capacity to support survivors. This feedback informed the design of a new community building project, a discussion series called Friends Are Reaching OUT (F.A.R. Out!). The goal of this project was to build capacity within our community to resist isolation and sustain meaningful connections. We hoped to create a community culture that values open and honest communication, and reinforces the importance of friendships in resisting domestic violence.

F.A.R. OUT worked with queer-identified survivors and their closest friends and family. We met with each support network, on average two to three times. We created a space where people could discuss agreements and strategies that they had (or might adopt) to solidify their values of staying connected to each other. Group members had conversations about:

  • How does support happen within our group?
  • How has domestic violence impacted relationships with my friends?
  • How can we hold ourselves, and each other, accountable in our relationships?
  • What would it take to build friendships that are more resilient than and outlast abusive relationships?
  • What would it mean to share openly about my intimate relationships with my friends and family?

Topics varied from group to group depending on what they wanted to get out of their conversation, and whether there was someone who was surviving an abusive relationship at that time.

While the F.A.R. OUT program no longer exists, the information and skills we gathered from survivors and their networks continue to inform our work and is the very impetus for the National Friends & Family Domestic Violence Action Campaign.