Hearing Danielle Lucksted, Prevention & Education Program Manager at Safe Haven Ministries, give a presentation on domestic violence at the recent Safe Church Conference was an important and difficult experience. Ms. Lucksted acknowledged the presentation would likely be painful to hear, emphasizing that if any of us were “triggered” or overwhelmed, we could feel free to leave the room to care for ourselves. I didn’t anticipate I would feel overwhelmed or shocked, since I’ve been interested in and read widely about abuse for years; I know how bad it is. And yet I was overwhelmed by what I heard.
This is part of why education efforts around abuse are so important: subconsciously, no matter how invested we are in abuse prevention and care of survivors, we are always prone to underestimate how pervasive and dangerous abuse is. Danielle explained that although she knew her blunt style could be painful, with domestic abuse issues, it can be dangerous to beat around the bush. Safe Haven’s goal isn’t primarily a “safe” space in education, but a “brave” space where the realities are faced.
Danielle outlined the epidemic rates of the various forms of domestic violence and even death by partner violence (this page lists many of these important and troubling statistics) as well as the devastating impact of domestic violence on victims and their children. She also emphasized that abuse victims usually underestimate their risk of injury or death. She gave an example of a woman at their shelter whose partner had threatened them with a weapon, but didn’t think they were at high risk of injury or death. Abuse victims rarely overestimate their risk: if someone says they are at risk of being injured or killed by their partner, we need to believe them.
One fact I didn’t know was that witnessing abuse as a child has the same effects as experiencing abuse itself (if churches knew that, I wonder how many of them would advocate abuse victims staying with an abusive partner for the sake of the children). Another important fact is that the average abuser is violent twice a year. Since abuse takes place following a predictable cycle (honeymoon stage-->tension building-->abusive action-->return to “honeymoon” stage), most abuse victims endure the abuse for the sake of the in-between stages, which they cling to and minimize the impact of the violence.
This statistic—violence twice a year—doesn’t mesh with stereotypes we have about abuse. Those stereotypes can cause us to victim blame—why would anyone stay with someone who abuses them?—instead of understanding the dynamics that trap survivors in abusive and dangerous relationships.
If abuse survivors cling to the “in-between” times between violence to minimize what they are going through, it is important for the church to be a place that never minimizes abuse, never suggests occasional violence is not that big a deal. Instead, it should be a place that openly discusses dynamics of abuse, prioritizes consistent education and reeducation around abuse awareness instead of assuming it already understands, and invites survivors to find support and the empowerment they need. Danielle noted that many presentations she gives results in a new disclosure of abuse—how many lives could be changed if the church talked as openly about abuse as any other chronic and life-threatening issues their congregants faced?