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The Intimacy of DomesticViolence #Safety4Survivors

First: I opted to not include pictures for this one. Let's do something more meaningful. Post a picture of a powerful, strong woman in the comments on here, social media, etc. Survivors. Allies of survivors. Advocates. And #Safety4Survivors #shanannwatts

Why does a husband murder his wife and children? We may never really know. Facebook feverishly is trying to understand how a young pregnant mother, Shanann Watts, and her two children lost their lives in the fairly quiet town of Frederick, Colorado this week.

The police currently need to guard the details to preserve the fidelity of the investigation. I fully support them as they continue to piece together the details surrounding the deaths of this family. What we do know, is the father Chris Watt, confessed to killing his wife and children and left his wife’s body in one of the many oilfield locations dotting the Northern Colorado landscape. Once on a walk I quipped that those oil field locations would make a great place for a mobster to dump a body. My joke doesn’t feel so funny anymore.

I don’t feel qualified to determine the cause of this tragedy. As social media frantically asks: How could this happen? I can tell you about the intimate nature of emotional and physical violence in the home. I have both direct experience with violence and a secondary understanding of how violence takes a toll on families, especially wives. While I know domestic violence occurs between both men and women I am choosing to address the specific issue of relationship violence as a victim and as an activist for women. So just know I am not trying to alienate an entire group of victims—I can only speak in reference to the knowledge I do have for the purposes of this article.

Often we wonder how no one or very few people knew of the dangers present. Violence in the home is incredibly intimate. We don’t share with others what’s been happening: the intensity of the arguments, the level of control in place, and the numerous red flags that start to tell us the anger we learned to stomach is shifting to a terrifying rage. We hold that secret as a “strong woman” since we know the potential judgment and turmoil that may result if we choose to leave. We also know if we leave and file restraining orders we can risk escalating the violence. We have to make the impossible decision of choosing to stay in the familiar violence or leave without knowing the level of ferocity coming.

And in reality a restraining order is just paper. The order still creates room for more violence—it can’t block him from approaching you on the beach and murdering you in front of vacationers like Brian Bush did to his ex-girlfriend Lisa Bonney in Washington. She took steps to be safe and I continue to applaud her. She lost her life. And I ache every time I think of her and those impacted by her death. Lisa was a strong, educated, and kind person. She died while taking a walk in the sunshine next to ocean with kites overhead. Bush murdered her after she created an end to his ability to continue to abuse her with ease. So please, when someone confesses they feel no safer with a restraining order, think how you can support a safety plan. She’s not paranoid. She’s still in serious danger and she needs you to understand that. Contact an advocate and learn how to help her using best practice. This keeps you both out of more danger.

I picked up this book to help me better facilitate Anger Management classes as I noticed patterns of the attendees assigned the class. I felt frustrated hearing the same justifications and backpedaling of accountability. I sought new ways to understand the behaviors. Strangely, I realized much of the book’s content and the excuses of the participants for why they were “allowed” to victimize others mirrored elements of my own life. I enabled abuse by not holding abusers accountable due to my own fear and cycling in familiar dysfunction.

Sometimes you may see people struggle to apply labels to the victims and the perpetrators of abuse. Is he a really abusive? Can we call her a victim, really? He’s never lifted a hand against her. He’s just struggling to manage his feelings. She needs to suck it up. The litany never ends.

Part of being an advocate through Connecting Footprints means I am honored to hear the stories of women dealing with these crises. I’m entrusted with their stories. I’ve collected similar stories to share the following examples of the myriad of women facing danger in their relationships:

Rallying the troops:

I’ve learned about mother in-laws (or similar relatives) who choose to defend her son by changing the narrative of what she’s witnessed her do/say or allowing her son to characterize her daughter-in-law as a monster. “You have no idea how much she’s hurt him. She’s toxic. She made him leave when she didn’t like when he came home after going out. He works his ass off to support HER family and all she does is stay home. He deserves to go out to unwind. She has no right to be upset. I don’t blame him.” Sound familiar anyone? Bancroft affirms this type of mischaracterization is widely common.

The abusive husband preemptively provides his side of the story to relatives and those his wife may seek as support as a means to alienate his wife. He mobilizes her potential supports and links to safety against her. Not only does this create a toxic environment for relationships but it also engages the fine art of gas lighting. Rather than focusing on the violations of her husband she now starts to question herself. If everyone she loves and cares for feels she has crossed a line or deserved his indiscretions against her than perhaps she DID earn this? If only she had changed her behavior or anticipated his reactions with more precision all this could have been avoided. This is her fault and now she believes it.

Financial Hostages:

Getting married and making babies serves as an exciting milestone for many. But babies and marriage requires commitment to health for a family to thrive—ups and downs are expected. How they are handled is a whole other story.

I’ve known women, including myself, convinced once marriage or babies happen the unhealthy dynamics will change. We believe our man may change when a ring wraps itself around a particular finger or the second he holds that baby. That simply is not a reality if he’s drowning in issues prior to marriage. This fosters resentment. Resentment breeds hostility.

Building a family brings serious financial pressures. Some parents choose for mamas to stay home to care for small children. I celebrate this choice and honor the choices families must make to afford the cost of living, rising rents and mortgages, the high costs of childcare or just to support their children at home. However, I also hear a lot about the problematic nature of this arrangement for some marriages. When the victim of abuse wants to leave the financial barriers serve as a main reason she elects to stay. Choosing homelessness with young children seems far more devastating than hunkering down and learning to survive the moods of her husband. She digs in and decides it’s her duty to stay. Besides he loves the kids. It’s just her he hurts. And he’s never left a mark; he is just scary at times.

But something else prevents her from leaving. In addition to no outside income sources she has no financial control or literacy of their shared finances. He has the passwords, the accounts, and all the assets. If she leaves with nothing how will she provide for her children? Who will watch them for pennies on the dollar while she provides customer service from a desk during the day? She can’t leave. At least that’s what she tells herself. She’s held hostage financially. She kicks herself for not choosing more involvement at the beginning of their marriage—when the conversation may have been easier. Broaching it now means disaster.

Feeling Like She’s in a Bunker:

As a person who’s battled depression and low self-esteem I once embarked on relationships with friends and family that lacked in appropriate boundaries. I allowed people to stay in my life that caused me distress and I allowed people to influence who I chose to cut off. I believed sweeping people under the rug and hiding from everyone served as a strategy for coping. So when I elected to move far from family I didn’t think twice. Moving to the picturesque coast might serve as the best medicine for the negativity in my life. Right?

Wrong. Choosing to be so far away meant I lacked resources and secure relationships to help me in my time of need. The crisis increased and my ability to reach out to others felt significantly limited. This happens far more often than you may realize. Isolating is a tactic abusive men use to restrict the victim’s ability to leave. Bringing her to places with few resources also helps. And because she loves him she agrees to move. A fresh start might be just what they need. But nothing changes--- she still feels scared of him. He still blames her for their problems. She accepts the blame.

She also considers herself a problem solver and she’s no quitter. So she compromises her best thinking. She agrees to not go out much or to make friends on his time. She makes sure she is home when he arrives from work. She accepts his requests as him revealing his true feelings and she honors those feelings by changing the way she wears her hair and speaks to others in public. This shows respect and he will love her even more for doing so. But his requests get “weirder” and more frequent. What seemed like a preference or just being protective at first now just feels stifling. She feels suffocated by his need to know everything and his desire to approve everything. She says something about this… as politely as she can. And he stops her in her tracks. SHE agreed to this. SHE acts ungrateful. SHE perceives this all wrong. SHE controls him. SHE plays drama queen. SHE should just leave.

So she starts to pack. He tells her “Good riddance. No one wants you!”

And as she approaches the door he cuts her off and tells her not to go. That he loves her. That he knows she needs him. So she apologizes, closes the door and empties her suitcase.

History Repeats Itself:

Constant exposure to stress and trauma impacts the brain and future decision making. So when we know how to best manage disasters of the heart we fail to implement our knowledge when we need it most. We embrace the familiar dysfunction—we know it better than the alternative even if it sucks. And our esteem takes huge hits causing wounds that outlast any physical damage.

I know an incredible woman who left a terribly abusive husband in her 20s. A decade later she re-married and the two blended families. I admired how proudly she relayed the feeling of freeing herself from her previous husband’s control. She epitomized the term “Strong Female” to me. She survived and thrived. She forged a successful career and managed to make a name for herself in the community. To be honest she still is all those things.

But her new husband pushed her down the stairs. Her battered face caused her to hang her head in shame. She didn’t express any anger towards the man that essentially threw her down a stairway; she cursed herself for allowing it to happen. How could she choose another man like this? What karma kicked in to result in this? Who had she wronged?

No one. Sister you wronged no one. And no one gets to make you feel like you threw yourself down a staircase. No one.

And I think of her all of the time. Her daughter dates an “abusive asshole” and she doesn’t understand why. She taught her better than this. Her history now plagues her daughter like many other mothers grappling with the similar scenarios.

Abuse destroys people in a multitude of ways. And it happens in classy communities like Frederick, Colorado. For whatever reason, abusers tell themselves they have a right to cause harm to others. I’m fortunate in so many ways. I’m here. Friends of mine are still here. Thank God. Some of our sister soldiers didn't make it.

Domestic violence touches us all whether we know the victims or not. Those people on the beach the day Lisa was shot by her partner are additional victims to the tragedy. Her daughters lost their mother with no warning. Her friend that offered support can’t be a phone call away anymore. It’s not something we can say is a problem to a particular type of person or continue to perpetuate the victim shaming mentality. We have an obligation to become better allies to protect the one another and to pay respect to those who’ve died as a result of abuse.

This “permitted” violence impacts how future generations manage relationships: a little girl grows up thinking a man who throws his weight around makes for a good partner until he throws his fist in her gut. A boy chooses relationships wherein he feels powerful rather than just loved because men need to show their strength to be attractive. He learns to equate emotional intelligence to weakness.

As my friend told me this morning in the aftermath of Shanann’s and her daughters’ deaths: “Women everywhere are questioning their lives and decisions.”

I hope they do. I hope those needing strength find it. I pray victims find safety in seeking sanctuary from their perpetrators. I wish for those stuck in the cycle of learned violence to choose health and participate in therapy to help heal the wounds of trauma. For friends to call and check up on each other. For families to rally around one another to assure safety. For mothers like me to teach their sons and daughters differently by modeling healthy relationships.

I encourage others to choose being a voice for the voiceless. But mostly, mostly I choose to send energy to the universe to wrap those who’ve died at the hands of another in a sweeping blanket of comfort. For their wounds and bruises to ache no more and for their hearts to be released from the blame they shouldered in the wake of someone else’s rage.

And I ask you, my friends and strangers reading this, to empower yourselves to advocate for violence against women to end. Saying nothing does nothing. Speak up. Be brave. Be Kind. Be a warrior for the bruised, the battered, and the broken. Be benevolent by opening your heart as a place for support.

Hopes exists. In the middle of the night some women have slipped away to safe houses and police stations with their babies in tow. And you can play a role in assisting women fleeing danger. You can help make it less difficult to choose to go. In Greeley we have several organizations dedicated to the recovery of escaping violence: SAVA, A Woman’s Place, Women2Women, and Connecting Footprints. You can find local and national resources to offer donations of time, materials or financial. You can support programs designed to help build self-sufficiency and foster healing. Call a church, the cops, call someone.

And if you’re one of those that escaped: share your story of courage. Teach others it’s possible. Your story may save a life.

Love, Jessica

PS: Post a picture of a powerful, strong woman. Survivors. Allies of survivors. Advocates. And #Safety4Survivors #shanannwatts


National Domestic Violence Hotline for the United States and Canada: 1 (800) 799-SAFE

The Sexual Assault Victim Advocate (SAVA) Center



How to Help Domestic Violence Survivors

Links to Resources:

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