Sanctuary for the Abused

Monday, April 09, 2007


ASK DON'T TELL

How To Re-Empower A Survivor

I got a call from a woman whose daughter had just left an abusive husband and moved in with her. "I don't know what to do," she told me. "No matter what I say, my daughter just screams at me."

I asked for details. If you find yourself in similar situations, follow along with me.
The woman gave me an example. She and her daughter would watch TV together in frozen silence. It was obvious that her daughter was churning inside, going over every detail of her marriage again and again. Finally, the daughter would say, "Oh, I just don't know what to do!"

"It drove me crazy," the mom confessed to me. "This husband of hers would beat her up all the time! He was a lousy husband, a lousy person! I'd wanted her to leave him for years, and here she finally does, but then she wonders what she should do!"

"How did you respond?" I asked.

"Well, she said she didn't know what to do," the mom told me. "But I certainly knew what she should do! So I told her! I said, 'I know what to do! You should divorce the creep right away! Flush him out of your life! Dump him and move on!'"

"How did your daughter respond to that?" I asked.

"Well, it's strange," the mom mused. "She always ends up screaming at me."

Ask, don't tell

Here's one thing to remember. Battering is not only physical abuse. It is also emotional abuse.

The very foundations of a battered woman's world have crumbled. A batterer takes away all of her control in life. A batterer sinks his emotional hooks deeply into her, and assures her that it's all her fault. She moves back in with her mother, and her sense of failure is so intense that she can taste it. Her mother, who had warned her for years about this guy, radiates disapproval so strongly that the waves are almost visible.

So everything you want to say to her -- she already knows. She doesn't need to be told again. She is confused, yes, but more than that, she is struggling to work through some tough emotional decisions. She knows the answers. But there's a lot of emotional baggage there that she has to work through.

So when she says, "I just don't know what to do," don't tell her what to do. She doesn't mean what she says. She means, "I am experiencing a lot of emotional distress."

Your response to her statement is elegantly simple. You just say, "Do you want to talk about it?"


Trust me -- she does. Let her talk. Let her ramble. Let her say dumb things without correcting her. Let her work through all of that baggage. If you do more than 10% of the talking, you're doing too much. Your job is to look interested and concerned. Your job is to nod and say "Uh, huh" and "Tell me more."

Even though you are absolutely dying to say, "He'll never change!" don't say it. Ask instead. "Do you think he'll ever change?"

Feel free to hold your breath while she considers for what seems like a decade. And when she finally says, "No, I guess not," hide your triumph. Instead, say, "I think you're right."

If she says "maybe," or "yes," then check out some previous columns I've written about batterers and the failure of "anger management" counseling.

Remember to do no more than 10% of the talking. And of that 10%, make sure that 90% is in the form of questions. Don't tell her. Your answers won't mean a thing. Ask her. When she says, "No, he'll never change," that means a lot.

Work to re-empower

In the case of this woman and her abused daughter, the daughter was the baby of the family. All of her older siblings were involved in this issue. They all loved her. They all wanted her to be safe and happy and free from this guy. They were all telling her what she needed to do to turn her life around.

The effect was to remind this woman that she was still the baby of the family. Her batterer had killed her confidence, her feeling that she mattered. The attentions of her family, as well-intentioned as they were, were preventing her confidence from growing again. She felt brow-beaten. She felt powerless and stupid. And because she was so filled with stress, with no way to deal with it, she'd explode in anger and frustration.

"Does she still have that cool job?" I asked the mother. The job was a very well-paying job that required a lot of expertise.

"Oh, yeah, and they love her there! She's doing really well," the mom assured me.

"When was the last time," I asked her, "you told her how impressed you are about the cool job she got?"

"Ummm . . . well . . . " the mom stammered.

"How is she doing with your grandson?" I asked the mom. The daughter had had a son with her abusive husband, and now the mom and daughter were working together to take care of the baby.

"Oh, she's wonderful with him!" the mom said.

"Have you told her what a good mom she is?" I asked.

"Boy . . ." the mom murmured. "I guess it's been awhile."

So let's review the math again. Do no more than 10% of the talking. 90% of what you say should be in the form of a question. And if you're not asking a question, you should be giving her a compliment: "You're wonderful with your son!" or "Have I mentioned how impressed I am that you've got that excellent job?"

Don't say that she should have left that bum years ago.

Instead, say, "I am very impressed at the courage you showed in leaving him." Don't tell her that she's got to learn to make up her mind. Instead, tell her, "You are a very smart young woman. I know you'll make the right decision."

If she worries about facing life alone, don't tell her that she's better off without the jerk. Tell her,
"Remember, you have a family that loves you. Besides, you're a great catch. You'll meet someone who will know how lucky he is that you chose him."

Build her up, build her up, build her up! She has been knocked down so many times that her biggest need is to regain her confidence. When she does, then she'll make the right choices. If she feels knocked down by her family too, she'll remain in an emotionally weakened state, and will be more likely to go back to him.

In the end

"Well," the mom said after we had talked for awhile, "I guess I've made a lot of mistakes."

"Again, you're putting it wrong," I told her. "You're under a lot of stress too. You're doing the best you can, and you're motivated by love for your daughter. So now you've got some new information on how to do things better. Don't spend energy beating yourself up. Just take the new information and do the best you can."

"If she'll still talk to me," the mom said with a little laugh.

"Well," I said, "if you think it will help, go ahead and tell her you're sorry, and you've got new information, and you'll do better now. She knows you love her, and she knows you're doing the best that you can."

Even if you feel like you're constantly screwing up, realize that she's grateful you're there, and she appreciates what you're trying to do. Remember too that your local women's crisis center is only a phone call away. The advocates at the center will give you tons of advice -- good advice -- and help you both get through this.

Help her re-empower herself. Help her rebuild her own confidence. She's going through a rough time, and you can't go through it for her. But you can help her grow strong and confident, so that she's better able to handle the situation.

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