During the month of October, Western observed Domestic Violence Awareness Month by adopting the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence’s “#1 Thing” campaign and putting on a number of events sponsored by CASAS, Western’s survivor advocacy services. For several decades my wife Uzma Ahmad has worked with survivors of intimate partner violence through her counseling practice, and she would like to share some thoughts with Western students on the issue. We hope you find them to be of value.
The month of October was dedicated to developing Domestic Violence Awareness. Learning about this subject has never been more important for our Western community as we mourn the passing of Stephanie Cresswell-Brenner, a Western student who was killed by an ex-boyfriend in August. Along with Stephanie’s family and friends, we grieve for Stephanie’s loss and search for ways to educate ourselves and others to prevent such an event from ever happening again.
As students, you dedicate so much time and energy to developing your academic and professional careers. But we all know that these are only parts of the human experience, and that we all need additional education to live in a way that is fulfilling, compassionate and respectful toward ourselves and others. So, along with this academic learning, I invite you to educate yourself about healthy—and unhealthy—intimate relationships. Each year, millions of people in every segment of our society are affected by intimate partner violence. Abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional and/or economical. Anybody can be the recipient of such abuse, including members of LGBTQ+ community; but the prevalence of abuse among women is very high, as much as one in five.
As an adult, our desire to love and to develop romantic connection is natural and healthy. Intimate relationships are complex because so many variables play a critical role in shaping them. There are many individuals in our society who lack healthy relationship role models in their lives and may not have learned effective ways of managing their emotions and communications while growing up. Nevertheless, that does not absolve us of our responsibility to educate ourselves and practice healthy communication skills and emotional regulation.
Having worked in the field of mental health for over three decades, I am aware of the complexities related to survivors of domestic violence. I have observed their struggle in acknowledging that they are in an abusive relationship, in decoding the conflicting messages of the abuser, and in understanding their abuser’s manipulation techniques to keep them confused, under pressure, weak and dependent. Our society’s mixed messages about love, gender roles, power and tolerance add to the confusion of navigating an intimate relationship.
Being in a toxic romantic relationship can be confusing. Abusers can be charming, showing their loving side at opportune moments to keep their target engaged in the relationship; they know how to manipulate others and take advantage of naiveté or a desire to avoid conflict. They damage their partner’s self-confidence by ridiculing them, shaming them, challenging their decisions, finding faults in them, sharing intimate details with others, and putting them down in front of others. They control their partners by getting upset frequently, punishing them by emotional abandonment and becoming difficult if the partner makes a request. They treat the partners as their property, they disregard their space, comfort, and other needs, and only focus on fulfilling their own. They keep a close eye on their partner’s whereabouts, they disrespect their privacy, and even check their text messages and emails. They get jealous easily and tend to take revenge. They gradually try to make their partner dependent on them and send the message that they will not be able to survive on their own and that they are doing them a favor by having a relationship with them. To increase dependency, they also work on destroying their partner’s support system by physically and emotionally isolating them. They find all sorts of faults in their friends and family and attempt to make a case that they will be better off without them. Please remember, domestic violence increases in intensity with time, which is why tolerating abuse even at the beginning of a relationship is cause for concern.
In contrast, a healthy loving relationship creates a safe space for personal growth and provides a sense of belongingness, love and honor. It enhances physical and emotional strength and promotes positive connections with others. Healthy relationships give us the feeling of freedom, and encourage us to move forward in developing our full potential. Our rights and dignity are protected, our feelings are validated, and we can express our fears, frustrations, desires and dreams without the fear of being judged or humiliated.
Relationship violence is completely unacceptable and preventable. Seeking help to get out of a domestic violence or intimate violence situation takes a lot of courage and it involves serious risks. Because abusers tend to be controlling and ever-watchful, it is important to plan properly even to explore the resources available for support. It is advisable to work with a professional or a supportive, well informed person, to develop a viable plan to terminate a volatile relationship and to avoid serious consequences, as well as to have the needed support during a difficult emotionally charged time. Terminating any relationship requires re-adjustments in life; this phase should be taken seriously and one should allow some space for grieving and recovering.
Sabah and I care about you, our students and our community. Please know that learning about appropriate communication and interactions in intimate relationships will positively affect all of your current and future relationships, including the role you may someday play as a parent.
To anyone in the Western community who is suffering from intimate partner violence, or who knows someone who is, we want you to know that it is not your fault. Western cares about you and we have resources to help. If you or someone you know has been affected by intimate partner violence, either recently or in the past, please contact CASAS, a confidential support service for Western students, at 360-650-3700, in Old Main 585B, or Deirdre Evans, the CASAS coordinator, directly at 360-650-7982. Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services (DVSAS) is also available for support.
For help in supporting someone you care about beyond Western, the Washington State Coalition against Domestic Violence offers helpful resources, including the Friends and Family Guide. You may also find these resources from Love is Respect to be helpful: Safety Planning & College Student Safety Planning.