Family Ties during the Holidays

Stop Abuse

When Someone You Love is Being Abused
by Katherine White
One with Heart Self-Defense Program Coordinator

It is the holiday season. The story of the holidays is one of love, joy, coming together and experiencing the best of being a family. How do you reconcile this story with reality if someone you love is being abused by a partner? What part do you play? How do you support the person you love? How do you protect yourself?

Right now at least 1 in 10 people are living with an abusive partner*. The 1 in 10 is someone’s mother, daughter, sister, best friend. That means a lot of people are experiencing second hand abuse. We jump every time the phone rings, dreading bad news, but it is worse when days go by and the phone doesn’t ring. We stay busy to keep the worry at bay, but are overwhelmed with it at night when we lie down. Just like the person being abused we feel angry, frustrated, scared – and helpless.

The abuse happens every day. Even during periods of relative calm, we know it is just a matter of time until the next storm. Over time we may distance our self from our loved one as a way to cope with the almost unendurable level of emotional stress. But at this time of year there is pressure or desire to reconnect and the reality of what is happening in the family can be painful, even dangerous.

We know that witnessing abuse in the home has long term effects on children. The trauma often negatively impacts their wellbeing and relationships well into adulthood.  We know that family, friends and co-workers are among the approximately 1300 deaths caused each year by partner abuse.  The sphere of violence is much larger than the home because love and loyalty draw in people from the outside.

Recently I talked with a young college student who felt she had no choice but to go home for the holidays. She was in tears at the thought of being back where her father has abused her mother for as long as she can remember.  Abusers use violence, threats and manipulation to create feelings of helplessness, to manufacture a world where people feel they have no choice.

There is always a choice. The choice may be uncomfortable; it may take courage. There are risks and there may be a lot to lose. But when we make a choice and own it, we take back our power. It is the answer to helplessness.

Options may not be immediately clear because perpetrators make things appear muddy and confusing.  They deny the abuse is happening or that it is serious; justify the abuse and blame it on others; promise it will never happen again. Seeing through these tactics creates clarity. All abuse is serious and dangerous; it is no one’s fault except the perpetrator; the violence is not going to stop, it will likely increase over time.

If we find it hard to see options, it is even harder for the survivor. She does not have the outside perspective we have. The perpetrator has likely convinced her the violence is her fault. She not only feels the anger, frustration and helplessness we feel, but is entangled in a cycle of love, hope and fear. The challenges a survivor faces in leaving are many and the risks are real.

We can help our loved one see that leaving is possible. We can help her assess risks and plan strategically. She has to plan for a safe time to leave and find a safe place to go. She may have to put money aside before she makes the move.  She should take her children with her, but in the long term will have to negotiate custody with her partner. Sometimes a restraining order is a good idea, but if her partner is likely to ignore it, it can actually increase the risk. These kinds of decisions involve challenges that explain why, on average, a survivor leaves a relationship seven times before finally successfully breaking away. There are a lot of choices to make, but each choice is a step toward honoring the strong, resilient person she is.

This holiday maybe the best thing to do is tell the true story of our family. If abuse is happening, name it and acknowledge that it has nothing to do with love. If engaging in a family gathering means witnessing or experiencing abuse we can choose not to engage or to engage in a different way. Sometimes the best support we can offer a loved one is the example of how to choose courageously.

We cannot change or control the abusers behavior. We cannot control if or when a survivor leaves the relationship. She must choose and in choosing connect with her own power. What we can do is protect our self and by doing so show what it means to set boundaries and defend them fiercely. We can see beyond the chaos and confusion and communicate what we see clearly and without judgment so options become clearer to the survivor. We can let her know she is strong, resilient, and courageous. We can support the choices she makes even if they are different from the ones we would make.

If someone you love is being hurt, that is part of your holiday story this year. You didn’t choose it, but you can choose to tell the truth and create safety for yourself and others. Maybe your strength and courage will begin a process of change. And maybe the choices will be easier next year.

This year my holiday gifts include donations to the Portland Women’s Crisis Line in the name of people I love. I encourage you to donate to a local crisis line or shelter. It is a holiday gift that changes lives.

*This estimate is based on a reported 10 million physical assaults of women and men by an intimate partner each year. Reported physical assaults likely comprise as little as a third of the abuse that happens in homes. For more statistics about the prevalence and impact of partner violence follow this link to the NCADV:

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at