Editor’s note: The pseudonym of Natalie is used in this story in replace of the actual name of the domestic violence survivor who spoke with the Calhoun Times.
It can start subtly, in comments like, “Are you really going to wear that?” or “Is that shirt a little tight?” And the receiver of those questions may think that the person asking is looking out for their best interest.
But these are signs of an abusive relationship. Like when you’re both in a crowd, he would talk to other women instead of you, making you feel like you’re not even there. Or maybe she is jealous and wants you to spend all your time with her instead of family or friends.
All it takes is one red flag to be able to recognize an abusive or violent person. Contrary to popular belief, domestic violence is not a private matter that should be hidden, ignored or excused, said Debbie Lane, a legal advocate with the Gordon County Domestic Violence Outreach Office. Victims are not at fault, and have a right to seek safety, she continued.
October is domestic violence awareness month. In honor of this yearly recognition of victims, a survivor shared her experience in an abusive relationship. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.
“I guess my first wake-up moment was when (my husband) started threatening to kill me and himself,” Natalie said. “That’s when I knew something was really wrong.”
But before those threats, she wouldn’t have identified herself as a victim of abuse. She wasn’t being physically assaulted or beaten, and she said even those around her wouldn’t have labeled it as abuse.
One common misconception is that domestic abuse results in bruises or broken bones, Lane said. However, emotional and verbal abuse are still harmful and indicative of violence, she said. Sometimes, the most subtle words or actions can be red flags.
This very misconception was the one that convinced Natalie her situation was something to simply brush aside.
“It was just my life,” Natalie said, “and I knew I was miserable and having panic attacks and I wasn’t happy but I didn’t know it was abuse.”
Looking back, the reality of the situation has become clear to Natalie. But it was a loving relationship, and over time, her entire life came to revolve around that love for him. And to make it more confusing, he would manipulate her to make her think she was better off than most.
“He would say things like ‘You’re not being beaten.’ Or ‘You think you’ve got it bad, you’ve really got it good.’”
Lane said that a common method abusers use is “gaslighting,” which is when they call into question the survivor’s account of what happened. This tactic is disorientating and makes survivors start to doubt their own reality, Lane said.
A popular question asked of victims is “Why did you stay?” Natalie responded with a multitude of reasons for why she stayed – including financial security, family reputation, fear of increased violence, and involvement of children – and how she understands how other victims stay or return to their abuser. Statistics show that women go back to an abusive situation seven to eight times before they either stay or leave for good, Lane said.
“The one question that really needs to be asked is ‘Why does he hit?’ not ‘Why does she stay?’” Lane said. “Why does he have to hit, have to abuse? That needs to be the topic of conversation, not why she stays, because we know why she stays.”
Finding who she is
Now in a safe situation, Natalie is finally realizing who she is again.
“Sometimes you have to get away from it to before you realize how bad it was,” she said. “The fog clears and you start to see not from their perspective, but from your perspective what happened.”
It was hard at first, she said, and being estranged from her husband made for a difficult several weeks. But over time, through participation in the Domestic Violence Outreach support groups, Natalie began to remember who she is apart from her abuser.
She does admit, however, the difficulty of complete separation when a child is involved. To some extent, Natalie and her abuser still keep in contact when it comes to taking care of their son, during which conversations she remains very cautious.
“Now that we’re apart, I still feel kind of manipulated,” she said. “Even when you get away, they still try to control you.”
But Natalie knows proper education can work towards preventing situations like this, claiming if she would have known the signs, she could have stopped or left this pattern of abuse.
“I want to tell the world,” she said. “I tell my family all the time not to tell my granddaughters ‘That doesn’t look good,’ or ‘That doesn’t match,’ or ‘You’ve gained some weight.’ Because when we feel bad about ourselves, we allow other people to feed into that. I want my granddaughters to know what those red flags are, and that people who are healthy don’t react like that. It needs to start early.”
Natalie wants to start raising awareness by teaching her granddaughters what is not okay in a relationship and how they should be treated with respect. And she wants her grandsons to grow up knowing what healthy love really is and what respect for women truly looks like.
When asked for any advice she would have for victims who are currently stuck in a cycle of abuse and/or violence, she encouraged trusting their instincts.
“If it feels wrong, it is wrong,” she said. “Trust that.”
Domestic violence can happen to anyone
Another misconception is that the only victims are women. While a majority of domestic abuse cases do identify the woman as the victim, men can also be victims. One in every four women have been victims of serious physical and emotional abuse by an intimate partner, whereas the ratio for men is one in every seven, Lane said.
In Georgia specifically, between 2010 and 2017, 700 Georgians were killed by a firearm in a domestic violence incident, according to the Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. In addition, Georgia was ranked the 14th state in the nation for the rate at which women are killed by men, according to the council. Domestic abuse and violence can happen to anyone at any time in any place.
All it takes is one red flag to be able to recognize an abusive or violent person. Domestic violence is something that should be spoken about, addressed, and fiercely fought against by entire nations, cities, communities and neighborhoods, Lane said.
Raising awareness and making information available to the general public regarding abusive relationships is the first step, starting with educating today’s children, Lane said.
In honor of domestic violence awareness month, the Gordon County Domestic Violence Outreach Office is hosting two upcoming events.
Community-wide “Wear Purple Day” will be on Thursday where anyone is welcome to show support by wearing purple. The entire community is invited to take a picture of yourself or your group wearing purple and tag the office on Facebook to be entered into a photo contest.
In addition, a candlelight vigil, which will be facilitated in Spanish, will also be on Thursday, at the BB&T Park on South Wall Street, at 6:30 p.m.
Services offered from the Gordon County Domestic Violence Outreach Office include legal advocacy, individual support, support group, family violence assessments, referral services, safety planning and case management. For more information on the events or how to get involved, call their office at 706-625-5586 or for emergencies, call the 24-hour hotline 1-800-33-HAVEN.