Topsy Evans, South Australia Regional Meeting
In September 1983, while I was working as a Child Welfare Officer, I had to tell two children aged 7 and 5 that their father had killed their mother, Maureen. I knew the family because they had been attending Meeting since the beginning of the year. After a few months Maureen had felt supported enough by Friends to leave her husband. She told me and some other Friends that she feared her husband would kill her, and we set in place some safety mechanisms to help her, in line with the accepted practice at the time. I know that we only partially saw the reality of her danger. After all, “these things don’t happen in Friends”.
The little 5 year old boy’s response will stay with me for ever. He said quite matter of factly “I suppose he hit her too hard this time”.
How could this happen in Friends?
The Meeting responded well to this crisis, and within a fortnight the children had been transferred to their extended family in USA. However, it was harder to shake Friends’ underlying assumption that this had been a “one off”, and as such there was no need to make any changes in the way we care for each other. After all, the family had only been attending the Meeting for a few months. Later, when I had learnt much more about what positive responses are helpful when someone gets the courage to talk about what is going wrong in their domestic relationship, I offered to run a workshop for our Elders and Overseers, so that they would feel more confident if anyone else were to approach them with a similar problem.
The response I received will also stay with me for ever. “Oh, we don’t need that, we’ll just pass them on to you.”
Two aspects of that reply worried me. The first, and least important was that I had not been asked if I would take on that role. The second was the total ignoring of the courage needed to confide about intimate personal relationships with anyone, let alone be asked to tell the story all over again to someone else, not necessarily of your choosing. They chose to tell you, not anyone else.
It was almost as though no-one wanted to be involved with behaviour which is so unlike how we believe that Friends behave. After all, we respect other people, love them, care for them. Don’t we? We visit prisoners, work with refugees, we work for peace and non-violence. Why is violence within the family different?
Then I found an article in a Friends’ publication written by a Friend who had assisted in conducting a well accepted nationwide university-based survey on the incidence of domestic violence in USA. This survey had been rigorous and examined the incidence of various forms of spousal violence in the general community. After the survey was completed, she asked for and obtained approval to conduct an in-house survey of all the Members of one of the Yearly Meetings in USA. After all, she reasoned, such a survey would show that the peace-loving Friends would have little or no domestic violence in their intimate relationships.
The results were personally devastating for her, and would have caused embarrassment to the Yearly Meeting concerned. Doubts were raised about the methodology of the survey. But it was the same as that used in the earlier nationwide one which had been widely accepted. Certainly the incidence of the more extreme forms of spousal violence were reduced in Friends, but overall the total number of reported incidents was very close to the national average. This could only mean that the incidence of the “lesser” forms of violence must be higher than the national average. However what has become clear is that these “lesser” forms of violence can be very damaging to their recipient.
From now on, please don’t take offence when I use “his” and “her” in connection with spousal violence. If it is necessary to use terminology applicable in all situations, the result will be long-winded and tortuous. The reality is that in the overwhelming majority of situations of domestic violence, the violence is used by a man against a woman. Not always, but usually. Same sex couples can have similar problems, and very occasionally it is the male partner who is the victim. So if you need to change the pronouns as you read, please do so!
What has become clear is that spousal violence in whatever form it takes, results overwhelmingly from an insistence on the part of one partner, usually the man, to take control of the other partner.
The means used vary widely – psychological undermining, social isolation, financial deprivation, sexual abuse, and of course physical threats and abuse. Sometimes, as a way to ensure dominance, threats are made to harm her children, family or pets. The end result will be the same – the undermining of her confidence and a stunting of her personality, together with a realistic element of fear about what he will do should she decide to leave. All this is aimed at keeping her under his control.
Sometimes this can look, from the outside, as an extremely close and caring relationship, but over time the person ‘cared for’ loses confidence and the ability to manage her own life. She does not have the space or support to develop her full potential, nor does she feel safe, or respected by her partner – quite the reverse. Many women feel shame about their predicament, which makes it even more difficult to seek help.
So it takes a huge amount of courage to tell someone “outside” about the problem. So if she does so, it is important that she be listened to, believed, and her confidence kept.
If she comes to you for help it is important to believe her, not to take over, and to encourage her to discuss possible ways to keep her safe, and to put her in touch with professional help. No amount of “trying harder” to please him will alter the situation. She’s been doing that!
Maureen’s death was well publicised and it drew attention to the paucity of services for women trying to escape from violent relationships, and the ineffective legislation in Tasmania, under which the Police had insufficient powers to intervene in domestic disputes, and their training was weak. As a result of her death, the law was strengthened, and for a short time at least people were made aware of the danger endured by many women in the community. A Crisis Unit was established and its staff now attend with the Police to ensure that the woman and her children are cared for.
What is not clear to me is how far Friends’ attitudes changed. I would hope that our Meetings could be seen as understanding, informed and supportive environments where it is not assumed that just because we are Friends, family violence is not possible. Perhaps as is encouraged by Beyond Blue, we may be able to ask something like “Are you OK?” if we suspect that one of our number is having problems of control or even physical violence from her spouse.
If she does tell you about a problem of spousal violence, will you be able to listen and know where she can seek professional help, with your continuing support?
Are you aware of the support services available?
Do you know where she could go to be safe, and what preparations she would need to make when she does decide to leave?
Can you support her to either leave the relationship permanently, or at least stay away until a long lasting change in his behaviour has been achieved and that it is clear that underlying assumptions about his role in the relationship have changed? He will need to change to living independently, rather than controlling others, before it is safe for her to return to the relationship. If she goes back, only believing that he will change in the future, the whole cycle of control and violence will start again.
She will need long term support to stay away to establish herself as an independent person, able to resist promises of change by her partner not backed up by a real change in underlying assumptions of his right to control the relationship.
I believe that this is possible in Friends’ Meetings if we acknowledge the reality of domestic violence in our Meetings, and the enormous courage needed to build new lives after spousal violence.