A woman being abused goes around and around a lot inside her own head like a goldfish in a bowl. She surfaces sometimes, takes a breath from his treatment and has a rare moment of quiet clarity when she thinks, “Is this ok? Am I ok?”
She isn’t ok. But she will swim around her own head a while longer before she finally confides her fears in another. Often another woman. Women who work in the area of domestic abuse always hope there will be a professional available for her. This is always less likely in a climate where there have been vast reductions in services that help women who are being abused. Feminists always hope that the woman she asks will not victim-blame her or be totally unaware of the dynamics of domestic abuse.
If she asks, it will be slowly. First she might describe a “fight” she and her partner have had. She is testing. She wants to position it gently as something far from abuse. Something she feels she may have caused or been complicit in. She wants to know why it feels so bad and so wrong. She hopes you will tell her that it will all be ok. She hopes things will change without her ever needing to do anything.
Women advising women (often they are just friends or relatives) have to be very careful in order to keep this discussion going. They have to offer the right kind of language that she can take away and consider. Suddenly overloading her with all the tactics of an abuser and the features of abuse can be overwhelming for a woman. Likewise criticising her abuser or calling him names. Making her feel stupid for staying is wrong. More importantly you may have to let her swim back around the goldfish bowl a few times, and inevitably often, back to the abuser.
Eventually, hopefully, one day, after her stories about his coercive/sexual, physical/emotional/financial abuse escalate, she will ask the question outright... “Do you think I am being abused?”
The answer “yes” will terrify her. The questions you ask to help her will terrify her. The thoughts she has to run through will paralyse her. Then she may go around her head again. Frequently she will ask again. And again. And again. And it can become frustrating to listen to. It becomes exhausting to say the same things over and over again and see her inaction. The women trying to help can feel as though they are being rejected when she does not take the advice.
It is not easy to support and advise a woman being abused because she fights a battle you cannot see. From the outside, to you, it is clear. She is being treated abysmally by a dark and horrible man. She, however, is still in love. She still sees a glimmer of sunshine in his stormy behaviour.
This is not easy to say but if you are the woman advising you also have to protect yourself at these times. It is easy to feel that you must “save” the woman. That if you are not there every time she asks you are responsible if she does not get free. You may be terrified that he will hurt her. Perhaps kill her.
Abused women need a lot of support. They need a lot of time. It is not right to call them “needy” but they are very much in need. That is why feminists fight for specialist services so hard. It is why if you are the woman who is asked for help you need to guide her towards these services. You can support, but you must also know how to protect yourself.
Advising an abused woman exhibiting the Goldfish Effect is very difficult to negotiate and keep yourself mentally well. Take advice yourself if you need it. Self-protect. Establish boundaries that cannot be crossed. You cannot take calls at all times of day and night. You cannot always respond to texts immediately. You cannot always be there to meet her. If the relationship becomes too intense for you and you feel it affecting your everyday acitivities and your normal interactions with others - you need help and support. You are also not a specialist refuge. It may not be appropriate or even helpful to house the woman yourself. Only you can judge this.
These are brave women fighting a terrible battle against abuse. You are brave if you help. Be brave and safe. It is the only way to continue to be her friend. She is going to need your friendship.
Here are some numbers that you might need.