Monday, May 30, 2016

Supporting Loved Ones Dealing with Trauma

the simplicity of FB friend lists...

There was a moment about three months into my time as a domestic and sexual violence advocate where it was no longer a job.

Up until that time, I found it curious that I was good at the work and felt such a passion for it. My coworkers were amazing. They all had a personal connection to someone that had experienced Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), sexual assault, or Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA), and had an instinct for the work that benefited the women seeking our assistance.

That night in group, we were working through a popular workbook, discussing families of origin. As I skimmed the questions, one leapt off the paper. I recognized it. Someone very close to me had also used the workbook, and I had come across their answer a long time ago. I also had a personal connection to several individuals that had experienced violence and trauma in their most intimate relationships.

(I know that is a very vague description of what was an important moment in my advocacy life, but I do not want to use this post as a way to tell someone else's story for them.)

I borrowed my employer's copy of the book, and read it cover to cover in a day. I saw my work in a different way. I encountered people in a new way. I was thoroughly overwhelmed with the responsibility my new awareness carried.

I was trained to help strangers. It was tough work to listen to personal accounts of trauma every day, but I was able to disconnect most days, and leave work at work. Realizing the struggles of people I loved and not being able to compartmentalize it as work was difficult. When I listened and helped clients at work, there was a clear role: I was their advocate, not their friend or relative. My duty was to provide them information, help them sort out their needs and sift through the services that might help. I helped them define the support they already had access to, and what they still were seeking. It is not as easy to be an advocate for people you know personally. You are their friend, sister, daughter or loved one first, not an advocate.

I remember feeling very confused about a few of my personal relationships specifically. I now had knowledge that had opened my eyes to their struggles, but I didn't know how it impacted the relationships, for better or worse. I turned to my coworkers for help.

I was reminded that I was not my loved one's advocate or therapist. I was their friend, or family member. The choices they make impact my life, whereas the choices my clients made often did not. The connections were different, even if I did come to care a great deal for the women and their families.

It has been a few years since I have been paid to be an advocate. From time to time, readers reach out with their stories, or others find me and I am able to help. Often, I am contacted by the friends and family of survivors and victims. It is difficult to watch someone you love go through this sort of trauma. It is overwhelming and scary to know that, as much as you want to scoop them out of a violent relationship or dangerous situation, you can only be there to listen and offer support.

A gentle reminder to those supporting victims of violence: it is okay to set boundaries. We are not meant to be friend, family, counselor, and advocate all in one. It may be difficult to have that conversation, but your relationship will be healthier (and you will better be equipped to support them) if you set boundaries and remind them that there are people that can provide the help that will be better suited to their situation.

Feel free to contact me for information or help finding local numbers for assistance. Peruse the blog archives for more sites to check out. Take care of yourselves!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Look Who Wrote Something!

Hey there, Cathofeminists! Our family is once again knee-deep in an out of state move and adding a new member in August, so I have been slammed.

I did manage to jot a few things down though over at The Guiding Star Project. So, if you've ever wanted to know How to Make a Locksmith Feel Sorry for You, fear not. I've got your back.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Total honesty here: I have read exactly zero of the stories my people have posted on this bathroom slap fest that we have going on in 'Murica.

That isn't because I don't care. I have cared about my own personal safety in public restrooms since 1996 when Sidney Prescott overheard the mean girls talking about her and had the longest delayed reaction in the history of ever in her high school bathroom. The message was clear: People wearing Halloween masks were clearly waiting in every stall to gut me like a fish. Stay. Away.

Oh, Sid. Why did you think you needed to get down on your hands and knees in a gross bathroom? You hear your name whispered when you are alone, you run.

Laugh all you want. Dismiss me if you want. I don't like using public restrooms. Freshman year basketball left me terrified of open locker rooms, and I do believe my lack of gym membership can be traced to those damned open room showers.

As an adult, I laugh about my habits. I mean, sweaty, stinky body parts? No one cares that I am naked. I don't care if someone else is naked.

But I have never been assaulted in a bathroom or a locker room.

The biggest issue I have with the sudden religious liberty or freedom or conservative something or other call to arms I am witnessing, is simple:

No one wants to acknowledge the plight of sexual assault victims until it is convenient to their cause.

And that really makes me angry.

It is interesting that we can use scary bathroom scenarios for entertainment purposes for decades (Scream, Halloween, Psycho for starters) or jovial "boys being boys" locker room fun (The single scene I recall from Porkies is a hole cut through a wall in a girl's locker room. So funny. Much fun. Good times.

Our fears about rape and assault as they are coming to light with this latest frenzy have always been there. They have always been real enough to exploit for entertainment value. They have always been real to victims.

There are real concerns circulating. I hope it leads to us taking them seriously eventually, but right now we seem to be doing what we do best: scream at each other about how the other side is trying to ruin us, stomp our feet, and exploit what we can.

The only thing that matters to most of us in a public area that involves undressing? Doing our thing and getting out. There have always been bad people planning to exploit this.

So why does it feel like we only care now that it involves transgendered folks?

I don't want anyone to feel as though they cannot perform basic human tasks like using the restroom or changing out of gym clothes without being assaulted.

Why did we ever think group showers or group restrooms were a logical thing?

If this issue has opened your eyes to assault, good. Use it. Fight for survivors. All survivors. Scroll back through the blog posts here or on the Facebook page and repost your favorite one on sexual assault or consent, or, or, or. Don't limit your scope to bathroom assaults.

Monday, March 21, 2016

At the GSP

I'm over on The Guiding Star project blog, talking about consent. 

"We are living in a time where the boundaries begin to blur more and more when it comes to sex, so it is important for us to have a full understanding of what consent means, and that force may not always be overt physical force."

For more, visit the link:

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Marital Rape

I'd like to take a moment to introduce the topic of this particular post: sexual assault within romantic relationships, but most importantly, marital rape. As a Catholic woman that has spent time as a domestic and sexual violence advocate, I've heard the reasons that contend that marital rape isn't real. I don't agree with those reasons, nor does the Church. After the four part series on intimate partner violence and sacramental marriage, I felt it was important to specifically address the way abuse can directly harms the sexual relationship of two spouses. 

When we hear accounts of rape or sexual assault, there seems to be an "acceptable" narrative that comes to mind: a victim fighting off their unknown assailant. This is a black and white scenario. It is easy to place blame on the attacker. It is easy to have empathy for a victim that fights. That narrative begins to get fuzzy when details come out: the victim was coming from a bar, the victim was dressed "immodestly", the victim knew the attacker.

The facts about rape and sexual assault are that they vary. Rapists can be well-known to their victims. The victim was leaving a late night study session. Or asleep in bed. The truth is, the only black and white detail about sexual assault or rape, is that the victim did not deserve to be assaulted or forced into sexual contact against their will. That fact never changes, no matter how well-liked or understood the victim, no matter how beloved or despised the attacker. However, we allow ourselves to get buried in the details so that we do not have to believe what is true. 

Marital Rape

The Catholic Church teaches us about the sanctity of marriage. The bond between husband and wife is unique. The sexual relationship is not a dirty thing, or something to be hidden away: married people have sex and that produces babies and many a fun time in healthy, equally yoked relationships. But what about unhealthy relationships? Chances are, sex is used as a weapon.

An understanding of intimate partner violence (if you need a refresher, head back to the main screen and check out the previous four posts) tells us that an abusive spouse may use sex to manipulate their victim. This can be done in a number of ways: incorrectly interpreting scripture to assert male privilege, as a negotiation (you can have sex with me or I will punish you/the children), or in many other equally gruesome ways. The implication may not always be that overt, but you cannot fully give sexual consent if you are being in any way coerced. 

I feel strongly that the Catholic Church as well as scripture (Go read all of Ephesians 5 with a critical eye) backs the condemnation of marital rape. 

Getting married and saying your vows is not a blanket consent for sex at the demands of your spouse,  'til death do you part. 

I Was Raped By My Spouse. Now What?

Just as in any situation that involves abuse, it is important that a survivor reviews the safety of their situation:

  • Are you or your children in immediate danger?
  • If so, do you have somewhere to go or someone to call?
  • Are you physically injured?
  • Do you feel comfortable going to a hospital to be examined and receive a rape kit?
  • Do you need to contact law enforcement?
It is not always easy to answer those questions. If you did not consent to sexual activity, you could be experiencing a range of emotions. The attack doesn't have to be violent for you to experience trauma. You may not feel you are in immediate danger or that it would happen again anytime soon. It is important that you know it is never okay for a spouse to make you feel coerced into sexual activity, or to make you feel as though you somehow owe them sex. 

A few things to consider:

  • If you do not feel comfortable with an exam/rape kit, you can consider contacting a gynecologist or a physician you trust to examine you to rule out any physical injuries. (Keep in mind that, depending on the state, there may be laws that compel medical professionals to report rape. For specific information in your area, this link may help, or you can contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline.)
  • Law enforcement involvement is an option. This resource from the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) thoroughly explains the different things that can happen when involving law enforcement.
  • It is important that both you and your spouse (separately and together) get help. Sexual assault comes with trauma and trauma needs to heal. Be careful when choosing counselors. Finding one that has experience with sexual assault survivors would be beneficial, and the spouse that committed the assault should find a counselor experienced in the rehabilitation of sexual offenders. 
  • Remember that not everyone in positions of authority is as familiar with the dynamics of abuse in relationships as is necessary. If you choose to disclose assault to someone you trust and the advice they give doesn't quite feel right, ask someone else. It is common to turn to religious leaders for guidance, and while I look forward to the day our Church leaders are well-prepared to provide thorough assistance in these matters, that is not always the case. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Part IV: The Lives of the Saints and Healing

* If you are just now joining in, I've been addressing the subject of the sacrament of marriage and Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). Part I, Part II, and Part III can be found by clicking the links.)

While the last post in this series seemed to be directed towards those in a violent relationship, this post is more for everyone.

As Catholics, we often turn towards the lives of the saints to help find inspiration and strength in living our lives faithfully. Naturally, there are a few saints worth bringing up in our conversation about the sacrament of marriage and IPV.

St. Monica of Hippo (331-337 AD) Patron of Wives and Abuse Victims

St. Monica is well-known for being the mother of St. Augustine of Hippo, but she lived quite the life herself. At a young age, she was married to a Roman named Patricius. Patricius was said to have a violent temper. While he was not religious, it is said that he respected Monica's commitment to her beliefs, though there seems to have been some level of disagreement over how they would raise their children when it came to religion. Monica prayed tirelessly for the conversion of her mother-in-law as well as her husband, both of whom converted about a year before Patricius' death. 

St. Rita (Margherita Lotti) (1381-1472) Patron of Impossible Cases, Difficult Marriages, and Parenthood

Margherita Lotti was born in 1381. At the tender age of twelve, St. Rita became a wife and mother, despite pleading with her parents to allow her to enter a convent. Rita's husband Paolo was known to have a violent temper, and she suffered physical and verbal abuse at his hands.  He was also known to engage in affairs outside the marriage. In time, Rita's prayers for Paolo and her influence positively effected Paolo. He began to renounce his ways, but in the end he still was killed as a result of his feuding and violent temper. When her sons vowed to avenge the death of their father, Rita prayed for their deaths before they could kill, and her prayers were answered. Before she could enter the convent as she had always desired, she was asked to end the feud that took the life of her husband (and nearly the lives of her sons.) 

What We Can Learn From Saints Monica and Rita

Without a doubt the strength of these women is admirable. Today, often the lives of these women are brought up when talking about IPV and solutions for women of faith. Surely, if these saintly women could not only endure years of violence and abuse but then also convert their abusers into men of faith, this is a path we can and should strive to follow. I do not doubt the power of faith. I do not doubt the strength of these women or the seriousness of what they endured. I do have a few things we should consider:
  • These women lived in periods of time where women's rights were scarcely a thing. Daughters were married for political or financial gain. There was no choice.
  • It most likely would have meant death to try to leave a violent marriage. (This is still many times the case now, but then it was legally safe to kill your wife for leaving. She was your property.) 
  • Today, women more often than not have a choice who they marry. St. Monica and St. Rita were both "married off" by their parents. This alone might change the dynamics of the abusive relationship, because we know abusers look for certain things in their partners that make their particular brand of abuse effective. During the centuries where women were simply married off to men, abusers did not have to have their tactics "well-honed", they had a right to assert their dominance, and they had the ability to to be physically violent without penalty. (Of course, this does not mean that IPV survivors are just more susceptible to abuse. This means that IPV has changed: abusers have had to become more cunning, more manipulative, and the violence without the beatings can leave deeper wounds.)
  • Not only do we know more about IPV and the ripples of harm it causes, we also know more about rehabilitation for abusers. St. Monica and St. Rita lived in times when violence in a marriage was not really talked about or generally considered to be an injustice.
I greatly admire the courage, strength, and faith of saints Monica and Rita. However, I must caution against believing that physically staying and enduring abuse is akin to a shortcut to Heaven. It is okay to need a physical separation. It is okay to take time away to heal and get help for yourself and your children. There is not shame in recognizing that you need support. 

A Modern Day Saint: Dorothy Day

Over the past few years, I have become quite fond of Dorothy Day. Day was a founding member of the US Catholic Worker's Movement. The Catholic Worker's movement had a similar grassroots beginning to the domestic violence movement. While Day's focus was on workers, her cause lives on today as a resource for many, including victims of violence. From US Catholic's piece on Catholic Worker communities:

Today the 200 or so Catholic Worker communities scattered around the United States and other countries are grounded in the belief that every human has God-given dignity, just as co-founders Day and Peter Maurin espoused. According to Jim Allaire, webmaster for, these houses are “beacons of hope in this time of powerlessness.” The movement is significant to the church today, says Allaire, because Catholic Worker communities help “keep an eye on injustice, the poor, and immigration issues.
It is no wonder why these communities are a Godsend for survivors of IPV.

The Process of Healing

What answers do we have here, all things considered? Probably nothing concrete. A decision to leave or stay within a sacramental (or the decision that the marriage is in fact null and void) is not mine to make for someone else. It is my strong belief that the victim of abuse is capable of making this decision, and the help of a spiritual director, counseling, and a support network is vital for an informed decision.

Recognizing that you are in an abusive relationship is difficult. It is even more difficult to know how to proceed. It is challenging to begin to think about your relationship as an abusive relationship, rather than a relationship based in mutual respect and love. It is not easy to accept that the person who is supposed to join their life with yours is abusive. The elements that should exist in the process of healing from IPV, are the same elements I believe we must have to eradicate IPV:

  • Support for Survivors- This means a network of friends, family, spiritual leaders, counselors, advocates, and any other support our communities can think to offer parent and children.  Survivors did nothing to deserve the abuse.
  • Rehabilitaion for Abusers- One of the best ways to keep survivors safe, is to address what is making them unsafe. According to our friend Lundy Bancroft (paraphrased from Why Does He Do That?), effective rehabilitation programs for abusers will include the following elements:
    • A focus on the abuser's thinking, not feelings.
    • Requires a commitment to change. All physical violence and threats must end, and they must continue to show progress on reducing verbal aggression.
    • A high-quality abuser counselor will speak to the victim of the abuse about progress. 
    • The program will address central causes of abuse: entitlement, control, disrespect, etc. 
    • Provide education about abuse, counsel on applying this education in their lives, and confront abusive attitudes and excuses.
  • Shifting the Focus- We have to stop focusing on the behavior of the victim (Did she deserve it? Why doesn't she leave? She is sinning if she leaves!) and start focusing on the behavior of the abuser (Why is he violent? Why doesn't he stop? Why does he think it is okay to hurt his wife?!) When we are focused on questioning the behavior of the victim, we fall for the abuser's games. We do exactly what the abuser wants: we see the victim exactly how the abuser wants.
  • Raising the Next Generation-The value of life and the inherent dignity of every human being is a lesson we must teach our children. Abuse and sexual violence go against the inherent dignity of victims and this must be taught from day one. 

If you have any questions you would like me to answer, please do not hesitate to ask. You can leave a comment, or contact me via email (You can find it listed in the About Me section of this website.) 

Other Resources and Posts:

The FaithTrust Institute: Rev. Marie Fortune spends a great deal of time writing about and providing resources to various faith communities about violence. While there are few Catholic-specific resources, there is some really great information to address scripture and violence. (I am not endorsing everything on the site: I invite you to use your own discretion.)

Pregnancy and Domestic Violence: This is a piece I researched specifically on the issues surrounding pregnancy and IPV. Pregnancy is also a volatile time for a victim, and it's important to talk about this issue specifically.

I'm Not a Double Agent, I Just Play One on TV.: A piece that addresses the distrust between domestic violence agencies and pregnancy help centers.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Part III: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

* If you are just joining in, we are talking about Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) and the sacrament of marriage. Part I talks about how IPV is different than a typical relationship, while Part II looks at what the Catholic Church can tell us about marriage. Click those links, read, digest, and you are all caught up!

So. You are married. You have realized that abuse is present in your relationship. What do you do?

Safety Plan, Safety Plan, Safety Plan

If you choose to stay in your relationship, you must safety plan. If you choose to separate for a period of time, you must safety plan. If you choose to drop off the face of the earth and never see your spouse again, you must safety plan.

Safety planning is exactly what it sounds like: you make a plan to keep you (and your children) safe. You are the best person to put this plan together because only you know what it is like to be married to your abuser. You know what sets him off. You have become an expert at knowing how he will react to what you say or do. You know what resources you have, and what resources you need. So, you find a safe way to start making that list and planning what happens if you stay, or if you go.

Here is a list of things you may need to think about:

  • People that will help you plan: relatives, domestic and sexual violence agencies, counseling,  spiritual directors, friends, service agencies (social services, lawyers, etc.)
  • Quietly beginning to collect important documents (financial documents, birth certificates, SSN cards, other forms of identification, car title, insurance information, etc.)
  • If you use the internet or your phone or paper to start making these plans, do you need to cover your tracks?
  • How to alert others when you need help
  • Temporary and long term plans
  • How to keep yourself emotionally, physically, and spiritually safe

If I Go There Will Be Trouble

We know that once the victim has decided to leave, she is entering the most dangerous time in the relationship. The abusive spouse begins to feel control slipping, so tactics and behaviors meant to help regain that control can become erratic and unpredictable. The lethality of the situation greatly increases when the victim tries to leave. In the book Why Does He Do That, Lundy Bancroft lays out an extensive list of the possible responses an abuser might have when their partner attempts to leave. The list ranges from promising to change, to making threats about the custody of children, to harming or possibly death. It is truly a terrifying time, and many times the victim goes back more than once out of fear.

Only you will be able to determine when the appropriate time to leave comes around. It is common for friends and family to press for you to leave. This is because they are concerned for you and do not want to see you hurt. Deciding to leave or separate from your spouse even on a temporary basis can be a big move. After all, you may have only recently realized you were in an abusive relationship. Leaving can put you into physical danger, cut you off from your support system, and resources, or spur your abuser to take legal action if you leave with children. This is why safety planning becomes so important. When you are aware of and can plan as best as you can for what might happen, you can feel more secure in leaving. There are certainly legal steps that you can take to protect yourself. Contacting your local domestic violence agency is always helpful as they have advocates that are familiar with what your local options might be (legal and otherwise) and they are invaluable in helping you navigate through the complex web of surviving IPV.

If I Stay There Will Be Double

Continuing the relationship is also an option. There are many reasons a victim might stay: financial, lack of support, religious beliefs, inability to leave the house with all children or at all, citizen status, or fear of any number of things. Remember: the abuser has likely spent the entire relationship trying to put you in the position where you either think you cannot leave safely or you really cannot leave.

If you do stay, it is important that you plan how to best preserve yourself. Once you have realized your relationship is abusive, you want the abuse to stop. There can be an amount of courage and bravery that comes with this that is helpful, but the abuser sees these things as a threat to his control. It mostly likely will be physically, emotionally and spiritually painful to stay, especially when the abuser has no plans to change their behavior. This is also damaging to children in the home.

If you determine that the best way to keep you and your children safe is to stay in the relationship, there are a few important things to consider:

  • You still need to safety plan. Have a plan for violent outbursts, or verbal fights. 
  • Think about what needs to happen regarding children.
  • Consider how you can maintain a support network of friends, family, and counselors that support your decisions and your right to make informed decisions.
  • Keep in mind that abusive relationships hurt. The abuser's only concern is for what they want, and controlling their partner. They will do what they can to make certain you feel alone, responsible for their actions, and unimportant. The goal is to break you.
The Importance of Support from the Religious Community

Abuse and sexual assault victims report that they often turn to their spiritual community after an incident, so it is important for the Catholic Church to have well-informed support for survivors. In April 2015, I wrote a post called Sexual Violence Against Women and the Catholic Response. Sources for that piece confirm the importance women of faith place on being able to turn to their spiritual leaders for help. 

It is overwhelming to have a friend, relative, or member of your parish turn to you ask ask for help because their marriage is falling apart due to abuse. I would like to draw attention to a passage from Why Does He Do That?. Bancroft states:

  • Religious beliefs have often condoned the abuse of women.
The most influential religious scriptures in the world today, including the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, and major Buddhist and Hindu writings, explicitly instruct women to submit to male domination. Genesis, for example, includes the following passage: "Unto the woman He said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children: and thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee." I have had numerous clients over the years who explicitly rely on quotations from scripture to justify the abuse of their partners. Similarly, religious prohibitions against divorce have entrapped women in abusive marriages.

I don't know about you, but for me that is a hard pill to swallow. I know that the Catholic faith does not view women as less than men, but what are we doing to protect women that are victims of abuse from their spouse? How are we supporting them, protecting them, and helping to end IPV? Let us remember Ephesians 5:21-30 in its entirety. We should want for victims of abuse to include the Catholic Church among their resources and support system as they safety plan and discern to stay or leave their abusive spouse.