October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. We spoke with experts to find out the most commonly asked questions and misconceptions about the topic — many of which also matched what a Google representative said are the questions most often searched on the topic by people in Nassau and Suffolk, nationally and around the world.
What is domestic violence?
Domestic violence is someone exercising power and control within a relationship, which could take the form of physical, financial, emotional, sexual or cyber abuse, said Colleen Merlo, executive director of L.I. Against Domestic Violence, based in Central Islip.
“Domestic violence is more about a willful intimidation, and there is a power and control dynamic, where one person in the relationship has the power and does things to maintain that power and control,” she said. “And it’s also systematic and ongoing.”
Keith Scott, education director for The Safe Center LI, based in Bethpage, said domestic violence is not an “anger problem.” Abusers can use anger as a way to control victims, but they can turn it on and off “depending on who’s watching,” he said.
“Domestic violence is not about anger, it’s about power and control,” he said.
What can I do to help someone who is in an abusive relationship?
Offering support to a friend or family member who could be experiencing domestic violence is crucial, Merlo said. Provide support in a safe manner, remember to keep information confidential and be wary of giving information about resources when an abuser is around, she said.
“Watching someone you care about go through an abusive relationship can be really scary, and it can also be really frustrating if you feel like that person should be getting out of the relationship and the person is choosing to stay in the relationship,” Merlo said.
“Your friend may feel angry with you at first, they may feel embarrassed, they may feel like the abuse is their fault because that’s what the abuser is telling them.”
Helen Atkinson-Barnes, education program director at The Retreat Inc., based in East Hampton, recommended providing resources to someone in need, listening to them and asking questions, “but not pushing too hard.”
Helping someone could be as simple as advising them to call a hotline or the police for help, she said. Leaving is a process and doesn’t happen in one day, Atkinson-Barnes said.
“Often, the temptation is to say ‘break up with that jerk’ or ‘why are you staying with that person? They’re not good for you,’ ” she said. “Often, comments like that serve to make the victim feel blamed and push them away.”
How do I know if I’m in an abusive relationship? Or, what can I look out for on behalf of someone else?
In addition to physical violence, Merlo said to watch for whether someone shows jealousy and tries to isolate a partner. That can start off slowly, with something like dictating when and how you can see your friends, she said. It can also include demeaning behavior like putting down the victim or embarrassing them in front of others.
“A lot of us were never taught what’s a healthy relationship versus an unhealthy relationship, so sometimes we don’t know those red flags and warning signs,” Merlo said. “... A lot of controlling behaviors, the abuser may put parameters on what someone can wear or who they can talk to or where they can go. [Controlling] their finances is also a piece of that. There’s also a lot of accusations, and usually false accusations that are not based on any kinds of facts.”
Why doesn’t someone leave an abusive situation?
“The most dangerous time in a victim’s life is when they try to flee their abusers,” Scott said.
Oftentimes, he said, a victim won’t be able to leave — depending on their safety and what the abuser might control. A victim might fear for their life if they leave, if there are children involved, and abusers might be controlling finances, making it difficult to leave.
“How do you know what the abuser has controlled? Usually, abuse uses isolation to their advantage, and when you isolate someone from their family, where will they go?" he said.
Scott emphasized the importance of developing a safety plan if someone is considering leaving, which could include having the police accompany them, making sure they’re with a trusted friend or relative and having help numbers available to call.
Who can be victims of domestic violence?
“When the laws first recognized domestic violence, it talked about specifically wife beating, so it talked about just women being victims and it talked about only physical violence,” Merlo said. Now, we “know that men can be affected by domestic violence and that relationships where it’s not just a man and a woman but same-sex relationships can also be affected.”
Scott added, “Whether you have money or you don’t have money, no matter what color you are, no matter what culture you’re from, it does not stop.”
How are children affected by domestic violence?
“When you have abuse, then there are kids who witness abuse — and they need counseling, or they need protection … It happens to everyone,” said Loretta Davis, executive director at The Retreat.
Abusers might also “use children as a tool of manipulation, or a tool to get their way,” Scott said.
“They may threaten to hurt the children or child,” he said.
How can we prevent domestic violence?
“That’s part of the awareness,” Davis said. “It has been around, but maybe people are talking about it more, and the dialogue is open.”
She added that prevention programs are important.
“You need to have prevention education, you need to reach young people to determine what’s acceptable, what’s normal, what resources you have.”
If you or a loved one need to reach out for help, here are some resources that would be able to help.
L.I. Against Domestic Violence
24-hour hotline at 631-666-8833
The Safe Center LI
24/7 hotline: 516-542-0404
24-hour hotline: 631-329-2200
National Domestic Violence Hotline