dealing with domestic abuse in the workplace

In a recent post about what to do if an employee is being abused at home, commenter Marie left the following comment, which I thought was so powerful that I wanted to post it here separately to make sure people see it. Here it is:

Outing myself here as a former victim of domestic abuse here. At the job I got that allowed me to leave my abuser, there was another woman on staff who was obviously being abused — much worse than me — and it was widely known. People ignored it when she spontaneously disclosed terrible things her husband had done, or when she came in with a bruise she was trying to cover. I assumed this meant that my workplace found that kind of thing embarrassing or unacceptable, and I kept my mouth shut, afraid to talk about my life, or ask for reasonable assistance.

I didn’t know there was a long history with that other coworker. Staff had talked to her about the abuse before, and done some damn near heroic things to try to help her leave, and she just kept ignoring them and going back. So eventually, they stopped trying, but it wasn’t out of lack of love or a desire to help. But what I saw was a woman so obviously abused that to ignore it required a complete lack of any kind of care, so I assumed that would extend to me.

When I left that job, I told my boss about all this, and I recommended putting some policies on the books that dealt with domestic abuse, as it would have made me feel like I could have “come out” and still been safe. An example of something like that is here:

A lot of the stuff in that policy is sort of obvious, and you’d assume that everybody would already be on the same page without needing this written down, but to me, at that time, it would have said, “This is a workplace issue and it is valid to bring up and will be dealt with in a professional way.” When you’re abused, your brain gets really twisted up. Your abuser tells you that you’re worthless and other people will hurt you or hate you. All the things that other, more reasonable people “know” without having to be told — that most people are okay, that it’s not normal to be treated the way you’re being treated — you don’t know anymore. So you also don’t know that you can go to HR and ask for something very simple, like a schedule change so your abuser doesn’t know when you are and aren’t at work, and they’ll probably work it out with you. Having a policy on the books that says yes, you can do just that and it’s okay, can really help counteract the fearsome assumptions you start making about the world when you’ve been abused.

Here are some examples of how a policy would have helped me. My desk in that office sat right by the entrance, and my back was to the front door. Every time the door opened, I was on high alert, afraid it was my abuser coming to get me. On days when we had a lot of visitors, it wasn’t uncommon for me to have a panic attack. There was an empty office in the back, and I know now my boss would’ve been 100% okay with me asking to take it, but at the time, I was so twisted up with the abuse that I never could have imagined asking for anything I didn’t feel I deserved. If there had been a written policy that it was appropriate to ask for accommodations, that admitting my problem wasn’t a shameful terrible thing, I might have gathered up my courage to ask.

For a time, my ex was showing up around my workplace — I’d spot him across the street or driving by in his car when I arrived or left work. Obviously, this was terrifying — it was meant to be. I wanted to pass around a picture of him, so building staff wouldn’t let him in when I occasionally worked weekends or evenings, and I wanted to notify staff so if they saw me leaving the premises with him, they might stop and ask if I was all right, giving me a chance to escape. I also wanted to ask if I could be escorted to my car. But I didn’t do any of those things, because I was terrified they would lead to me losing my job, or being a laughingstock, or being treated as a troublemaker. My ex frequently told people that I was crazy, or on drugs, and got them to ignore things I told them that he did that way. So I was afraid that if I told my coworkers that I was being stalked, it would make me look crazier, and they wouldn’t call the police if he came and dragged me away “for my own good.”

If there had been policies on the book that made it clear that HR knew that domestic violence existed, knew that it affected work, and had their doors open to discuss it, I might have been able to come forward with some of these things. Instead, I assumed that the worst things possible would happen to me if I ever talked about it — abuse makes you think that way.

So, I don’t think your boyfriend can do anything for his coworker directly. But encouraging HR to develop some specific policies regarding violence in the workplace might let the coworker know that work is a safe space, and gives the best chance possible (in my opinion) of his seeking help there, if he’s inclined to seek help.

Other things your boyfriend can do, though, is check his language in the office, and call out others when they say something over the line. Until you’ve gone through something like this, you don’t realize quite how many wife-beating jokes show up casually, from otherwise nice people. Or, in this guy’s case, imagine how exciting it might have been for him to hear all the jokes people made about Tiger Wood’s wife beating him with a golf club.

Beyond that, just general victim-blaming tones can creep into a lot of everyday conversation — just recently, a coworker of mine made an offhand remark that a woman suing a football player for sexual harassment was “just in it for the money.” Now, I can just brush that comment off as my coworker being misogynistic, but back then, it would have affected me a lot — my ex frequently accused me of making things up to get attention or money, and I would have filed away my coworker as somebody who would believe that, so not somebody I could ever trust or ask for help.

Those comments can go a long way towards keeping a victim quiet. If work is one of the few places you can go to be competent and feel like a normal human being, the last thing you want to do is reveal yourself to be one of those victims that other people joke about, or think are liars, or think deserve what they got.

{ 52 comments… read them below }

  1. Marie*

    I emailed AAM a few more points, if she wanted to include them in the post, but they went on a bit long (a bit is maybe understating it). So she encouraged me to put them in the comments instead:

    In my comment, I talked about things that would help an individual staff member who’s being abused. That’s what the question was about, so that’s what I answered. But a workplace is more than one person, so I wanted to talk about some ways that addressing domestic violence can help a whole office. These thoughts aren’t particularly well-organized, I’m afraid — I’m hitting a lot of points.

    Putting out a policy about dealing with domestic abuse doesn’t just target abuse outside the workplace — it also helps target abuse within. Unfortunately, many badly managed offices have resident bullies. And bullies are smart — they know how to get with they want with the minimum amount of risk to them. They are a lesser form of an abuser. If you’re targeted by a bully, it can be hard to describe what they’re doing in a way that makes sense or does justice to the effect they’re having. Having a policy in place that describes abusive behaviors, outright condemns them, and provides a specific way to address these issues can help make a workplace less comfortable for a bully — knowing that a workplace acknowledges abusive behaviors and will take action against them creates a higher risk. Providing employees with the vocabulary to describe bullying behaviors helps them vocalize to HR or management when bullying is happening, when otherwise they may only be able to describe that they feel uneasy or unsafe with a particular coworker, which may come off as sounding like personal, unprofessional grievances. Acknowledging that discussions of abuse or bullying are appropriate and okay to have in the workplace also makes it harder for a bully to isolate individuals, and keep them from speaking with others and putting together a pattern of behavior.

    Knowing somebody who is being abused is traumatic in its own right. People don’t know what to do, don’t know how to help them, and if they do try to help, they will almost immediately encounter a brick wall from the victim. At my workplace, it was widely known that my other coworker (let’s call her Mary) was being abused. In the past, big efforts had been made to get her away from her husband. Mary would appear to be ready to leave, then inexplicably go back, and begin making infuriating excuses about how it was all really her fault, and he wasn’t a bad man. That’s an excruciating process to go through for the person who’s trying to help. Many people will react with anger toward the victim, and that’s what happened with Mary. She wasn’t a bad person, but being constantly abused made her not very fun to hang out with — she was a nervous wreck, and frequently went on crying jags, or snapped angrily over nothing. Rather than connecting that with her abuse, staff members started saying things like, “No wonder he hits her, the way she acts.” It’s a horrible thing to say, but when you’re full of bottled up anger and resentment and fear and impotent feelings, and there’s no clear way to act on a problem, people will start blaming the person who embodies the problem. Mary was treated like a pariah, because nobody was prepared to deal with the frustrating mix of emotions that came up around her. Mary, for her part, knew that everything she said or did was being judged — is she wearing a sweater today because she’s cold, or because there are bruises on her arms? If she gets frustrated at a work task and shows it, will people whisper behind her back that she must deserve to get beaten?

    Most people don’t have a lot of education on domestic abuse, how it works, and how it affects victims. So my coworkers didn’t have the framework or vocabulary to discuss what they were feeling about Mary, or how her problem affected them, in productive ways. It became just another piece of really bad gossip. My coworkers didn’t know I was being abused, so they let their tongues flap pretty freely around me, and after hearing the first gossip session about Mary, where many nasty, terrible things were said about her (the first time you’re a victim, the second time you’re a volunteer, or, she must be doing something to provoke him, or, she’s probably making it up) I certainly wasn’t going to ever, ever tell them. They were parroting things my abuser said to me, which made it easy for me to believe that the whole world really was like he said it was, and I must deserve this, and nobody would ever help me. People say these things when they want to justify why somebody is victimized. Abusers want to justify it because they want to keep hurting a victim. Others justify it because they need some way to understand why this horrible thing is still happening. But either way, it has the same effect — victims believe they don’t have a right to not be abused.

    I firmly believe that if management had put together a policy concerning violence in the workplace, people would have had a better idea of where to channel their energy. Because my coworkers really did want to help Mary, but they didn’t know how. If there had been a policy stating that we did not take incoming calls from partners — that you had to call out to speak to them — then people wouldn’t have had to transfer calls to Mary, then go find a coworker to gossip with to unload how horrible it made them feel to have put her abuser in contact with her (we actually did have such a policy, but it was never enforced, because nobody could imagine a reason why it should be). If people had known how hard it is to help victims to leave abuse, had had some bare information about that, they may not have felt so much like failures when they couldn’t just “make” her leave, and they may not have felt like Mary was such a failure. My coworkers wanted to help her, I really believe that, but with no clear rules about what is and isn’t appropriate behavior (interventions about “is your husband beating you?” at staff meetings — not appropriate, and everybody walks away feeling awful!), and no education, they were left in this strange space where they wanted to help, couldn’t figure out how, and had alternated between overzealously forcing help on Mary, tough-love yelling at her, ignoring her, berating her, or being resentful at her for bringing this issue into their workplace.

    When a victim leaves their abuser, that is usually the most dangerous time for them. The abuser has lost control, and they’ll escalate their behavior to regain it. If they haven’t been violent before, now they’ll start. If they have been violent before, the violence will increase. If an abuser knows where a victim works, it’s very likely they may show up at the workplace to enact this escalation. The workplace may be the one place they know where to find their victim, and the added fear a victim might have of being humiliated in public or losing their job makes it a higher-stakes situation for the victim. Having a policy in place for dealing with intruders and/or violent people is as important a piece of workplace policy as planning for a fire. It can give coworkers a sense that there is, at last, something they can do to help the victim, and give some feeling of safety for the victim. For example, Mary’s husband had a collection of guns. When I left that job, I asked my boss if she had ever considered what they might do if Mary left her husband and he showed up with a gun. Of course, they had not — Mary’s abusive husband was a personal problem, not a work problem. Installing security systems in the office had been on a long-term to-do list, but never considered very important. The security system had been considered to deter burglars, and there had never been a break-in, so it wasn’t considered a high priority. The fact that a staff member in the building had a violent husband with a vast array of guns wasn’t considered a safety threat, though it was an extremely likely scenario, far more likely than a break-in. If Mary’s husband had shown up, and if he had threatened her, staff would have had no idea how to react (there was a silent alarm feature somewhere in the building, installed by the landlord, but none of the staff knew where). If he kept himself calm enough and only threatened Mary in private, they might have no idea that they should react to a husband showing up at his wife’s workplace, unannounced, and immediately leaving with his wife on an unapproved lunch break in the middle of the workday.

    There’s one more very important reason why workplaces should do all they can to make sure staff members feel safe enough to discuss their abuse without fear or reprisal. A victim often has the best sense of their safety level. If a boss wants to know if their staff member is in any danger, if the abuser might show up at the workplace, if the abuser is likely to be very violent, they need simply ask the victim. A victim has developed an impressive amount of skills to read their abuser; out of necessity, they have had to learn what every eye twitch means, because every eye twitch might signify danger. They are the authority on the abuser, and they will have a very good (and very accurate) sense of what the abuser is capable of, or what they might try. If a staff member leaves their abuser and the workplace is entirely in the dark, they lose their best source of information on how to keep the workplace safe.

    For example, after I had left my ex, I did all the right things. I moved, and didn’t give him my address. I changed my number. I changed my email. I didn’t think those were the right things to do — I was afraid of what would happen if he couldn’t contact me — but that’s what everybody said victims should do, so I did it. So he started to show up outside my work. Once, he called and left a message with the secretary that he would be bringing me flowers sometime that week — he told her not to tell me, so it would be a surprise. Again, policy said she should not have even admitted that I worked there, but she saw no reason why she couldn’t talk to my very sweet boyfriend who was going to charmingly surprise me with flowers. She did tell me, thinking it was sweet, and I spent the rest of that week in a state of terror. He didn’t show up; I believed he had only meant to send me a message about what he would do next, if I wouldn’t cooperate with him. So, I decided to cooperate. I sent him an email, and I called him and gave him my new number. Once he had those things, he stopped trying to contact me through work, since he could harass me in other ways. Whenever I stopped returning his calls or answering his emails, I’d start seeing him at work again. I’ve had to deal with some crap from people about this — many people will say that I brought danger on myself by not cutting him off completely, that I must not have really wanted to break up with him, that he must not have really been abusive since I answered his calls. But I know that what I did was the safest course of action. He couldn’t attack me physically through a phone or through email, but he could have at work. If he attacked me at work, that could have hurt other people. My coworkers were at very high risk during that time, and never knew it — I put myself at the highest risk instead. If I had been in contact with my manager about the status of my safety, we could have developed a plan between the two of us that would have balanced my safety with the safety of the workplace. But I certainly wasn’t going to speak to the same manager who muttered under her breath that Mary could “just leave” her abuser at any time and this would all be done — obviously, this was not a person who would understand how much more danger I was in now that I had “just left”, or why it was safer for me to let him contact me sometimes than to cut him off.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Thanks for these thoughtful and helpful additions! I think a lot of us haven’t thought much about how this stuff can play out at work, at least not in this way — I feel a lot more aware after reading your posts!

    2. Jamie*

      Marie – I applaud your courage for being able to speak so openly and with such eloquence about a very personal and painful issue.

      I have no doubt you will have helped people, not just those of us reading it now – but also people who will come across this post in the distant future as they look for answers. You will probably never know their names, or recognize them if they were sitting in the next office, but because you took the time to detail your own experiences and share workable solutions there are people who will be safer because of you.

      Thank you.

    3. Jen M.*

      Marie, thank you so much for sharing your story and your insights!

      It’s insidious, and as others have said, to people on the outside, it can be extremely terrifying and hard to know what to do.

      AAM, I have posted this link in the forums at, a site that my boyfriend (a survivor of domestic violence) started for male victims. I hope that is OK. I feel it will be helpful to a lot of people.

        1. Jen M.*

          Any time. I’ve had my share of brushes with this, myself (though I was lucky to escape a SERIOUSLY bad situation before it got there.) I want to do anything I can (the right way) to help people.

          My BF is the first male victim I’ve watched in recovery, and it has been an eye opening experience. Abuse is horrid no matter who the victim is, but male victims have SO, SO many chips stacked against them that it’s insane.

          Did you know the DOJ REFUSED to fund studies on male victims of DV? NIMH has picked the reseach up, thankfully.

          Since he has set up the website, I’ve been doing everything I can to help him get the word out.

          1. M-C*

            Unfortunately, male victims have many chips stacked against them because of other men’s actions. First, because other men are overwhelmingly the majority of abusers. And then because many abusers have learned to pretend to be abused themselves in order to confuse the issue. And so consider that a very, very tiny number of victims are straight men. So in fact when you run across a man who says he’s been abused, chances are he’s an abuser himself.

            So, while your friend may not be getting much help, do consider that it’s not entirely the fault of the people who’re reacting badly to his experience,. We are objectively justified in being suspicious at first.. Sorry :-(.

  2. Nethwen*

    @ Marie

    Thank you for sharing so honestly. When I read your first comment in the other post, I felt sad, not knowing what I could do if I met someone in your situation. I mean, it’s one thing to read the literature, but people are not one-size-fits all. Reading your comments has helped me understand better where someone might be coming from and what I can or shouldn’t do to help.

    Your comments have also encouraged me to keep on being “rude” and not directly telling callers when someone is in or telling them where someone went or giving out other details of scheduling. I’ve met people who get upset because I didn’t tell the person on the phone that his wife was in. To these coworkers, anything that is hers is his and vice versa, so of course a third party can give out personal information; to do otherwise is rude and makes more work for everyone.

    I think that since I don’t know the details of each person’s life, it is better to err on the side of safety. Usually, I will offer to take a message for the caller, hang up, give the person the message, and let them decide whether or not to call back. I really don’t understand why people get so upset that they have to call back. It’s not a long process that I create for them.

    I also do not give out a coworker’s name without her permission.

    Alternately, I will offer to check if the person is in, get the name of the caller, put the phone down so that the caller can’t hear, and go ask the person if they want to talk whomever is on the phone, offering to say that they aren’t available if they don’t want to talk to them. On that note, I never say that someone is not at work or confirm that they are there without first having the coworker’s instructions for that particular call; I always say that they are “unavailable” or that I will check.

    Seeing as there aren’t any company policies that I know of regarding what to do with callers, is what I do helpful, dangerous, something in between?

    1. Marie*

      I think what you’re doing is just great. I’m also a stickler about this now, for obvious reasons. In my experience, most people can understand and accept your reasoning once it’s explained, because most people are reasonable. The people who cannot get why you would do this — and the people who get angrier and more pushy — are not reasonable people, and I feel even more okay keeping them at arm’s length.

      Abuse talk aside, I’ve also found it’s a pretty good way to separate out a normal client from a scammy debt collection or telemarketing call, because they lose their freakin’ minds when you refuse to transfer them to the staff member they want to scam or harass. Again, they’re bullies, which are low-level abusers, so practicing privacy-maintaining and assertive boundary-setting on them is a great way to practice. I have run into my abuser in social settings occasionally, and I use my telemarketer voice on him automatically, which is a big change from the terrified, can’t-think-straight voice I used to use.

    2. M-C*

      I think that’s an excellent policy Nethwen, and if everyone stuck to it there’d be fewer problems. When you consider that roughly half of relationships with men lead to some form of abuse, chances are that every company has somebody who’s being harrassed at the moment. It’s much better policy to preserve employee privacy, because you don’t know who just started having problems, or who hasn’t dared to mention it yet, or who you haven’t heard about yet.
      In fact, I’ve started doing this even in regular social life as well, after hearing about someone who was harassed for several years, in part because most people didn’t think anything of giving someone they knew the number of someone else they knew and… Now when someone asks I say enthusiastically I’ll be glad to transmit their number, and most people don’t have anything to say about it.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Is that statistic about half of all relationships with men really right? I’ve never heard that before, admit to feeling skeptical, and would love to see the study(ies) if I’m wrong!

  3. Thank you, Marie*

    Marie — thank you for your thoughtful and helpful comments. I hope that your life is now safe and peaceful.

    @AAM, this post should be linked to by every HR site there is. Can you get your peeps to start it going around?

  4. Ann*

    Domestic abuse is a tricky and horrible situation to escape. I wish everybody was warned about the warning signs in high school.

    And it is hard to escape; as Marie pointed out, the violence gets the worst when the victim leaves. But it can be dangerous for co-workers too; Gavin DeBecker’s wonderful book “A Gift of Fear” cites the example of an abused female who was being escorted to her car by two male co-workers ; the husband she was trying to divorce shot and killed all three of them. There can be a real risk in trying to protect abuse victims, and co-workers need to be aware of this, especially if the victim has recently left the abuser.

    1. Anonymous*

      I think Gift of Fear should be required reading for all high school girls. I wish I had read it much earlier in life.

      1. Marie*

        Fun fact/observation: If you want to know who in your office has been abused or knows somebody who’s been abused, be seen reading a Lundy Bancroft book in public. You’ll be saddened and amazed at how many of your coworkers will come up to you with, “Oh, I love that book, I started reading it when (their own personal story of abuse).” It’s a real quick way to disabuse yourself of the notion that this is stuff that happens elsewhere, to other people.

        1. M-C*

          Very good point Marie.
          I find it sad to see so many people claiming not to know any victim of abuse. That’s statistically impossible.
          I often tell people who claim not to know anyone gay that it’s impossible, what they don’t know is anyone who’s felt safe telling them they’re gay. It’s even more true for abuse victims, who’s much more prevalent. These don’t-know-any people aren’t sheltered, they’ve allowed themselves to be blinded.

  5. fposte*

    I also think Marie’s point can be extrapolated to other problematic and dangerous situations: people operate better with a plan. We may think we’d know what to do for an abused spouse or in a fire, but the likelihood that we’ll do what’s useful is a lot stronger if we’ve clearly articulated what that is.

    So I’m going to update some policies in my unit this week.

    1. Anon*

      This could also be a great way for an office to be prepared for disgruntled former employees, which is another dangerous situation for which we can’t fully prepare. I also found it very interesting that Marie drew the correlation to workplace bullying.

      In a former workplace we had a bully in executive management – verbally abusive and would throw things, but hadn’t actually hit anyone so it was tolerated.

      There were a handful of us with whom he had a good working relationship. Out of sixty or so employees with whom he worked on a daily basis there were only us who had never had a run in with him.

      Not because we were so skilled or awesome as not to draw his ire, but because we were extremely skilled in reading him. HR once asked me “parents or spouse?” I didn’t know what she meant, so she clarified by asking me if it was a spouse or one of my parents who was abusive. She (one of the four) was able to dodge his wrath because her mom was mentally ill. She had a theory that the four of us must have heightened awareness of knowing when it’s safe to approach, how to defuse, and when to stay under the radar.

      I didn’t answer her because I thought it was too personal, but she wasn’t wrong in my case. My dad was an alcoholic and my ex-husband was diagnosed with BPD just prior to our divorce. I am an expert at reading the danger signs and knowing how to stay out of the way.

      Not something one puts on one’s resume, but it comes in handy.

      1. Marie*

        Ha! Yeah, I’ve had this one before. At a previous job, the owner was getting old and bored with the company, and was frequently making some very high-risk mistakes. A little inner-circle of staff members started “handling” him, including me and a few people who worked across the country. We would hyper-vigilantly check his work, watch his schedule, watch his moods, make excuses for him to clients, etc.

        At a work gathering, all of the little inner circle managed to get together at once. One of the staff members from the other end of the country burst in with, “So who’s the drinker in your family?” And, sure enough, we all had one, or two, or three. Everybody else in the office saw him crashing and burning, and decided to let him, because it wasn’t their job to parent him — only the people who had gotten used to managing another person’s life “for the greater good” jumped in without question.

        It’s not always a skill you wish you had (I sure need to work on my “not my problem” skill set), but you’re right, it can really come in handy sometimes.

      2. M-C*

        There’s another corrolation between domestic abuse and workplace bullying. I once was priviledged to attend several group sessions of people talking about workplace bullying. Every single case was corrolated with domestic abuse – either people were suffering that at home before/as the workplace situation, or they just lapsed from one to the other.

        One reason that I like very much is because they draw out the common tactics between all kinds of bullying. And indeed while there are specifics (your boss can’t usually set the house on fire while you’re asleep) there are many commonalities.

  6. Hazel Edmunds*

    Marie has obviously now found the strength to “come out”. Too often those who have not experienced the demeaning put-downs simply don’t understand why you can’t stand up for yourself but years of being told you’re worthless become engrained. You genuinely believe that you have nothing to offer to the world and are so grateful to this person for putting up with you. I could probably go on at length but you’ve all got the idea now. We’re not all worthless, useless idiots – we just think we are (until someone or something happens to change the scenario).

    1. Marie*

      I think many people think of their “best selves” encountering abuse. Of course, your best self wouldn’t take it, would know the abuser was being a jerk, and would have the perfect strength and intelligence to walk out.

      If you want to understand what’s happening to an abuse victim, you have to imagine your worst self, and how well your worst self reacts to anything difficult. You know, the person you are when you haven’t gotten enough sleep, you’ve got the flu, you have several deadlines, you’ve had a fight with your best friend, you’re low on cash, your car is broken down, it’s freezing outside, it’s been one long bad week at work, and you’re waiting on maybe scary results from the doctor. That’s the self that has to suddenly put together a safety plan and enact it, that’s the self that has to see through an abuser’s mind-bending tactics, that’s the self that has to admit something shameful to people who, for all you know, might react by telling you this is your fault and you must have done something to deserve it. Abuse makes you into your most exhausted, confused, sluggish worst self ever.

      If you can imagine how you would react if you had to move on a rainy day when you had the stomach flu and a week after your grandfather just died, you have a decent grasp of the emotional state of a victim who is trying to leave their abuser — they’re going to be a huge wreck and maybe a pain in the ass, but everybody is when they’re having the worst day.

      1. Natalie*

        “I think many people think of their “best selves” encountering abuse. Of course, your best self wouldn’t take it, would know the abuser was being a jerk, and would have the perfect strength and intelligence to walk out.”

        Very well put. I don’t think this is unique to DV either – I’ve noticed many discussions of the terrible things that can strike us all at random in which someone is going on and on about how that would never happen to them, because they would do this, that, and this other thing.

        It’s almost a protective measure, in a way – if we truly understood how powerless we are in the face of random chance, it might be hard to get up in the morning.

      2. NicoleW*

        Thank you for sharing this. I really appreciate your explanation of your “best self” versus the abused self. I am fortunate in that I have not been in an abusive relationship, but I have been in one with a jerk. One day, I finally woke up, and thought, “What am I doing? How did this happen?” For me, it had taken months to realize he was a jerk and I deserved better. I can imagine how being in a truly abusive relationship would alter your own sense of self.

      3. Jen M.*

        This is the perfect analogy.

        It’s a lot like this living with a very sick alcoholic or addict, too, even if abuse is not involved.

  7. Anonymous*

    Thank you for highlighting this. It is very powerful.

    In my case, I recently left a position because I have a violent ex and my employer posted a picture of me online, along with my contact info and work location.

    1. M-C*

      How horrible!!
      I can’t help think that sending some upper management types anonymous emails along the lines of “I know where you work, asshole, and I’m coming to break your face now” would have gotten that policy reversed in a jiffy..

  8. Anonymous*

    It is really easy to think, oh this won’t happen in my workplace. I work with smart people. Smart people aren’t victims. This attitude is very pervasive. So please keep a lid on your ideas that no one who is intelligent would ever find themself in this kind of relationship. You are wrong. And you are making it more difficult for that person to leave that situation.

    1. Anon*

      Unfortunately it’s not just the misconception that this doesn’t happen to smart, successful people – although that perception is as pervasive as it is false.

      Even those who have gone through it themselves can have a difficult time intervening, because even hearing about abuse can be a very powerful trigger. Self-preservation kicks in and people instinctively protect themselves against the mental anguish of their own flashbacks.

      Those people can take a page out of Marie’s book and push back against their own issues to help someone else. Education is necessary even for those who aren’t unfamiliar with abuse.

      1. Marie*

        “Even those who have gone through it themselves can have a difficult time intervening, because even hearing about abuse can be a very powerful trigger… Those people can take a page out of Marie’s book and push back against their own issues to help someone else. Education is necessary even for those who aren’t unfamiliar with abuse.”

        I would mostly agree, though I’d say that helping somebody else has to take different forms for different people — we’ve all got our own triggers that change over time, and our own level of energy that we can dedicate to others. It’s all a matter of figuring out where you do have the extra strength and safety to help, and letting the rest go as not your responsibility. Which is very hard!

        When you’re being abused, you lose the belief that you deserve boundaries, you lose the ability to identify when you need a boundary, and you lose all the skills you need to enact boundaries. You can leave an abuser and still have all those problems. For me, I initially swung myself 100% into helping other victims. And I took all my boundary problems into the mix, believing I didn’t have the right to say “okay, this is too messed-up, I need a day off,” not even being able to recognize when I was burned out (because I was used to feeling that way all the time), and having no practice in saying “no, I can’t help you today, today I need to watch TV and not think about you.”

        Through some really good therapy, I came to believe that one of the best things I can do to help other victims is enact strong boundaries whenever I need them; that lets me act as a role model, showing others that yes, you can have boundaries, and no, they don’t make you a bad person, and no, the world doesn’t explode. This is part of why I believe so strongly in having some kind of policy in the workplace about dealing with these issues — that’s essentially management providing a role model to staff about what is and isn’t appropriate, so they don’t end up going all-in and burning themselves out trying to help.

        I’ve found that most people have some problems with either believing boundaries are okay, identifying their boundaries, or enforcing their boundaries — it’s not just something that happens to victims, it just happens to us on a grandiose scale. And nowhere is that more apparent than when you watch a gruop of “helpers” around a victim. People will cross every boundary they’ve ever had about the amount of time, energy, and emotion they’re willing to put into a draining, traumatic situation, and they’ll throw out every belief they’ve ever had about whether it’s okay or worthwhile or appropriate to try to control somebody else’s life. Those boundaries were put in place for a good reason, and you can see why when “helpers” become burned out, resentful, pushy, aggressive, and abusive in their own right (like yelling at a victim that s/he’s too stupid to know what’s good for them — to the victim, that just confirms for them that everybody will always abuse them, so why leave the abuser they know?).

        For me, I’ve learned that I cannot deal with people who are in abusive situations and are not ready to leave yet. I turn into a super pushy, mean person. So I have learned to say my piece once, directly and honestly, something like: “That sounds like an abusive relationship to me. I don’t think you deserve that. I wish you would leave, because you are a good person and what they are doing is not your fault, and I’m sad to think of you being treated that way.” I am not able or willing to listen to more and more “and guess what they did this time?” stories, and I usually say something like, “Those stories you tell make me really frustrated, and I end up thinking about them all the time until I’m depressed. I can’t cope with feeling that way. I understand why you want to talk about it, but I’m not strong enough to hear it. Please, let’s talk about something else.” Somebody did that to me once when I was being abused, and I was struck by this idea that had never occurred to me: you mean it’s okay to ask somebody to stop doing something that hurts you? Oh my god, I wish *I* could do that. Wait, why can’t I?

        On the other hand, I have an infinite well of patience for curious, well-intentioned questions that often come off as offensive. For example, “Why don’t you just leave?” That one can spin victims into a vortex of self-blame and second-guessing and worthlessness. Provided I feel it’s being asked as a real question (instead of a coded way of saying “what’s wrong with you”), I can answer that, and other questions like it. What I took from that one job is that, institutionally, we have a lot of problems in dealing with domestic violence, but individuals on the whole are okay and they really do want to help, if they can. So I operate on that assumption in my new workplaces, and am willing to out myself and be the designated “abuse — ask me how!” individual.

        For example, I still get an email or phone call from my abuser two or three times a year. He usually insinuates that he might be showing up at my workplace. At this point, I think that’s just hot air — I don’t have any fear of him anymore. But I still go and inform my boss, and inform the people who sit near the door, and the people who sit near me, and I pass around a picture, and I explain the situation. Better safe than sorry, but mostly, this is just a great moment for people who have never thought about this to start engaging and asking questions. My supervisors have always reacted well and asked me what I need to be safe, and it’s a great place to start a conversation about instituting a policy, educating the staff, and my comfort level at discussing this issue in public.

        I do this for the people who might know a victim someday (most of us will), but I also always keep in mind that somebody else in my office might be a victim right now. They likely don’t have the safety or resources to come forward, but I’m in relatively little danger, so I try to come forward so they can see that most people are decent, and the world doesn’t end that easily.

        Can I also say that this has been a really good comment thread? Most of the time, when I talk about this on the internet, somebody will come by and accuse me of being a liar, a feminazi, a misandrist, secretly having invited the abuse somehow, or any number of vile things you can probably imagine. I’m not kidding, that happens depressingly frequently. It’s the internet, so I can shrug it off pretty easily as trolls, but it is obnoxious and sad. Either AAM is doing some great moderation, or all of you are a really great group. So, good job, guys!

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I’m not moderating at all! This is just a remarkable group of commenters. There have been a few occasions (not in this thread, but on other topics) where I’ve felt someone was being offensive in a way that I wouldn’t allow in my home so I won’t allow it on my site (racism, personal nastiness, etc.), and in those cases I’ve told them to knock it off, but that happens very rarely.

          1. khilde*

            I second that! I think the active commenters on this blog are outstanding. I was a reader/lurker for many years before I started joining in the discussion. I felt like this was a safe and respectful place where people are just objective and realistic and smart. Where you could have a decent conversation that didn’t spiral into stupidity. AAM – I think that has a LOT to do with the type of blogger/person you are, too. I get so much from reading the posts and comments. Keep up the great work, everyone!

  9. Joey*

    I’m not sure why there’s not more legislation that protects victims of domestic violence. Far too often naive employers find a reason to fire the victim. Sometimes it’s because they have legitimate fears of violence happening at the workplace and other times its because they just don’t have time to deal with “drama.”

    1. anon*

      This happens all the time and is so sad. It doesn’t make sense to logical people, but the fact is that we all become uncomfortable when faced with abuse and for some people that discomfort can really color their response.

      I used to volunteer in domestic/sexual violence advocacy. I worked with a woman who was a former prostitute that had a menial minimum wage job. When her abusive former pimp came around her workplace she was fired. Well what other option did she have to feed her kids? She went back to the street and I lost track of her.

      This is an extreme example but the same thing very easily could and has happened with a more garden variety domestic abuse. It’s tragic every time a victim is pushed back into a situation they desperately want to leave.

      1. Laura L*

        It’s because we in the US, as a society, do not take the problems women face seriously and domestic abuse is generally considered a women’s issue. Because of this, people end up victim blaming, saying she (or he) asked for it, or not believing the victim.

        Also, yes, maybe well-meaning people simply don’t know how to deal with it and would probably take some type of action if they more knowledge. However, our culture not taking DV seriously contributes greatly to the problem.

          1. Laura L*

            I actually don’t know much about domestic violence in other cultures, which is why I specified the US. I didn’t want to imply that this is a worldwide thing because I don’t know much about the topic outside of my own country. Although, maybe by stating US, I implied that other countries do support DV victims.

            Anyway, my guess would be that the Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, at least) are better at legally supporting victims and that their residents are better at providing individual support than the US is, but I can’t confirm that, even though I did spend a semester in Sweden! That’s the only area of the world that I think might not be horrible at dealing with these things.

  10. Anonymous*

    Thank you for sharing your story, Marie. I never knew that a domestic violence situation could be so complicated. Unfortunately a lot of people are conditioned to think that it’s an easy fix (“just leave the abuser!”) but your story highlights that there’s so much more involved.

    AaM – thank you for giving Marie the opportunity to share her story. Not only do I come here for awesome career advice, I can now say that you provide a safe place for people to discuss some of the really tough issues in the workplace.

  11. Megan*

    Marie, thank you for sharing your story. Although I’m lucky enough never to have been in your situation myself, issues of abuse are something I’ve always been interested in, from a prevention and assistance standpoint. You’ve given us all some really interesting and useful things to think about.

  12. Anonymous*

    I have to post this as anonymous because of the details, but I have so been there in terms of abuse, and multiple times. I grew up in a home with a ton of domestic violence. I was on the receiving end of it, and watched the other parent be on the receiving end of it, where it escalated to knives and blunt objects used as weapons. Finally, I was taken to live with another relative.

    When I moved out at age 18, I made friends with someone who raped me while sleeping, and proceeded to stalk me for years afterward. I learned about the stalking during a confrontation in a public place where the rapist had cornered me and my partner was not around. I also dated an abusive alcoholic prior to dating my partner, which came with its own set of challenges. Finally, I have been on the receiving end of four instances of workplace bullying and two instances of college bullying. The college bullying was sexual and emotional, and the workplace bullying was two counts of attempted physical violence, one with sexual harassment on the side and two counts of verbal abuse and sabotage.

    Currently, I’m out of work, and I hate and distrust people so much that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to return. Another poster upthread described it accurately. Abuse takes away your best self and leaves you with your worst self, and I am now my worst self. I gave all I had to give to violent, angry people who took and took, and I have nothing left to give. I no longer trust people and am always hypervigilant, suspicious, and intensely private. No one gets to know me, and I reveal nothing about myself. Therapy and meds haven’t helped whatsoever (in more than a few instances, made it worse), so I’m really, really stuck at this point and not sure what to even do anymore.

    Abuse and violence are no longer immediate threats to me, but the damage they’ve inflicted have made me unable to cope with even basic human interaction. I’m just now trying to figure out how to explain this stuff to my doctor without the doctor interpreting it as a mood or personality disorder. I am so sick of the culture of victim-blaming in which we live, and it’s another reason I tend to keep quiet.

    1. Anonymous*

      Another thing I wanted to mention, which has certainly not helped my case, is the backlash against abuse and rape victims in America. Many people feel resentful about them existing, while others view women as the gender that enjoys playing the victim, or even the gender that conducts the majority of violence, false accusations, and other crimes.

      I’ve learned that speaking up about these issues is an exercise in futility that often makes me feel worse and even hate myself. People will put me down to feel better about themselves and protect their views. These days, I am generally thought of as someone who enjoys victimization, who brings problems on myself, and who could get over this if I really wanted to – once in a while, I’ve even been accused of being the actually violent and criminal person, including by my rapist and my abusive ex. It frequently makes me wonder why I am bothering to contribute to or be a part of a society that hates me so much.

      1. Marie*

        I’ve certainly encountered this, which is why the tone of this thread surprised me so much — it’s very uncommon for me to get a reception this positive.

        When I say most people are okay and generally want to help… well, it’s a lot more complicated than that, which I’m sure you know. I say that to people who aren’t victims, because I want to give them permission to be their best selves — I’m basically telling them what I want from them, and most people react accordingly. But for victims, well, you and I surely know this isn’t always or even generally true.

        I can’t tell you what to do for yourself, because only you know what your situation is, and what might work for you. But I can share with you some of my experiences and strategies that have helped me to trust again, and share my life story.

        I have learned to trust my gut without requiring explanations that make logical sense. My abuser always needed me to explain my emotions until he could accept them, and they weren’t considered valid things for me to feel until he gave them a stamp of “rational” approval. So I really lost the ability for a while to identify a feeling, and then act upon that feeling. You probably know what this is like: “I’m so upset even though I know it’s stupid.” NO. I had to stop the “it’s stupid” part and just go with “I’m so upset.” I thought of it like being in another country, and seeing a traffic sign blinking in another language. I may not know what the traffic sign says, but it’s blinking for a reason, so I need to slow down, look around, and figure out what is safe for me to be doing right now. Eventually, I will learn the language, and the sign may not make sense even then, but until then, I accept that there is a sign and it is blinking for a reason, and I need to react.

        I had to learn how to accept my emotions so I could learn when it was and wasn’t safe for me to talk about my past. Before, I based my decision to share based on how “nice” somebody seemed. Niceness is a behavior other people choose to display — good people can display it, and bad people can. It tells me nothing about them, except that they have decided to act nice right now. What I have to listen to is my gut. If I am afraid to open my mouth and share my story, I do not have to explain to myself why I am afraid. I just trust that my body is smarter and quicker than my “rational” mind, and it’s giving me a sign for a reason. The sign may not be about the person — it may be about how I’m doing right now — but the reason isn’t necessary. I trust the sign.

        So, when I say “most people are good and want to help,” what that translates to for people like you and me is that people who do not give me the heebie-jeebies are basically good and want to help — they may try to help in a stupid, offensive, or hurtful way, but if my gut says “they made a mistake, but I still feel safe around them”, then I go with that. Everybody else, I keep at arm’s length, and give no consideration to their opinions about me. They do not live my life, so their opinion on how I should think or feel is worth less than nothing to me.

        Another tactic I have picked up is revealing my past history using a practiced tone of voice and practiced body language. When I say practiced, I mean I literally stood in front of a mirror and did this. I find that most people (again, “most” meaning “don’t give me a bad feeling from the get-go”) do not know whatsoever how they should react to disclosures of domestic violence or rape. If left to their own devices, they’ll fumble around and spit out the first thing that comes to mind. Normally, the first thing that comes to mind is going to be something offensive they’ve seen or heard about these topics, because what minimal information is out there is usually a collection of bad stereotypes. So I try to give them guidance about how I want them to react to me by my tone of voice and body language.

        When I talk about my past, I don’t use a voice that shows I am afraid of how they will react. That tells people that I think they have power over me, and I am afraid of them, and I need their opinion to validate what I am saying. People don’t react well to that — good people feel like I’m assuming they’re monsters who will hurt me, and feel ashamed and annoyed that I’m making them feel that way, and bad people decide this is the time to lecture me grandiosely on what I should think and feel, willing pupil that I am.

        Instead, I use a voice much like you would use if you said, “I was raised in Alabama.” If you said, “I was raised in Alabama,” looking like you were about to cry and like the other party has the power to crush you with their words, they are going to fumble and stutter and apologize and call you strong then ask if you have maybe thought of moving. Or, if they have feelings about Alabama themselves, they might say, “What’s wrong with Alabama? I was raised in Alabama and I’m fine!” defensively. So, I set up the encounter in such a way that any extreme reaction from them will be socially odd. People’s own inhibitions against being socially out-of-bounds will usually keep them from having reactions I do not want to deal with, provided I take the assertive role in telling and showing them how this conversation is supposed to work.

        I also often pre-empt some of the most offensive, hurtful questions by answering them as part of my story. If I say, “I was in an abusive relationship,” and leave it at that, the natural follow-up for them will be, “Why didn’t you leave?” So instead I say, “I was in an abusive relationship. It doesn’t make sense to me now, but at the time I thought I couldn’t leave because…” I may compare it to something considered more normal, like, “I have a friend of mine who was in a non-abusive relationship that had just gone sour, and she just kept going back and back, thinking somehow it would work. It was a lot like that. It doesn’t make sense, but sometimes you do stupid things when you think love should fix everything.”

        Whenever I tell my story, I also just directly tell people what I want from them. If I don’t tell them this, again, they just fumble and grab the most available thing to them, which is usually, “You must be so strong to have gotten over this,” which you and I know usually comes across as, “Please shut up about this, it’s making me uncomfortable and I don’t know what to do.” For example, when I come out at work, I usually say something like, “My partner was abusive. He has contacted me again and made an insinuation that he might show up to work. I don’t believe he will, but here’s his picture. If he comes here, I’ll be calling security, and I might leave early for the day. It was a long time ago and I’ve worked through it, so I am okay talking about it, and I am okay if these following people know.” That makes the encounter a professional, business-like one, instead of something where my supervisor freezes in the headlights, starts sifting through their limited knowledge of domestic violence victims, and then spits out something like, “Are you sure it was abuse?”, because all they know about abuse is that maybe women lie about it sometimes? Anyway, they heard that once, and I obviously need them to say *something* about domestic violence, so…

        Basically, I don’t give people the option to believe or disbelieve me, or approve or disapprove of my story. That is not on the table for discussion. Instead, I give them something concrete: “Here is what I need you to do” or “here is how I feel and this is how I will act because of that.” They can disagree with what I ask them to do, and they can disagree with how I choose to act, and I can tolerate that. I cannot tolerate people telling me I was never abused, so I do not give them the conversational opportunity to do so. If they go there anyway, that person goes on my list of “people I will cut out of my life to the fullest extent possible,” and I move forward onto that, instead of bothering arguing with them.

        Maybe you, like me, are really surprised by this comment thread. For those of you that don’t understand how this usually goes, in my experience, comment threads on the internet about domestic abuse usually don’t get past comment 10 without a rape threat coming out. For sites with better moderation than that, it’ll be a “well-intentioned” question about whether or not I really remember everything factually, or am maybe letting my emotions get the best of me, or maybe I was more abusive than I’m letting on. You would be shocked at how hard it is to discuss this usually, or anything related, such as PTSD, problems with boundaries, etc.

        So, Anonymous, I’m going to recommend a site to you where the comments are moderated very well, and the community is kind. It’s called Captain Awkward, at It’s an advice column that’s all about mental health and boundaries, and they do deal with domestic violence and rape, including not just the big stuff (like “I am a wreck, how do I get fixed”) but all the nitty-gritty things that happen afterwards that most people don’t realize, like how do you deal with friends who friend your perpetrator on Facebook *after* you told them, and their only explanation was that it would have been “awkward” to not accept his friend request? If you’re going to talk about this on the internet, that website might be a less overwhelming place to start.

        Good luck to you. I’m not going to say good luck in “getting over it,” because you and I know that never really happens — it just becomes a smaller, less relevant part of the rest of your life most of the time, as you fill it with other, better things. But good luck in putting together a life that you are happy to be living, and a version of yourself that you trust and like again. I think you can get there.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Wow. This is worthy of its own post too. Marie, you are incredibly good at talking about this complicated stuff in very easy-to-understand, insightful, perfectly nuanced terms.

          And by the way, I’ve still done zero moderation on this thread. AAM commenters are just awesome, in general :)

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