dealing with domestic abuse in the workplace

This is a reprint of a post from 2012. Someone recently suggested reprinting it annually and I think it’s a good idea.

In a 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.

Marie has more excellent advice on this topic here.

{ 68 comments… read them below }

  1. Lizy*

    Great thing to post periodically. But it got me thinking… with the recent move to remote work, how can we as coworkers/managers/employers help identify people that need help, and how can we offer help and/or resources safely? On the flip side, what are ways the person being abused reach out safely? (If that makes sense)

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Thank you for asking this. I feel like we discussed social safety nets quite a bit when we were discussing remote school for children, but it hasn’t really been a topic of focus in the remote work conversation.

    2. not a doctor*

      I was going to ask the same question. I’m not a manager, but I’m involved with a couple employee resource groups, and this is something I could see either one of them taking on. What kind of resources or help are even available for remote employees? A lot of the things Marie mentioned wouldn’t really apply.

    3. Warrior Princess Xena*

      As someone who does a lot of remote, one thing that should help a lot will be explicit in making sure that the policies are written somewhere easily accessible and that all new staff not only get trained on policies but directed to where they are on a centralized location. A problem that my workplace can have is a lack of communication regarding who has been trained on what. We’re working on it, and I feel our admin staff has made good strides towards putting things like workplace policies on the intranet and including training on workplace safety/security as part of onboarding, but when everyone is remote it’s important to be crystal clear when communicating important workplace policies, especially if it means you have to sit down with your staff and write out a hard-coded version of something that’s just been understood before.

      1. Mid*

        I also think that a lot of the policies do apply already too–don’t confirm or deny if someone works for the company, don’t give out emails or phone numbers to people, allow people to change their names easily (without legally changing them), don’t have employee directories publically listed if possible, and allow people to easily opt out if it’s not possible, allow people to block emails and phone numbers (I’ve seen some places where IT has to block that, and I’m 98% sure my work line doesn’t allow us to block numbers at all), make sure people have a work-number and don’t have to use their personal cell phones as their work line. Also making sure everyone has access to an EAP and that the EAP is able to deal with DV issues. Having an established relationship with a local DV organization can be helpful too, if everyone is located in one area.

        1. Nobby Nobbs*

          I’d add (with the caveat that it obviously only applies to certain workplaces) making sure that a supposedly hybrid/flexible in-office/remote workplace really is hybrid/flexible in the opposite direction than the one that usually comes up here. That is, make sure in-office work is genuinely available and workable/pleasant if it’s offered. A legitimate excuse to be out of the home can be a lifeline.

          1. GlitterIsEverything*


            Because when you’re in the middle of an abusive situation, being able to get out of it, even for a few hours a day, can be critical.

            Making it easy for people to work in the office as much as they want can be a lifeline. But it can also be a different type of danger, if the rest of the staff aren’t consistently in the office. Getting away from an abusive home, only to go to an empty office where nobody would see the abuser walk in the door, puts you at a different kind of risk.

            Make it easy for someone to say, “I’d really love to work on site full time, but I’m not comfortable being in the office by myself. Could we figure out when other people are going to be in the office, and work my schedule around that?”

    4. I'm just here for the cats!*

      I think one thing that might help is if you receive a call or email asking if X person is working there or confirming they are at work or asking other questions that you have every right to say that you cannot confirm someone working hours or where they are located. Never give personal information out over the phone unless it is your job (HR, Supervisor who may be called to confirm employment).

    5. J*

      I work for a fully remote employer who is based in NY state – which has mandated sick leave. One thing they did at my onboarding was explicitly spell out the sick leave and how it applies to domestic violence leave. It really made it clear how I’d be able to access leave and it’s also in the handbook for later. It’s honestly more than past employers who focused on domestic violence in criminal and civil ways ever addressed with us. We were often taught how to address clients but never our coworkers.

  2. Robin Ellacott*

    We’re looking at adding something similarto our employee handbook – thank you for posting.

  3. the cat's ass*

    Thank you for posting this, and i hope Marie continues to do well-this is very eloquent and powerful.

  4. Abogado Avocado*

    Marie and Alison, this is just such a great post to remind us all how to be allies in these situations and to use our power within organizations to institute policies to help those experiencing domestic violence. You are making me look around my workplace and think about how we can improve. Many thanks!

    One other thought, but not on this topic: since we all talk about mental health so much here, I am wondering if there a similar post about mental health ally-ship could be considered and posted annually.

  5. Yvette*

    Doesn’t the US have a Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October? Not that this is not appropriate any time of the year. I found this site National Network to End Domestic Violence. I don’t know how good they are a a charity (i.e funds spent on overhead vs funds spent on the cause) but their site did seem to have useful information.

    1. Temperance*

      October here is more widely known as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so campaigns aren’t likely to be as successful during that time.

  6. pbnj*

    When I hired on, they told me that if I had a restraining order or domestic issues to let security and/or HR know and give them a picture so they would know to keep an eye out. I like that they said that up front.

    1. Yvette*

      That is the way to handle it, up-front and matter-of-fact to everyone. “Here is the dress code, here is the social media policy, here is what to do if you have a restraining order…” etc.

    2. nnn*

      What I really like about this is it normalizes the idea that people may have had a bad relationship or a bad breakup! Various environments I’ve been in in my life have had a sort of unspoken attitude that a bad breakup or an unstable relationship is a sign of poor personal judgement, so I would have been extremely reluctant to disclose for fear of my employer seeing me as less credible.

      Building on the idea, my condo has an online form that you can fill out to tell the front desk who should be allowed or denied entry to your unit. You fill out the form, and the names automatically pop up when they look you up. Maybe workplaces could do the same thing for people to let security or HR know about stalkers, restraining orders, etc., so employees don’t have to have what might be a difficult conversation face-to-face in person.

      1. L'etrangere*

        Good point nnn. I really minded that my new Ms Project Manager boss, living with her parents yet, just threw full names and personal info about the entire staff up on the website without any sort of warning, much less consent. Yes, we were a small company, but listing everyone down to housekeeping wasn’t really going to give anyone the illusion of anything else.
        I was very glad that by then I knew the HR person could keep her mouth shut, and that I could go and ask to be removed immediately. It’s been 40 years since I got out of that relationship, but I don’t trust him to not show up at work some day and shoot me, just because. I’m way beyond feeling responsible for that deplorable time, I understand a lot more about why he picked me, and that I was way out of my depth before it even started. But did I want to have that conversation with the CEO? With the almost entirely male co-workers? Do I still think they’d think less of me if they knew? You bet..

  7. Kathleen*

    YES!!!!! This is so important

    There is a new (ish) international treaty on violence and harassment in the world of work that specifically recognizes how important the workplace can be in supporting survivors of domestic abuse and mitigating the impact of domestic violence: Violence and Harassment Convention, 2019 (No. 190)

    Paragraph 18 of the Violence and Harassment Recommendation, 2019 (No. 206) (which accompanies the Convention) sets out a number of measures that could be adopted to respond to and mitigate the impacts of domestic violence, such as:
    a. leave for victims of domestic violence;
    b. flexible work arrangements and protection for victims of domestic violence;
    c. temporary protection against dismissal for victims of domestic violence, as appropriate, except on grounds unrelated to domestic violence and its consequences;
    d. the inclusion of domestic violence in workplace risk assessments;
    e. a referral system to public mitigation measures for domestic violence, where they exist; and
    f. awareness raising about the effects of domestic violence.

    A key example is the 2018 New Zealand legislation which grants employees affected by domestic violence the right to: a. take at least ten days of paid domestic violence leave; b. ask for short-term flexible working arrangements. This can be for up to two months; and c. not be treated adversely in the workplace because they might have experienced domestic violence.

  8. Mid*

    When I first started my job, I was in the process of leaving my abuser. I didn’t want to tell anyone because I was embarrassed and ashamed and scared. Talking about this and sharing policies up front would have helped me a lot. I think things like this should be shared when onboarding, just like benefits, dress code, and any other workplace policy. For most people, it’ll be ignored, but for the people who need it, it can be an invaluable lifeline. I’m fortunate that my workplace was in a secure building, I’m not listed publically, and I didn’t have to take many safety measures or “out” myself, except for when I had to ask to have an email address blocked and how to give a picture to building security. But even asking those two things was terrifying for me, because I didn’t want to have to explain myself, and asking felt so weird and abnormal. I’m pretty sure my boss filled in the blanks, but was kind enough to never ask for details from me.

    Having policies in place is great, but also make sure there aren’t a lot of hoops to jump through for those policies. I think having a security plan is necessary for every office, but also don’t require people to disclose WHY they need things, at least not with anyone who doesn’t absolutely need to know. (If you have a security person or someone in charge of those things, that’s fine, but don’t make it so people have to approach multiple parties saying “I’m being abused” to get access to support.)

  9. I'm just here for the cats!*

    Thank you so much for republishing this. It is certainly something that needs to be on people’s minds. I would also add that domestic abuse is not just partner abuse. It can also come from a parent/step-parent or sibling. In fact, this is my story.

    My mom and I were abused (verbally, emotionally and monetarily, almost physically but never crossed the line) by her then fiance. She was with him for years and it really took a toll on both of us. My mom and I moved to this city which is about 90 minutes away from where we lived with our abuser. He knows we live here but nothing else. He is not the savviest person so I don’t think he would know how to find us but it wouldn’t be that difficult if he wanted to.

    I work at a public university so my name and picture and office info is out on the website. I also work in a department that is open to the public as part of our department serves both students but also community members. It is part of my job to great people when they come in and have them take care of paperwork. For some reason I had a thought the other day of what would happen if this person (basically my stepdad) would have come to my center for the purpose of our services and found out I worked there. I am thankful to work with amazing people who actually are social workers and counselors so I know they would take steps to help me, and I know that I am very fortunate for this. But I honestly do not know how I would handle it if I saw him again.

    I do not know what our university’s policy is on domestic abuse but I am now going to look into it. But I wanted to give my story because so many times people think of domestic abuse as husband/wife/domestic partner when it can also be a parent. And I don’t many people would even consider it problematic if someone’s parent of sibling came to their office.

    1. Pomegranate*

      Sorry you had to live through that and thank you for mentioning other forms of domestic abuse!

    2. allathian*

      Yes, thanks for posting this.

      Another group that often gets overlooked is abuse by older teen or adult children. Elder abuse is at least somewhat acknowledged, but the abuse of working-age parents by their kids is often ignored. It carries a lot of stigma, because the parent is expected to be the more “powerful” person in the relationship.

  10. Anon for this*

    I was a graduate student employee (though luckily it did not directly affect me other than campus police made us stay inside for a bit) during the incident that caused the University of Washington to adopt those policies — a woman was being stalked by her abusive ex, and he turned up on campus, found her, shot her to death, and then shot himself. Various campus officials did not handle the situation effectively before the murder.

    I hope other workplaces and institutions work out these kinds of policies before someone gets killed.

  11. anonymous for reasons*

    If I’m joining a new workplace where things aren’t so distinctly laid out, how do I go about having that conversation?

    I’m looking at changing jobs, and the thought of having to have the conversation about my contact info not being publicly available, etc, fills me with dread and anxiety.

    1. Tuesday*

      I feel for you! I think the best thing you can do is be vague but matter-of-fact up front: “For safety reasons, I’m strict about my online presence. I would prefer not to be publicly listed anywhere online. Can we work around this?” Or something of that nature. When you’ve been there for a little while and people get to know you, you can choose to be more forthcoming if you want, but I don’t think you have to rehash any painful details in order to get the accommodations you need.

      1. Rosalind Franklin*

        This exactly – focus on what you need, the why is not that important. That’s true for any accommodation really…

    2. Regular Poster, Anon for This*

      I cannot take away your dread or anxiety about this. I have had this conversation with an employer and an organization I volunteer at. In each case, I framed my request differently.

      I told the organization that I volunteer with that I was the victim of a violent crime that included stalking. I explained that including my contact info and location online jeopardizes my safety. I asked that they limit the amount of people who know this because I was embarrassed about it. Though a few people know, I found a way to exclude my information. Think about what outcome you’re looking to disclose; what information you need to disclose to request that outcome; and although disclosing this is very anxiety ridden, think about the safest way emotionally for you to disclose it. My experience is limited. I’ve only disclosed this 2-3 times. Early in, I shared over email. After many years have passed, I told someone over the phone.

      I am thinking of you. You were brave to leave. And I have faith that you’ll have this uncomfortable conversation and do whats best for your soul.

      1. Regular Poster, Anon for This*

        It’s very early in the morning here. I mean – think about the outcome you are looking for. Also, the volunteer organization found a way to keep my information off line. I didn’t need to do that.

  12. Nethwen*

    Any suggestions for workplaces that are public and are small enough that there’s no moving the victim to an area private from the public? I’m thinking about public libraries, city rec centers, commissioner of the revenue, etc, especially in smaller localities where “give them a private office” or “screen visitors” simply isn’t going to happen.

    1. Bugalugs*

      I think sometimes as much as we want to help there’s just no possible way of doing anything with the type of job they have. I think it really comes down to asking the questions on what would they feel would help them and go from there.

    2. L'etrangere*

      When my wonderful librarian co-worker escaped her abuser, she moved across the country overnight. Our management helped her job search, didn’t just give her a stellar recommendation but helped her interview at a time when phones were landlines, and had all her personal mail sent securely to the office (for some time afterwards, including during the divorce). Then she made very sure that she was the only person who had the new address, and that it couldn’t ever be accessible to any other staff member (especially students who didn’t know the background and would try to be helpful). I pieced all this together after the fact, and that head librarian has been my reference of how to deal well with such situations ever since

    3. EmmaPoet*

      If it’s a front-facing job like a librarian, I don’t think there’s a lot that can be done. Maybe if they’re able to transfer to a cataloging position, or something like that, they would at least be out of sight. But I know I’m listed on the county employee page and they can at least get my email address and phone number, if not my location. I don’t know if that can be removed. As L’etrangere mentions, moving might be their best bet, or looking for a remote library position (they do exist!)

  13. AnonforThis*

    Something it’s really important to understand is that an abuse victim is often very likely to not accept aid or defend their abuser at first. So while it’s tempting to get angry or frustrated with someone who is not taking offered help, you have to understand that it’s extremely normal and very much a part of the psychology and practical realities of abuse. Abusers often tell victims that no one else will care for them or believe them Abuse victims may be financially dependent on the person who abuses them, they fear social stigma from their families, or they share children with the abuser and worry about being unable to protect their kids.

    So it’s extremely important to be patient, to not be pushy in help attempts and to not get frustrated or blame an abuse victim for not accepting help.

    1. L'etrangere*

      Along these lines, let me recommend the excellent “Why Does He Do That” by Lundy Bancroft. Explains the motivation of the abusers, the many ways in which they gain control and what they have in common. And explains what happens to the target, without the usual taint of blame that is common in most DV discussions. He explains how important it is to help them get out by emphasizing their agency, not just telling them what to do or how to do it. I wish it had been written decades earlier. But in any case it helped me help a friend effectively for the first time, and for that I’m very grateful.

      1. Pdweasel*

        I’ll put in a plug for Gavin de Becker’s “The Gift of Fear,” as well. Absolute gem of a book that is useful no matter what the situation may be.

        1. AnonToday*

          Just ignore the two chapters about domestic abuse that are (from what I’ve heard) really victim-blamey. (Basically ignores all the reasons victims don’t leave.)

          1. Jennifer @unchartedworlds*

            Yes, and actually, when I re-read Gift of Fear a while back, I was noticing it’s a little bit victim-blamey in other places too, just in very subtle ways. Still really recommend it though, for the practical info about things like how stalking typically plays out, etc.

          2. EmmaPoet*

            They’re really bad. Looked at from the context of de Becker’s horribly abusive childhood, it sounds like most of the adults in his early life were awful people who had no business being anywhere near children. But he needs to remove those sections, because they’re totally unhelpful to someone caught in the DV trap.

  14. Anonny mouse*

    I’m posting under this cuz I occasionally post here under a different handle. I’m also outing myself as a former DV victim. I grew up in a home where a LOT of abuse happened (religious, financial, mostly verbal, emotional/mental, & some physical abuse). I then went from there to my paternal grandmother’s (henceforth called “Agnes”) house two years into the recession. I’d lost my job right at the start, so I was one of the 99ers. I looked at it as getting to bond with Agnes since she was never part of our lives growing up, & she lived in a major New England city where there’d be more options for a desperate job seeker like me. My father stated he’d like me there so I could be his eyes & ears & raise flags when his mother needed more care than I could give her.

    Well. That move was probably the worst one I could’ve made at that time. I spent the next 3.5 years just in survival mode, & in complete isolation. I was in a city in a state I had no ties to, & no friends or family to turn to. This woman was personality disordered, which was exacerbated by her age (she’d started losing the ability to hide her Mr. Hyde self), & I bore the brunt of it. It also exploded my own emotional & mental health to the point where I’m just now finding the stability I lost with what I went through. There was a ton of manipulation, expectations of mind reading, miraculous thinking, blame shifting, DARVOing (I was the victim, but she twisted every single action she perpetrated against me as me doing it to her), stalking me around the house, trying to batter down my bedroom door because she wasn’t done screaming her head off at me, & so, so, so much more.

    My problem was that with every call I made to APS trying to get her the help she so clearly needed (& helping me while they were at it) they blamed ME. Because “how could she–a 70 year old lady–abuse YOU? You’re clearly young & strong, so you must’ve done it. Shame on you for lying!” & so on. Meanwhile, the very sound of her name or the reference to her as my grandmother sent me into literal, visible, full body shakes, with my teeth clattering so hard I thought they would break. Calls to my father begging him to step in resulted in him minimizing what was going on & telling me I was exaggerating things. Other times, he simply put his head back in the sand & just begged me to just…get along with her. His brother joined in the abuse by trying to destroy my personal laptop, & a loaner, by preventing me from using the internet & getting the minimal support I had then. My cousin, my ride or die, abandoned me right when it started getting bad. I never heard from her again.

    Anyway, I found no respite. I wish there was something for someone like me. I spoke to my boss at the job I got less than a year before I moved out but they had nothing either. I started asking coworkers & opening up at work in the most inappropriate ways ever, but I had nowhere else to go or to turn to & I needed someone to say, “Yes, Anonny, that’s abuse. You don’t deserve it.” Ideally, having some resource I didn’t know about to point me to to get myself help, but mostly to get Agnes help. There was none. Even now, when I tell people a little bit of what I experienced, I get assholes/trolls/etc. who guffaw & respond, “Wait, wait, wait. YOU were fearful of YOUR GRANDMA???” & spiral into mockery.

    After several years, I landed a job in a cubicle farm. Like Marie, I had the hyper startle reflex because my cubicle was set up in the same way hers was. My solution was to get a small $10 mirror from Kmart & hang it on the wall so I could always see who was behind me. (I quickly made friends with a lot of my new coworkers who’d swing by my spot for a quick hair/teeth/etc. check, lol.) I just wish someone, somewhere, pointed me to something that would’ve given me aid & respite & taken her in hand & (figuratively) smacked her upside the head so she’d stop. But because of the way the laws were written back then, I was automatically the perpetrator simply because of my age. The couple times I called the cops, they told me that I would be the one arrested, especially if they didn’t find any marks, because they’d be “false” reports. That sent me into a new wave of hysteria, I can tell you that right now, lol. The cop told me he had some leeway & he knew it wasn’t a false report because of how I was reacting, & based on Agnes’ stone cold demeanor & confession she had physically abused me, BUT the law was written X way & he had to let me know of what would happen if they called someone to view me privately & no marks were found.

    The whole thing was a head trip. I don’t wish it on anyone. Again, I wish there was some help for me back then. Maybe then I wouldn’t be so damaged. It was a mind f**k. I hope more people see this (Marie’s) post & institute HR policies to help their employees. It would’ve made a great deal of a difference if anyone had told me they cared & here was a way for me to get the help I needed, both for me & for Agnes.

    1. AlsoAnon*

      I’m sorry you had to go through that – I know from personal experience that domestic violence falling outside the stereotypes of male partner abusing female partner and parent abusing minor child is near-impossible to get help for (not that the stereotypical cases are easy to get help for either).

      In my case, my wife turned physically violent during our marriage. She never left marks – I’m much taller and much stronger, so the physical threat she poses to me is negligible, but the emotional toll was and is incalculable. Still though, I never called for help, even after she punched me in front of our young kids. Just vaguely referencing my situation to very trusted friends and family led to uncomfortable silence and a change of subject. I’m in a male-dominated (and toxic) industry, so bringing any kind of protective order or access restrictions up in a professional context would end my career full stop. I felt stuck and feel stuck. I didn’t know what to do then and still have no idea how to process it all.

      I wish I had advice or suggestions, but I don’t. Only echoing the call for more resources for all people suffering abuse.

      1. LBD*

        I hear you. The reasons why we don’t/can’t leave or ask for help are so complex. And anger, frustration and lack of self control are not exclusive to large strong powerful people, but are often a reflection of someone who doesn’t have tools or a desire to work things through in a more intentional way.
        I do hope you are able to find your way to come to terms with your experience. It sounds like the sort of thing that even you may have had a hard time believing that it was really happening to you, at first.
        I wish you the best in your journey and hope you are able to live your best life from here on out.

      2. moss*

        I totally agree with the call for more resources. My partner (male) was abused by his previous partner (female). I think there’s a lot more uncontrolled anger in everyday relationships than we as a society want to admit, much less if it seems to turn the stereotypical power dynamic around. It grosses me out when young adult shows like those on Nickelodeon show a girl slapping a guy because it just sets up the idea that it’s cute and harmless when it’s really not. We have a long way to go to keep everybody safer. Intimate partner relationships can be extremely dangerous and so difficult to get out of.

    2. Anon*

      I am not sure the laws have changed much. DV doesn’t have a national definition and people such as yourself or me are not even considered victims according to The Hotline, which only aids intimate partner victims.

      Can I ask how you were finally able to leave? When I have tried to get help from a lot of resources, I am made to feel I am wearing a tin foil hat when I explain what I am going through.

      I am trying to save money and get a better job but I haven’t felt safe going to a homeless shelter (fentanyl, Monkeypox, Covid spiking again).

      I’m really sorry for what you went through and thank you for sharing.

      1. Anonny mouse*

        I’m really sorry you’re going through this, too.

        At the time, I’d been seeing a therapist, who was the only person I got to see outside of the apartment I shared with Agnes for about 2 years. She was the first one to validate me & told me none of what Agnes was doing was at all okay. I eventually got a part-time minimum wage job at a big box store that only guaranteed 4 hours of work on the day we were scheduled, which meant that all of us were given 4 or 8 hour weeks outside of holiday madness. This meant that I never made more than $30 after taxes, & was too low for the minimums emergency housing required.

        I wound up in a Catholic-run homeless shelter for 3 days because my therapist became so concerned for my safety. It was…okay. I spent the first day crying my eyes out. The people there were really nice, but it was, honestly, a major shock to my system. I have issues around safety/home/security now because of having to go to one. Everyone there was clean (no drugs or anything), & they didn’t require people to be Catholic in order to receive shelter. I was actually gearing up to move back into that place if nothing else came up when my mother stepped in & invited me back to her home in my original state. It was the only other option I had at the time, so I chose it. That’s basically how I got out.

        I filed for unemployment when I got back & explained the situation to the unemployment representative. She was the first one who labeled my experience as domestic violence & pushed through my application under that because I was immediately eligible due to getting out of a DV situation. I don’t know if that’ll bring you a little peace.

        I stayed in my mother’s home for two years while I waited for an apartment to open up with the local housing authority. I took the first one offered to me, moved in, & was estranged from my mother 3 months later. (Long story, but we had our issues & she did a thing & blew up whatever relationship we had left.) I’ve been fully independent since.

        2 years after I got out, my father called after I’d just walked in the door from work & broke down crying as he apologized repeatedly for what I went through, what he put me through, his neglect & childish “lalala I can’t hear you” attitude, his lies on finding his mother help (he kept asking me to give him time “cuz it takes time to research”, but I called him out on it one day after it was particularly bad & he was shocked. It took me 5 minutes to google & find exactly what I needed to know.), & blaming me for not keeping the peace at home. I didn’t know what “brought me to my knees” meant until I got that call & literally dropped because I couldn’t support myself. We cried a lot. He explained that once I was gone, his brother disappeared into the woodwork (the man’s usual MO; I really don’t know why my dad expected anything different), & left my dad to handle everything. Agnes quickly put him in the line of fire. It took him between 6 months & a year of dealing with her to realize that all the stories I’d told him were true…because he experienced them firsthand.

        I’m also sorry you’re going through what I did. I hope you find your strength, strength of will, & take back your power & get out ASAP. Stay safe in the meantime, sister. You can do this. *virtual good vibes being sent to everyone reading this who’s trying to get out* I hope you’re able to find your peace.

        Try going to Out of the FOG (dot) net. They have a great toolbox to help you handle your elderly person, assuming they have a personality disorder. (If they don’t, there’s still great ideas for the difficult person in your life.) I wish I knew of this site while I was dealing with Agnes. It would’ve helped me stay sane back then.

  15. We All Tried*

    I could have written a post like this from the perspective of a coworker who tried to help. We had/have a policy similar to this in place. We all talked to my co-worker. Her abusive husband went to jail for awhile and we all thought she would leave him then. She didn’t. We all talked to her more, and offered help/solutions/places to stay. She let him come back home and said thing were good. Then she started admitting things were bad again. But she still didn’t leave him. We all talked to her more- one on one, in small groups, we did things outside the office to get her away. She still didn’t leave. We knew he was escalating and had safety plans in place for the office, not just her. He killed her when she took a week of vacation and no one knew until she didn’t report back to work. We all felt/feel extreme guilt even all these years later. They brought in counselors for the group discussions and encouraged us to schedule individual appointments to help us. But we all still felt/feel guilty. We have posters and mandatory training around domestic violence and other issues but sometimes there is nothing you can do to help a friend/co-worker. But it’s not just the immediate victim that is impacted by something like this, the ripples spread far and wide.

    1. Anon for this*

      I was in a very similar situation. Please know that it isn’t your fault for supposedly not trying enough. Abuse is so insidious that it is very difficult to escape. I lost a lot of sleep wondering what I might have done differently, but even the lengths I did go to did not prevent tragedy. All we can do is our best!

  16. elliot*

    I wanted to throw a book recommendation out here: No Visible Bruises by Rachel Louise Snyder. It’s a non-fiction book about domestic violence in the United States. I went into it already knowing some of the “basics” of domestic violence, but it gave me a lot of new perspectives. The author talks about domestic violence prevention initiatives, how social agencies are working together to try and prevent fatalities, and even visits a prison where there’s a support group for men who are abusers and looks at how they approach the issue. It may be triggering for some people because it does discuss specific abuse scenarios in a more narrative format. Overall, I thought it was a great summary of the current state (as of 2019) of domestic violence and where we’re at with it in the US.

  17. CanadaPublicServant*

    Thank you! This literally just came up today at my workplace, and I was coming here to look for good resources and ideas. Kismet.

  18. Firebird*

    When I was working on leaving my ex, I read Gavin DeBecker’s book “A Gift of Fear.” It helped me recognize why I needed to leave and what could happen whether or not I left.
    He also has a website “Mosaic Threat Assessment Systems”. One of the resources is a computerized situation assessment that breaks down a situation and compares it to other known situations and their outcomes. I found it very useful for explaining to myself and others why I felt threatened and helped me face my denial of risk. I took the assessment because I knew things were not good, but I wasn’t really sure if I was being oversensitive and wondering if I really needed to leave.
    After I took the assessment, my reaction was “H*** S***, This is even worse than I thought it was.” After therapy and time away from the situation, I now know that yes, it really was that bad.

    1. L'etrangere*

      I do agree that “The Gift of Fear” is an excellent book, and that it should be required reading for every teenager. But it’s mostly useful about ‘stranger danger’. The book I recommended above (sorry, reading slowly) “Why does he do that” is in my opinion/experience much better for domestic violence (including the fact that it’s not stuck in one myopic mode of who’s being abused as Anonny pointed out above).

  19. Kiwiapple*

    This is useful, however it is from a decade ago now. What has changed in this realm since then and is there more recent advice out there? What about reaching out to an organisation or expert in this area, Alison?

  20. Texas Teacher*

    My district will e-mail staff pictures of known domestic violence abusers threatening students or staff so we can report if we see them around the schools. Sometimes the threat is against a student’s family, sometimes it involves staff. A critical section of staff to inform are the bus drivers.

    The e-mail doesn’t list the victim unless they or their guardian ask that it does. If a staff member is threatened as part of this we are given more information and updates. In some cases, police will be stationed on campus, especially on campuses built in the 60s and 70s because their open concept style is harder to secure.

  21. Ms Lurker*

    Amazing how many horrible phrases are used casually. During a big thunderstorm last week someone referred to it as “the devil beating his wife.” I immediately thought this seems like a phrase we should have retired long ago.

  22. Stunner266*

    While I fully agree with the majority of the post. If the ex is such an animal, I do think it is unfair to expect coworkers to get involved with things like stopping him coming in the building and escorting you to your car. What if the coworker is now in danger by doing these things to help?

    1. Bagpuss*

      Whilke it is reasonable to be cautious, the risk is way lower than for the victim. Most abusers start gradually and build up their abusive behaviour and it isn’t common for them to behave the same way towards people they are not in a relationship or family situation with, where they don’t have the same level of control over their victim. And a non-partner / family member is far more likely to report any agression to the police so it’s much riskier for the abuser.
      Simply being present as a witness can be a very powerful protective factor.

      (I’m a lawyer. When I was younger, I did a lot of cases wehre we were applying for injunctions against abusers, so I would often be dealing directly with the person accused of abuse and attending court to get orders against them., so I was often in the position of supporting and actively and publicly helping the victim against their abuser.

      But it is something which employer is should be aware of and consier when they are thinking about how to support employees

      1. AnonforThis*

        I will note that I observed case where a friend of the abuse victim was also stabbed (she was helping her friend move out) so it’s definitely not risk free. You definitely cannot require employees to potentially put themselves in danger for another employee. That’s not a fair thing to ask.

    2. McConnell and Paul, seriously?*

      My ex is always on his best behavior in front of witnesses. Doesn’t want to ruin his “good name” in town. So being around others is the safest place to be.

  23. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    My son’s partner is currently in a stalker/DV situation. I was so pleased when her current (and former!) employers were completely responsive and supportive when she disclosed that the abuser was coming to the area and may be looking for her. Each location (public libraries and a retail store and relevant mall security) had policies/procedures in place, did not question the need, and provided her the unequivocal support and safety planning that she needed.

    It has taken her entire village to demonstrate that she deserves all the efforts that it takes to protect her — including the court system, multiple law enforcement agencies and a mental health system — but she’s safe, and the abuser is currently in a chain of custody that will likely lead to him being returned to his home country. Making sure that she was safe in all of her settings was crucial in keeping her able to move forward with all of the challenging steps in this process.

  24. TiredButHappy*

    When I was working in a very abusive work environment and dealing with very abusive family members, the workplace bullies used victim blaming language all the time.

    I was not safe at work. I was not safe at home. It took years and years and estrangement from my family, and a job with policies like the letter above, to make me feel safe.

    I had healed enough between then and now to recognize I landed in another toxic job, but got out.

    Abusers, whether they’re romantic partners, family members, stalkers, workplace bullies, shake your foundation to the core.

    I ended up in several abusive workplaces because I thought it was normal and it was what I deserved.

    And it took a friend to plant the seed that there was abuse, then realization, then a whole bunch of therapy, and a really good workplace to make me feel safe.

    I know that if any of the worst of the abusers became a danger, I would be able to go to my workplace and I’d be trusted and safe.

  25. Good Wilhelmina Hunting*

    I had an employer once that not only did nothing to help the abusive situation I was in, but through their actions actually enabled it.
    * Constantly complaining (including at appraisal time) about the amount of phone calls he made to me during the day, instead of working with me for a solution. If I didn’t pick up my direct dial, because I was on another call or away from my desk, he would blow up my voicemail or my mobile phone demanding I pick up. The telephone was his primary instrument of coercive control. A well written policy on personal calls, for example, wouldn’t have stopped the phone calls but would have enabled colleagues to help me curb them instead of them whining to management.
    * Marking me down as “not a team player” because I was expected to leave on time every night to go home to him. If I had to finish something and was a few minutes late, he would go through my phone and demand to know who I’d been talking to after hours. If there’s a big project on and I’m going to have to stay late, at least give me enough notice that I can tell him the day before or at least in the morning and not at 4.50 p.m. on the day I’m expected to stay. He’d start cooking me these complex, lavish meals part way through the afternoon “to show how loving he was” and three desks away could hear him down the phone if I had to say I wouldn’t be there that evening to eat it. Then they would just get p***y with me over it, as if I enjoyed being in the middle of a tug-o-war. Not constantly trying to spring late nights on me at the last minute would have really helped me handle him.
    * They played right into his hands by marking down any of the more non-tangible aspects such as attitude, team playing, flexibility, etc., as these were the very things he would criticise in me himself. However, poor soft skills were not me, they were the cumulative effect of being worn down and terrified by constant control.
    * He had been trying to convince me for years that I needed a certain mental health diagnosis. When a little cabal at work finally managed to successfully engineer a disciplinary hearing with HR, in desperation I intimated to the HR manager that he had suggested this. She stated she would drop the proceedings if I got a formal diagnosis, and began to railroad me to make an appointment with my GP, get seen by a specialist diagnostician, etc. Getting diagnosed formally became the only way I could avoid proceedings.
    * The diagnosis didn’t cover my back for long – 4 months later, my name was top of the redundancy list, with laughably low performance scores in several areas, even areas where I was the office go-to. The employment lawyer I saw suggested that it was my partner they actually wanted rid of, but she couldn’t in all honesty recommend I went to a tribunal for lack of concrete proof. A well informed policy on the firm’s duty of care to its employees would have helped.
    * They made everything about them and how it allegedly affected the company, instead of recognising that the workplace was my one bit of respite away from him. After I lost my job, I was isolated in the apartment with him surveilling me 24/7, making it MUCH more difficult to plan to leave. About a year later, I did manage to leave for good, but they lost the opportunity to see the thriving individual that rose out of the ashes of abuse due to their selfishness, enabling, and lack of compassion.

  26. Marie*

    What a surprise to see this as I drank my coffee this morning!

    Hi, everybody! I have some updates for you.

    That coworker I mentioned did end up leaving her husband for good. With the benefit of more age and experience, I have changed my perspective on how she was treated by our company, and cringe at how I describe her here.

    She was very short and rude at times, and had a tendency to overreact dramatically to things, which made her an unpleasant coworker. Abuse can make you an unpleasant person. That’s one of its intended effects, and greatly aids in isolating you and undermining your sense of self worth. I went the other way and became an enormously pleasant doormat (which had a different but also awful impact on my career), because abuse makes you assume that if you act less than perfectly at all times, you deserve horrific consequences.

    And when it comes to how others treat abuse victims, my abuse victim logic was, to be honest, accurate. Abuse victims are expected to conduct themselves by some unstated but incredibly rigid code of “correct” behavior, and be pleasant and likable and sympathetic to boot, if they want to be believed. Flawed abuse victims who are, y’know, *visibly suffering from the effects of abuse* are less believable, and thus less worthy of help. It’s an abusive logic that encourages a victim to believe what their abuser tells them — that if they do things wrong, they deserve it.

    I can see that abuse logic here in how I wrote about her: that she didn’t act like a “good” abuse victim, so it’s understandable that my coworkers shunned her the way they did. I was still holding onto the idea that if I made sure to act right, and not like her, I could earn good faith and dignified care, and because she hadn’t done that, well, it makes sense that people get to treat her badly.

    It’s also reasonable that my coworkers felt burned when their “heroic” efforts to help failed. That’s how most people (who haven’t learned enough about abuse) would feel. It’s also a great tactic of abusers, to intentionally sabotage these efforts to help in order to deepen isolation (in my coworker’s case, it worked beautifully). To me, this emphasizes even more why companies need policies. Allowing staff to go full caseworker on a coworker is so inappropriate.

    I’ll also mention, my coworkers later went full caseworker on me, not for abuse, but because they decided I didn’t dress nicely enough. They staged an incredibly humiliating intervention and everything. That’s why I put “heroic” in quotes — they went overboard not out of care for her, but because, as it turns out, they were toxic workplace bullies who were being left unchecked by poor management.

    For more genuine coworkers, a manager or HR person (with some training in these dynamics) should have stepped in to make sure work remained a safe and hospitable place for everybody. It’s not that people shouldn’t have helped; they should have had somebody letting them know what might be actually helpful, and not to go overboard and burn themselves out when it doesn’t work, and that it’s absolutely not okay to freeze somebody out at work because you’re mad she didn’t leave her abusive husband.

    What I saw at the time was that I had better take whatever help was given me and do whatever that helper wanted of me, or I would be frozen out, too. Which, again, is abuse logic — if I don’t make this person feel happy, and do what they want, they will take it out on me. It was an attitude that made me extremely reluctant to reach out for help, as I had to choose my helpers carefully, since they would potentially control my life afterward. And it made me contemptuous of people like my coworker, who accepted help they couldn’t “follow through” on.

    And finally, somebody needed to talk to my coworker about her inappropriate behavior at work. I know her boss just didn’t want to touch it, because they felt so awkward about the topic. So they just stopped supervising her entirely. But that meant that for the years my coworker was being abused at home, she also received zero feedback, critiques, support, or development in her work. In some ways, that’s the smallest of the concerns I’ve described here, but it adds up over time, and can be a contributing factor to remaining in an economically precarious situation.

    I will say that in the years since I wrote the above, I’ve seen changes. A lot more workplaces have bullying policies — I’ve got opinions on how we call abuse “bullying” whenever the word abuse feels uncomfy for some reason, but whatever, bullying policies is still progress. And a lot more workplaces have policies relating to physical safety, though tragically that’s been motivated (in my opinion) by the distinct possibility of gun violence.

    My own years of abuse seem very far away at times, and sometimes very near and present. And I will also say that work is one of the primary places where I processed my past, because work was a place where I couldn’t escape conflict, weird interpersonal dynamics, awkward situations, etc. (easier to unhealthily ghost conflict in your personal life than at the place you have to show up every day). Which means I had to learn my post-abuse self mostly at work. I definitely did some cringe-worthy things as I figured out how to interact with others without the looming belief that everybody hated me, I was an idiot, and others absolutely had the power and motivation to destroy me if they were in a mild bad mood.

    I am glad every time I see somebody write in with a work problem that’s really just a “how do I deal with staff doing something socially weird” problem, because those are coworkers and bosses working to handle those moments with clarity, boundaries, and dignity, and that’s what helped me enormously in learning how to interact. We want people to come to work as fully formed appropriate adults, leaving their personal lives at home, but in truth work is a huge part of our lives and selves, and a lot of our growth and development as people happens there. I love seeing workplaces that understand this and are willing to put in the soft skills development needed to make their workplaces safe, equitable, and functional for the messy human beings working there.

Comments are closed.