Episode 39

Published on:

7th Mar 2023

Uncomfortable Truths About Modern Relationship Violence: Welcoming Dr. Carolyn West

There are many stereotypes about what relationship violence looks like-- and there are many ways that survivors and perpetrators of it defy those stereotypes. Today we sat down with Dr. Carolyn West, professor of psychology at the University of Washington and leading authority on relationship violence, to learn the realities of this difficult topic. From the way that technology increases a partner's ability to be controlling, to surprising warning signs, to thinking about how to break the cycle for future generations and how the cycle of violence affects all of us in society, today's discussion is not one to miss.

Find out more about Dr. West and her work here.

In the US, the National Domestic Violence Hotline phone number is 1-800-799-7233. They have services available in multiple languages, and their website is https://thehotline.org. Please reach out to them if you have concerns about you or someone else being involved in an abusive relationship. 

Follow Baggage Check on Instagram @baggagecheckpodcast and get sneak peeks of upcoming episodes, give your take on guests and show topics, gawk at the very good boy Buster the Dog, and send us your questions!

Here's more on Dr. Andrea Bonior and her book Detox Your Thoughts.

Here's more on this podcast, which somehow you already found (thank you!)

Credits: Beautiful cover art by Danielle Merity, exquisitely lounge-y original music by Jordan Cooper


Dr. Carolyn West: Thank you so much for having me.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: So you really have decades of work in this field. I know you started some of your early work looking at dating violence with the idea that if some of those signs and if some of those conflicts that were happening in the early dating relationships could be resolved, that um, we would, uh, be able to avoid some of the situations that are more devastating where people are involved and entrenched in relationships that really it's very tough to get out of because their lives are intertwined. And now there is controlling behavior, there's abusive behavior, there's violent behavior. What first got you interested in any of this? What first drew you to studying dating violence and relationship violence?

Dr. Carolyn West: I think being a psychology student and seeing that so many of our social proiblems were linked to violence in the home, and it just really seemed to me that if we could deal with all manners of family violence, we could really get ahead of, um, a lot of the social problems that exist a lot in society and work with people around healing around those issues or really primary prevention, stopping the violence before it started that many of these problems wouldn't exist. So I became very just really passionate about that. Actually, it started when I was 13 years old and I got my first adult library card. And the first book that I checked out of the library was a book called Scream Quietly or the Neighbors Will Hear. And it was one of earlier investigations of domestic, uh, violence. And it cited a researcher, Murray Strauss, uh, at the University of New Hampshire, and he did the first national study on family violence. And I ended up doing my postdoc in his lab many years later when I got my PhD.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Oh, uh, my goodness. It all came full circle.

Dr. Carolyn West: All came full circle.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: You know, I mean, I know this is kind of off topic, but when I hear so much about books being banned and people protesting at libraries because they had drag queens reading Story Hour, and I think libraries are truly a fundamentally crucial part of our community, of our society. Libraries change lives. Libraries build curiosity in a 13 year old who goes on to study and make such a huge difference in such an important societal issue. And, you know, it's been pointed out libraries are pretty much one of the few public spaces where you don't have to buy something. They're one of the few non commercialized public spaces that people can build community and can hang out and can read a magazine or open their world to something else. So all you librarians out there, we love you. Keep up the amazing work. But I love that. So at 13, you were kind of just drawn to this book, and it turned out to open this whole world for you. What you mentioned about how so many cycles of violence really start in the home and thinking about intergenerational trauma and how if we can prevent some types of relationship violence, we literally might make an effect for generations. I think that's so powerful. And that's something, I think, that people don't realize just how systemic this issue can be. And I work with clients all the time where how their grandparents treated their parents then trickled into how their parents treated them, which has now trickled into their own depression or their own trauma, or their own substance related stuff. And it makes this conversation, I think, even more crucial. So what have you seen over the past 30 years? Obviously, that's not an easy question to answer, but what kind of trends, you know, from when this was first being studied, what kind of trends, any signs of hope? What kind of changes have you seen in not only the the prevalence of these types of issues, but also the ways that we talk about it in society?

Dr. Carolyn West: I think it's still very much with us. Uh, I think we're having conversations. What's different is it thrives on silent secrecy and shame. And so I'm, um, hoping with the Me Too movement and all these other social movements where people are more willing to come forward and identify the victimization in their lives, that that's helping. But I'm not seeing the numbers trend downward, and that would give me much more hope. And in fact, I think with what we're living through with this pandemic, we're actually experiencing more of more domestic violence, uh, and more serious domestic violence, because people have to shelter in place, um, they have fewer avenues to escape. And most of the social safety network is tattered. So people who are already marginalized have even fewer resources. So I think we have a lot of work to do as a society.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yeah, it's really concerning, in particular, these ways that you imagine any problematic dynamic within a relationship probably got much worse during COVID And when people are not as able to leave their homes, not as able to gather with friends and family who might detect, hey, something seems wrong. And then increased stress economically increased concerns within couples, which could lead to more conflict. Uh, there's so much there just to sort of start out with, thinking about what this looks like. Obviously, there's no two incidences of violence that look exactly the same, I'm sure. But what are some of the trends that you see in terms of early signs, early concerns? How do we know when a relationship really is something that is more at risk for this? And what kind of things should we be looking out for?

Dr. Carolyn West: I do some consulting in domestic violence cases, for example. And usually I'm brought in when a domestic homicide has occurred, and usually the victim is a woman who killed her intimate partner. And there are always so many clear signs of, um, when a violent relationship is going to escalate, maybe to a domestic homicide. Uh, so we look for things has a violence increase in severity over time or frequency over the past year. So things are getting worse. That's mitigation. If the individual, if the perpetrator owns a gun, that's a huge risk factor. Uh, sometimes if the couple has left, they live together and then they broke up, when that perpetrator starts to feel like he has lost control, then violence may escalate. At that point, I think people don't realize, we just tell victims, well, you should just leave, and somehow that will solve the problem. But sometimes leaving and not having a safety plan, actually, that's a pretty risky time for the victim. Perpetrator feels like they've lost control and then will escalate to a domestic homicide. So leaving can, uh, be a risky time if you don't have a safety plan in place to do that. Unemployment. When a perpetrator lost, uh, his job and feels like they have nothing else to lose, and now I'm losing my partner, and they have no economic resources, so unemployment can be a risk factor. Have they threatened the victim with a lethal weapon? Have, uh, they threatened to kill the victim? Oftentimes, victims will and family members may minimize that and say, well, they're just talking, they don't really mean it. We have to take those kinds of things seriously. Have they avoided getting arrested for domestic violence? So if you can avoid that, then they learn the system is not really going to hold them accountable.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Uh, that's so interesting and scary, this aspect that they've kind of beat the system before, so now they're not even afraid of the consequences as much in terms of them getting punished, they're caught.

Dr. Carolyn West: Exactly. If there is sexual violence, the combination of physical violence and sexual violence, that is an indication of really serious violence. So if the perpetrator is raping, sexually assaulting, sexually abusing the victim in context of physical violence, that's huge. If the perpetrator is using illegal drugs or has a serious drinking problem, that is, uh, a serious issue. If they're controlling your daily activity, if they're saying things so you feel like you can't leave the house, you can't do anything without this person just constantly controlling, uh, your activities, where you go, who you see, who your friends are, your world just becomes smaller and smaller because that person is controlling everything. Red flags should be going off at that point as well. If they're constantly jealous, if they're saying things like, if I can't have you, nobody, uh, else will. If they are beating the victim while they're pregnant, huge risk factor of domestic homicide. If they're stalking the victim and so you feel like you can't get away from them, they're calling, constantly spying on you, tracking your whereabouts. With all the technology we have in our lives, it's much easier to do that. If that is happening. That's, uh, a big sign.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yeah, there's so much there. And the technology piece is particularly interesting because I think it affords people the ability to control even more extremely than in the past. It's like, okay, my partner went to her sister's house. And in the past, unless you physically followed your partner, you wouldn't know if maybe she also went somewhere else to try to get some support because she really had a therapy appointment or she really was seeing a doctor. Now it's as easy as pressing a button to say, oh look, she's not at her sisters anymore. Um, and that's frightening. And I know there's been all kinds of attention about some of this technology being used in the hands of perpetrators because it's not just smartphones, right? It's the tags and stuff.

Dr. Carolyn West: Those tags that you can put on your luggage to see if they go missing easily, to put them in your vehicle. A bag. Cameras are getting smaller that you could easily put someone's home to spy on them. 24/7 with technology, I can start my vehicle that's parked right outside. So when we are surrounded by technology smart homes where you can control the temperature in the home or lights in the home, you can easily use that technology to harass and terrorize a victim and not even physically be in the same location. So stalking is something stalking with technology is a trend that we're seeing that makes it even more difficult to escape.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Are the tech companies doing enough? I mean, obviously they're never doing enough if this is happening. But is it reasonable, what they're doing? Are they paying attention to this, in your opinion? Could they be doing something differently or doing more in order to not allow their products to be used to damage people's lives and to put people at risk?

Dr. Carolyn West: The saddest thing is, technology is always going to change. It's not the technology per se. It's what it does in the hands of somebody who is bound and determined to do something really wrong and hurtful with the technology. So there's more certainly that companies can do. But the technology is changing daily almost. And we don't have laws that will keep up with the changing technology to protect victims. I was on Capitol Hill this summer testifying and working with people who were victims of like what we call revenge porn. And we're seeing that being a part of domestic violence cases where maybe you took some video with somebody you were dating and they were sexually explicit, and that person uses that video later to post them on websites, for example, m and then submit that to friends and family and your employer to further do damage to the victim. So we're seeing that as a form, and once that gets out there, then tech companies don't want to take those videos down. So the victim is left with very few choices to protect themselves. So technology is being a part used to harm victims is concerning trends, for sure.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: It's just a whole another umbrella of weapons, basically, and tools for coercion, hey, I've got this video and you know, if you leave me, everybody's going to have that including your boss or including your family. The idea of feeling so trapped I think is so profound for people that are stuck in these relationships and I think it's very easy as outsiders, I see this a lot to say why don't they just leave? And why don't they realize what a terrible situation this is and how much better off they'd be if they left? And I think there are such clear answers to why many people don't leave. And you certainly alluded to one of them right off the bat earlier, that it is realistically very dangerous to leave sometimes if you don't have a very specific and protective plan in place because you are at higher risk of, uh, having the violence be even more extreme or losing your life if you are to leave. And I think we don't realize that as a culture sometimes that it's not a matter of just leaving because people are really trapped and then there's obviously emotional reasons too, why it's not so simple for someone to just leave.

Dr. Carolyn West: Yeah it doesn't abusive relationships oftentimes start off the same way other happy relationships do and people are very invested. Perpetrators oftentimes don't show you all of who they are initially. They can be very charming and uh, so you may not be aware and so it can be sort of a gradual process to get the person invested and they're learning things about you along the way. You're trusting this individual, you're sharing with them your vulnerabilities. And perpetrators are really attracted to a vulnerability. So oftentimes when you're at maybe a difficult time in your life, maybe you've lost a parent to COVID or you've lost your job or you're having trouble with your child, this person shows up and they look like they can be Prince uh, Charming or this perfect person for you. They're attracted to those vulnerabilities and so I think that's why we have to be careful with things like online dating as well. Um, can be sort of risky in some ways because many people meet their partners through online dating and it works out very well for people but I think people also maybe over share, um, parts of themselves and they don't realize the person that they're talking to, they just know what that person is telling them. They don't know who that person really is in a context. Mhm, and so that person can really be anything.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yeah. And even if you're not even putting your vulnerabilities directly on your profile, it's so easy, I imagine, for someone to find them elsewhere online. You know, like, oh, well, now that I'm friends with this person on Instagram or I've seen their Facebook, I know that they're struggling as a single parent with being vulnerable in these particular ways. And someone can really pick up on that. And I think that's so tricky at the beginning of a relationship, because we all want to be cared for. And when we're vulnerable, we have that need even more. And so what seems so comforting and soothing? Oh, this person values me. They're paying attention to me. They want to take care of me. And sometimes, uh, it's really for the wrong reasons in some situations, certainly not always. But as you pointed out, people who are prone to controlling and abusive behavior often want to find someone with vulnerabilities precisely so they can exploit those vulnerabilities. And so now gradually, they're going to become the only person that you think you can rely on because they're going to start to separate you from your friends or family, or they're going to make you a little bit more beholden to them, or they're going to make you more dependent on them. Is that something that you see?

Dr. Carolyn West: Exactly. And you have to share parts of yourself. That's how you build relationships and how you build trust. But do it gradually. Let the relationship unfold and share the more intimate parts of yourself as you build trust in that person and see that that person is who they say they are, rather than just share everything. And so part of it is figuring out how to have good boundaries. I think that can be sometimes challenging, I think when I look at social media and how willing people are sharing so many aspects of their lives, and I don't know if that's kind of an artificial intimacy and can put people at risk too. So boundaries are good. Boundaries are good, yeah.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: And they're hard when you're falling in love with someone and when you're thinking, this person is so special and this person cares about me. It's hard sometimes to pump the brakes. And sometimes what I see happening, and I wonder if this reflects what you see as well, is that as other people in the person's life start to express concern, then there's like that backlash effect, the classic scenario where somebody says, oh, well, my sister doesn't think this guy is good for me, but that's just because she's jealous. Or, yeah, my parents don't want me to date this guy, but that kind of makes him a little bit more alluring because I'm kind of going against my parents a little bit there. And I think that's so concerning because what I tend to see is then things can go exponentially faster in terms of the person becoming more and more enmeshed, because now they've basically gotten the person to turn away from their own support system on their own without even having to force it. Now essentially, you've turned away from your family and friends because you say, oh, they just don't know him like I do, or oh, they just got the wrong impression, or oh, they're just so judgmental. And that's when that circle starts to close off even more. And I just feel like so many people don't realize they're in it because it's easy to say, oh, they just don't like the person I'm dating for their own reasons. And, uh, sometimes that could be true. But I think in abusive relationships, oh, it's so horrifying when you see the person start to justify the abusive behavior even more because they think that their friends and family are just overreacting.

Dr. Carolyn West: Right? Exactly. I think those are the subtle signs that we start to look for if we have an inkling that something is not right with the relationship. Think about the notion that you don't really, um, start a family. You join a family. And so when you meet this special person, you want to bring them into your life. It doesn't mean you get rid of the people who are already there, who are part of your social network. So if you start feeling like your life is getting smaller, you can't spend that time with friends and family. You have to give up your hobby, you have to leave school, or give up all the important things in your life that are important to you. That person should be enhancing your life, not making your life smaller. So that may be an indication that maybe something is not so healthy there if they're trying to sever those relationships with other people. And if you start to feel like you can't be honest with yourself, you can't really tell your friends and family what's going on in that relationship because they're going to say, hey, this doesn't seem quite right, or you're embarrassed of, uh, what's going on. That's usually a sign that something is not working.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Well, yes, I love the way you put that, that a partner should be enhancing your life and the world that you have rather than diminishing it. And I think some people really don't realize to what extent the world can start to be diminished by a partner. And, you know, in some ways it's like, oh, okay, well, yes. So we're going to live in this particular city because this is where we've chosen to raise a family and it's close to my partner's family or whatever, that's one thing. But in those other subtle ways, that could be signs of problems with the dynamic. I think people don't realize how slightly it can sort of start off like, well, I've seen some of the mildest things that really go on to Escalate. He doesn't like it when I wear that, or, well, this particular coworker of mine, he doesn't like me to talk to, or well, he doesn't like to have this particular type of food, so I can't have it in the house because he doesn't like the way it smells. Uh, and sometimes people feel like almost sort of special, like, oh, my partner just kind of gets jealous because he loves me so much, so he's just kind of jealous. So I shouldn't wear that shirt because sometimes it gets attention or I shouldn't talk to this friend because he gets jealous. And it's like, okay, that's at some point not charming. I think sometimes we romanticize jealousy to the point of jealousy starting to become extreme, and and jealous feelings can be totally natural and okay. But then there's a point at which jealous feelings can very easily start to get into controlling behavior justification, basically.

Dr. Carolyn West: Right. And when you stop trusting yourself in your own perception, there's some gas lighting going on there where that person they replace their view of the world with your view of the world. And so you don't trust yourself to make good decisions anymore. That makes sense. That could be fine as well.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yeah. And then before you know it, your own belief system can be somewhat co opted by someone else because you don't know where you start and the other person ends. It's like you're just kind of absorbing the role of firearms. You mentioned that sort of being a risk factor. And I know it's such a politicized topic in US. Culture, for sure, but I think it's so important to emphasize how much of a risk factor it is and how important it is that we acknowledge that that with gun ownership comes elevated risks. The statistics don't lie, and the same is true, unfortunately, for suicide as well, um, which we don't talk about so much either. Have you ever been able to see any progress in terms of the conversation about guns, about firearms being tied to a more fact based, more nuanced and insightful conversation about the risk of relationship violence? Have we made any progress on that front in the US. At least?

Dr. Carolyn West: Yeah. There's sort of orders of protection that you can get if you kind of feel that the person has a firearm and they're emotionally unstable and the firearm needs to be removed. But we have so much more to do around that issue, because the reality is we think we'll have a firearm, and it'll keep us in our family safer. But as you said, you're more likely to have an accidental shooting, a suicide, or that gun is more m likely to be used against a family member rather than a stranger to protect people. Uh, that's something we're seeing, particularly when we look at racial differences in domestic violence. For example, native women, indigenous women, and black women have some of the highest rates of domestic homicide when compared to women of other ethnic backgrounds, and a disproportionate number of those women will be killed with a handgun. So it disproportionately certainly impacts that community.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yeah. And is some of the thinking behind that because of the presence of firearms or firearm ownership rate? I imagine there are other factors as well. When I was chatting with you before the show, we kind of talked about how, for you, you've noticed that, uh, there's a desire to look at these issues through the kind of colorblind type of lens, but that there are some limitations of that. There are some problems with that.

Dr. Carolyn West: Uh, there certainly are, because we know that this is a problem that impacts everybody, regardless of race, ethnicity, religious background, social class. It, uh, happens in same sex relationships. Men are victims, male identified individuals, or victims trans people. It impacts everybody. It's a social problem that knows no boundaries. And so it's important to remember that. But it's also true that at the same time, some communities are disproportionately impacted communities of color or disproportionately impacted. And so we have to find nuanced, um, ways of talking about racial disproportionality without being so colorblind. We erase, uh, racism and racial differences, but also not reinforcing the very same stereotypes that we want to dispel. And so talking about why, for example, african American women are at elevated risk, so they're at risk for domestic homicide. They're at risk for what we call reproductive coercion. So the perpetrator not allowing them to use contraceptions or just trying to control their reproductive life, so they end up having more unintended pregnancies, for example, or feeling maybe pressure to terminate a pregnancy that they didn't want to do that because of pressure from the perpetrator and being battered when they're pregnant, being killed when they're pregnant. Uh, black women have higher rates of that. Black women also have higher rates of Strangulation, um, more than other ethnic groups. And the research is kind of unclear about why that is. But, um, that's a risk factor also for domestic homicide. Black women get arrested at higher rates for using violence and self defense, probably because you're experiencing being victims of more severe domestic violence. So there are important racial differences that we need to be having conversations about and being careful not to stigmatize those populations as well.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Right. It sounds like a particularly hard balance to strike, I'm imagining. Right, because we want to be aware of the differences and the higher risks without also stereotyping black men, for instance, as inherently violent. Exactly. I mean, I don't even know where we begin to strike that balance. Obviously you've found a way in all of your public facing work to be able to have nuanced conversations about this, which I imagine that's part of the importance, right, is being able to actually talk about these in insightful. Mindful ways rather than having knee jerk reactions or buying into some of the media portrayals of masculinity or blackmail masculinity that probably play into stereotypes in really damaging ways.

Dr. Carolyn West: Exactly. I think we need to take a broader we need to widen our limbs and understand the populations that experience domestic violence at elevated risk are also just vulnerable to institutional violence. Those sources turn to the police or psychologists. Other sources haven't been welcoming, so they can't get the help that they need. So the violence escalates, getting access to domestic violence shelters and such is just much more challenging. For example, or they're experiencing different rates of economic vulnerability. That contributes to this as well. So there are other factors beyond the couple and the individual that puts it at risk.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yeah. And what you speak to there makes so much sense that for a lot of people, it's not just a double whammy, it's a multiple whammy. The very same things that make them more vulnerable to relationship violence also mean that they're living in poverty or that they are feeling very detached from support systems in terms of the government or in terms of law enforcement. And they're feeling vulnerable in other ways, financially, economically. Uh, you imagine that for some of these people, it really can lead to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness where they feel even more trapped. Because they're not just trapped within the relationship, they're trapped within the system. And I hear so often the horror stories I know we all do, where somebody tried to get help, they tried to get the order of protection, they tried to leave, they tried and a judge threw it out, or the police didn't take their report seriously, or whatever it might be. And how do we not feel hopeless about this? How do we continue to try to empower people when there are some really disheartening signs sometimes about how the system sometimes does fail people?

Dr. Carolyn West: What keeps me hopeful is that if we can continue to have conversations about domestic violence and sexual assault and all these forms of trauma, um, because, as I said, it thrives on silent secrecy and shame. So perpetrators count on survivors, um, not being willing to disclose that, and people not taking the abuse seriously. So if we can continue to have conversations and educate ourselves and our communities about this, I think that could be one step to getting better. There's an organization, they have a public campaign and a public service campaign around sexual assault. And they just simply say, Start by believing. So instead of questioning that person, just start by believing. And give the person a chance to really talk about what their experiences are rather than, uh, shutting them down. That would be a good place to start. And we need many more resources. If I told you to leave your house right now with just what you had in your pocket and go start another life somewhere, that's going to be exceedingly hard to do without resources. So we need domestic violence shelters. There is a National Domestic Violence Resource Center. I'll give you those, uh, resources after this podcast so we can share those with listeners. But there are places that you can call 24 hours and they can at least tell you where resources are in your community. So I really think it comes down to making sure, not just telling people to leave, as domestic violence is an individual personal problem. It's really a societal and systemic problem. And we have to put all of our society resources into making sure people have affordable housing, uh, child care and all the resources they need to escape the violence.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: That's why the work that you're doing on Capitol Hill, for instance, is so important. Because this is an issue that doesn't come down to just one person. It comes down to the way that our entire societal structure is formed in terms of who we support and who we believe and who we choose to actually listen to and who we let actually have a role in the conversation. Thinking about on the individual level, though, I wonder some people might be hearing this podcast, and I think we've got different folks hearing this podcast. We've got people who might be concerned about a loved one being in a relationship where that loved one is being harmed. I think we've got people maybe feeling unsettled about their own relationship or knowing that it's not particularly healthy. And I also think and this goes less addressed, I think we've probably got people listening who recognize the signs in themselves that they are becoming controlling or that they know that they have been abusive. And I think it's important that we address those listeners too. But why don't we start with the loved one idea? Why don't we start with how we would support someone and what we would advise them when they are concerned? Thinking, for instance, okay, my brother is in a relationship here and his boyfriend does not treat him well. Uh, they seem to be arguing a lot. His boyfriend seems to be really jealous and controlling. There are some signs there, there's nothing overt. And my brother seems, on the surface, to be content about the relationship. How do we even start a conversation in that? Whether it's a brother, whether it's a friend, whether it's a cousin, whether it's someone that we love dearly, or somebody that we just kind of know from work, but we see some concerning types of signs. Where do we begin with that?

Dr. Carolyn West: Uh, I think you have the conversation by just breaking the silence and saying, because oftentimes survivors are waiting for people to act or they're enmeshed in it and they don't see, uh, what's going on. They may have an inkling that something is wrong, but sometimes just asking opens the door for that. And if you give them space to say, hey, you know, I noticed that something is not quite right here. I have some concerns about your relationship. Even if they brush you off initially, keep the door open to have that conversation. You want to be a safe place for them, a person for them to talk to, because if they get the sense that you're judgmental, uh, that you're blaming them, then they won't come to you again and say, hey, if there's something that you want to talk about, I'm, um, here for you. And I think you also have to, if you're a family member or friend, to understand that leaving an, uh, unhealthy relationship is not an event it's a process. It's not an event. It's a process. Oftentimes it may take that person as many as nine or ten times to leave before they can make a final break. So you have to practice patience if you really want to support that person and realize that you can't just drag them out, uh, if they're not ready to go. It's a process that they've got to kind of work through also on their own, saying that that relationship maybe is not going to change before they can make the final break and they're willing to leave. So you've got to honor their process and not that you can control it in that way. You have to just be available to listen and to support. Know the resources in your community so you can share that with them, too. Say, hey, when you're ready to leave, if you're ready to leave, here are some ways to be able to do that.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yeah, you laid that out with such clarity, and it really strikes me how similar it is to trying to intervene when there's any sort of mental health concern. You know, I have these conversations all the time with folks. How do I help my friend with an eating disorder? What do I say to my colleague that is struggling clearly with drinking getting worse? Or how do I help my cousin who's severely depressed? I think really part of it is we focus so much often on what to say. We don't focus enough on how to listen, how to create and cultivate that space, where the person actually feels like they can break their silence, where they feel like they are safe in talking about it, where they don't feel judged, where they feel like you are receptive. I think that's every bit as important as what we actually say. And then, of course, being able to say, here are some resources and I want to help you get connected. Because none of these folks in these scenarios are going to be the therapist or the doctor or the person to actually end the relationship, but they are the person that can help get them connected to the types of professional support systems, too, that are so meaningful. So a lot of this rings true, I imagine, too, just listening for the person that's in the relationship themselves, and that is maybe thinking about leaving or wondering if they should leave. Is there anything else that we would say to folks themselves who recognize their relationships in these symptoms that we're talking about, who know maybe in the pit of their stomach that they would be healthier and better off if they were not in it? Uh, what do we say to those folks?

Dr. Carolyn West: I think one thing to say it's oftentimes, people have to get to a point where that boundary, that place in the sand where it's like, you cannot come, and I will not let you come, and I will not go. If you start finding yourself doing things that you said you would never do, and you're compromising your dignity, your self esteem, you're involved in things that you know are not good. It's usually a breaking point. There's usually a straw that broke the camel's back. And that can be different for different people. For some survivors, it's when the partner, abusive partner, starts hitting the children, or it's a really severe beating, or it's just constant chronic name whatever it is for you, you know that I am just done. And being able to honor that, you just get to a point where it's just a breaking point where, you know, like, i, uh, cannot be in this for one more minute.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yes. And to recognize that that was your boundary.

Dr. Carolyn West: Yeah. And so this is not because you end up not even liking the person you're becoming, not even recognizing the person that you are when you stay in situations that are not really good for you. So listening to some of that internal voice and that can be difficult because when you're in an abusive relationship, gradually you just almost become accustomed to it, or it seems very normalized, or it feels like there is no escape. But honoring and listening to that so that you don't lose all of who you are is critically important and not.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Letting those boundaries keep moving. Because maybe six months ago, you said, well, if she ever did this, then I would leave. But it's such a gradual march towards that point that now it's like, well, I'm not going to leave because I know that they're sorry and it's probably not going to happen again. But recognizing and said, no, I said this was a hard line. And as you said, I think for so many people, the children are the hard line. But I think it's important for people to recognize that it's not this black and white thing. Whereas, okay, if the kids are hit, then then the kids are harmed. But as long as they're not hurting the kids directly, physically, then the kids are fine. Oftentimes, and we're not trying to make anyone feel guilty, but oftentimes the parental relationship being abusive is so damaging in its own right, even if the kids are always spared from the direct abuse. And I think that's really hard for people to reckon with because obviously we're not trying to make people feel worse. But I think it's also, um, important to recognize that when you think about protecting your kids, it's not as simple as, well, if he doesn't lay a hand on or she doesn't lay a hand on them, then they're okay because they're watching what's happening. And even sometimes when parents don't think that the kids know what's happening because it's not over in front of the kids, the kids are very much picking up on it, and they're very much feeling the effects of it.

Dr. Carolyn West: Right. If you think, ask yourself, are you really staying for the sake of the children? Is this person, uh, so many survivors I talked to, well, he was really abusive to me, but he was a good father. Or can you really think of father if you're abusing the other parent? Really? It does have a profoundly negative impact on children when they're in that environment. So, uh, really ask yourself if you're really doing the children a favor by staying in a really unhealthy situation in that way. And then start planning, start making a safety plan, letting people know, coming up with a plan, it could be even something as simple. If you feel like you're unsafe, have an agreement with the neighbors. Like if the porch light isn't turned on at this particular time, something is not right, just call the police. Or start copying important documents, uh, birth certificates, Social Security cards, banking information, and getting that in a safe place. And so that gradually you can leave, because sometimes it is a process and you need to gradually do it rather than leave and then feel like you have to come back. So whatever you need to do that's going to keep you safe in that situation, that's what's going to be critical.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Right. And really laying the foundation to be able to get to that point. So maybe if somebody's listening today who says, oh, I couldn't leave, well, maybe starting with step one, you might feel like you can't leave now, but could you get some documents in place? Could you tell a neighbor, like you said, hey, if you ever notice something strange in this way? Because I think sometimes the small steps can make a little bit of a toehold in the big process. It feels like, oh, I can't leave this relationship. But maybe starting to lay the foundation can help people feel a little bit more empowered that they could eventually get there. Because I imagine sometimes it's the thinking of leaving that is just as terrifying as the actual individual steps, because just the idea of it makes people not even start to lay the foundation because that just seems so scary. My life without this person is very frightening. And the unknown not only of what this person would do, but how I would rebuild afterwards.

Dr. Carolyn West: Right. And so understanding that perpetrators aren't horrible all the time and they also know your vulnerability and if they feel like you're starting to slip away, they'll oftentimes know what to say or do to sort of get you back and reconnect it again. So being prepared for that, oh, I'll change, I'll go to church, I will go to therapy, uh, I will cry, I will do whatever I need to do to come back. And that's important in a pattern as well. So being aware of that and so making sure that you're in a good place if you really want to make that final break that you're prepared to.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Do that, oh, uh, that's so important. That's so important, and so the people listening. And I do hear from these folks too. I've written a couple of pieces on controlling relationships and I do hear from these folks, and I'm always heartened by it, even as it's startling and even as it's inherently complicated. My stomach always lurches a little bit if I get an email saying, I am the person in this relationship and I don't know what to do. And to me, being able to recognize yourself is such a profound step. One to be able to own it and say, not only do I recognize myself, but this is a problem. I am harming someone. And I'm not trying at least for this brief moment, I'm not trying to justify it. I'm not trying to say, well, they deserved it, or well, they just shouldn't be making me jealous, or well, they had it coming because they rile me up. They make me crazy. I mean, it was interesting. We saw that whole sort of thing go down with Will Smith. The idea of, uh, uh, love can sometimes make you do crazy things. And I know for a lot of us in the field and for a lot of us trying to fight to have more awareness about the risks of relationship violence, I imagine you must have had that reaction too, of like, oh, are we saying here that if you love someone so much it might make you haul off and hit somebody? That's a problem, right?

Dr. Carolyn West: And so that's when you turn the mirror on yourself and do some deep reflection. And that is a lot of hard work, but worth it because ultimately, in the end, your relationships will be better with your loved ones but your relationships will be better with yourself if you can do that deep reflection. And so it is deeply humbling and scary to really look inward and to start asking questions about maybe your family background or, uh, what's happened to you to make you be the person who is hurting other people in that way. So that's where you hold yourself accountable. But you also give yourself some grace that you do better when you know how to do better. But you give yourself some grace while you're doing the really hard work of looking inward and asking yourself, why am I doing this? This seemed familiar to me. Is this how other people in my life, important people in my life, interacted with me and other family members?

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yes. And might I have other mental health issues that are driving this? I see this a lot too. Somebody's anxiety or depression or substance use, for instance. All those things can be the result of being in an abusive relationship on either end. But it certainly can also be the cause sometimes of someone becoming a perpetrator. They are so, uh, struggling with their own disorders on their own or their own mental distress, or their fear about the fact that now they just got fired, as you mentioned, or their severe depression where they don't know how to manage any emotions, and they just feel hopeless and angry, and they lash out at the people that they love. That oftentimes really getting to the root of the problem is acknowledging these additional problems, attachment problems.

Dr. Carolyn West: I'm so afraid if you're going to leave me that I'm, um, doing all the things to do that really push you away and make you want to leave me. And why am I not feeling I'm enough? I think it's that romantic kind of notion in our society where you watch the romance movies and they always say, you complete me. It's like, ideally better. When both people come to the relationship, they're both less than perfect, but they are enough on their own, and they're building something with this person rather than you're looking for somebody else to fix you.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yes. That's why your idea you said before, in terms of the enhancement, I think was so profound that you're looking for a relationship to be enhancing of both parties rather than to be filling all these holes that existed. We have an episode about rejection sensitive dysphoria rsd this condition where people are so fearful of rejection, not just with strangers and friend groups, but oftentimes with partners, that it leads to this fear that's so severe, you're going to leave me. And I'm terrified of that. Of course, there are lots of people who have histories of neglect and abandonment, and it, uh, can have those types of issues too. And I think when people are willing to be vulnerable and say, my partner deserves for me to work on this, and I deserve to work on this too, there really is some growth. And I know sometimes people have a knee jerk reaction. Well, if I go into therapy and I talk about this, then they're going to call the police or something. And of course, we can't get into the nitty gritty so much of every individual scenario in that. But people should know that in any therapy environment, there's going to be informed consent where it's going to be made very clear to you before you say a word about what the limits of confidentiality might be. And there's so much work that can be done within the therapy setting. And therapists are trained to be as non judgmental as possible, to have empathy, to understand the nuance, and have insight into the whole dynamic. I think sometimes, even with things like couples counseling, the fear is, well, I'm going to be the bad guy, so I'm just not going to go. And so then the couple doesn't get help. And obviously, in abusive relationships, it's not necessarily just about couples counseling per se. But I think what often makes people afraid of getting help is that they think that that's going to make things worse because I'm going to be found out, or it's not going to help at all because it's just going to take the other person's side or whatever it is. And then that cuts them off from getting help and it cuts them off from being able to do the work. And then guess what? The relationship gets so much worse. So anybody listening? I mean, please take heed that there is help out there.

Dr. Carolyn West: And I find, um, when you're doing that, you're using all your emotional energy to run from something. It's just easier in the end to face it. And then, uh, you just feel so much lighter. You're m not weighed down by the baggage because you faced it and you can move past it. But by denying and running and not dealing with it, all your energy goes to that rather than really living the kind of authentic life you really want to. And you don't have the energy to be happy in a way that you really can be if you face those things. So it's difficult, yes, when you are behaving that way. But oftentimes people do that because they don't know what else to replace the negative behavior with. And they need it's. Like, well, if yelling at my partner or hitting my partner, that's clearly not working. But what else do I do instead? I don't have something else. I don't have the skills or the tools in m my toolbox to know what else to do.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yes, that's so true. And I think giving up any kind of problematic behavior often leads to that fear. It's like, okay, well, I was using such and such as a crutch, but now if you're just going to take my crutch away, I still can't walk. So what else do I do in that scenario? And that's why I think discussions about substance abuse need to be so much more nuanced than they often are, which is, yes, absolutely, the person would be better off getting clean and sober and that's what we need to work towards. But the substance also was one that they loved on some level. And there's grief and there's loss and there's mourning. Giving up even a substance that was killing you, it played a role in your life and there's loss in that. And let's be honest about that too. Just like with the nuances of these relationships, if friends and family are constantly saying, oh, he's just no good for you. He's terrible, he's terrible, he's terrible, what do you see in him? Why don't you just leave? I think that really does a disservice because the person saying, okay, but this is the person that also makes me laugh sometimes. And this is the person that also is really sweet with some of the candy that he brings me or when I'm sick, he makes me soup from scratch. And he is also the person that harms me. And I think, uh, when we are all or none or black and white about it, we get people trapped even more because then they're like, well, wait a second. You just don't see the good in this person, right? Because there is good at times.

Dr. Carolyn West: And so we're all really just sort of doing the best that we can. And we oftentimes don't model what healthy relationships are in this society. So then how do you learn?

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Mhm yes, because the Hollywood model is most of the films and the television shows and of course, now portrayals on TikTok and portrayals on social media, they're not as nuanced as we would like. And I do have to wonder about what people grow up with in terms of not just watching maybe their parents or caregivers romantic relationships and what those are like, but also what they absorb, not just now from their friends and communities, which would have been 50 years ago, but literally from the device in their pocket. What messages are they learning about what relationships should look like? Because it's not as fun to have. Like, here are the nuts and bolts of a basic, somewhat boring, healthy relationship, because good relationships do have their moments of there not being anything noteworthy about it in that particular moment. That's a good thing, right, that you're sitting in companionable silence, sometimes just appreciating each other's company rather than, oh, uh, there's passion and argument and we scream at each other because we just care so much. I think that stereotype is alive and well in at least the Hollywood form of romances.

Dr. Carolyn West: Yeah. So there's a lot of work to do, but I'm very hopeful, and I will share the National Domestic Violence Hotline number with you. And that's available twenty four seven for people to reach out, to ask questions, do some safety planning, learn more about domestic violence. And there are resources available.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yes, thank you so much. And they have a website, too, which I believe you can click something very quickly to have it immediately removed. So if you're concerned about somebody looking over your shoulder, somebody tracking, we always have to be mindful of these things. But there is so much help out there. And it's people like you, Dr. West, that are doing the work to try to raise awareness, to try to research this, to try to teach about this and speak about it. And I'm just so grateful you took the time today, because I think, like you said, when we continue to let this be in silence, that is where it grows and it thrives. Violence thrives with shame. It thrives with silence. And so I think you've done such a service for folks today by taking the time to speak about this.

Dr. Carolyn West: Well, thank you so much. And I just would hope listeners understand it could be anybody. And these are not those people. These are people we know. These are friends or, uh, family members, ourselves. These are people that we know. So just please be open. Take the time to listen and be a support person because you can save a life.

Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yes, people really can. Thank you again, Dr. West.

Dr. Carolyn West: Thanks so much for having me.


Show artwork for Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice

About the Podcast

Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice
with Dr. Andrea Bonior
We've all got baggage. But what do we choose to do with it?
Every other Friday, licensed clinical psychologist, best-selling author and popular psychology professor Dr. Andrea Bonior takes your mental health questions, and makes you part of the conversation. Join her and other voices as they translate research into real life, and talk about relationships, emotions, health, psychological disorders, stress, finding meaning, work, and occasionally-- just occasionally-- the most obscure dance crazes of 1997.
All are welcome, and nothing is off limits. With science, compassion, and humor, she's here to help.

About your host

Profile picture for Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, speaker, and the best-selling author of “Detox Your Thoughts." She was the longtime mental health advice columnist for The Washington Post, and appears regularly in national media, including CNN and NPR, with several popular courses on the LinkedIn Learning platform. Dr. Bonior’s blog for Psychology Today has been read more than 25 million times. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University, where she recently won the national Excellence in Teaching award, given by the American Psychological Association.