Emergency Exit
November 8, 2018

“I Failed Her”: When Friends and Family Blame Themselves for Not Saving a Domestic Violence Victim

Women’s Advocates’ Education and Outreach Coordinator Meggie Royer writes a monthly post on topics that are relevant to the work we do as an organization.  While Women’s Advocates is supported by Grant No. A-CVS-2018-WOMADV-00013, awarded by the Office on Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs – the opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice.

After Wendy Malonyay’s daughter Kate was killed in a domestic violence homicide in Australia in April 2013, Malonyay underwent hours of trauma counseling. The primary question she struggled with in counseling was how she could have prevented Kate’s death, after months of pleading with Kate to leave her abuser, whose erratic and controlling behavior had terrorized Kate during and after the relationship. Now, Malonyay has made it her mission to save another woman’s life, playing a pivotal role in Australia’s White Ribbon Campaign aimed at helping men to end violence against women and girls.

Malonyay’s experience in trauma counseling is not uncommon. Concerned family members and friends of domestic violence victims often struggle with how to “save” their loved ones, especially as they watch them return again and again to their abusive partners. There is not a more devastating feeling than helplessness in the face of danger and death. We know that there are numerous success stories – women who reach a breaking point, who crawl out alive. Women who emerge from decades of violent control and manage to flourish, such as Brooke Axtell, a survivor of domestic abuse who spoke at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards. But we also know that there are many victims who do not survive, and that for many loved ones, success stories can seem utterly unattainable.

In 1979, Dr. Lenore Walker, an American psychologist, developed a theory of the cycle of abuse, which is still used today to describe the experiences of many (though not all) domestic violence victim/survivors. The first stage of the cycle involves the building of tension between the victim and the abuser, followed by an act or acts of abuse, and then reconciliation and a honeymoon period in which the abuser is often able to minimize the abuse and elicit forgiveness from the victim. Then the cycle restarts. For family members like Wendy Malonyay, watching the cycle turn for what seems like an endless number of rotations can be catastrophic. In a sense, the same flavor of powerlessness experienced by victims often ends up being experienced by their loved ones as well.

Fortunately, in approximately the last two decades, “vicarious trauma” has emerged as an area of interest for psychologists and researchers – a phenomenon in which individuals routinely exposed to the trauma of others may develop resulting trauma of their own. However, vicarious trauma is more often than not centered in a clinical context, used to refer to professions such as therapy and social work, in which workers who provide direct services to victims may become traumatized as a result.

We must begin to recognize that vicarious trauma is a potential impact for not only direct service workers, but also for the loved ones of the very individuals these direct service workers are interacting with. Indeed, trauma worker Laura van Dernoot Lipsky writes that those who are at risk for vicarious trauma include “anyone who interacts with the suffering, pain, and crisis of others or our planet.” We must begin to help the loved ones of domestic violence victims accept the fact, however agonizing it may be, that it is not always possible to truly save someone, and that they are not to blame.

Just as there are inconceivable numbers and varieties of support groups for relatives, friends, and partners of individuals struggling with drug and alcohol dependency, just as there are support groups for those who have lost family, peers, and other intimate relationships to suicide, cancer, and drunk driving, there must be support groups and services for the loved ones of domestic violence victim/survivors as well. We must advise these loved ones of the options available to them – offering housing, legal, counseling, and financial resources to victims, providing emotional support, helping with safety planning, practicing non-judgment, validation, and reassurance, identifying obstacles that prevent victims from leaving – while also truly helping them come to the recognition that while there is hope, it may not be guaranteed, and if that hope is dashed, there is no one to blame but the perpetrator and those who allowed them to perpetrate.

We do a disservice to victims and the people who have raised them, loved them, and grown with them if we provide false hope. We do a disservice if we place the responsibility of “saviorism” solely on the shoulders of a mother like Wendy Malonyay, or on the shoulders of anyone else who has loved someone who is being abused. In 2014, Dana Jones wrote about walking across a pedestrian bridge in Vegas several years prior and spotting a man grabbing his girlfriend by the hair while berating her. Jones glared at the man as she walked past, but a friend restrained her from trying to help, and as a victim of domestic violence herself, Jones had been afraid to intervene for her own safety. While Jones may not have been a family member or loved one of the woman who was being abused, for a long time afterward she experienced many of the same feelings that the woman’s loved ones might have throughout the progression of the relationship. “I wonder about her whereabouts, her well-being and whether or not I could have saved her,” Jones writes. “My only hope is that someone did, someone that had the knowledge that I lacked. I failed not only myself, but more importantly, I failed her.”

We have a responsibility to shed light on domestic violence and to break the silence, and it is crucial that observers and family members of victims do whatever they can to provide support, but it is also crucial that we ensure that no family member or loved one ever has to feel like they have failed, as Jones felt like she had. It is crucial that we ensure that no family member or loved one ever has to wonder “whether or not [they] could have saved” their child, or cousin, or friend. It is crucial that we ensure that no family member or loved one ever has to blame themselves for a death they were unable to prevent.

In one of her numerous diary entries, the French-American essayist and novelist Anais Nin once wrote “You cannot save people. You can only love them.” Let’s amend that – “Sometimes you can save people, but not every time. However, you can always, always love them.”


Written by Meggie Royer, Education and Outreach Coordinator at Women’s Advocates, mroyer@wadvocates.org.

Art by Shelby McQuilkin
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