Support groups for survivors
Face-to-face support groups can be very beneficial for survivors of domestic abuse. For those who are thinking of starting one or participating in one, here are some things you might like to reflect on.
I (Barb) participated in several secular support groups over the years. I went to my first group because the women’s refuge recommended it to me. I had actually reconciled with my abuser after leaving the refuge, but nevertheless I managed to attend the support group which ran for about 8 weeks. I told my husband I was going to women’s self esteem group, and believe it or not he let me go. I was pretty much in the fog, of course, being still in the abusive relationship, but I did learn one thing from the group.
One week the facilitators organised an attorney to come and speak about Protection Orders, how to apply for them, what they could do for you. That piece of information must have dropped into my subconscious because a couple of years after that I found myself ringing the police and applying for a protection order against my husband. I don’t think I would have known to do that, if I hadn’t heard that information in the support group.
The second group I went to was after I left my husband for the last time (I’m speaking of my first marriage) in 1999. It was a professionally facilitated group, like the first one I’d been to, and it went for about 10 weeks. When it was over, most of us wanted to keep meeting so we decided to continue as a mutual support group without professional facilitation. We did that for at least a year. It was great.
We met in each others houses or at venues where we could arrange child-care. We shared the struggles and successes we were having in our lives: this included the court cases we were going through, parenting issues, post-separation abuse, how we were each traveling emotionally, and the odds and sods of life. We laughed a fair bit too. We traded tips and encouraged each other about dealing with police and welfare agencies, how to find good counselors, how to apply for crimes compensation, how to get a new pet – you name it, we discussed it. We even helped some members of the group move house, and we borrowed a van and helped one lady leave her abuser by shifting her stuff while he was at work. Sometimes we had ‘kids days’ where we all got together and gave our kids games and fun things to do. We figured the kids had heard their mums talking to each other a lot, and had put up with our not paying them much attention, so we gave them total attention on the kids day. Our kids became friends with each other and supported each other. It was fantastic.
New women could come into the group by invitation from any one of us, so long as they were survivors of domestic abuse. Some women came and had never been to a professional group before, and were only just starting to acknowledge “I was a victim of abuse.” It’s not that hard to be warm and welcoming, if you just listen and don’t judge, and you give a woman the chance to tell her story. As newcomers listened to others, you could see the light bulbs coming on.
Now, it did need a bit of organising. We had to trust each other to share phone numbers and addresses; we had to all follow the rule of confidentiality (what is said here, stays here); we needed to work out times, dates, and sometimes child care issues. I think we could have been better with childcare: sometimes our kids overheard stuff we talked about, and in retrospect I don’t think that was particularly good. It would have perhaps been better to arrange for an older woman, perhaps one who wanted to be ‘grandma’ to kids but didn’t have grandchildren of her own nearby, to look after the kids at the opposite end of the house or in the garden, while we met. But I think we were fortunate and no major harm was done by our kids playing in a lounge room while we chatted in the kitchen.
That’s my story. A friend of mine has also helped start a support group in her city, which is aimed at Christian survivors. I asked her to share how the group got going, how it runs, and what they have learned so far. Here is her response:
Starting Up: If you don’t have many connections, you would have to pray that God would lead them to you or vice versa. I told my therapist, who is a well-regarded DV specialist who has facilitated support groups. She was happy to refer Christians to us and some of them are now members of the group. I also knew of other survivors and invited them. I don’t mean people who didn’t realize their victim status, but those whom I had gotten to know intimately and those who share a kindred spirit. The leadership had several meetings and discussions to set up a presence on the web and nut out our policies and practical considerations. We then held a preliminary meeting for interested parties – we ended up with just a handful, most of whom I knew personally. We presented the vision and got some feedback. Since then we have had more referrals from organizations and also from members of the group.
Spiritual covering: I contacted my pastor but didn’t manage to get him on board. It may be a very difficult thing to find a church that will get actively involved in supporting such a group. We have persevered and had discussions with a female pastor at one of members’ church, who is happy to give leadership.
Venue: We take turns to meet in each other’s homes. We never meet where there are safety concerns, eg if the abuser is still home or nearby. Some members are still in refuges. It’s a wonderful thing to meet in homes, by the way.
Time: We meet on a Sunday, after lunch. We bring snacks to share, and have a stock of standard supplies so that the host doesn’t have to provide everything.
Childcare: We haven’t had an issue. If there are older children who must come with their mothers, they go to another room. Some of our kids are on access visits with their fathers at that time. When there are younger children, we enlist some young teenagers (kids of the host, say) to look after them. Some of our members are living in refuges, but that doesn’t stop us meeting.
Leadership: We have several leaders, but we try to have some consensus in decision making as that can help people feel they have ownership in the group. We let everyone take it in turns to time-keep and lead the meetings. The interesting thing is that as broken as the victims/survivors are, when it comes to praying for someone else, they change roles and the counselor in them comes out! Each member is a leader in her own right, and as each member emerges from a place of brokenness, there will be opportunities to serve in their areas of strength.
Content: It has kind of evolved, and I guess every group will, depending on the participants. According to Judith Herman (Trauma and Recovery – oh what a gem), there are three levels, and a group that doesn’t cater to the levels will not be useful. The three are of course, emergency, recovery and fellowship (not sure I’m using the right terms). We have quite a few still in the emergency stage, going through safety issues, court cases, etc. The few that are not sometimes don’t get it as much and can find it quite depressing if changes don’t happen fast enough. My counselor notes that those who have left for a long time can have a superior attitude to those have just left. They don’t always connect. So for the sake of the fragile just-left survivors who need a lot of support, we have to make sure that their needs are met and they are validated.
If you have enough numbers you can have three different types of group to meet the different level of needs, but that’s quite a luxury. What happens in the end is that as people connect, just the act of connection is a very healing thing, regardless of what their needs are.
Prayer. We always end up praying. This can be a problem for a group of Christians from different denominations who use different styles of prayer. EVERYONE is welcome in our group but we are unashamedly Christian, since there are no or few Christian support groups.
We are still evolving, and really, are only at the early stages of operation. We probably have to keep updating our website. We are getting new members all the time and we as leaders need to make sure we get support to keep grounded and also to realize that the group cannot grow beyond where we are at. That’s going to be the limitation of the group – our limitations (doctrinally, theologically, practically, etc).
A VERY IMPORTANT note: Survivors are fragile, and the Biblical mandate to tolerate and accept one another is never more applicable than a group like this, where the only commonality is that of an abusive experience. I expect people to be fragile and sometimes angry, and I allow them to be, knowing that they are NOT perpetrators, and that they are simply on edge, anxious, etc. And we need to have TONS of patience and resist the temptation to rush them along the healing journey. That’s just condescending.