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Is Self-Defense Helpful for People in Abusive Relationships?

10.05.16 by Amy Jones

Recently, I had a conversation with Andrea Stein, Violence Recovery Project Coordinator at Howard Brown Health Center.   Andrea works with LGBT folks who are affected by intimate partner violence, and she was concerned that our self-defense programming would be inappropriate for someone in an physically abusive relationship.  Since October is Domestic Violence Awareness month,  I thought I’d take the opportunity to share what I told her – which are the ways self-defense training can help people in abusive relationships.

Andrea – and others who doubt traditional self-defense training’s relevance to domestic violence — has a point.  If the answer to an abusive relationship were to fight back, it wouldn’t be such a complex problem.   In popular culture, violent relationships are sometimes “cured” when the abused person fights back.  Unfortunately, reality doesn’t conform to this narrative.  Not because the techniques don’t work – they do, even against larger, stronger attackers – but the defender has to be willing to hurt their attacker. That gets a lot more complicated when you have an emotional attachment to them.  Even worse, the techniques are predicated on the idea that you’re using them to get away.  If you remain in relationship with the person who attacked you, they are likely to escalate their violence in subsequent attacks to compensate, so fighting back in this case can ultimately put you at higher risk.

One of the things that defines empowerment self-defense (as opposed to “self-defense” which focuses exclusively on fighting skills) is that it looks at violence in context, and concerns itself with preventing violence to begin with as much as it teaches people physical defensive skills.  Even so, there are times when the skills we teach aren’t applicable to the dynamics of an abusive relationship.

For example, one of the core skills we teach in our trainings is how to set and protect boundaries assertively.  Usually, responding assertively to boundary violations is one of the best things we can do to protect ourselves.  But if someone is in an abusive relationship, they’ve learned the hard way how to keep themselves safe in that relationship.  A passive response might be their safest choice to survive a confrontation.

The power of assertive boundary-setting lies in what it communicates and what it prompts.  It communicates how you need people to treat you, and it prompts a response that gives you the information you need about whether someone will respect your boundaries.  In the case of a physically abusive relationship, you already know that the person isn’t safe – they’ve already shown that they don’t care about your boundaries.  In a situation like this, empowerment self-defense training is most helpful in giving someone a greater awareness of the abusive patterns in their relationship, and that can be the first step to making a change.

Empowerment self-defense training is most helpful in helping people recognize and avoid getting into a potentially violent relationship to begin with.  It can also help people heal from a violent relationship – a healing that can begin during the relationship, but will often mean leaving that relationship.  The popular wisdom is that the abusers don’t change.  I don’t think that’s necessarily true – people change all the time – but what is true is that only abusers can change their behavior, and an abuse victim taking a self-defense class isn’t going to change their partner.

So, is taking a self-defense course a good idea for someone in an abusive relationship?  Like domestic violence itself, the answer isn’t straightforward.  Dealing with violence from a loved one takes enormous courage, and post-traumatic stress is a risk.  That being said, information is power (that’s why we call it empowerment self-defense).  Recognizing the unhealthy, and even abusive, aspects of a relationship is a first step towards creating a life where one is safe, strong, and respected — even if one doesn’t act on that recognition immediately.  Another core principle of empowerment self-defense is that people can be trusted to make the choices that are best for them . I trust the people who take our self-defense course to use their judgement, both in taking care of themselves in a course, and in deciding how and when to use what they’ve learned.

I hope that nobody reading this is experiencing abuse.  If you are, know that help is available.  If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship and you’re in Chicago, you can call 1.877.863.6338. The National Domestic Violence hotline number is  1-800-799-SAFE (7233).  Both numbers are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and are staffed by caring, compassionate people who can help you think through your next steps.

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