For over 30 years, local nonprofit Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center has been providing services to those who have experienced sexual assault or domestic violence or abuse.
Domestic abuse can manifest in many forms, and each circumstance is unique. Recognizing, understanding and navigating those circumstances can be complex. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and staff from Seekhaven spoke with the Moab Sun News about different types of domestic abuse, the challenges of addressing those situations, and the help and services available to those experiencing abuse in their relationships.
What is domestic abuse?
Tess Barger, director of client services at Seekhaven, explained that “The way Seekhaven defines ‘domestic’ violence is any type of intimate partner, familial or household relationship.”
The term domestic violence encompasses not only physical harm, but other ways an intimate partner may try to exert control over another. For example, “gaslighting,” meaning manipulating a person into questioning his or her ability to understand reality. Barger noted that the term ‘gaslighting’ is becoming more mainstream, which she finds both helpful and problematic. Wider usage of the term can increase awareness of the behavior, but the term can also be overused or misapplied, potentially obscuring the severity of the tactic in abusive situations.
A person may abuse another through intentional regular sleep deprivation, which reduces brain functioning in the sufferer and makes them less able to maintain daily life. Another behavior that can become abusive is the social isolation of a partner, dissuading them from spending time with others or expressing dislike for their loved ones. Holding personal information as leverage, threatening to deliberately damage a person’s social standing if they don’t behave in a certain way, is another abusive behavior. Controlling finances may constitute abusive behavior. Repeated emotionally harmful messages, like calling someone incapable, dumb, selfish, or inadequate, can be abusive, as can attempting to control someone’s behavior—for example, pressuring someone to engage in non-consensual sexual activities, dictating rules regarding someone else’s employment, discouraging or preventing self-care, or being unsupportive of goals or accomplishments.
Possible warning signs
Some of the behaviors described above may be present to some degree in healthy relationships. Barger paraphrased an observation often made by a former Seekhaven director: “Humans are just messy little creatures.”
A healthy relationship doesn’t mean one that is free of mistakes or conflict, but it should include a willingness from both partners to address that conflict.
“Healthy conflict is important,” said Barger. “It involves both partners being willing to have a mutual conversation and come to some sort of compromise. Neither partner is entirely right or wrong—they come together to figure out what their needs are to feel healthy and nourished.”
When one or both partners are unwilling to acknowledge mistakes or to adapt or grow, a relationship can become unhealthy and potentially unsafe. Barger described one warning sign that a relationship may be unhealthy as “love bombing”:
“Excessive and overwhelming attention, admiration and affection, and pushing the relationship forward too fast,” Barger wrote in a document shared with the Moab Sun News, defining the behavior. That excessive attention can make the receiver feel idealized, and also feel pressure to maintain perfection in the eyes of their partner. “In situations like this, often the result is that the ‘love bomber’ begins to deprive the receiving partner of this validation and love as a means of controlling and devaluing them,” Barger wrote.
Barger also described a “cycle of abuse” that can indicate unhealthy patterns. A period of tension-building may be followed by some kind of “explosion,” which may be physical violence or an angry outburst. A “honeymoon phase” may follow the explosion, resolving into a calm phase. The cycle may repeat. Signs that a relationship is becoming unsafe may include a speeding up of that cycle, with an explosion occurring with greater frequency, or the disappearance of a honeymoon or calm part of the cycle. One service Seekhaven offers clients is helping them chart patterns in their relationships, which may help make sense of this cycle if it exists.
Other potential warning signs that a relationship may be unhealthy include one or both partners displaying severe, abrupt mood swings; emotional responses disproportionate to situations; or an insistence on control of situations. These signs may be present in your own relationship, or you might observe them in the relationship of someone close to you; another warning sign may be that someone you care about seems overly concerned with their partner’s judgment of them or reactions to their behavior, or defends their partner’s unhealthy behaviors.
Even if these warning signs do surface in a friend or family member’s relationship, that person is more suited to evaluate their relationship than anyone else.
“Every person is the expert on their own situation,” Barger noted. Even when behaviors like gaslighting have caused a person to doubt their own gut reactions, they must still be the one to decide how to handle their relationship.
If life or physical safety is a concern, however, Seekhaven staff said an observer should call 911.
Seekhaven won’t respond to that call; intervention is not in the organization’s purview.
Some Moab police officers are trained in conducting “lethality assessments,” in which evidence is tallied to determine the level of threat to someone’s life in a domestic violence situation. That information is shared with the victim in the situation.
Sollis, too, recommended that bystanders who suspect physical abuse is happening call 911. She credited the witness who called the police after seeing an altercation between Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie. [See “Petito case puts Moab PD in national spotlight,” Sept. 30 edition. -ed.]
Weeks after the couple passed through Moab, Petito was found killed and Laundrie disappeared; his remains have since been found in Florida. Sollis said calling 911 was the right thing to do.
Not only are types of abuse complex, but relationship dynamics are also infinitely complex. Because of this, not all relationships fall cleanly into an aggressor/victim pattern. That binary analysis is not always applicable or helpful in domestic violence advocacy work.
“Some relationships are co-combative, meaning both parties can demonstrate abusive behavior,” said Abi Taylor, director of Seekhaven. “In these cases, Seekhaven can provide services to both individuals, and we practice ethical standards to keep their cases as separate as possible.” She also said some relationship dynamics include “reactive victims,” meaning an abused person may be pushed to a physical or emotional limit, usually after consistent instigation, and respond violently.
What to do
If you find yourself in a relationship that feels abusive, there are steps you can take and resources you can use. Barger wrote that individuals in such a situation must consider what actions they feel comfortable taking, and also what is objectively safe to do. Fears of triggering a reprisal, or losing housing, child care or financial support, can make someone hesitate before leaving a relationship, even if it has become abusive.
“Typically the most dangerous time for someone who’s leaving an abusive relationship is after they leave,” Barger noted. However, there are resources available if you need help extricating yourself from a relationship. Seekhaven staff can offer a range of services, including counseling, providing temporary shelter, and legal advocacy. Seekhaven offers financial literacy classes to help people who may have been under the financial control of someone else. Staff can help individuals design an “escape plan” or “safety plan” to temporarily deal with explosive situations.
“Not everybody is going to leave,” said Liz Sollis, communications consultant for the state-level advocacy group Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, in a previous interview with the Moab Sun News. “Sometimes they’ll never leave. They can work with an advocate to create a plan that best works for their scenario. We do recognize that many of these relationships are not going to dissolve, especially not right away.”
Sometimes outside observers may become frustrated, or have difficulty understanding why someone experiencing abuse in a relationship doesn’t “just leave.”
Sollis described a person she’s worked with who had been married for 30 years and had children with an abusive partner; there had been at least 10 police reports of abuse in the relationship, and both parties had been arrested as the aggressor at different times.
“It’s just hard, it’s a difficult situation,” said Sollis. “For people to ask, ‘why don’t they just leave?’ It’s not that easy. The better question is, ‘why is that person an abuser?’”
Morgan Flynn, Seekhaven’s sexual assault service provider, said, “Each situation is complex and unique and there are so many different reasons why it’s hard to leave.” She said statistics suggest it takes, on average, seven instances of abuse to convince someone to leave a relationship. In the meantime, concerned friends and family can offer support, compassion and patience.
“You might want to help someone, but pushing them to make a change isn’t necessarily going to help,” said Flynn. “Sometimes that can even push people away more, and that can lead someone to feel more isolated in the situation. It’s good to let people process things in their own time.”
Sollis also emphasized the importance of “being kind, being patient, and listening.”
If you are concerned that a friend or loved one may be in an unsafe relationship, Seekhaven staff say it’s OK to share your concerns while respecting that that person knows their situation best.
“You can reflect to them an incident you saw or a pattern that you hear when they talk about their relationship or their partner,” Barger wrote. “You can tell them why it has stood out to you and why you are worried. It is important that your loved one knows you do not expect any specific response or outcome—you don’t expect them to entirely agree with you, admit that you’re right, stop loving their partner, or leave the relationship.”
Instead, you can offer care and support, whatever that person decides to do. Barger added that as a support person, it’s important to define your own boundaries as well. One way to offer support without exhausting your own capacity is to help the person think of additional support individuals or networks, and make them aware of services available if they choose to pursue them.
Seekhaven is free and confidential, and available to anyone looking for help with a situation involving sexual assault or domestic abuse, even if the incident occurred decades ago. There are also nonlocal resources; in a small town like Moab, it may feel too exposed or too connected to personal social networks for some to feel comfortable using local services.
“Seekhaven might not feel like a safe option in a small community,” acknowledged Taylor. For those who prefer a more anonymous-feeling organization, Taylor recommends LINKline, which is operated by the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition (where Sollis works). The number is 1-800-897-LINK (5465), and staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Seekhaven can be reached at 435-259-2229, and information on their services can be found at seekhaven.org. The website has an “escape” button to quickly leave the site, serving as a safety feature for those who fear reprisal from a partner for looking up advocacy organizations. Clients can engage as deeply as they would like in accessing services.
“In Seekhaven, we try to be client-led,” said Flynn.
Grant funding for organizations like Seekhaven is often tied to specific purposes. For example, many of the grant-funded positions at the organization may not do any kind of policy advocacy work. Other funding is earmarked for victim services, and may not be used for any other purpose. There is funding available for outreach and prevention efforts. Cora Phillips is Seekhaven’s prevention coordinator; some of her work is funded by the Rape Prevention Education Grant. She said her focus is bringing “upstream” prevention methods to local populations at risk of harassment and sexual violence.
“We have identified the outdoor recreation and tourism industry to be particularly vulnerable due to a number of factors,” Phillips wrote in an email to the Sun News. “I am currently networking with individuals all over the country to develop a workplace toolkit that businesses and organizations can utilize to address this issue.” Tools include bystander intervention training and policy reform surrounding conduct and reporting. Phillips said many Moab community members have shown interest in the initiative.
“There are so many benefits,” Phillips said of the prevention program. “Employee retention, increased morale, and increased productivity, just to name a few. Introducing upstream prevention methods allow us to affect large groups of people and prevent violence before it occurs.” She said she’s excited by community support and optimistic about positive impacts the program will have.
“It will take time, commitment, and continuous work, but we are a strong community and I know that it’s possible,” Phillips said.
As part of Seekhaven’s outreach efforts for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, staff members have created artwork for a pop-up display, currently on exhibit at the Moab Museum as part of the October Moab Art Walk. The theme of this year’s national Domestic Violence Awareness Month is “Mourn, Celebrate, Connect,” and artists used that theme to inspire their work.
“This exhibit will recognize those we have lost to domestic violence in the state of Utah, celebrate survivors and their stories, highlight community responses and services in the community, and outline the intersectionalities of domestic violence,” reads the exhibit description on the museum’s website.
Conversations about healthy and unhealthy relationships in the public sphere can help people assess their own lives, watch out for loved ones, and promote greater understanding of people in difficult situations. Barger said that addressing domestic violence and promoting healthy relationships is a continually evolving field.
“We are constantly having to confront our own internal biases,” she said, meaning Seekhaven staff and advocates in general. “Nobody has the exact right answer. It’s important for us to continue to have these open supportive dialogues of what we understand, what we know we need to learn, and what actions need to be taken.”