For survivors of domestic violence, having a network of people to turn to is imperative in the healing process. But how can people best provide that support?
Jennifer Guthrie, an assistant professor in communication studies at UNLV’s Greenspun College of Urban Affairs, immersed herself in field research to better understand how to help survivors.
It’s difficult for many people to know what to say or how to provide effective support, Guthrie said, but the most surprising finding was that communication barriers also occur between survivors and the shelter staff who help them.
Guthrie is the co-author of three research articles detailing the experiences of domestic violence and substance abuse survivors. She conducted the research as a graduate student at the University of Kansas with her co-author and doctoral advisor, Adrianne Kunkel.
Their third article, “Survivor: Women’s Stories of Navigation and Tensions in a Domestic Violence Shelter,” examines survivors’ experiences living in a women’s shelter, communication barriers between survivors and staff members who helped them, and if survivors felt empowered. In February, their analysis won the Western Journal of Communication’s Outstanding Journal Article Award.
Guthrie and Kunkel completed volunteer training to qualify as shelter advocates and then conducted qualitative research for almost three years. For about four hours a week over a 15-month period, they answered the crisis hotline, took care of the shelter residents, talked with residents, and attended staff and volunteer meetings. They also conducted in-depth interviews with 28 female survivors of domestic violence who stayed at a shelter in the Midwest. The women stayed at the shelter for an average of 21 days. Some participants had multiple shelter stays.
In the interviews, survivors indicated their challenges and revealed that they sometimes didn’t feel comfortable talking to staff about how they felt or what they needed.
“In one way, the staff member was another difficult relationship the survivor had to navigate,” Guthrie said.
This upended the researchers’ assumption that residents would naturally feel comfortable connecting with the shelter staff, who are trained to help women gain independence from their abusers.
These relationships, however, sometimes mirrored the power struggle that many women were just getting out of with their abusers, Guthrie said.
The women struggled with the push and pull of needing to stand on their own, but also needing to depend on staff to manage their situations.
One woman needed help to replace the eyeglasses damaged by her abuser before she could tackle job interviews. The woman knew that the old glasses, held together by masking tape, would hinder her chances of getting a job. It was a case of needing to be dependent in order to gain independence.
The fact that survivors go through stages of physical and emotional trauma at different rates adds to tensions with staff members, Guthrie said. Some women may immediately find resources to get back on their feet and get control of their lives. Others have a hard time adjusting to living on their own and must relearn steps that come easily to others.
Women felt the need to prove their independence in order to obtain more help and validate that they deserved a space in the shelter. If they made strides — such as lining up job interviews — the survivors’ perception was that they’d get more help and resources. If the women felt they were behind, they sensed a lack of assistance.
The lack of help could stem from a misunderstanding of what society typically thinks about domestic abuse survivors, Guthrie said.
A “pure victim” — a defenseless person terrorized by a monstrous partner — is viewed more sympathetically than someone whose experiences might be more complex. “Staff may be more sympathetic and notice the women who are picking themselves up by the boot straps,” Guthrie said. “If you see a survivor who appears unwilling to help themselves, then you are less likely to help them as well. However, survivors face countless barriers when trying to escape an abusive relationship.”
Communication barriers also arose out of staff burnout, Guthrie said.
Shelters across the nation are understaffed and employees are underpaid, overworked, and underappreciated, she noted. Employees in nonprofits and shelters often don’t have job security as shelters have to apply for grants and fundraise to keep positions. Wearing multiple hats can cause burnout leaving little time for the shelter staff to provide emotional support to survivors.
Through their analysis of the interviews, Guthrie and Kunkel can offer shelter employees perspective and recommendations.
“Part of our feedback to shelters was to keep in mind everyone copes differently,” Guthrie said. “Understand where folks are coming from and their lives may be complicated, but that doesn’t mean they are not worthy of support or care.”
Guthrie and Kunkel recommended that staff, as much as possible and to the extent their work day allowed it, humanize their relationships with the women and their children by doing things like playing with them.
They also recommended that shelters dedicate staff specifically to listening.
When shelter residents talked to staff about the abuse they endured, it was hard for women to provide a linear story of the trauma they experienced, so their stories would sound chaotic.
“For some survivors, the more they tell their stories, the more it can help facilitate the healing process. It becomes easier to cope and see how strong they are and how they will continue to be strong,” Guthrie said.
Most shelters have a 30-day stay policy. The researchers recommended eliminating that policy when possible, though they acknowledge it may be difficult to do. Many shelters are operating on shoestring budgets and don’t have enough beds for their community need.
To counter staff burnout, Guthrie and Kunkel recommended reframing the situation. For example, sometimes shelter staff felt they failed when some of the women left the shelter and returned to a partner, only to come back again to the shelter.
“It’s not a failure. It’s a success that people came back and recognized they needed the help,” Guthrie said.
Survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault will look to a wide variety of people for help and acceptance. This network could include faith leaders, friends, or people at a workplace. They, too, can use Guthrie and Kunkel’s work to understand verbal and nonverbal messages of social support for survivors of domestic and gender-based violence.
Continuing the Research
Guthrie is continuing her research to develop programs for shelter staff locally. She teaches courses on gender-based violence, domestic violence, and sexual assault. She studies what’s considered the “dark side of communication,” like problem areas and deception. She also studies how people use their strengths in times of struggle.
In the classroom, she shares insights from her time as a shelter advocate. Toward the end of her volunteering experience, Guthrie received a drawing from a survivor she met at the shelter. The drawing depicts the woman as puzzle pieces – each piece representing characteristics the woman likes about herself.
“The pieces that stick out the most are ‘I like myself’ and 'Now I feel more whole and complete,’ and ‘liking the new me,’” Guthrie said.
The drawing is printed in Guthrie’s dissertation. She uses it in class lectures and public presentations. It’s a reminder of why she has dedicated her professional career to supporting survivors of domestic violence.
“To me, it represents the journey of healing, coping, and rising self-esteem. The drawing also acknowledges how strong they have been – it shows why we use the term ‘survivor’ to illustrate strength,” Guthrie said.