“We are so sorry. We didn’t know.”
That’s the most common response Elisha Shepard heard after her husband’s abuse of ten years became public knowledge. After rebuilding a life for herself and her six kids, Elisha has reclaimed her independence, and is thriving in a new management position with Guardian as the head of our Women’s Leadership Network in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Elisha has dedicated herself to helping other people understand and escape from domestic violence.
“Domestic violence is systematic, it is identifiable, and together, we can work to prevent it,” said Elisha.
Elisha’s story is alarmingly common: One in four women in the US will experience domestic violence in their lifetime.1 Most victims feel alone or confused as a result of the abuse. They may feel like they have nowhere to turn.
Elisha’s journey from an abusive relationship to powerful advocate
If someone you know is the victim of domestic violence, there are steps you can take to support them. According to Elisha, here are the top four things you should do.
- Believe them. Many abusers are both physically and psychologically abusive, manipulating and controlling their victim. This manipulation can extend to people outside the relationship, and the abuser may even convince outsiders that the victim is to blame for problems in the relationship and can’t be trusted. “People who don’t know what they’re looking at will say, ‘there’s always two sides to every story.’ But a perpetrator of abuse will twist the story to maintain control,” said Elisha. When someone tells you about abuse, the number one thing you can do is believe them.
- Be patient. It’s not easy to leave an abusive relationship. It took Elisha ten years to leave her abusive marriage, though she was actively seeking help for eight of those years. Remember the victim may not feel safe leaving and they likely have feelings of guilt and shame caused by years of manipulation and control. “An abuser can make it feel like all of this is happening to you because it’s your fault. They point the finger back at you and create stories that cover up what is really going on,” says Elisha. “It can be really hard on the people who are trying to help, but don’t take it personally if they don’t leave. The person going through the abuse is really grateful someone is there, but they may not feel safe to leave yet.”
- Prepare a safety plan. Instead of insisting a victim leaves their abusive situation, help them prepare a safety plan. This important step can help women feel safe to leave when they’re ready. When Elisha reached out to Harbor House, a local domestic violence shelter in Appleton, they gave her resources to use on her own time. Though it took her years to make her way through the resources, when she did, she was grateful for the consistent support and planning. The National Domestic Violence Hotline offers safety plans for different situations.
- Be the opposite of the abuser. When someone has had their power and control taken away, they need to be shown what real love looks like and how they should be treated. You can play a key part in restoring their self-value. “Combat the untruths, the myths, and the manipulations with truths about the situation,” said Elisha. “Talk about what real love actually is. Here’s what love looks like, and this is not love, this is control. Don’t pressure but be that person who can solidly point out the opposite of what the abuser is telling them.” Don’t try to take control over them – they already have someone doing that.
Even after leaving an abusive situation, Elisha points out that your abuser may not leave you alone. Elisha’s abuser has sued her three times since she left the relationship. “That pattern is still there. It’s probably always going to be there. I imagine he’ll be back in court whenever he can.”
Since the third year-and-a-half long court battle with her abuser was decided in her favor with an order not to reopen the case for two years, Elisha can now look forward to a few years without a court case. Today, she feels supported and ready to face whatever is next with the support of her community and her colleagues at Guardian. Elisha now has the opportunity to practice building people up and supporting them, which she says is a stark contrast to what victims are going through. She hopes with her support, the people she knows who are going through abuse will come to their own conclusions and leave when they’re ready.