After years of counseling, writing and advocating for survivors of domestic violence I have kept a pulse on the drama between Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Recently, I received a text from my co-author and survivor, Kendall Ann Combs, with the viral video of Trevor Noah addressing the controversy that read “No matter what Kim does he’s never going to leave her alone. If she ignores him, he acts out and somehow he’s always making his behavior her fault.”
Knowing how courageous Kendall Ann has been with sharing her own survivor story, her concern for Kim; a powerful, famous, rich woman made me pause. A deeper look into the saga shows escalating emotional abuse and gaslighting tactics that resonates with survivors I have worked with before. This situation is proof that abuse can happen to anyone.
While Kardashian shines in the spotlight, that does not mean she wants to be harassed. She deserves safety and autonomy. Still, Kanye continues to harass her through social media and other means of intimidation. The emotional abuse and threats he seems to be getting away with are terrifying as a therapist, as my mission is to empower survivors to leave their abusers. If the system, media and our culture is failing to protect someone this powerful, how can I convince my clients to leave their abusers?
The issue lies in the narrative of what it means to survive abuse, which is misguided. Instead of asking a survivor, What took you so long to leave? The question should be, What did the abuser do to force you to stay? Correcting how we talk about abuse and what it means to be a survivor redirects responsibility from the survivor to the abuser. It offers more compassion to survivors to speak up when they are being abused. If they feel they need to justify their trauma, this further isolates them, reducing the chance of them leaving when the relationship becomes toxic.
To address this misguided approach, I would like to call attention to the legal systems. As Trevor Noah highlighted in his defense of Kim, the legal system does not take domestic violence as serious as it could. In his past experience the law questioned whether his mother was overreacting about the fear she felt at the hands of her abuser. Negligence about her concern led to her later being shot in the head by that same abuser, which she miraculously survived.
This level of negligence points to a learned helplessness in how our society deals with intimate partner abuse. According to the Legal Information Network of Colorado (LINC) not all abusive behaviors in intimate relationships can be charged under criminal law, namely emotional abuse, financial abuse, technological abuse, or sexual abuse in the form of coercion.
This should not be the fate of those asking for help. For a survivor to seek legal counsel or an order of protection, the process should not in itself be traumatizing. Survivors are made to repeat and justify their stories, (often in the midst of experiencing post-trauma responses) so many times that some will back away from seeking the protections they deserve. Our court system should be tasked to create intentional direction for helping survivors. Empowering survivors to find safety after leaving means they will be more likely to do so, as leaving can be the most dangerous time for a survivor.
We must remember that judgment is meant for the abuser not the abused. Post-abuse safety plans carried out by helping professionals, court systems and healthcare agencies are necessary. Redirecting focus to survivors will be remind them of their power, despite attempts their abuser makes to strip them of it. Are we going to stand by – or speak up? We need to do better.