Over the past months since the start of the COVID 19 pandemic we know that calls for help to family violence service providers have increased. Many believe this because the public health directives designed to slow the spread of infection have intensified the conditions in which family violence thrives. Sheltering-in-place has increased social isolation and the barrage of information about rising rates of infection and death have increased fear. Fear and isolation are common tactics used by people who perpetrate violence and abuse to maintain power and control. Public health directives did not create the problem of family violence – it is the pandemic within the pandemic. But just like we can contribute to slowing the spread of the coronavirus, we can change the conditions in interpersonal relationships in which violence and abuse thrive.
Fostering healthy relationships is an upstream intervention that every congregation and faith community can do to create social change. Just like we can keep our bodies healthy by paying regular attention to what we eat and how much we move, we also can attend to the quality of our relationships. There are many opportunities in the regular activities of congregations to practice healthy interactions. A key part of all healthy relationships is communication.
Nonviolent communication involves learning to listen to others in a non-judgmental way, to respectfully try to understand what is being said and to not attempt to control the outcome of a conversation. Good communication means being in touch with how we feel about what is being communicated to us. This is easy when we feel neutral or happy about the messages that we receive, but it’s more difficult when we are part of difficult conversations. Respectful communication relies on each of us becoming aware of the ways in which we are impacted by interactions with others, especially those interactions which make us anxious, fearful, angry or defensive. We can become aware of our emotional responses to particular forms or patterns of communication. Certain interactions evoke real emotions, yet they may or may not be associated with the conversation taking place in the present moment. Our feelings may be an unconscious response that was learned in an earlier relationship during which feelings of anger or fear (fight or flight) arose because our needs were not being met. Becoming aware of our emotional responses is an important step in sorting out what is going on inside of us and what is actually being communicated in a conversation. Familiarity with our emotions and a compassionate acceptance of our feelings is an important element in learning how to listen well to what others are saying. We can always learn from our feelings about what we need in improving communication with others.
In the case of adult survivors of family violence, such as people who were exposed as children to domestic violence between their parents, they learned unhealthy ways of engaging in conflict that they are likely to repeat if they do not deal with their emotional triggers and/or heal from trauma. We can learn to identify the feelings that contribute to unhealthy communication and relationship patterns in our own lives, but we cannot change other people. In our interactions as part of congregational life, the only people we have the power to change is ourselves by becoming aware of our emotional responses within difficult conversations and taking responsibility for them. We cannot be active, open and constructive listeners in conversations if we are caught up in our internal emotional struggles. The good news is that we can all learn to communicate clearly in nonviolent and respectful ways.
Catherine Holtmann, 19 October 2020