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Home / Articles / Escaping Violence / Empowering Survivors of Domestic Violence

Empowering Survivors of Domestic Violence

Instead of telling survivors what to do, we need to give them back control

A survivor finding her confidence again

This piece was originally published in 2015. It was updated in 2024. 

Abusers use a range of tactics to control their partners. But something called the empowerment model seeks to overcome the negative effects of an abuser’s control and abuse. Empowerment allows victim-survivors to regain their sense of self-efficacy.

Empowerment is a long-term investment in a survivor, says Sally Pirie, Ph.D., Professor of Child and Family Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Empowerment is like teaching people to fish rather than handing them a fish. Abusers may return or the survivor may go back to the abuser. Empowerment serves survivors even as conditions change, and even in future relationships.”

We can think of domination as having power over another. Empowerment is the opposite—giving power to someone. Empowerment includes providing resources and options and avoiding telling survivors what to do. 

Overcoming an Abuser’s Control 

The tactics abusers use to control can include:

Empowering a survivor can give them a feeling of autonomy and some control over the next choice, according to survivor, social work student and former advocate Susan Levasseur. She adds, “I would rather have someone collaborate with me on next steps than tell me what to do.” 

“Empowerment is a partnership between a survivor and an advocate,” says Becky Lockwood, Director of The Salasin Project in Greenfield, Mass. “Empowerment recognizes survivors as experts on their own experience. They know best what their needs are and what the tradeoffs will be of any action they may take. Empowerment puts survivors in the driver’s seat. An empowerment model means ‘advocating with’ instead of ‘advocating for.’ Empowerment centers the wisdom and experiences of survivors.”

Lockwood reminds us that empowerment is not “one size fits all.” “As advocates and peer supports, we need to reflect on and interrogate our own values and biases, so we are not consciously or unconsciously limiting the options and information we share.  Survivors may not like or want any of the supports we can offer. It is not our role to judge the choices a person makes. We also understand that survivors may want different levels of support. And their needs may change over time.”

How to Empower Survivors

Most empowerment suggestions involve three elements: control, awareness, and solidarity. Here is a list of concrete suggestions for ways to help with this process.

1) Provide access to resources: Provide lists of resources such as attorneys, guardians ad litem, parent coordinators, etc. who people have recommended in the past.

2) Provide a range of resources and support. For advocacy agencies, this can include help with shelter, pets, moving, childcare, employment, psychotherapy, finances and more.

3) Offer opportunities for solidarity, or connecting with other survivors. Make sure these opportunities are accessible to all the people who need services in your community (regardless of gender, sexual orientation, language, ability, housing status, income, etc.). This could include in-person and virtual support groups. 

    Echoing back what a survivor is telling you is also a form of empowerment. Read more on the best ways to do this in “10 Ways to Validate a Survivor.

    Beyond Empowerment

    But is empowerment always the answer? Is it always enough?

    Christine Cocchiola, DSW, is a survivor and psychotherapist who assists mothers who are parenting with an abuser after separation. Cocchiola suggests that sometimes we should alert a survivor to signs of clear danger to themselves and their children. “By failing to sound the alarm, we may give the message that the situation is ‘not that bad.’ This can reinforce survivors’ own minimizing perspectives. Many survivors are trauma-bonded, and perspecticide causes them to be in denial about the abuse. Sometimes they need a trusted advocate, friend or family member to guide them toward calling the police, filing for a protective order, or just fleeing.” Of course, it’s important to remember that a survivor knows their abuser the best and what they are capable of. It may help to show a survivor this danger assessment so they can more clearly see just how dangerous this abuser may be.

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    Levasseur notes that sometimes, calling the police may save a life. “Many survivors are afraid to call the police because they are afraid to anger their abuser. An outsider calling the police communicates to both the victim and the abuser that the community does not accept abuse and control.”

    Of course, police vary in the quality of their responses. On the positive side, police arriving may interrupt a violent incident in the moment. A police report also establishes a paper trail. This official record may help a survivor who at a later point wants a protective order or is in a custody battle with the abuser. Police intervention can at other times be problematic and harmful.

    The empowerment approach to domestic violence has its critics. Some suggest that the empowerment approach assumes individual rather than societal solutions to intimate partner violence. Some critics suggest that the empowerment approach can result in victim-blaming, as in, “I gave her a list of resources and she decided to stay with her abuser anyway.” 

    This attitude may fail to consider the true economic, psychological, and safety barriers to leaving an abuser. An empowerment perspective does not cancel the need for affordable housing, living wages, community support, and a legal system that truly protects victim-survivors and their children.