Defining Healthy Relationships

On March 23, 2010, Sakhi’s Direct Services department facilitated a support group for survivors of violence to discuss relationships.  The support group offered survivors the opportunity to talk about their personal relationships and to identify signs of potentially abusive ones.  The goal of the group was to define the nature of healthy and unhealthy relationships.   Because Sakhi’s goal is to provide services that are culturally and linguistically appropriate, the discussion took into consideration the immigrant experience, specifically in the South Asian context.

Natasha Rizvi, a domestic violence intern, opened the workshop by speaking about healthy relationships.  Ms. Rizvi introduced the topic by saying that “it is sometimes easy to define healthy or unhealthy relationships but when we ourselves are in the relationship, it often becomes difficult to make similar judgments or to draw the line on what is acceptable.”  Five key qualities were discussed: mutual respect, trust & honesty, fairness & equality, the importance of separate identities, and good communication.  Some survivors openly shared their struggles in trying to build these qualities in their relationships.  One survivor summed the point that, “women need to be respected.  Men should not abuse them.” The women present who have struggled to gain this respect, generously contributed by sharing their experiences and advice.  Ms. Rizvi emphasized that all the positive qualities defined needed to be constantly worked on and that no one person had acquired them all.  She added, “The key is to recognize where our deficiencies lie in order to build a healthier relationship.”

Domestic Violence Program Advocate, B.R., continued the  discussion by helping survivors pinpoint the signs of abusive relationships.  She asked the group if they could define abuse and then discussed the different forms that abuse can take. The discussion highlighted how intimidation and stalking can be used to inflict fear in a victim.  Towards the end of this session, the advocate centered her discussion on the many signs of an abusive relationship.  The emphasis was on the fact that abuse doesn’t always have to be physical. Psychological and verbal abuse can be just as damaging and can even leave deeper wounds.  She also asked survivors about their capacity to self reflect.  This interactive discussion included themes surrounding self-respect, emotional independency, inner strength, and boundary setting.  B.R. wrapped up by talking about safety planning and offered ideas on what survivors can do if they are in potentially dangerous situations.  One survivor pointed out the emotions involved in the working to build strong relationships, simply observing that “relationships are hard but if a woman is being abused it is sad.” Often the sadness negatively impacts all those around her. Judging from the richness of the discussion, survivors felt safe as they shared their experiences and as they discussed their own strategies to deal with abuse.

Aruna Krishnakumar, a domestic violence intern, facilitated the last part of the support group.   Ms. Krishnakumar discussed the oppression of women on a historically and globally level and focused on how patriarchal systems further impacts immigrant communities, specifically South Asian women. Theoretically academic issues were introduced to the group, and they were very responsive in applying the definitions to their own personal experiences.  There was a lot of discussion around gender roles, what it means to be a woman, and both the negative and positive aspects of the South Asian family structure.  The group shared their thoughts and ideas of balancing work and family obligations.  They also shared stories about migrating to a new country.  Ms. Krishnakumar asked the survivors to imagine what an ideal community looked like.  In describing their vision, the strongest sentiment was their feeling of hope.  They all aspired to be able to reach out and talk to their families, friends, and neighbors about their experiences without being ridiculed or banned from their communities.  They imagined a community in which they would be supported and where men would be held accountable for any type of abusive behavior.

The workshop served as an open forum where survivors and staff equally shared their thoughts and ideas.  The survivors participated at length and seemed at ease as they discussed their personal relationships and immigration issues.  They gave each other advice and provided a sensitive ear specifically when some disclosed their stories of abuse.  One survivor stated that “the group was helpful to me because I saw that I wasn’t alone.”   It was helpful for everyone to hear and connect to similar feelings of isolation and loneliness. The support group forum helped them to think about their personal relationships and the roles of women in the South Asian community.  This workshop can be described as a powerful “women’s circle” in which new friendships and the  prospects of new support systems were formed.