Teaching Self-Defense in the Face of Domestic Violence Part II – Tammy Yard McCracken

In the first article we hit a brief overview of why the cycle of domestic violence is self-perpetuating and stubborn. The cycle demands repetition and assuages a deep anxiety triggered by potential tribal instability.

If you are in the self-defense industry this is going to become a factor in your reality. You will have students who are actively in a domestic violence relationship. Teach long enough, you will have a student who is in a DV situation and who decides you are integris enough to entrust you with this information.

Think about why you teach. Take a minute and list out the deep, personal reasons why you choose to invest all the time, money, injuries, cost against family etc. to do this work. At some level, a good instructor knows s/he teaches because they want good people to be stronger people. Oversimplifying it, you want good people to have the power to choose their responses to bad situations.

If you have a student in a DV situation who shares this information with you, it may come to light after she has violated a series of tribal taboos – meaning, after she has left the relationship. This is the easy one. There may still be threats to her safety impacting her choice to train, but she is off the script. The student who is training with you and continues going home to the abuse is the tough one. She is going to trigger all sorts of frustrations for a self-defense instructor. Her subconscious allegiance to the script is going to highlight your glitches.

Note: Glitches are the emotional trigger points that interfere with our capacity to consider a situation, belief, interaction, etc. through a purely logical observation

What is your gut response? Are you angry with her for staying in the pattern? Do you feel helpless? Are you tempted to dismiss her? Do you want to track down the violent partner and meet out justice?

Do you want to save her?

And what exactly is your role? What is your duty to her? What is overstepping? When, in your righteousness, will you accidentally do the same thing her violent partner is already doing – treat her as damaged and less than?

For now, I am forgoing any dialogue about Duty To Warn obligations as it relates to professions who may have reporting obligations. The number of self-defense instructors who also carry these may be more the minority and warrants a separate conversation. What follows are a handful of basic guidelines for a complex dynamic. This is not exhaustive and the guidelines may, in fact, be wrong depending on the specific situation.

Guideline #1: Honor her trust. You may be the only person in her life right now who can demonstrate what respect looks like. The respect that communicates she is, in fact, capable of making her own choices about her own circumstances. Respect that honors her right to make those choices. Now that she has disclosed her situation to you, do not assume you know how she wants you to support her. Instead, ask. What kind of support do you want from me? Another variation of this is what does support [from me] look like to you? Do your damnedest to honor her response. If she tells you she doesn’t know, try not to dictate it to her, she already has plenty of that happening. One request she may make could be particularly difficult for you. She may ask for your silence. If she doesn’t want you telling anyone, don’t tell anyone.*

Guideline #2: You are not a social worker or a psychotherapist. Even if you are credentialed for these professions as her self-defense instructor, this is not your role. Don’t pick up the mantel for it. If you are untrained in this role you have a better than average chance of making the situation worse for your student. You will almost always make your life more difficult as well.

If you take up this role will you be prepared for phone calls at 2 am? For long conversations after class? Are you up for holding in confidence detailed information about one of the darker aspects of human behavior? Are you personally equipped for processing this violence? You can’t unknow this stuff. There is such a thing as secondary post-traumatic stress. What if she calls you to help her move out? Where will you set your boundaries with her? This gets slippery fast so don’t step onto the slope. Licensed therapists have rules and training for how to manage personal boundary-setting with clients. It is unlikely you have this training if you are not licensed. You could end up in the deep end of the pool with no understanding about how to swim through the water.

Guideline #3: You don’t get to save her. It is not your job. I don’t care what argument you want to throw back at this. It just isn’t your job.

It is her job. We know when DV victims are rescued they typically return. When they make the decision personally, when they have reached their own clarity – it sticks.

I have a decent amount of experience working with DV victims and survivors. I am about to offer a series of suggestions and encourage you to take them as a first step, not as the final word. There are people who have a significant degree more experience than I have and there is an extensive body of research available if you are interested.

  1. About Guideline #1. Silence. This comes at a cost. If you are asked to keep her story in confidence, how will you process the impact it has on you? If she tells you and doesn’t want you to do anything, watching her continue in the script can take you to places of frustration and anger that may be new for you. You are her instructor and you get to set your own boundaries about what’s necessary for you to successfully work with her (including not losing your mind over this). Options include telling her you need counsel on how to best support her, get her permission and then get counsel. If she refuses, talk it out with her. If she still refuses get counsel but leave every single piece of personally identifying information from the story and reach out to someone that does not know your tribe. This is risky. She may experience it as a violation of her trust. You may have to decide between the two.
  2. Be Prepared. With the statistics being what they are, assume you are going to have domestic violence victims in your class. Know what the resources are in your community. Have them at quick access and be able to hand this information to a student. This will help avoid a sense of powerlessness and can help assuage your inner hero’s desire to save her. No, it isn’t going to automatically fix everything. That’s not going to happen no matter what you do.
  3. If you feel compelled to get involved, understand this. Law enforcement officers are taught that a DV call is particularly volatile and dangerous…for the officer. The violence can turn on the neutral party. You could end up as a target for the violent partner. You could experience your student turning on you as well. In class, at your dojo this may not be physical but, it doesn’t have to be for her to wreak havoc. Hold to a Do No Harm rule. Ask yourself if your involvement will make things better and how it might make things worse.
  4. This is not your fight. It is her fight. And sometimes people die. She can do all the “right” things and not survive.

If she dies, or is seriously injured in a violent encounter you are going to take impact. The voices in your head will be noisy. They will want you to feel blame and fault. These voices are going to sound off in other situations as well. It’s part of the territory for the emotional make-up of a lot of people who go into the self-defense instructor profession. Get to know your glitches and blind spots. Cultivate a relationship with a violence industry colleague to whom you can extend a deep level of trust. This needs to be someone you can talk to openly and without filters. Let this relationship be strong enough to function as a crucible for conversations about your glitches and possible blind spots. Cultivating this relationship should live in your thinking as a Hard Rule. The crucible relationship will be a critical component for hanging on to your sanity in an industry which daily addresses the elements of humanity most people avoid.

*Trust and Confidentiality. This is one of the murkier issues. If you tell someone, will it help? If you violate her trust will it be for a better outcome overall?


Teaching Self-Defense in the Face of Domestic Violence Part I – Tammy Yard McCracken

As a topic, Domestic Violence is complex. There is a multitude of research on the causes, the correlations and intervention strategies aimed at reducing the incidence of domestic violence. In the United States, for example, statisticians generally settle on 1 in 3 women will experience some sort of domestic violence in their lifetime. This is an unsettling statistic and has driven funding and research for decades. Add to this, 1 in 10 female homicide victims are murdered by someone known the them, frequently by a former or current domestic partner.  These stats are generated by a variety of sources and the numbers do vary. Do not take them as solid numbers but rather as a context for the prevalence of the dynamic.

It is also important to shift the numbers out of a statistical context and into the reality of people. The next time you are out in public, look for three women. By the numbers, one of these three is in a domestically violent relationship. If there are six women in the group, two of them are being abused by their partners, etc. Put real people to the numbers and the gravitas shifts.

This will be a two-part article series and is the product of conversations I have had with self-defense instructors from different parts of the globe over the past few years. The question comes up: how do I handle a student in a domestic violence situation?

I am glad the question is being asked because what lives under the question in many of the instructors I have talked with is an instinct that the instructor should be doing something to help her.

-Note: I am using the feminine pronoun for ease of writing. This does not negate that there are men in domestic violence situations but instead reflects the provenance in women is significantly higher based on what is reported.

To get started, we need to look at why domestic violence is the cycle that it is. The abuser lashes out, she gets hit/beaten, etc. In the aftermath the abuser expresses remorse – which does not always mean accepting responsibility – the couple puts the violence behind them and then the gradual tension begins again until there is another physical outburst. Even if she leaves, she typically comes home in the remorse stage.

Our discussion of why this happens is going to be a short and, as a result, an incomplete review. There are entire books written on just this piece of the topic. Here we go:

As humans, we are deeply social creatures. It is part of our survival blueprint. In hostile territory a single human’s survival chances are questionable. With a tribe, survival chances increase. For the individual to survive, the tribe must survive. The family unit is interpreted by primitive brain function as our current concept of tribe. Add to this, the social and cultural ideas of family structure, which are equally powerful and programmed into our thinking from birth. This is the concept of the Monkey Brain.

Instability in our tribe is interpreted as a threat. Remember, if the tribe doesn’t survive – you die. If the tribe is unstable or at risk of falling apart, then your survival is threatened. These perceptions are deeply unconscious and primitive. Logic based conversation will rarely be enough to overpower these instincts.

All of this adds up to two things.

  1. The pattern of domestic violence becomes one of the defining scripts of the relationship. As the cycle continues, the Monkey Brain see this as stability. “My tribe is stable; therefore, it will survive. Tribe survives, I survive.”
    2. Leaving means the tribe is no longer stable. The family disintegrates = the tribe disintegrates and this feels like a powerful threat to personal survival.

Logically, we all know this doesn’t make sense. Domestic violence can be fatal. It is clear the abuse is a direct threat to the physical well-being of the victim.

BUT…and this is a very powerful and important “but”… the Monkey Brain and the more primitive survival mechanisms see the pattern rather than the physical violence. The pattern indicates that whatever the victim of domestic violence is doing, it is working exceedingly well.

How? Simple. Each time there is a physical altercation, a slap, a beating, the primitive survival mechanism in her brain notices something very important “I am still alive. Whatever I did during this violence, it kept me alive.”

Being alive is more important than being injured. If the decision she is making gets her hurt but doesn’t kill her, the unconscious primitive mind will see this as a good decision and will work to have her repeat this choice in similar future events.

The pattern of domestic violence becomes a script defining stability and survival. Leaving and stopping the pattern is experienced as a powerful threat to survival.

So the pattern continues and for self-defense instructors, this pattern can be deeply frustrating. If you teach, you likely teach because you want to help people lead stronger, happier, healthier lives. You want people to find strength and the internal fortitude for liberty v. oppression. Knowing one of your students leaves class only to return home to a situation of violence and presumed oppression is vexing enough to keep you up at night.

Managing that is for article number two.


What It Really Takes to Live with Violence, and Forgive it Part II – Heidi MacDonald

It was not easy. It was brutally, achingly difficult. I had to cut ties from people who were not in my best interest. I also lost friends for a short time, who did not know or understand the full scope of what happened to me, until later.

There were countless nights that I was either crying to sleep, or having nightmares, or sometimes both. I lost a comfortable QA job with a software company somewhere in the mess of this Tall Badness of a relationship. That meant taking menial labor jobs, only given to high school dropouts. And I have a college education.

Talk about swallowing one’s pride in order to put some food in the cupboards.

I had to accept financial support from family members, which as much as I deeply appreciated it, it was also a brutal blow to the self-esteem at an all-time low in my life.

I had to struggle with the fact that I was psychologically damaged when I tried to date again, and found myself quite simply, scared as fuck and running for the door, whenever somebody tried to touch me.

I struggled with being angry that other people could easily date, enjoy intimacy, do the regular Tinder hook-ups, or Netflix & chill. I just simply couldn’t do it. This was a point where I had to give myself patience, and grant this same consideration to people who couldn’t figure out why I was not quite myself again. I can do it now, but I am understandably guarded.

I had to learn to like myself. It may sound simple, cheesy, perhaps even lame. But this? Damn, it was a difficult one. And it was anything BUT simple.

I had to recognize that if I liked myself, then I had to start making choices that were in my best interest. That meant honestly believing that I deserved high quality people who respected me, cared about me, and wouldn’t dream of hurting me, or playing selfish, cruel games.

If I kept on the current path thinking that I was an awful person, and didn’t like myself, well then…I was just going to keep making choices that allowed people to take advantage of me, prey upon this nagging need to prove myself worthy, to be loved and cared for.

Which path did I want to take? It may sound like a no-brainer, but making that decision to change, and then put it into action required serious mental reconditioning. I was not raised in an environment where positive, healthy love was in abundance. Far from it. So taking a different road, it was not without trial and error. I had moments where I would hit a wall, trust the wrong person, get depressed, and then try unsuccessfully to avoid life’s messiness.

But I had to get back into living, and keep trying. Fall down seven times, get up eight, right? As martial arts and self defense practitioners, we do not see a move only once, and we know it perfectly immediately, right? We learn and master it by repeating it. Over and over, until we get it flawless, until we get it right.

So that’s what I did to re-learn being human, with a normal level of self-worth again.

All of this lead me to consider whether forgiveness was possible. It sounds rather simple, doesn’t it? Kind of a sweet, saintly ideal.

Well, I discovered that it’s not a simple, sweet thing. It’s complicated, and it’s hard.  Some days are great, and I feel that “light as a feather” feeling.

Other days, I feel angry, indignant, outraged.

I learned that forgiveness does not have to equal forgetting what happened to me. That’s an impossibly tall order. It happened, and it changed me on a cellular level. But, I do have the choice to determine how I want it change me.

Not long ago, I was watching a clip of Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker talking at one of his seminars, to a guest in the audience. He spoke about blaming people for the bad shit that happens, but also blaming people for the good shit that happens. He openly acknowledged to the audience that he was physically abused by his mother. And yes, he blames her for the abuse. He didn’t skirt around that. But he also blames her for the wonderful marriage that he has. He loves and adores his wife, because he learned what the opposite of a healthy, loving relationship is.

And this, really spoke volumes to me. I can blame the person who hurt me for all the bad memories, and the psychological damage. But…I can also blame him for the fact that the bad events, and his behavior forced me to re-evaluate myself, and determine that I deserved better, and that it was time to make more conscientious choices.

It’s made me more patient with myself when I screw up, say or do the wrong things, and it’s made me more empathetic when I see people I also care about, making their own gaffes.

We’re human. We hurt ourselves, we hurt each other. Let’s not stay in neutral.

My bad experiences ended up helping others at surprising, unexpected moments. There were a few times over the past two years, when I found myself holding someone’s hand, and listening to the recounting of a horrifically damaging situation, that mirrored my own. I was able to relate, to have compassion. I may not have had that capacity if my personal Ground Zero hadn’t happened.

Funny how that works, kind of paying forward compassion.

Have I completely forgiven, or completely healed? Eh…Yes and No. I have good days and bad days, just like anyone else. The good thing is that the good days, far outnumber the bad nowadays.

I’m hoping that time and patience will take me the rest of the way.

If you are a self-defense or martial arts instructor, I hope that this helps you gain some understanding when teaching persons you recognize to have undergone some sort of trauma or violence. It really can happen to anyone, and the process of dealing with returning to a normal life, well….It doesn’t happen easily, just because you teach them how to get out of an armlock.

We can teach all the physical maneuvers and defenses we want, but we should also encompass a certain level of empathy and understanding into HOW we teach. Learning to live a life outside the training hall/dojo, it’s hard for your students. And it takes a lot of grit.

Don’t ever mistakenly think that you’re too mentally tough for this to possibly occur to you, or someone you love.

Don’t trip on your ego, your belt level, your certifications.

If it can happen to me, it can happen to you.


You Are Not Alone – Raquel Lopez

The more I talk about my personal relationships and my experiences the more I realise that harassment, abuse and violence towards women is lamentably more common than I thought!

Speaking from my own experience, physical pain has not been the most difficult thing to get over but reclaiming my own identity. At the age of  14 I used to help out at my friend’s pet shop. The shop was located less than a minute from my parent’s flat so on my spare time I used to visit the shop and hang around with my friend’s parents who run the shop. At the time I truly enjoyed coming in and helping out with the chores. Hours went by watching snakes devore little rodents, cleaning, assisting with customer queries and learning about how to keep little creatures. All creatures fascinated me but reptiles were my obsession.

My friend’s mum was a very gentle, caring and meticulous woman whom I enjoyed being around, learning from and helping when she needed it. My friend’s dad on the contrary spoke to his wife and daughters in a very degrading manner. Unlike his wife, my friend and her siblings had other commitments hence didn’t help around the shop regularly. I had a suspicion that they tolerated his behaviour because they were afraid of him but I was in no position to get involved. My friend’s dad was always nice to me, he was charming, always joked about things and explained the chores with a smile on his face.

They owned a cottage house in the suburbs of my hometown and my friend’s dad suggested to go with him to check out a litter of puppies they were keeping at the cottage.

Naive of me I decided it was ‘safe’ to get in the car with him even though deep down I never really liked the way he treated his wife and his daughters. He drove me to the cottage with his mini van and once we got there he showed me the puppies and around the dwelling.

The way he behaved and talked made me feel very uncomfortable and my ‘gut feeling’ was telling me something was not right. When he offered to get inside the house I politely refused by explaining I was fine hanging around the outside terrace. I sat down at the entrance of the dwelling and I vividly remember his presence standing behind me. With a smile on his face he went on and on requesting I should come inside the house with him, he wanted to ‘show me around’ I kept refusing because my intuition was telling me not to!

What it may have been five minutes (I don’t recall how long) appeared to be hours of back and forth persuasion, propositioning and bragging that I was ‘going to like it’. I can vividly recall how I ‘froze’ not knowing what to do and how he was giggling and propositioning whilst standing behind me.

Luckily his eldest daughter turned up at the cottage, she drove to the dwelling to collect something she had forgotten!

I never shared what happened with anyone because of fear they may not believe me and I may consequently ruin the relationship they had with the man. I never knew how my dad would have reacted to the incident if he had found out!

Unlike many women out there, my case didn’t end up in disaster but three years later I met a man who became my partner and despite enduring a toxic, violent and degrading relationship, I decided to have a child with him. The relationship lasted 10 years and due to the fact that we have a child I still have to deal with the tactics he uses to get what he wants. The characteristics of my friend’s dad and my former partner were very similar, they both appeared charming, sociable and caring to the rest but were manipulative, authoritative and controlling individuals when it came to their partner!

Years later I learned that the ‘gut feeling’ I felt the day I went to the cottage was my intuition communicating and protecting me! I honestly believe that if we could just learn how to listen to our intuition and act upon it many incidences could be prevented.

Talking about how you feel, listening and not ignoring your gut feeling might prevent lots of incidences from happening. Sometimes talking to a professional is better than talking to someone you know and the reason why I believe this to be the case is because sometimes the person you trust might be the person who is trying to manipulate you hence sharing how you feel can even make you more vulnerable!

Living in silence doesn’t sort out the problem and makes it difficult to get support and help.

You are not alone so never forget that!

Of course no one wants to go through such demeaning events and the best remedy is preventing these from happening however, we have to acknowledge we are not always in control of what happens to us. Talking about things can help create awareness, can make the person feel better and communicating can encourage others to feel they are not alone. The most important thing is to get the support you need in order to overcome and deal with such situations.


End Violence Against Everyone – Erin Pizzey

Our family were captured by the Japanese in Shanghai in 1942 so I was born into international conflict and my parents were in conflict with each other.

I was a very violent and disturbed child but when I was nine years old my parents (my father was a diplomat), were posted to Tien Sien (now called Tianjin) and were arrested by the Communists for three years.  For all that time I was in the care of Miss Williams who ran a holiday home and became my mentor.  She took care of some 40 children whose parents were abroad and came from boarding schools across England.

Miss William was a colossus, she was six foot seven and probably weighed around eighteen stone.  She drove ambulances during the war and was a golf champion as well as being a magistrate in the local town.  She ran St. Mary’s, our holiday home, as a benevolent dictator.  My usual violent and disruptive behaviour was met with a calm indifference and a gentle request, would I join the women serving in the kitchen where I would help with peeling to potatoes, or another quiet request that I help them wash up after forty children had eaten.  I very quickly realised that my strategies for survival had to change and gradually I came to trust this woman and to want to please her.

When I was faced by our little community centre changing almost overnight, by a badly bruised woman asking for help, I had no experience at all of how we could be of any use except to take her in. Then as if a tsunami was suddenly loosed overnight a wave of women came to the door bringing their children.  Of the first hundred women coming through the door sixty two were as violent as or more violent than the partners they left. Most of the women volunteering in the little house left unable to deal with the behaviour of some of the women and also because we were breaking the law as we had no permission to house people.  My initial mothers along with myself very quickly created a simulation of a rumbustious family and we cared deeply for and about each other and our children.

Initially social workers often turned up on our doorstep with a mother and children in tow and said loudly ‘I have had enough this is the third time I have tried to rescue this woman and she keeps going back. ‘All that was available in 1971 and very rarely offered was a room in a homeless family hostel.  I knew the terror of knowing that my violent mother  might  be outside my bedroom door bent on revenging some slight she perceived and I watched as the mothers bedded down for the night with their children.  They slept with their backs against the walls and their heads on their knees if there was no room on the mattresses laid on the floor.  For almost all of them they said it was the best sleep they had for years.  They felt safe and secure surrounded by other women.  They washed in the basin in the kitchen and used the outdoor lavatory.  Bathing the children took place in a tin tub on the floor or in the tiny patio if the weather was warm.  We were all busy all day long and the mothers went in pairs to get there welfare benefits, attended appointments with their solicitors and doctors or dentists.  

We collected food left over at night from Marks & Spencer and we were given vegetables from the local green grocer and fish from the fishmongers.  Very soon united in our absolute conviction that refuges must be provided for all victims, we fought a running battle with the local council who soon took out warrants for my arrest for overcrowding.  There was no attempt at any time to put out a helping hand to mothers and children many of whom had lived in conflict as I had and need time and a therapeutic approach to help them learn other patterns of survival.

I used the same techniques as Miss William did in her care of the children in her holiday home. I knew from my own experiences that violent family life is lived in emotional and sometimes physical chaos.  I knew very quickly that children born into intergenerational family violence were likely to adopt violence as their strategy to survive.  There were other strategies for survival and one of them was to implode the anger and damage themselves.  

From my growing experiences I created what I called therapeutic chaos.  I believed that women and their children coming from violent families brought their internal chaotic life styles with them and what I needed to do (with a rapidly growing volunteer force of men and women) was to create an equally chaotic loving busy family. One where relationships were no longer a matter of survival but of learning to trust and finally to change the internal chaos into a peaceful acceptance of a world that was now safe. One of the biggest lessons was to teach violent people, who all their lives, automatically escalated from pain to rage how to learn to express sorrow and ask for comfort where comfort had always been denied.

My therapeutic community grew rapidly and I realised that for many of my families years of violence and abuse meant that they need years not months to heal.  We started our second stage communities where some five mothers and children chose to live for several years until they were rehoused.  The work we needed to do was to help all victims (I was aware that men were equally assaulted as women) to transcend their generational violence.  

I was deeply disturbed and still am that when children born into violent families grow up, through no fault of their own, to be abused children and then because they exhibit their wounds as anti-social children and later adults society turns on them banning them from schools, warehousing them in prisons and mental hospitals.  Alas my vision of the purpose of refuges fell afoul of prevailing feminist ideologies and my therapeutic communities were closed down. I have been silenced for many years but I feel some glimmering of hope that more and more agencies are beginning to see the failure of our punitive Western societies and I hope that we learn that we all have to ‘love the unlovable’ because how can you be expected to be a healthy happy member of society if you have never been loved or accepted?

www.whiteribbon.org is my web site and I have complete control of it.   Because so much research into domestic violence is fraudulent for purposes of raising money my web site is a safe place for everyone to learn the truth and see properly evidence based research that they can trust.