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?


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