CW: dynamics of abuse (no explicit descriptions of cases, but the dynamics can be triggering if you've experienced this)
My first month as a victim advocate I helped an abuser get a restraining order against a domestic violence victim. At the time, I didn't know that's what I was doing. The person presented to court as a victim themself: they had been physically attacked, they claimed their attacker was on drugs and thus unpredictable, and they were scared for their future safety.
As a victim advocate it was my job to explain the legal process and connect them to resources, so I did. The temporary restraining order (for 30 days) was granted; at the hearing to extend the restraining order, the experienced judge poked holes in the person's story, the person reacted with rage and blame, and my mistake became clear: I had been helping the abuser use the legal system to further control their victim.
I felt sick with guilt.
I left work that day asking myself: what did I miss and how can I make sure I never miss it again?
Many of us want to think the answer to that question is simple. We want to say "believe the victim." But what if both claim they've been abused? What if there is only one victim coming forward and no one witnessed the abuse? What if it's someone we don't know well—or someone we do know well and like? What if we're trying to figure all of this out based on internet posts, absent body language or eye contact or personal knowledge?
The rest of this post is going to highlight some key lessons and helpful resources I found over the next ten years as I continued to pursue that question: what signs distinguish an abuser from a victim?