Photos by Miss C Hope, Royal Media Productions
Love and relationships are idealized as happy partnerships between people who respect and care about each other; who make the conscious and constant decision to work together to achieve mutual goals; and who aspire to live happily ever after – like the fairytales say. Yet, like most things in life, relationships are accompanied by challenges that test the strength, commitment, and character of those involved.
Love, the emotion and feeling that brings people together, is not always simple.
Relationships don’t always work out, with a multitude of causes that could be as straightforward as a misalignment of values, or more complex situations that include toxicity and harm. For Krystal Ryan, founder of the Beyond Blessed organization for survivors of domestic violence, an unhealthy, failing relationship nearly took her life.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
Domestic violence is a term that describes violence committed when there is a close relationship between a perpetrator and a victim. While domestic violence does not always include a romantic relationship, partner violence affects more than 10 million people per year.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), domestic violence is defined as “willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another.”
NCADV is an organization that promotes legislation and policies that protect survivors of domestic violence. It operates an educational program that teaches communication and self-awareness skills in support of healthy relationships and advocates for the disarmament of abusers with the Disarm Domestic Violence initiative.
The statistics from NCADV regarding domestic violence are staggering. The estimated 10 million people who are physically abused each year equates to approximately 20 people per minute. The rate of abuse is heavily disproportionate by gender, with 1-in-4 women and 1-in-9 men experiencing severe physical violence, stalking, and sexual abuse. As a result of reported physical abuse, 1-in-7 women and 1-in-25 men have been injured by an intimate partner.
In Colorado, domestic violence fatalities are recorded by the office of the Colorado Attorney General, which indicated in its most recent review in 2021 that 91 people died in domestic violence-related incidents. This number, up from 63 in 2020, represents a disturbing upward trend and epidemic that affects people in every community with a greater impact on communities of color.
In 2018, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC) reported that people of color are “substantially underrepresented” when it comes to the funding allocated to helping victims of violent crime. This disparity starts from the top down, with a majority of members of the board of directors for organizations serving victims of domestic violence identifying as white. Federal survey data from 2010 to 2015 revealed that in comparison to the demographic that identifies as white, Indigenous Americans are 2.4 – Blacks are 1.8 – and Hispanic Americans are 1.4 times more likely to experience serious domestic violence.
In 1989, the U.S. Congress designated the month of October as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
A Story of Survival
Ryan, author of “Through It All: Her Story,” hosts the “Through It All” podcast to detail the abuse she suffered at the hands of her partner, and how it changed her life. She went on to co-author the Unstoppable Black Woman and Unshakeable Faith anthologies, empowering women and sharing her story to motivate others to leave abusive partnerships.
The abuse Ryan endured affected her home, her children and her relationship with her friends and family. It could have easily led to her untimely demise if she had not found the courage to finally leave.
One of the most troubling statistics about domestic violence involves the difficulty of leaving. The misconception that leaving is easy leads to many unfair judgments and assumptions about why people stay. Some believe that failure to immediately leave means that the abuse is not really happening, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
On average it takes more than seven attempts to finally leave an abusive relationship for good, with some people reporting up to 30 attempts before walking away for the last time.
“Why Don’t You Just Leave?”
One of the most pervasive forms of partner abuse involves the very thing that keeps people chained to their abusers: Money.
The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) recognizes financial abuse as one of the most powerful methods of keeping a survivor stuck by diminishing their ability to care for themselves independently, leave safely, or stay safe after escape. The organization estimates that financial abuse occurs in 99% of abusive relationships.
When someone is financially restricted, they may believe that they do not have the option to leave. When it comes to a lack of funds, the potential possibilities can be terrifying because so much is tied to financial stability. Many people are unable to get past the idea of losing everything and having to start over, so they stay long after they should have left.
“It took me over 20 times,” says Ryan, recalling the final straw that forced her to finally walk away for good. “I didn’t want to be the typical statistic single mother with children, unable to do it by myself. So the final straw was a kick to the face.”
After being kicked in her face by her abusive husband, Ryan turned to her pastor, who encouraged her to stay in the relationship and undergo counseling. Many abusers are unwilling to attend counseling sessions with the traditional belief that “Whatever happens in the house stays in the house.” While waiting for counseling to help, abuse could instantly escalate to life-threatening extremes.
“I realized that he was either going to kill me, or I was going to kill him, and my children wouldn’t have anyone. So I had to make the tough decision to leave,” Ryan admits.
Without a plan in place, she researched a place where her abuser wouldn’t find her and made the difficult decision to call Safe House Denver. Having called twice before, she gathered her strength and important documents and told her husband that she was bringing their two children, ages 10 and 13, to get ice cream.
With only enough money for three one-way bus tickets and food for her children, Ryan boarded a bus to Denver, Colorado. “It’ll be 15 years on October 22nd that I escaped,” she says.
By the time she arrived in Denver, she had 32 cents in her pocket. She had no choice but to go to a homeless shelter with her children, and the harsh reality of her environment nearly drove her back home.
“I asked my counselor, ‘Can you please help me get back home because I’d rather be beaten than stay here,” Ryan remembers. “I woke up and we’re in a shelter and it’s like oh my gosh! I’ve never been in this situation. I sat down, and I was holding (my daughter). I was like ‘Are you okay?’ and she goes ‘Yeah, I’m just afraid that you’re gonna go back.”
Having to live in a homeless shelter is one of the fears that keeps people from leaving. Not having money for food, transportation, personal hygiene items, and the luxuries they’ve grown accustomed to can present paralyzing uncertainty; the answers are not always clear and they don’t all come at once. However, there are hundreds of crisis centers and service organizations around the country that are dedicated to making the transition out of abuse less frightening.
Living in a homeless shelter is never anyone’s first preference, but housing resource providers work hand-in-hand with shelters to fast-track permanent housing solutions for victims of abuse. Additionally, resources for food, legal services, childcare, healthcare, transportation, clothing, and personal needs are readily available to shelter guests. Getting over the fear of losing everything is difficult, but after taking the first step and remaining committed to success, things fall into place. The key is to never give up!
Within 2 weeks, Ryan secured a job and a place in a transitional housing program.
“There were just so many things that I didn’t even know were out there. You just have to do your research, and go in with an open mind and be receptive to take what they’re offering,” Ryan says, encouraging survivors to utilize the resources offered by service agencies.
What Is Abuse?
Physical abuse and financial abuse are the most prevalent forms of domestic violence, but there are several more tactics used by abusers that make a relationship unhealthy.
Emotional or mental abuse includes non-physical psychological and verbal violence meant to weaken, control and intimidate victims of domestic violence. Abusers may engage in various forms of emotional abuse, such as being excessively jealous or possessive, constantly criticizing and devaluing, having intense and unpredictable outbursts of anger, and gas lighting with lies and manipulation. Verbal abuse also involves insults, blame, humiliation, stonewalling, and threats.
Sexual abuse occurs within a relationship when a partner is manipulated or coerced into engaging in sexual activity against their wishes. Due to the nature of intimate relationships, a victim of sexual abuse may be made to believe that sex is expected and should not be withheld. However, if someone does not want to have sex and their partner threatens them, makes them feel guilty, or has affairs when the sexual activity they feel entitled to is withheld, they are engaging in intimate partner sexual violence.
Reproductive abuse is related to sexual abuse and involves acts of violence against a partner’s reproductive health and decisions. If a partner withholds or tampers with contraception with the intention of getting pregnant, impregnating, or exposing their partner to sexually transmitted infections, they are engaging in reproductive abuse. Lying or manipulating someone to control their reproductive choices and outcomes is also abuse.
Finally, litigation or legal abuse occurs when an abuser uses the legal system as a method of control. After leaving an abusive relationship, abusers may turn to the court system as a last-ditch effort to cause harm to their victims. They may file excessive petitions and prolong court processes in an effort to weaponize a system that is meant to be protective.
Litigation abuse is especially harmful in situations involving children. Abusers may file for custody or demand unsuitable parenting plans that do not serve the best interests of the children involved to victimize and terrorize the other parent.
One of the most common tactics abusers use to maintain control of their partner is isolation. By removing the partner from their support system, there are fewer influences around to threaten their control. Isolation might be subtle, involve force, or result from causing visible bruises and scars to shame the victim away from friends and family.
After leaving a relationship that involves domestic violence, abusers often turn to harassment and stalking to interrupt a survivor’s work and personal activities. While there are legal methods to stop these behaviors, many abusers go to great lengths to avoid being caught.
Taking The First Step
One of the first steps to leaving an abusive relationship is to reach out to an organization that helps with safe escape. The risks associated with leaving an abusive relationship increase with the amount of attempts made, so it is important to contact local organizations or the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) as soon as possible.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. When calling, expert advocates provide free and confidential intervention services and connect callers to local agencies for immediate assistance. After being connected with a local organization, service providers will help with transportation and an escape plan.
Escaping abuse may mean leaving everything behind with only clothes and very personal items. To plan for a safe escape, it is important to try to save money if possible and gather important documents such as birth certificates and social security cards that will be used to establish further resources and maintain a high level of secrecy. Sharing plans with friends and family (or even children) could be detrimental before safety measures are in place.
After leaving her abusive husband, Ryan did not pursue child support or file for divorce until her children were 18 years old because she knew it would subject her to the potential for continued abuse. “I basically fell off the face of the earth,” she says. “I did not use social media, and I went into the address protection program.”
The Address Confidentiality Program is a statewide program that serves as a mail-forwarding resource for victims of abuse. However, the program does not protect against litigation abuse as participants can still be legally served through the program.
After leaving an abusive relationship, there are many organizations that can help survivors regain financial stability past the resources offered by many nonprofit organizations. The NNEDV website (NNEDV.org) contains resources to help recognize financial abuse and counter its effects. FreeFrom (FreeFrom.org) is an organization that works to dismantle the nexus between intimate partner abuse and financial insecurity.
It may take time to recreate life after abuse, but the most important part of survival is taking the first step and getting away.
The effects of abuse can be complicated and multilayered. In addition to recovering from the financial impact of leaving, survival itself can have a significant impact on mental health. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation are commonly experienced by survivors of abuse.
In a Journal of Family Violence report on the psychological effects of domestic violence, Alytia A. Levendosky and Sandra A. Graham-Bermann discovered a PTSD diagnosis rate in 45 to 85% of women who have experienced abuse. The report, titled “Parenting in Battered Women: The Effects of Domestic Violence on Women and Their Children,” also discusses the potential lasting effects of abuse on children in violent households.
“My children suffered silently. They were never physically abused, but emotionally and even spiritually my children were scarred,” says Ryan.
Her daughter, who was subjected to her father’s verbal attacks and insults, suffered from body dysmorphia for years after hearing her mother being called fat. “Children are sponges. They learn what they absorb,” she reveals, saying that she worked to alleviate the effects of her children’s exposure with family counseling that ultimately strengthened their bond.
“We were able to sit down and talk. So yes, it was a journey, and they masked it very well. I knew they were angry, but I didn’t know why.”
Future relationships that survivors encounter may be affected without attention to emotional healing and psychological repair. Attachment styles can be negatively impacted by abuse, causing issues with trust, honesty, financial security, and parenting. Yet, with counseling and education regarding healthy communication and relationships, recurring abuse can be avoided.
How Can You Help?
Survivors of abuse are often isolated from friends and family, damaging or even severing relationships at a time when support is crucial. Repairing connections with friends and family is important, and requires work on both sides.
Supporting someone who has survived domestic violence can be challenging for those who do not understand what has happened or how to help. As a support person, it is important to listen without judgment and simply be there for loved ones who are struggling.
There are times when survivors return to abusive relationships, which is especially challenging for support people who feel their efforts were in vain. By understanding the pattern of abuse and remaining willing to help when necessary, supporters can potentially save lives.
Ryan rebuilt her life with friends she made while living in the shelter, and she continues to be a support person for women leaving abusive relationships with her Sisterhood of Survivors Support Group. Operated in conjunction with Denver’s Rose Andom Center, she hosts gatherings and events for survivors and people currently experiencing domestic violence.
“It’s real women coming together, that feel like ‘Hey, I just need someone who can understand, someone who can identify with me, and someone that I can pull a little bit of information from,’” she says.
Many people, like Ryan, experience abuse during childhood and go on to encounter domestic violence later in life because they are searching for love and trying to fill voids that only self-love can fill.
No matter how beautiful love seems in the fairytales, true love doesn’t hurt and not every relationship will end in a happily ever after. It is important to know the signs and recognize when it’s time to walk away.
Despite the uncertainty that comes with lMany people, like Ryan, experience abuse during childhood and go on to encounter domestic violence later in life because they are searching for love and trying to fill voids that only self-love can fill.eaving an abusive relationship, Ryan’s goal is to remind survivors that they are not alone. Last year, she started the “Walk A Mile in My Shoes,” walk to raise attention and awareness, and this year she will be hosting the inaugural “Krystal’s Hope Ride” motorcycle ride on Saturday, October 7th to celebrate her survival and speak out against abuse.
“Pay attention to the red flags. If, in your heart and mind, you feel that this just doesn’t seem right, it could be abuse. It usually is,” Ryan warns. “My purpose is to let the next woman know that you’re not alone.”.
Editor’s Note: If you are experiencing domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. To learn more about Krystal Ryan and Beyond Blessed, visit www.beyond-blessed.org. Watch and listen to Ruby Jones’ full interview with Krystal at www.denverurbanspectrum.com/podcast.