Breaking the Cycle of Domestic Violence

East Hampton’s The Retreat works on prevention from the ground up.
Awareness and education are key to the ending of domestic abuse. Photo: Kinga Howard

By Jenna Lebovits

In the ’80s on the East End, talk of domestic violence was hush-hush. Pastors, therapists and school employees offered quiet, underground support. Resources in the region were scarce, yet vital, for abuse survivors, so a grassroots movement began: In 1987, a circle of daring and concerned individuals joined forces to establish The Retreat, whose mission is to provide safety, shelter and support for anyone experiencing relationship abuse and to break the cycle of family violence. Five years later, the organization opened the doors of an 18-bed emergency shelter.

“The Retreat’s main goal is to help people have safer, healthier, happier and more meaningful connections and relationships in everyday life,” shares Courtney Hyland, associate director of prevention education at The Retreat. The nonprofit—which is the East End’s primary domestic and sexual violence prevention agency—provides an abundance of free, confidential offerings such as an emergency shelter, 24-hour hotline, legal advocacy and counseling services, and prevention education, which, according to Hyland, “is our jam.”

The Retreat’s prevention initiatives start early—as soon as third grade—where they work to help students in local schools identify and express their feelings. The lessons are age-appropriate, relatable and interactive, all the while remaining sensitive to the unique dangers of the digital age. “It can be so tricky—not just for youth, but for adults—to know how to assert boundaries without breaking the relationship off,” shares Helen Atkinson-Barnes, the education program director. “You might have somebody who’s pressuring you for location sharing, passwords or pictures. To be able to know what’s right for you and comfortable, and know when somebody is crossing that line, is important.” 

In middle school, the Respect in Relationships program focuses on identifying healthy and toxic behaviors in friendships. How to be a supportive friend, a good listener and how to navigate pressure and boundaries is also taught. In high school, students are involved in Healthy Relationships Don’t Hurt, a program that educates about consent and bystander intervention strategies, and provides overall support. “It’s a very safe space,” shares Maeve Bailey, current high school student and a Retreat Teen Leadership Council Ambassador. “I loved how each lesson was in the shoes of a teenager and problems you can get into and ways to solve them.”

The prevailing message in all of The Retreat’s youth initiatives is simple: Love is learned. “We see models of relationships—healthy or unhealthy—and we might not know that what we’re experiencing is an unhealthy or abusive behavior,” shares Hyland. For the nonprofit, preventing domestic violence starts with shifting the narrative away from stigma and silence, and creating space for conversation. “The more we talk about it, the more awareness that we raise,” says Hyland. “And that’s our ultimate goal, for everyone to be aware of these behaviors.”

Tips for talking to youth about healthy relationships:

1. Be a role model.

Consider your own relationships first—your feelings, values and expectations; these serve as the model for your child’s relationships.

2. Talk and listen.

Start early and talk often. Facilitate healthy, honest and open adult-child conversations.

3. Be honest.

Discuss and define differences between healthy and toxic relationships, and what kinds of behaviors are never acceptable. 

4. Encourage healthy practices.

Help them develop skills for problem-solving, boundary-setting and discovering their passions. 

Don’t miss The Retreat’s annual All Against Abuse Benefit—an exciting opportunity to support its mission—on June 8 at the Southampton Arts Center.