How Not To Respond To Abuse Victims
One of the most difficult things about experiencing abuse is finding the courage to speak up and tell someone about it. Abusers are masterful manipulators; they erode their victims’ confidence, and replace it with fear and hopelessness.
When a victim finally decides to speak up, they do so in hopes of finding support and healing for themselves and others. Sadly, victims are often met with blaming, shaming, and silencing, instead of the support and empathy they deserve. This belittlement of their experience is called re-victimization, and it often has lasting negative effects on the individual. (1)
“Blaming” is a response that places full or partial blame on the person who was or is being abused, instead of placing the full measure of responsibility on the abuser (where it belongs). It is important to remember that nothing a person could ever do (or not do) could make them deserving of or responsible for the abusive actions of another.
“Shaming” attempts to humiliate or dismiss the victim by drawing attention to the victim’s imperfections, whether real or perceived, and away from the abuser. Shaming applies the letter of the law to the victim and disproportionate grace to the abuser.
“Silencing” is an attempt to quiet the victim’s voice in a selfish effort to save the abuser and others from embarrassment or consequences.
These dismissive techniques are extremely common. Take a look at the list below and see if you have heard any of these harmful responses:
If it was so bad, why didn’t you just leave or say something sooner?
You are a bitter, crazy, delusional, emotional, imaginative, or forgetful woman.
You are a man, and “real” men do not experience domestic violence.
Your job, clothing, life choices, belief system, relationship choices, or sexual orientation indicates that you were asking for the abuse.
You enjoyed or benefited from parts of the treatment, therefore it wasn’t really abuse.
The person you are accusing isn’t capable of that; they are a godly and/or respectable person who has helped others.
You must have misunderstood.
If you speak out, you will destroy a ministry, business or organization, a reputation, a family, or a faith.
“X” Bible verse says it wasn’t really abuse; you should just submit and obey.
“X” Bible verse says that talking openly about abuse is gossip or slander.
If you don’t heal or handle the abuse our way, you are wrong.
You will not be believed, so you should not speak out.
Your story seems unlikely or confusing, therefore you are lying.
You are the only one speaking out, so you must be lying.
You have changed, added, or remembered details since your initial coming-forward, so you must be lying. (2)
You didn’t realize it was wrong at the time, so you can’t change your mind now.
You did not respond perfectly before, during, or after the abuse, so you don’t have a right to speak out against the other person.
You should just forgive and forget.
In order to properly support domestic violence victims and stop abuse, we need to be aware of these dismissive responses and combat them with healthy support.
What are appropriate responses to a disclosure of abuse?
Report to law enforcement or social services when applicable
Contact a licensed professional who regularly assists domestic violence victims
Offer to help the victim connect with community resources, counseling, and medical services
Offer empathy and compassion
Respond in gentleness and patience
A quick ear and a slow voice
Respect for the victim's wishes and choices
Support of the victim’s personal healing process
Encouragement if the victim decides to speak out, or if they decide to heal quietly
A quick defense against others who seek to blame, shame, or silence
Giving of space when needed
Willingness to learn about abuse
Follow-up after the initial disclosure
Remove the abuser from places of power and position when possible
Take away opportunities for the abuser to intimidate or re-offend
Above all else, take their story seriously
If someone discloses abuse to you, this is a great honor, and often symbolizes that the victim has a deep trust or respect for you. Your initial response can be a catalyst for either great healing or compounded pain. Be prepared to react appropriately, so you can help instead of hurt.
(1) When victims find the courage to speak up about their abuse, an all too common response from family, friends, and professionals (secular and religious) is to blame, shame and silence the victim. This is called "secondary victimization," and often causes significant emotional pain and feelings of isolation. It may additionally cause a loss of self-confidence and trust towards the should-be supporters and organizations.
For a comprehensive look at the effects of negative responses to abuse disclosure, see: “Being Silenced: The Impact of Negative Social Reactions On The Disclosure Of Rape”. Department of Psychology, California State University, Courtney E. Ahrens
(2) “It is not uncommon for family, friends, law enforcement, etc. to disbelieve a victim because their story has discrepancies or changes over time. It may appear to them that the victim is lying or merely seeking attention and cannot keep their story straight. In reality, to be simplistic, the brain is working to retrieve data that was potentially temporarily “lost” or suppressed during the trauma and, in the process of remembering and healing, that information will not be clear or linear. Inconsistencies are not lies but evidence that a traumatic experience has occurred.” -Purposefully Scarred