From the archives

3 things you can say to survivors of domestic abuse

Hard-won wisdom on how to support those who may be living a nightmare: Start by asking, ‘Are you safe?’
Illustrative Photo
Illustrative Photo

The world is full of bullies. And sometimes these bullies grow up and fall in love and abuse their partners.

Not all of those abused are women – most are, yes. But men, too, can be beaten or raped by male or female partners. And not all perpetrators of abuse are men. Most are, but yes, women, too, can hurt their husbands or wives.

That’s the thing — there are no hard and fast rules, except that it happens and it happens a lot and people seldom talk about it.

Not all abuse is physical. I can’t speak for every woman or man, but I can tell you that the worst of it for me wasn’t when he pushed me or choked me or pinched my arms until bruises bloomed along my arm. The worst was when he took my key and locked my house, when he would hold our cats under water until they never up again, when he forbade me from taking money out of the ATM “or else,” when he would drive off in a rage and say he’d never come back, when he told me that if broke any rules (including drinking coffee outside at my favorite coffee place) that he’d make me sorry – that he’d disappear and I’d never know if he would come back or if he was dead.

Other women with black eyes and broken ribs may say differently, but it wasn’t until he really started to hurt me that I could see abuse for what it was and I could leave with his thumbprint on my neck.

I left. But it took me some time to admit to myself that the other stuff wasn’t “normal.”

And that’s when I began to talk about it — when I reached out to friends and families looking for allies. That part was really hard — but felt really good, too, because each time I told someone, I saw it clearer in my mind, and I began to see myself as a survivor and not a victim.

But not everyone responded well. And I get it – it’s really hard to see someone you care about sharing something so vulnerable. In fact, I still think about that when I talk about these things and I feel like I have to issue a big old disclaimer: “Hey, what happened to me is NOT your fault. I hid the signs really well, and you couldn’t have known. I don’t blame you.”

For the most part, the people in my life understood that, and stood by me and were my allies.

Some made awkward comments. Not on purpose.

My friend and soul sister Rachel Danziger Sharansky wrote an amazing guide for the intrepid newcomer who is thrust into the position of ally. Read it. It’s great.

But for those who find themselves sitting with their friend, or their new partner, or their child, or their sibling, or their cousin, or whoever… here are three things that I appreciated hearing:

“Are you safe?”

This is a super important one — and it’s one where you’ll have to look for cues beyond the answer. He or she may say “Yes, I’m safe,” but they may be trying to protector their abuser. If YOU sense there’s imminent danger you may have to make a tough judgement call and phone the police. This is a lot of responsibility and the person sharing this with you may be angry — but go with your gut. If you think there is very real risk, you have to intervene. Remember, this person trusted you to hear this story – take that trust and trust yourself.

“How can I help?”

The person admitting something this big and painful secret trusts YOU. She or he wants your help. Ask what you can do. Even if this person is out of danger, he or she may need moral support and encouragement while rebuilding a new life. Remember, the relationship wasn’t all terrible — there were reasons why he or she wanted to be with that person… and while those reasons may not make sense to you, they are part of the makeup of the person in front of you. Honor that and let them grieve if they want. If they want burn photos or an effigy or make a voodoo doll and go all Waiting to Exhale on their abuser, honor that too.

The thing is, some people won’t be able to answer that question. But it’s still important to ask.  And if they say “no, nothing, thanks” then find something little that you can do to help – like take them out for a meal, or offer to babysit (if they have kids) or send them a book or a movie.  You don’t need to turn this into a Hallmark Moment where you’re like “Here’s a present because you were abused,”  but doing something meaningful and helpful will make a difference.

“You’re so brave to share this”

When I left the man who was hurting me, I didn’t feel brave.  And I think this is fairly common for most people in abusive situations. After all, we’ve  been beaten and bullied and told we’re worthless so much that it’s embedded in our brains.

If you’re sitting with someone who has left his or her abuser, then you can celebrate that moment because it took tremendous strength to leave. But if you’re sitting with someone who is gathering the strength to do so, highlight their courage for being able to admit that there’s a problem.

This is key.

I can tell you from my own experience that I was afraid of being judged by others — after all, I stayed a long time in this relationship. I let him take away my key. I agreed to not use the ATM. I followed all his rules. When people told me I was courageous and a goddess for leaving, I felt seen for who I wanted to be… Strong. and it felt amazing.

The bottom line is this: Abuse happens every single day – It happens to rich people and poor people.  It happens to young and old.  It knows no boundaries of faith or skin color.  It happens to men, and women.  Maybe it’s happening to you – and even if it isn’t, then it’s definitely happening to someone you love.

Look us in the eye even there is a bruise beneath it, even if we’re crying.  Hold our hand if we reach out.  And stay in our lives.

Because one way we can break the stigma of domestic abuse is to be allies to those brave enough to come forward.

About the Author
Sarah Tuttle-Singer, Times of Israel's New Media editor, lives in Israel with her two kids in a village next to rolling fields. Sarah likes taking pictures, climbing roofs, and talking to strangers. She is the author of the book Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered. Sarah is a work in progress.
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