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What not to say to victims of domestic abuse

She interviewed women who survived abusive relationships and learned just how devastating the wrong words can be
(Illustrative image via iStock)
(Illustrative image via iStock)

Remember that old friend, whose wedding was so lovely and who seemed so put together all the time? Well, prepare yourself. Put together or not, one day she just might call you out of the blue, tell you that her husband abuses her, and leave you fumbling for words in your living room.

I know, because it happened to me. I stood there, surrounded by the mundane props of daily life, holding the phone in oddly numb fingers.The vague images we associate with domestic abuse — a bruised woman cowering in a corner, a yelling large man — clashed with the nice, normal-looking people I knew, and left me speechless.

You may never find yourself in this position, of course. But with abusive relationships being as common as they are, chances are you either witnessed or will witness abuse in your lifetime. Your daughter may come to you with doubts about her, or her friend’s, partner. Your son may ask you whether the way his buddy treats his girlfriend is OK. Your co-worker may behave oddly, crying for help without putting her predicament into words. Your student may come to class pale and withdrawn, and look at you with eyes that beg for guidance.

And in all these cases, the wrong words can have devastating consequences. Our sages taught us that “life and death are in the hand of the tongue.” When it comes to abusive relationship this is literally the case.

I interviewed dozens of women who survived abusive relationships. They told me of words that pushed them deeper into their abuser’s traps. They recalled words that deterred them from seeking further help. They lamented words that cost them years of ongoing suffering.

Here are some of the examples they discussed.

1. “But all couples have problems.”

Well spotted, Sherlock, but some problems are qualitatively different.

Abusive relationship are not yet-another-case of a relationship gone wrong: Abuse, whether it’s emotional, sexual, or physical, is a pathology. It can be healed, sometimes. But only if the abuser acknowledges his condition and receives professional treatment. All the communication, romantic vacations, and “talking through your problems” suggested by well-intentioned but ill-informed friends won’t help otherwise. And contrary to what trashy Harlequin Presents novels may convey, nor would patience, love, and endurance.

This response (and its variations) is particularly toxic since it echos the delusions that keep many women in abusive relationships. “I only need to make more of an effort,” they tell themselves. “I only need to be more obedient/understanding/patient with him.”

None of these efforts will help in cases of actual abuse. And if your friend already started the painful process of acknowledging her (or, less frequently, his) situation and seeking help, echoing her previous opinion at her may well undo whatever progress she made.

2. “Are you sure you’re not blowing things out of proportion?”

A close cousin of the previous example, and a dangerous thing to say to an abuser’s victim.

Abusers seek control. They try to isolate their partners, control their social circle, dictate their activities, or veto their wardrobe. They guilt-trip, sweet-talk, or downright threaten their victims into playing along. They humiliate their partners and cast aspersions on their judgment, forcing them to rely on their abusers for approval and guidance. By the time the abuse becomes impossible to ignore, the victims often no longer trust their own perception of reality.

Many women I met pointed to such self-doubts as the greatest obstacle on the way out of an abusive relationship (see more here). They couldn’t take action until they acknowledged the abuse for what it was, and even then they kept questioning their own judgement.

In that vulnerable stage, another person’s doubts often devastate whatever is left of the victim’s self confidence. “I think the first month after we were married was the first time I told my parents that I wanted a divorce,” one survivor told me. “But my family often took his side over mine. It was very detrimental to my self-esteem because I thought that maybe he was right.” It took her years of gradually worsening abuse to overcome this blow to her self confidence, and accept that her original evaluation of the situation was, in fact, correct.

So even if you secretly doubt your friend’s account, keep it hidden for now, in the off-chance that she is right. Leave the details and verification for the lawyers, or for a later date. For now, simply BE THERE for her. Listen. Believe. Offer support and validation. Don’t play into an abuser’s hands by augmenting his victim’s self-doubt.

3. “So why did you hook up with him in the first place?!”


This response stems from the mistaken assumption that only weak/uneducated/stupid women end up in abusive relationship. It implies that if you are abused then something must be wrong with you. But both the assumption and the implication are patently wrong.

Abuse victims come from all walks of life, all professions, and all family backgrounds. Some struggle with low self esteem while others are lulled into a false sense of security by their healthy self confidence. Some have PhD’s while others never completed their high-school education. Some never heard of abuse before, while others knew what to look out for and fell for their abusers anyway.

No one, to put it bluntly, is safe.

So when a woman tells you that she is/was in an abusive relationship, judging her for it is nonsensical: It could as easily be you or me. Furthermore: by making her feel small or stupid, you are echoing yet another sentiment that keeps women in abusive relationship: The feeling that as strong and smart individuals, they can’t possibly be the victims they are.

If your response implies that being in an abusive relationship is a symptom of weakness or bad judgement, you make it harder for the victim to accept that she is, in fact, abused. And so you are pushing her to doubt her judgment again – and maybe even go back to her abuser.

And even if condescension doesn’t shake her confidence, why should innocent victims deal with nonsensical and judgmental sneering on top of everything else?

4. “So why didn’t you leave him already?”

Unlike the previous response, this question doesn’t belittle the victim for ending up in an abusive relationship. But it does assume that once the guy (or woman) revealed his true colors, leaving him should be a no brainer.

Let me spell it out, in case it wasn’t clear by now: Abuse places many, many locks upon its victims. It shakes their faith in their perception of reality. It isolates them from people who might help. It makes them emotionally dependent on their abusers.

And to top it all, abusive relationships aren’t all bad. They vacillate between extremely bad and extremely good periods. Today’s Mr Hyde can be tomorrow’s charming Dr. Jekyll, and woo you with over-the-top romantic gestures. Knowing this, and hoping against hope that this time around Dr Jekyll will come to stay, many women stay with their abusive partners.

So no, leaving an abuser isn’t easy. But if your friend or relative reached out to you, she is already working towards that goal. So why make her feel bad about not doing it earlier, instead of empowering her in this incredibly difficult and vulnerable time?

* * *

Horizontal view of a woman comforting her sad friend
(Illustrative image via iStock)

“OK, but what should we say,” some of you might be wondering. Naturally, this is a harder question to address. Every person is different, and every survivor of abuse needs different forms of encouragement and help.

One woman I interviewed needed to be told that she’s not imagining things. Another said she simply needed people to keep her cheerful. “I needed to be told that I am strong enough to leave him,” a friend told me, but another wanted people to tell her that it’s OK to be weak. “So many people who are in the thick of it feel like they are incredibly strong for staying,” she explained, “and that leaving is a weakness, a surrender and an admission that they can’t handle it.”

So when that phone rings, or your daughter knocks on your door, or that pale-faced neighbor stops you on the street and shuffles from foot to foot in agitation — you will have to do more than avoid all the wrong answers.

You will have to try and understand what the woman facing you needs from you. And to do that, you will need to do more than say the right words and silence the wrong ones. First and foremost, you will have to take a step back, and actually listen.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and speaker who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, parenting and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and Kveller, and explores storytelling in the bible as a teacher and on 929.
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