October is known for all things ghoulish and fall-themed, but it is also Domestic Violence Awareness month. I am a survivor, writer, and advocate for domestic abuse awareness. In my experience, those who have not endured domestic violence and assault sometimes struggle with their response to survivors. In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, here are 5 things you should never say to a survivor of domestic abuse:
1. “But he/she was always so nice to me.”
Before you jump to the defense of an alleged abuser based on your own interactions with them, remember abuse thrives in secrecy. My abuser was always very friendly in public, known for a successful career and involvement in our community, but this was just a façade to mask his true character. Abusers are more than likely to be intimate partners or family members, making victims of abuse easier to control and hide violence inside the home.
2. “Why didn’t you just leave?”
I hate to address this comment again and again, but it seems to be a common response from non-survivors. There are numerous reasons why someone might stay or be forced to stay with an abusive partner, including but not limited to financial dependence, feeling emotionally/physically trapped in the abuse cycle, damaged self-esteem, threat of homelessness, or even because of the lack of support from the justice system or family/friends. I developed an inherent distrust towards social services after I reported my abuser at eleven and saw no action taken to protect me or provide consequences for him. Like many other survivors, their lack of support reinforced the belief that even if I reported him again I would not receive help, so I stayed silent out of self-preservation. Navigating the aftermath of domestic violence is hellish, draining, and often dangerous; before you judge a survivor for staying, try to empathize with the victim, and realize there is no correct, easy, or singular way to handle abuse.
3. “You’re playing the victim.”
One of the most frustrating and upsetting accusations I have been told as a survivor is that I act like a victim. After being silenced by an abuser for so long, it is extremely important for me and many survivors to speak and write about the violence inflicted on us. Advocating on behalf of abuse survivors is not about wanting pity or sympathy, it is often cathartic and essential to healing. Also, as long as domestic violence is a national epidemic, I will continue to spread awareness and WRITE.
4. “Can you just move on?”
This is another question I have heard repeatedly since becoming an activist; and the short response is: no, I can’t. I can’t sweep my abuse under the rug, and I can’t forget it. I can’t ignore the posttraumatic stress disorder and anxiety that I struggle to manage every single day. I can’t pretend I was not diagnosed with borderline personality disorder because of the violent environment I grew up in. The consequences of abuse do not just end when you leave your abuser; the long term affects include increased suicide risk, a larger chance of developing mental illnesses like PTSD, and domestic abuse is even linked to reproductive health issues (Nation Coalition Against Domestic Violence). So, no, as a survivor you can’t just move forward without first healing and (re)learning self-care.
5. “You’re lying.”
SIGH. Despite the repetitive studies and statistics that prove false rape and abuse allegations occur at a minimal percentage, accusing a survivor of lying is STILL such a popular riposte to domestic violence claims. Believing a woman would create a story of abuse for attention, money, or any other reason is daft. Many survivors experienced gaslighting, an abusive tactic in which the abuser convinces the victim they are delusional, and that the abuse they are experiencing is not real. Personally, the gaslighting I experienced has been one of the hardest parts of my abuse to come to terms with; every time I am accused of lying, I question my sanity, I am overwhelmed with shame, and I am re-traumatized. To put in plainly, if your kneejerk reaction is to assume a survivor is lying, then you have some internalized sexism to work past.
Hopefully, this article can serve as a small tool for you to stay educated, aware, and empathetic. When 1 in 5 women are victims of domestic violence, it is our job to empower, support, and uplift survivors. Get involved in with Domestic Violence Awareness Month at www.ncadv.org today.