What to say (and what not to say) to abuse survivors

So a friend comes to you for advice. She/he/they reveals that they’ve been experiencing verbal put-downs, manipulation, and controlling behavior from their significant other. What do you say in response in order to help your friend and not make the situation worse?

There has been a pervasive, and I believe, damaging cultural narrative that advises people to not say anything negative about a friend’s partner. Sure, there are terrible ways to express this (see below), but by not saying anything, we are passively enabling abuse. You cannot break down the denial of a loved one if they are not ready to see, or make relationship choices for another adult. Domestic violence is not mandatory reporting for psychology professionals, which means that we can’t go to law enforcement to help our clients. It’s something I wish would change, but until it does, it’s valuable to know that it is mandatory reporting for medical professionals, such as nurses, primary doctors, and psychiatrists.

This is a very delicate balance even for professionals, as it’s easy to damage trust with a survivor. These are people who are abused where they have every expectation of safety–in their own homes with the person who is supposed to love them most. It messes with your head. On a personal note, I walked out of a therapist’s office shaking with rage (yes, rage) when the clinician dared to suggest that my partner’s actions toward me were abusive (yes, he used that word). Was he wrong to do that? No, he wasn’t. I was just not ready to hear that word applied to my situation. When I was ready to leave, two therapists in a row I went to see looked me in the eyes and called it abuse. I was ready to listen.

First I’ll list off the most damaging things you can say:

  1. Why don’t you just leave?
  2. Did you do something to make him/her/them angry?
  3. What’s your part in this? Stop being codependent!
  4. The Law of Attraction says…
  5. This person is an abusive asshole! Leave them immediately! (see #1)
  6. Maybe they’ll change if you just do what they want
  7. Maybe you’re misinterpreting things
  8. You’re being too emotional about this
  9. I’m sure they didn’t mean it
  10. It will blow over

Note that the statements above sound judgey, blaming, and minimizing, because they are. Just strike these from your vocabulary.

Now that you know what not to do, here are some sample statements that make survivors feel supported while also expressing concern:

  1. I am here for you no matter what you decide to do.
  2. I’m concerned for your safety and wellbeing.
  3. Can I help you find someone to talk to?
  4. This isn’t your fault.
  5. If you need a safe place to stay, have one (though apply this carefully, as it could put you in the crosshairs if the abuser is physically violent)
  6. Perhaps take a time out for a few days to clear your head?
  7. You deserve to be treated with love and respect.
  8. If you want to leave, I’ll help you do that safely.
  9. I’ve heard of this book, maybe you could read it (see Recommended Reading page for suggestions)
  10. I don’t like what your partner is doing, but I love you and I support you.

If your loved one is ready to take action, great! Help them find local resources, from a shelter to a therapist who specializes in abuse and domestic violence. Not just any therapist will do; you really need special training in this as your average counselor just doesn’t have the tools and can often hurt more than help. In normal relationships, a therapist will ask about how they are contributing to the problem. But in situations of abuse, the abuser is 100% responsible for their behavior. It’s not on the survivor to just be more patient, loving, or submissive in order to avoid abused.

Let’s all be part of unraveling these insidious cultural myths and empower survivors to discover their agency, community of support, and self-love.

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