What Not To Say To Domestic Abuse Survivors
Updated: Feb 28, 2022
Domestic abuse is traumatic for survivors. It is important to identify and be aware of the appropriate choice of words when communicating with survivors either directly or virtually. Knowing what not to say is as important as knowing the right things to say.
It takes a great deal of courage for survivors to eventually reach out to someone to talk about their ordeal with the abuser. When a survivor reaches out to you, show empathy and kindness. Your reaction and your words could help them heal or cause them more pain. Be mindful to avoid any statement that implies or suggests the survivor may be partially or wholly responsible for the abuse they've endured.
“Knowing what to say to domestic abuse survivors is just as important as knowing what not to say.”
These are some of the things you MUST NEVER ask or say to domestic abuse survivors:
1. What did you do?
It is an offensive question. There's no better way of acutely accusing or shutting down a survivor further while completely exonerating or absolving the abuser than by asking this question.
2. What happened?
Domestic abuse is never about one incident. It is usually a combination of a series of abusive incidents and various forms of abuse endured over time. Asking this question is asking them to recount all the traumatic experiences inflicted on them that should have never happened to a human being under no circumstance. Unless you are their caseworker, solicitor, prosecutor or Judge presiding over their case, please refrain from asking this question.
3. ''After all, he's not beating you''
Domestic abuse is not only about physical abuse. Physical abuse often happens after other incidents of abuse would have occurred. Domestic abuse happens in cyclical and repeated patterns of abusive behaviours that often include a combination of all or some form of child abuse, psychological abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, spiritual abuse and/or digital abuse that involves hideous incidents of coercive, controlling, deceptive and manipulative behaviours. Not experiencing physical abuse does not make it any less traumatic.
4. ''It takes two to tango''
This is a direct accusatory statement that suggests the victim/survivor must have been violent too or done something to justify or provoke the abuse. Domestic abuse is never a one-time incident; it happens in a cyclical pattern and would have been endured repeatedly over time before the victim/survivor realizes they're being abused. Abusive behaviours are choices the abuser make and do not involve the victim/survivor being abusive too or provoking it. The abusers are very much capable of 'doing bad' single-handedly. The victim/survivor does not have to do anything wrong to be abused. You can be an Angel before God and man, do everything right in and by the relationship and still be abused.
5. ''There are two sides to every story''
This is another direct accusatory and dismissive statement that does not apply in domestic abuse incidents. Be mindful of your own bias. It's a way of raising suspicion, doubting and minimising the victim/survivor's traumatic experience while also justifying the abuser's behaviour. All abusers possess chronic narcissistic personality traits and faulted beliefs. Not all abusers are narcissists but many suffer from other forms of undiagnosed behavioural and psychological disorders. It's no justification for their abusive behaviour but rather a choice that they make. They're very capable of playing the victim. They are manipulative, pathological liars with no sense of remorse who often accuse the victim/survivor of the abuse they perpetrated.
6. ''Just move on'' / ''Let Go and Let God''
Domestic abuse is a traumatic experience that takes time to heal and recover from. The impact of the abuse and the recovery journey varies for each individual.
In most cases, while you make these statements, the abuse is still ongoing primarily with smear campaigns amongst other issues. Domestic abuse often escalates after separation or divorce especially when children are involved. There's no path, miracle or magic to a 'quick-fix' of the resulting trauma. Avoid any of these statements. It's a derogatory way of minimising their experience.
7. ''Every man does it'' / ''It's happening in every marriage''
No, it doesn't happen in every marriage. No, not every man is abusive. Some men are victims/survivors of domestic abuse. There are many decent, sensible men who are not abusive and will not condone or justify abusive behaviours. If you don't know any such decent men, be mindful of your own bias, renew your mind and change your circle of friends or family members.
8. If he's that bad, why didn't you just leave sooner?
The risk to life is greater at the point of leaving. Most domestic homicides happen after separation or at the point of leaving. Many victims/survivors are often threatened by the abuser; the threat to their life, children, family members, loved ones, finances, job etc. Many abusers also threaten to kill themselves. Many victim/survivors are controlled and overpowered by feigned remorse and endless promises to change by the abuser. Many are forced to live in a constant state of fear including the conscious judgement and condemnation by YOU, the 'society'. The decision and the capacity to leave are never straightforward. It requires careful safety planning, strategy and a mental capacity to do so. Again, bear in mind that, domestic abuse is never a one-off incident and it happens in cycles over time.
9. "If he's that bad, why did you have children with him?
Pregnancy is often used as a weapon of control to keep the victim/survivor in the relationship. Yes, he's that bad and she can be that helpless.
10. ''You saw the signs''
Contrary to popular misconception, the signs are not always there. Domestic abuse often starts with charm and kindness and not with direct or indirect violent or abusive behaviours. Whatever signs they saw and ignored or didn't see no longer matters. What matters now is the support needed for their protection and safety.
11. ''You didn't pray hard enough'' / ''Continue to pray for him''
This is directly accusatory while also placing the responsibility of the abuser's behaviours on the victim/survivor. Domestic abuse does not happen because of the victim/survivors' prayer life. Prayers certainly DO NOT resolve domestic abuse incidents or change an adamant, unrepentant abuser. A victim/survivor is under no obligation to pray for the abuser. Like it or not, the result of her prayers is the reason she's able to make the informed decision to leave the abuser while she's still alive and sane to do so.
12. ''It happened a long time ago, stop talking about it''
There's nothing like historical abuse or claiming it happened in the past. Domestic abuse is traumatic, it's also a loss that requires a grieving process. For many victim/survivors, it takes different stages for them to come to terms with it to be courageous enough to talk about it. It doesn't mean they're angry, bitter or unforgiving. Sharing their experience however they deem fit and when is a therapeutic process for many and essential to their healing process. Abuse only thrives in silence, speaking about it is no longer about the victims/survivors experience, it's also about offering hope and support to others in similar situations.
13. ''Stay for the sake of your children'' / ''Go back for the sake of your children''
Children should never be used as an excuse to promote a quick fix or justification for enduring domestic abuse. Children are not objects, they're human beings. They're not only witnesses to the abuse, many of them are victims too being raised in a broken home where domestic abuse is present. Domestic abuse has lifelong behavioural, mental and physical challenges for many children caught up in these dysfunctional behaviours. Victims/Survivors leave, for the sake of their children.
14. ''He's still the father of your children no matter what''
Survivors don't need this reminder. The children are equally at risk as the victim/survivor. Abusers often don't care about the children and in many cases, they only use the children as pawns to perpetuate abuse against the other parent through the family courts, smear campaign and financial abuse. Children are often at the risk of being alienated, neglected, brainwashed and manipulated to lie or commit a crime by the abuser. Many children have been murdered, abducted or hurt during unsupervised contacts with an abuser.
15. ''Forgive and forget''
Holier than thou religious people, please, repent already. By this statement, you're invalidating their experience and suggesting suppressing their emotions. If their experience makes you uncomfortable because you're afraid yours will come to light, don't engage with victims/survivors. Forgiveness takes time for many and it's not about the abuser, it's about them first. They don't have to forget it, they learn from it. For many, it's part of their experience in adulthood and while they don't nurse the hurts and pains everyday, they live with it even when they've healed completely. No one instantly develops amnesia of the experience just because they've escaped from the abuser.
16. ''God hates divorce''
Divorce is rarely on the list of priorities for victims/survivors of domestic abuse, rather it's safety, healing and recovery. Don't be an enabler and stop quoting the scriptures out of context to inflict more pain and judgement than they've already endured.
Malachi 2:16 (NIV) says - "The man who hates and divorces his wife," says the LORD, the God of Israel, "does violence to the one he should protect," says the LORD Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.
Domestic violence violates every marital rights. While there is no other legal option for the dissolution of these sham marriages, divorce it is!
17. ''I will not take any such abuse from any man''
Congratulations on your resilience and/or denial of abuse but it's not about you!. No victim/survivor planned or expected to experience or endure domestic abuse.