Listening and believing may seem like small things, automatic or trivial. But to abuse victims, in particular, they make a huge difference. Simple as they sound, they may actually be more difficult that one might think. Various characteristics of abusers, societal biases, and instinctual reactions are factors that have kept domestic violence in the shadows for so long and have reinforced an atmosphere where victims are not comfortable telling anyone what is happening to them, let alone pursuing assistance to better their situation or legal measures against their abusers. A culture where victims are consistently heard and believed without being judged by those closest to them is essential to ending domestic violence.
The Charismatic Abuser Factor
Because abuse is more about control than anger, victims may be the only ones who experience or witness the perpetrator’s negative or intimidating behavior. Abusers are often charming, well-liked, and friendly, people their neighbors and colleagues would never imagine could be controlling or physically harmful to their partners. It can be shocking to learn about abuse by a congenial, respected person and instinctual to think it couldn’t be possible.
Isolating victims from friends and family is a common tactic used by manipulative abusers to help maintain control. Thus, victims soon learn that nobody would believe them if they tried to talk about it. Believing a victim and expressing that belief to them may seem like a small thing from the outside, but it makes a huge difference to the victim who is expecting (and often receives) doubt from those around them. Truly listening and believing begin to erode and ultimately may even help break a key part of the abuser’s control.
Skepticism & Scorn
When victims are not believed, they may instead be met with skepticism and/or scorn. Surprise and misgivings are understandable responses but can be detrimental to the victim. Reacting to a confession of abuse with doubt reinforces the abuser’s control, making the victim feel further isolated and defeated. Beyond questioning the validity of a victim’s story, it can be even more damaging to actively deride them for defaming their abuser’s character. Telling them they must be mistaken or, worse, lying just adds to the abuse they are already enduring. It can make victims feel their loved ones value the abuser more than them and/or break the trust between them and someone they went to for support. Hesitating to share or not saying anything, especially when risk factors increase, can cause victims to suffer longer or more intensely than if their confidence had been met without judgment.
Perhaps even more pernicious than skepticism or scorn is to turn the fault around onto the abused, not denying that the abuse happened but insisting that something they did or said caused it to happen. Domestic violence is never the victim’s fault. Yet victim blaming is surprisingly easy to do. In fact, research shows it may be psychologically ingrained as a result of “just-world bias”. People want to believe that good things happen to good people, which also implies the opposite. Thus, we subconsciously intuit that if something bad happens to someone, they must have done something to deserve it. Otherwise, the world must be unjust, and we don’t want to believe that. It’s a coping mechanism to reduce our sense of danger, but it just shifts that threat, adding it to someone else’s undeserved burden.
Questioning victims’ actions or decisions in dealing with the abuse can also feel a lot like blame. Why did they let it get this far or go on this long? Why haven’t they said anything before? Why haven’t they left or why do they want to stay? While not saying they did something wrong that caused the abuse, these questions imply the victim did something wrong in reacting to it. Every situation and each person are different. Rather than making them feel worse, we need to empower victims to feel able to make the best decision for themselves moving forward.
Innocent Until Proven Guilty
A core tenet of the United States justice system is that accused criminals are innocent until proven guilty. Designed to prevent false convictions, in many cases of domestic violence it, unfortunately, works against the victims. When abuse leaves no visible marks or paper trail and there are no witnesses, it becomes a case of he said/she said. Without empirical proof one way or the other, abusers are frequently not brought to justice.
This is not to say that allegations of abuse should not be thoroughly investigated and proof sought, rather that this should be undertaken from the perspective of belief in the victim’s claims (or, at least, true neutrality) and not from the default response that if it cannot be proven, then the victim must be lying. Living with an ambiguity of truth is better than blaming the victim.
Added Trauma to Victims
Studies have found that up to 84% of domestic violence survivors exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Having multiple incidences of abuse and victimization increases the probability of PTSD. When loved ones fail to listen to victims or believe their experiences of abuse, it can add to the trauma they are likely already suffering from, which can, in turn, lead to other mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression or to substance abuse issues. Being believed is imperative not only to victims’ ability to improve their current situation, but also to help them avoid or reduce long-term health issues.
Active Listening without Judgment or Unsolicited Advice
It can be very difficult for victims and survivors to share their experiences, whether they are current or in the past. Often, what they most need is someone to simply listen, to hear them and let them vent their feelings and fears. Once it is said out loud, once someone else knows, it becomes all the more real, something to actively deal with in whatever way they feel is best for them. If that results in them asking for help, then it is appropriate to offer support, suggestions, and resources.
Even then, leaving room/space for them to choose their own path is essential. Avoid absolutes and give options, most importantly the option to not do something suggested or offered. Be careful, as sometimes statements meant to be helpful, such as “You are stronger than that” or “It’ll be better tomorrow”, can actually make victims feel scolded, embarrassed, doubted, or lied to. They don’t need to be cheered up or reassured, but, instead, to feel safe, heard, and understood by someone they can trust.
The Ripple Effect
Listening and believing can make a huge difference to individual survivors but also to changing the culture around domestic violence and working towards stamping it out for good. Victims need the support of a trusted, willing ear and open mind to help them find the best path to a better future for themselves. If a pattern of disbelief continues, it will discourage future victims from seeking assistance or accusing their abusers and the cycle will continue. In order to end domestic violence, victims need to know they will be heard and believed and abusers need to know they will be held accountable.
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