During active abuse, one way that abusers maintain the silence of their victims is to manipulate and condition them into believing that they are not being harmed or are to blame for the abuse. Abusers also threaten their victims that no one would believe them if they ever attempted to disclose the abuse to someone.
The fears of not being heard or of being brushed off are valid because abusers curate public personae that are conspicuously absent of control or other abusive behaviors. Consequently, when a victim assumes the risk of disclosing abuse, there is a good chance that many would initially doubt the claims as false or turn the tables on the victim and ask them what they did to instigate it.
For both a victim trapped in active abuse and for survivors who have left the relationship, having a support system that engages in active listening and allows them to share as needed without criticizing, making assumptions, blaming, or invalidating is critical to their safety and recovery.
Victims need to know the person they confide in will believe their disclosure and remain open as a reliable source of support that is also free of judgment. Having even one person there for them provides the victim with access to a critical lifeline and increases the likelihood of a successful break from their abuser. Even in cases where the victim is not ready to leave, the support can help create a safety plan, store documents or evidence of abuse, or keep resources ready when they decide to leave. Determining the best path to take is ultimately gleaned from listening to their wishes and not making choices for them.
For survivors who have begun processing trauma, talking about their experiences is a vital part of their recovery. Conversations about abuse are never comfortable, but they are imperative for many reasons. For many survivors, talking through trauma helps them process and understand what they endured. It also allows them to develop an understanding that they were not at fault, that they are not alone, and they did not deserve what was done to them.
Being heard also empowers the survivor and helps them find their voice again after abuse. It shows them that their story matters, connects them with other survivors, and helps rebuild their self-confidence and ability to trust.
In either circumstance, being heard dramatically impacts their safety, their ability to confide in you in the future, and minimizes isolation, shame, self-blame, and guilt.
How to be an effective listener
- Don’t expect healing to be immediate or complete. Expectations like these can lead to impatience, disappointment, and criticism when you do not see your loved one progressing the way you think they should. Healing is a very personal process that cannot be forced. Some survivors will seem to bounce back quickly, while others need more time. Often, many will never fully heal.
- Don’t pressure your loved one to share more than they feel comfortable sharing. Initially, they may not share very much with you, although this may changes over time as they learn they can trust you. You must keep in mind that disclosure of abuse always carries risk, and victims of abuse are conditioned and intimidated to remain silent. Overcoming that takes time.
- Don’t pressure your loved one to do something they are not comfortable doing. Their abuser often controlled every aspect of their lives from what they wore, where/if they worked, and what they bought to what they liked and when they were allowed to talk. Pressuring will generally lead them to feel they are being controlled again and may lead them to close themselves off from you.
- Contact a domestic violence organization and ask them for suggestions on how to be supportive. Some organizations like Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence have helplines staffed by advocates who are survivors of abuse themselves. Any feedback they provide comes from firsthand experience.
- Arm yourself with information about domestic violence and resources available to victims. This allows you to be ready to help with safety plans, finding counseling, and organizations they can contact for assistance. Let them know you have information to help them, but do not force it on them if they are not ready.
- Do not be dismissive. Victims and survivors of abuse often understate the severity of their experiences, and they can sense when someone doubts them.
- Be mindful of the language you use to avoid blaming or shaming. Avoid use of “must” or “should” in your conversations as they are interpreted as commands and not suggestions. Also refrain from suppositions (i.e., “I would have done this instead.”) or asking why they stayed or allowed it happen, as all of these imply they are to blame and they had control over the abuser’s reactions to and treatment of them.
- Be fully engaged in the conversation and know when to talk – and when not to. Wisdom and understanding can only be gained by listening and assessing how they are responding to the discussion.
- Most importantly, provide reassurance, reiterate that you believe them, and they are not at fault.
If you are providing any kind of support for a domestic violence survivor in your life and you would like to talk to someone for guidance, you can call our survivor helpline at (855) 287-1777 to speak to one of our survivor sisters. You may also reach out to us on Facebook via direct message for privacy purposes.