Language Matters When Engaging Survivors of Domestic Violence in Discussion” By: Amy Thomson

Amy runs her personal blog documenting her experiences in and out of domestic violence titled “Picking up the Pieces.” In this piece she was generous to share with our team she her tips for avoiding language faux pas when discussing domestic violence with victims of abuse.

Language Matters When Engaging Survivors of Domestic Violence in Discussion

Words have the power to be dangerous, and when you are speaking in terms of domestic abuse, semantics do matter. So often, statements and quotes offered up in attempt to encourage a survivor of domestic violence actually end up having the opposite effect. How many of us will internalize what you said without seeking clarification, maybe being influenced to change the meaning attached to the simplest of words that could result in us reassigning blame to ourselves? How many of us would momentarily protest but give up once we have been talked over enough? How many of us would speak up in our defense and make our voice heard?

Opening up and holding a dialogue open about how abuse happens is imperative. With the number of reported cases climbing, and taking into consideration the vast number of victims not coming forward, it is urgent that we talk openly about it. However, much of what others say in many cases assigns blame to the victims and survivors. If you truly want to learn and understand the signs of abuse, the dangers we face, and how we are affected, we will engage you in conversation. However, even related to my preferences, I see the wrong message being sent. The message you send by what you say may cause someone further distress, so it is imperative that we change the language we use.

Some examples of things I have raised exception to in conversations I have had with others having no experience with abuse:

  • To endure by force and to allow do NOT mean the same thing. When you tell a survivor of domestic violence that they cannot allow someone to treat them this way, the message you can be sending to them is that they somehow bear blame for the actions of the abuser. As if somehow if I wanted to, I could have stopped a man who had a hundred pounds on me from throwing me against the wall and choking me. It says to me that there is something I failed to do to stop him. I no more allowed what was done to me, entirely against my will, about as much as I allow it to rain. He is the only one who had control of his actions, and he chose to hurt me.
  • To ask what we did to make the abuser harm us is not the same thing as asking why the abuser though they had the right. I know to a certain degree that many say this because they truly have no grasp or capability to fathom how another human being could willing do this to another simply because it is what they are. It really is irrelevant what I said or did prior to each instance of abuse. What matters is that he chose to do this, and you should be focused on why he would something like this to another human being, why he thought it was okay. And there is no act or word that ever justifies using violence against someone, no matter what it is.
  • To ask why we stayed is not the same thing as asking why the abuser gets away with what they do when others begin to observe the signs or witness acts of abuse but turn a blind eye. The reasons we stay are as varied as the actual demographics of those enduring abuse. Asking me why I stayed again implies that something was wrong with me or that it was not as serious as I say it is. In actuality, I believe many of us tend understate these acts of abuse more than you would guess. Instead of focusing why we stayed (which really is referring to the conditions that had us trapped), instead search for reasons how the abuser continues to get away with what he / she does without consequence. Ask if the abuser’s family knew about the violence, did law enforcement agencies not take reports seriously, did others see acts of abuse and turn a blind eye?
  • Telling you reasons we stayed is not the same thing as making excuses. I had many reasons why I stayed. The influential forces for me were actual physical entrapment, extreme isolation, financial distress, and desperate fear. For some there are children involved. Many victims are not allowed to work, do not have control of their finances, and rely on the abuser for even their most basic needs. When you are cut off from others, when your movements are controlled, when you are held in invisible shackles of fear that are so real to you that they might as well be iron fetters, these are not excuses. They are not ways to brush off responsibility onto a scapegoat. They are real, and some are extremely difficult to get loose from. We are not making excuses when we say we could not leave because we were trapped. We are simply telling you our story as it happened to us, and these reasons give you additional insight into the frightening personalities of those who abuse. We don’t want your pity. We want you to open your eyes and treat us with compassion, to take our stories with you and hopefully choose to use them to help others.
  • Saying we chose to stay is not the same as being trapped. You cannot look me in the eye and tell me I had a choice to be where I was, because you can never fully know the extent of the traps laid for me. In addition to the mental trap of fear, many of us endure varying degrees of actual physical restraint: being cut off and forcefully isolated from others, being subject to monitoring our of whereabouts, who we are around, phone calls, texts, emails, and postal mail, being held inside the home for days (or weeks) at a time, and even being physically followed and watched from afar. If we are cut off from everyone, monitored, have no access to money, have children to care for and protect, and buried under threats – some of which are carried out to give us proof they will follow through – how can you say this is not truthfully being trapped? Being trapped is not a choice. Instead focus on the fact that we made a choice to try to escape. Be glad that we did.
  • Saying abuse is only physical is wrong. There are actually MANY types of abuse, only three of which imply any physical action against the victim: physical, sexual, and stalking. There is also verbal (usually the first type employed) which progresses to emotional (and are often used simultaneously and can include gas lighting), financial, spiritual, and cyber stalking / use of technology to monitor and restrict the victim. Only physical and sexual abuse can leave visible marks. With the exception of serious injuries, these heal. Also, saying the abuse that poses danger to the victim is only physical in nature is denying the profound impact that verbal and emotional abuse actually exacts on those who endure it. To successfully arrive at a point where an abuser is able to also employ physical abuse, they use verbal and emotional abuse to manipulate, confuse, and brainwash the victim long enough and insidiously brutal enough that they completely empty out self-esteem and value. they prime their victims, and the impact of the emotional abuse – insults, threats, conditioning through fear, control of every last aspect of your life – lasts for years after we leave. Our confidence is destroyed, taking along with it our objectivity, ability to make decisions, trust, and security. Emotional death is a slow, painful process that was far worse for me than any physical punishment I endured.
  • Generalizing and stereotyping victims is not okay. We are distinct individuals that come from diverse backgrounds. You cannot categorize us and say, “This only happens to the poor, to the uneducated, to certain races.” The truth is that it can happen to any of us at any time. Whether or not you choose to acknowledge it, abuse does happen, and it can happen to a parent, a sibling, a friend, and even you. What makes an abuser so dangerous in this aspect is how malicious they are. They have honed over the ability how to manipulate a person into a mental state prime for abuse. We, however, cannot look at a man or woman walking down the street and know they will abuse us. It happens to you as you are unaware, and you do not know it is happening until it is too late. Being abused has nothing to do with demographics, and implying so merely passes it off to someone else so it does not have to be dealt with.
    We do not like to be spoken of as a generic file folder with a number assigned to it. We are not statistics; we are human beings who have feelings. We have a face, we have a voice, and we have a name.
  • Domestic violence is not a private matter. It is a string of crimes that stretches for miles behind us. You would not tell a victim of a home burglary it was their fault. Kidnapping, bank robbery, car-jacking, gang violence, etc. You would not look at them and say they shouldn’t air their dirty laundry in public. As such, the regular assaults we endured are also crimes. We were repeatedly violated in ways that had just the relationship between us ans those who abused us been in a different context, it would be called a crime.
  • Instead of asking why we stayed, ask how we got the courage to leave. Ask us how we became brave enough to leave, regardless of the risks we face when doing so… for a rough period of about two years, but for those with children it can be considerably more. They are often forced into a position by the family courts to allow visitation with the abuser, and must maintain open lines of communication regarding to care of their child(ren), and it comes with a guarantee that the abusive party will use this line and their children as a way to continue to manipulate and emotionally abuse the survivor.
    Ask us to share our stories so you can better spot the signs. Ask us where we found the strength to endure. Ask us how we have overcome. Instead of viewing us as pitiable, see us as the hope, compassion, courage, and love we carry with us each day. That which we share selflessly with others, not just so our voices are heard, but so that others have hope, so that others can be encouraged, so others don’t have to endure abuse or lose their lives trying.

Speak of us as lights in the darkness, not as broken and discarded.

Speak of us, speak to us with kindness and dignity.

Speak to us with love.

For more submissions, visit our “Ending the Silence to Stop the Violence” launch post.