Have you tried to tell someone you’re being abused, only to be accused of lying?
It’s not your fault.
Let’s get that out of the way right now. If you’re a survivor of domestic abuse, whether or not you’ve yet left the relationship, it’s not your fault.
This fact can be incredibly hard for survivors to process when they’ve tried to disclose abuse to someone only to be given a skeptical eyebrow raise in response. Stephanie Angelo, author and domestic violence expert, provides training for companies and organizations to prepare them for when domestic violence experienced by their employees spills over into the workplace. She says not feeling believed, as a survivor, is something she unfortunately hears about often in her line of work.
“I think it’s the number one thing that’s going to crush someone’s motivation to seek help. When your support system doesn’t believe you, you really begin to feel like you’re not worthwhile.”
Speaking out about abuse is never an easy decision for survivors, many of whom would attest that it takes a Herculean amount of courage to do so. So why would someone possibly not believe them at such a vulnerable time? Angelo says it’s often a premeditated move by a very cunning abuser.
“Abusers are very crafty at setting the stage beforehand,” says Angelo. “They are really adept at creating elaborate stories.”
Abusers often build themselves up as hero or savior figures in front of a survivor’s friends and family while simultaneously painting the survivor as someone who is troubled and needs help. Angelo says an abuser may go to their partner’s support system and tell them something like, “If this person [the survivor] comes to you and tells you that I hit them, I don’t know what’s the matter with them. They’re lying and I’m trying to get them to seek help. I don’t know where they’d be without me.”
Unfortunately, adds Angelo, this tactic often works. “People tend to believe what they hear first. So when [the survivor] comes to them, they’ll think, ‘Ah, he told us she was going to say this.’ They have it all worked out to their advantage. And this gives them all the power.”
This tactic is just another way abusers isolate a survivor. Without a support system, it is less likely the survivor will leave.
Don’t Give Up
Survivors have to remind themselves that they are worth it, says Angelo. They’re worth a safe, healthy life free from abuse, even if their spirit feels crushed. “Somebody out there will believe you,” says Angelo. “Reach out to a hotline,” she says.” Survivors can find a local domestic hotline by searching in their area at DomesticShelters.org.
Survivors also need to remember that they have a right to come to their own decisions about their relationships at their own pace, including if and when they leave their abuser.
Are You an Actor in the Script?
If you’re the support system for someone who has disclosed abuse to you, does any of this give you pause? Angelo says support persons should question when a loved one’s partner comes to them with a speech like the above. Ask yourself, says Angelo, “Is what I’m hearing predesigned? Am I just an actor in this whole portrayal the abuser is setting up?”
It’s never too late to talk to the survivor and make amends. “Set up an individual conversation with the victim,” says Angelo. Separate them from the abuser and really listen. But don’t demand they leave the abuser. “Trying to make them do that is the same thing as the abuser is doing—forcing their hand.” Some victims may feel they need more time to prepare to leave their abuser; some may not want to leave, but just want the abuse to stop. Some may be ready, but need help making a safety plan. Whatever their choice, it’s not yours to judge. Just be there in any way you can.
Coercive control, a common tactic of abusers, can often be used on not only survivors, but also survivor’s friends and family members. Read more about it here in “What Is Coercive Control?”