Why do victims have a hard time speaking out about abuse?
People who have never experienced domestic violence have a hard time wrapping their heads around the mindset of a victim, and the actions of the abuser. Since they are on the outside, looking at the abusive relationship from a “safe relationship” perspective, they try to apply the same relationship “rules”. That is impossible to do.
While a healthy relationship is based on trust, sharing, communication and all the other good things that make a partnership a success, abusive relationships are based on the abuser having power and control, which leads to the victim feeling fear, having difficulty communicating, and no trust whatsoever. It’s hard to trust your partner in other areas of a relationship when he has threatened to harm you physically.
That is the very reason why victims are so hesitant to tell anyone about the abuse. Unless they can find another survivor to confide in, they know that when they tell someone about the abuse, that person will have a hard time understanding.
Note: a victim can be a man or a woman, the roles can be reversed, but for ease of getting the point across, we’ll assume the victim is a woman and the abuser is a man.
Let’s break it down to some of the reasons why a victim keeps the abuse to herself for so long:
1. At first, she thinks it’s just a passing issue. Most abusers don’t abuse right from the start. What good would that do? If he was abusive before he “hooked” his victim, the victim would just leave. So, he lays on the charm, woos and wins the victim, and makes sure she has fallen in love with the sweet, kind man he’s pretending to be. The first sign of trouble, whether it be a temper tantrum, or a stony silence is easily written off to a bad day, a bad boss or a bad mood. She tries to appease, console, or cater to him to make things better, even if she was target of his wrath. He relents, maybe even admits that his behavior was wrong, and behaves for a while. But then the episodes of temper, rage, silence or accusations become more often and more intense, some ending up in physical violence. Eventually, she comes to realize that she has a problem on her hands. By that time, the abuse has become a pattern and how do you explain to someone why you have been putting up with being treated so badly for so long?
2. Which leads us to another reason…shame. The victim realizes that to tell someone what is happening, she’ll probably have to admit it’s been happening for a while and has gotten progressively worse. She’ll be asked that question that every victim gets asked…and dreads… “Why don’t you just leave?” Since the abuser has constantly told her everything is her fault, and she finds herself apologizing to him all the time just to try to keep the peace (that doesn’t work), when she does talk to someone, she does it in a way that sounds like she accepts part of the blame for the abuser’s behavior. She feels shame, not only that she has “allowed” him to treat her that way for so long, but also because she “chose” such a loser in the first place. How can she trust her own judgement in other things, when she had such poor judgement in choosing a partner? By this time, the victim has been mentally programmed by the abuser to feel very inadequate and insecure. She’s been asking herself how she got herself in such a dire situation and she is ashamed to find herself there.
3. Another huge obstacle to overcome is embarrassment. In order for a victim to tell someone what is going on, she usually has to relate some pretty intimate details. To just say that her partner “roughed her up” may not sound that bad, but to get someone to believe her, she may have to admit that he has strangled her or has given her a black eye. So many abusers have addictions and being the victim of someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol is bad enough, but a huge number of abusers are addicted to porn and sex, which means he makes his partner (the victim) play a role in his fantasies. If your partner has done things to you that have made you uncomfortable, or made you do things to him or with others that you would never want to agree to, but had to because if you didn’t there would be “consequences”, that is not an easy thing to say out loud. Many victims have had things done to them, or were made to do things, that are so embarrassing, they never do tell anyone; it’s a heavy burden to bear and that secret goes with them to the grave.
4. One of the biggest reasons that a victim doesn’t talk about the abuse is fear, and there are many things she may fear.
a. She may fear that she won’t be believed. So many abusers are very charismatic, fun-loving and charming when they are around other people. It’s not until they are behind closed doors that the other side of them is revealed. When it came out that my husband was an abuser, the general reaction of most people I told was, “But he was so nice, and soft spoken and such a sweet man!” If a victim tells someone about the abuse and that person refuses to believe it, she feels betrayed and victimized all over. The person she has confided in has basically said she is a liar. To not believe the victim is, in essence, to side with the abuser.
b. Then there’s the fear that someone will say “I told you so”. Perhaps a parent or friend didn’t like the abuser, and they warned the victim to not get involved. But the abuser wasn’t charming anyone else like he was charming the her, so it was much easier to be swept away by his charm than to listen to the advice of someone else.
c. She may fear reprisal from the abuser. If he finds out she has confided in someone, the abuse may get worse, he may threaten to take the children from her, threaten to hurt the pets or kick her out of the home. Even if he feels he has a right to treat his partner badly, he doesn’t want to have to justify his actions and if his dirty secrets are revealed, he may feel like he has to. She also realizes that if she tells a friend or family member, they may confront the abuser and that could put them in danger.
These are just a few reasons why a victim keeps quiet about being abused. Once she finds someone she can trust and she tells them what is going on, it is a relief that she no longer has to carry the secret, but it’s a huge step for her to disclose.
I remember having different reactions to people who asked me why didn’t tell them about my husband’s abusive ways. One acquaintance, not even a friend, just someone I casually knew, came to me after she finished my book and read me the riot act because I didn’t tell her what I was going through. I really had no idea what to say to her, we weren’t even close and I’m a very private person to begin with. And yet, on the way home from a bridal shower, my mom asked why I spilled my guts to a woman who was also just an acquaintance and without even thinking, I blurted out it was because I knew she was a gossip and I wanted her to get my story straight from me and then if she wanted to gossip, at least she knew the truth.
Every situation is different, every victim handles things differently, but the emotions are the same, the hurt, the feeling of shame, disappointment, helplessness. Once a victim does confide in someone, the road to escape, freedom and healing can begin. She just has to do it in her own time and her own way.