When you hear a story on the news about someone dying as the victim of domestic violence, it’s heart-wrenching. You sympathize with their loved ones who have been left behind and send thoughts, prayers, and healing energy to their family. All the while, you can’t help but ask yourself, why did she stay? Why didn’t he reach out for help? They made the choice to endure.
Please, let me stop you right there. Even though it’s not your intention, you are victim shaming. These aren’t the questions that need to be asked. Instead, what if we focused on how can we stop abusers from claiming another victim? How do we hold the people who did this responsible? Most importantly, how can we support survivors?
Victim shaming isn’t something we consciously, intentionally do. You care, and you’re glad that they finally got out of a bad situation, but you can’t stop yourself from wondering why it took so long. In case you didn’t know, on average it takes a victim seven times to leave before staying away for good. And here’s the thing, victims and survivors of abuse already ask themselves those question all the time. Why wasn’t I strong enough? How could I let it go on for so long? Why didn’t I realize what was happening? Victims of abuse are already incredibly hard on themselves. Asking these same questions, pile shame on top trauma they are already dealing with.
Elise Lopez, a researcher in sexual and domestic violence prevention explains, that what victim shaming boils down to is self-preservation. “Essentially, if people can find a reason why abuse is the victim’s fault, then abuse is something that can not only be controlled but prevented.” Basically, people unconsciously blame abuse survivors for their own abuse because it makes them feel better about the chances they’ll ever be in that same situation.
They convince themselves, I’m stronger than that. I would never put up with that. This could never happen to me. And while I pray every moment of my existence that not one more person will ever be the victim of any type of abuse or domestic violence, that’s not the truth. The reality is, according to Project Sanctuary, more than 20,000 phone calls are placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide on a daily basis. And those are only the victims who make that call.
I was one of the people who never called. Even though I had visited Thehotline.org several times, I never got the courage to call or chat. I was too afraid of getting caught. Here is what someone who has never been a victim of abuse doesn’t understand. The sheer overwhelming terror of being caught by your abuser for reaching out to stop them will prevent you from doing just about anything.
He told me he would take my children from me. My depression and anxiety were used against me, because of course in his mind it made me an unfit parent. Threats were made to expose previous sexual assaults I had confided in him that I hadn’t shared with another soul. Even though he was wrong to make these threats, and even though none of these threats had any validity, I believed them. Each and every single one.
Writing these words are for you right now is incredibly difficult. Because I would give anything to go back in time and tell 17-year-old me that when he apologizes after he calls you ungodly names, he doesn’t really mean it. It will happen again. I’d tell 22-year-old me that marrying him and having a baby wouldn’t change anything. In fact, it would actually add fuel to the fire. I would tell 28-year-old me to not give up. The damage isn’t already done. It is never too late to choose your life, and to be happy, and respected, and loved.
But I can’t go back. I can only make a difference in the here and now. It took me over a decade to leave my abusive relationship, and I used to feel a lot of shame over that. Let’s not lie — I still do. There are few people who know my story, my whole story, and even though they are my nearest and dearest they’ve still made victim shaming comments.
“I love you, but I think women who choose to stay even knowing how bad things are, well, they’re making that choice.”
“You are strong, and smart, and can do anything you set your mind to. Leaving this relationship just isn’t something you really want to do.”
Never mind the fact I was trapped. There was nowhere to go and no money to get me away. Did I fear for my life? Yes. When it came down to staying or leaving it wasn’t just about me. It was about my children and their safety too. There are so many considerations people don’t realize when they give well-meaning advice. If you’ve never lived the experience, it can be impossible to comprehend.
Even though I have survived, sometimes it still doesn’t feel real. It’s like I woke up from a really horrific, decade-long dream. It’s one thing to get out, but a whole other to heal from that trauma as well. So this is for the survivors and for their communities. If you know of someone who has survived or is living in an abusive relationship support them. Help them heal by listening without judgment. A shoulder to cry on or someone to listen to their story and validate their choices makes a world of difference.
And for those who have survived or are currently in an abusive relationship, first and foremost you are loved and you matter. Take advice with a grain of salt from people who couldn’t possibly understand where you are or where you’ve been. You are strong, you are an incredible person, and this is not your fault. It doesn’t matter what you said, or did, or how any of this came about. No one ever has the right to abuse you.
Leaving is only half the battle. There is still a healing journey ahead of you and it’s not linear. It’s messy and hard and painful, but it is worth it. Your trauma matters and so does your healing, so do whatever brings you peace of mind and solace. For me, it’s sharing my journey with you. Hoping that it reaches every person who needs to read these words right now. You are never alone, and there is a whole community out there supporting every step you take.