6 Things You Should Never Say to Someone Experiencing Domestic Violence
Domestic or intimate-partner violence is unfortunately a global crisis. According to the World Health Organization, about 30 percent of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lifetime. In the United States, intimate partner violence is the source of 15 percent of all violent crime, while domestic violence hotlines receive in excess of 20,000 calls each day.
Regardless of your relationship status, it’s important to recognize the signs of domestic abuse so that you can intervene and provide support to loved ones experiencing it. Physical signs include busted lips, black eyes, bruises on the arms, and red marks on the neck, while emotional signs might include agitation and anxiety, low self-esteem, and symptoms of depression.
If you’re hoping to help a friend or family member experiencing domestic abuse, it’s vital to practice empathy and speak without judgment. Most importantly, avoid saying these six phrases.
“What did you do to make him hit you?”
There are no situations in which it is OK for someone to strike their partner. By asking this question, you’re shifting the blame to the survivor rather than condemning the abuser. People who experience domestic violence may already blame themselves, and questions like this can further foster a sense of guilt and negatively impact their self-esteem. Avoid asking similar questions that also suggest the survivor is at fault, such as, “Why do you tolerate it?” or “How can you still love him?”
Abusers may act out of anger, but abuse is ultimately about control. Abusers want to control their partners and, as such, are completely aware of and responsible for their own behavior. If a loved one tells you they have experienced abuse, avoid directing blame at them, inadvertently or otherwise. Instead, let them know that nobody deserves to be abused and praise them for being brave enough to speak out about their situation.
“Why didn’t you leave the first time?
There are a myriad of factors as to why people stay with their abusers and tolerate recurring instances of violence. Some convince themselves that the first act of violence was an accident, or that repeated acts are no more than a phase and will eventually pass. They might also believe the perpetrator is earnest in their apologies or that, through their own actions, they can change their abuser and stop the violence.
Children are another important consideration, especially if the abuser is the father of a woman’s kids. Some survivors may prefer to do anything within their power to “keep the family together,” even if it means putting up with physical or sexual abuse. They might also be financially dependent on their abuser and feel as though they cannot support their children if they leave.
Fear is another reason women don’t leave abusive relationships. The threat of more severe violence is extremely real for women who are able to leave. A 2017 study suggested that 55 percent of women who were murdered by an ex-partner were killed during the first month of separation.
“He must have been intoxicated.”
While alcohol may be involved in instances of domestic violence, it is never an excuse for physical abuse. Adults are responsible for their actions, whether they are under the influence of a substance or not. Comments like the one above also ignore the fact that abuse is often a premeditated act to exert control over a partner.
Instead, focus on the effects of the abuser’s behavior, not the reason why it happened. Don’t try to explain it or make excuses. Turn your attention to your loved one — listen to their experience and support them.
“He doesn’t seem like someone who would do that.”
Too often we’re shocked to learn that someone we know is capable of physically abusing their partner but, considering the prevalence of domestic violence, it’s important to believe people when they say they’ve experienced abuse. By telling them that their abuser doesn’t seem like the type of person with violent tendencies, you’re implicitly questioning the survivor’s account of their situation. The truth is that many abusers can be charming when around others, but manipulative and aggressive in private.
“All couples fight.”
It’s not uncommon for two people in a relationship to have verbal disagreements or even raise their voices at each other in particularly combative situations. However, violence is never the answer, and domestic abuse isn’t a two-sided fight. It’s solely about the abuser exerting power and control over their partner.
Rather than trying to normalize the abuser’s behavior, you should listen carefully to the survivor, validate their experience, and ask how the abuse makes them feel emotionally.
“I wouldn’t put up with that.”
Like some of the aforementioned comments, this is one that both invalidates the survivor’s experience and makes them feel guilty for not doing enough to leave the relationship. Again, there are many reasons people choose to stay in abusive relationships. It’s not your place to judge their decisions. Instead, offer support and make sure they feel as though they’re not alone.
If you or a loved one is experiencing domestic violence, there are resources available to help you. In the US, call 1–800–799–7233, the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Other resources can be found at the websites of trusted organizations like Knock Out Abuse. If you’re in immediate danger, call 911.