How can family and friends best support an abuse victim? What is helpful and what is harmful? What happens if you say the wrong thing? How can we build a community of support instead of blame? 

Anne, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery, speaks with her mom and sister about this issue and how it affected her personally. Being a survivor of abuse that was covert and somewhat undetected at times was confusing and bewildering.

Anne states, “I would describe these awful situations to my family, things he did that were really abusive, name-calling, saying horrible things, physically intimidating me, yelling in my face, manipulating me, gaslighting me, and overall unsafe behavior by him, but even I had trouble identifying it as abuse.” 

Abuse Victims Sometimes Do Not Recognize Abuse

Anne’s mother states her perspective, “Sometimes she’d call me like at 2 or 3 in the morning. It didn’t happen very often but occasionally it did, and you’d say he’s running outside in his underwear, and I’d think that’s really odd. Why is he doing that? What would possess him to do that?”

Anne’s sister agrees, “I remember a number of times Anne would call and say that there had been a fight and that things had gotten out of hand, and that terrible things had happened. I would often say things like: everyone has problems in their marriage or try to downplay it. I was trying to normalize maybe what had happened or relate to it in some way.”

In reality, Anne was experiencing abuse in many forms. The National Center on Domestic And Sexual Violence identifies many of these situations Anne was describing as abuse, stating, covert forms of abuse “are less easily identified, yet firmly establish a pattern of intimidation and control in the relationship.”

So what happens when family and friends fail to recognize abuse? Anne describes her own feelings, “My mom and my sister were both super supportive, so it’s not like they ever told me to do something that I didn’t want to do. For example, I would tell them what had happened, and they would say: that’s kind of weird but this is probably the reason. It was like we were all kind of confused but tried to give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Anne’s sister recalls that she may have been giving advice based on staying safe instead of saving the relationship. Now she states, “It’s more important to stay safe.”

Abuse Can Be Undetected

Anne’s mother explains, “I think the reason why I didn’t think it was abuse is that I knew he had those problems, you had told me that he had those problems, and he had spoken publicly himself about those problems. That is being the porn use and the anger issues, but I thought he just had “anger issues” and he was working on them.”

Annes sister shares, “I think I basically misunderstood what abuse was. Because we use to call it his time of the month because about once a month you would call. Some crazy thing had happened, but the rest of the time he was great. So, we’d say: oh, I guess it was just his time of the month and just totally misunderstanding the nature of abuse and that it’s not necessarily some all or nothing kind of equation.

It’s not that someone is always terrible to be around or always great to be around. He was having these crazy episodes. I just basically misunderstood what abuse is and what it looks like. Just total ignorance about what abuse is I think was my main problem. Why I wouldn’t identify it as that. I didn’t understand emotional abuse.”

Abuse Can Be Covert 

Anne adds, “But in reality, what you were seeing was the abusive cycle.” 

What can we say and do to help abuse victims that are close to us and disclose that are being abused? What about if they do not recognize the abuse? 

Anne’ sister states, “I think helping the person identify that it’s abuse is a big deal. I remember the first time you heard the counselor identify some of his behaviors as domestic violence and before then it hadn’t occurred to you that that’s what was happening. So, I think the first step would be to identify to a victim that this is abuse. That first step sometimes takes people a long time to identify with, or you’re continuing to try to excuse why it’s not abuse. I think that’s a big step for victims to realize that it’s abuse. So, I would try to help them notice that without being to forceful.”

Family And Friends Can Support Abuse Survivors

Anne’s mother agrees, saying, “We were given the book “Why Does He Do That?” by Lundy Bancroft, and once we read that it was like: Whoa! This is abuse. It was check, check, check. Maybe some of the more traditional things weren’t there like isolation. He was physically intimidating, and he was violent in a way that maybe didn’t show marks.”

Anne’s sister recalls that she may have gave advice based on keeping the family together instead of ensuring safety. Now she states, “Safety is most important. It comes first.” 

It Is Important To Valid Abuse Victims

Anne’s mother chimes in, saying, “Yes, I would agree that it is essential to support them by believing them and by listening to them. By being there for them if they need babysitting, whatever they might need, be there for them and with them.”

Anne’s sister adds, “Also try to help protect them from further victimization. So, if they are talking to clergy and they are getting bad advice, or if they’re talking to other people that are trying to say: oh, it’s both your fault, you need to go to couple’s counseling.”

It is so important to valid and help ensure safety when a loved one tells you they are being abused. It is important to identify the abuse as well. It can help to learn what you can about covert abuse and share it with your friends and family. 

Betrayal Trauma Recovery can be an excellent resource in learning what constitutes abuse and how to support a victim who may be experiencing abuse in the relationship. Check out our books page for recommended books on these topics and more! Our Individual Sessions help women find hope and healing as they handle the trauma of betrayal and abuse. As always, we invite anyone who is in need of support to check out Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group.

Full Transcript: 

Anne:  Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.

Today I have my Mom and my Sister who we will call Mom and Sister. Say hi guys.

Sister:  Hello

Mom:  Hi

Anne:  They are going to talk about their experience supporting me, or not supporting me, through what happened. Many of you were asking about how to talk to your friends and family about what has happened to you.

Abuse Can Be Hidden And Discreet

So, when I was married, when I would call you with concerns and tell you what was going on, because the whole time I was pretty honest about what was happening, how would you react at the time? Before you knew that it was abuse, and what types of advice would you give?

So, let’s start with my sister.

Sister:  So, I remember a number of times Anne would call and say that there had been a fight and that things had gotten out of hand, and that terrible things had happened. I would often say things like: everyone has problems in their marriage or try to downplay it. I was trying to normalize maybe what had happened or relate to it in some way. I didn’t realize it was outside of what should be happening I guess.

Anne:  Mom.

It Is Important To Ensure Safety First

Mom:  That’s the same with me. Sometimes she’d call me like at 2 or 3 in the morning. It didn’t happen very often but occasionally it did, and you’d say he’s running outside in his underwear, and I’d think that’s really odd. Why is he doing that? What would possess him to do that?

So, there was some really odd things that you would say that he had done or some things that happened that I knew were odd. I just thought: well, maybe that’s just what he’s like. Maybe he’s just that way and I probably advised you, I don’t remember the exact words I said, but I think I remember something like: well, how do you think you should handle that? You know, what do you want to do? You know, maybe you could do something that would lessen that reaction. I don’t know if I said those things or not but that’s what I would think that I would say.

Why Abuse Is Not Obvious Sometimes

Anne:  Yeah, you guys were both super supportive, so it’s not like you ever told me to do something that I didn’t want to do or whatever. Like, I would tell you what had happened, and you’d be like: that’s kind of weird but this is probably the reason, or I wonder what the reason is. It was like we were all kind of confused but tried to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Sister:  So, the biggest mistake I think that I made is that I said things like: what did you do to start the problem or maybe next time when this happens you could do this. Not understanding it had literally very little to do with what you were doing. Just not understanding the nature of how abuse really works. Thinking that: oh, if you reacted differently or somethings changed then he would no longer react this way.  Just totally misunderstanding because I had no idea how it worked or that this was abuse, so I didn’t know.

Abuse Can Be Lying And Threats

Anne:  Yeah. Why did you think you didn’t see it as abuse at the time? I mean, I told you about his porn use, and so you guys knew that the porn use was happening and that was my biggest complaint or was it? I mean maybe it wasn’t. I think we talked about the porn and I talked about the anger.

From my view point at the time I thought that they were sort of the same thing and if he got the porn under control then the anger would reduce. I don’t remember if I told you that, but why do you think that you didn’t see it as abuse at the time?

Mom:  I think the reason why I didn’t think it was abuse is that I knew he had those problems, you had told me that he had those problems, and he had spoken publicly himself about those problems. That is being the porn use and the anger issues, but I thought he just had “anger issues” and he was working on them.

Abuse Can Be Not Feeling Emotionally Safe

In fact, I tended your little baby for 3 days while he went to the foremost, nationwide anger conference that he seemed very excited about and very thrilled about, so I thought he was doing all that he possibly could and that he was just having a hard time managing that and that these were occasional outbursts that needed to be somehow allowed for.

Anne:  Right, because he was “working on it”.

Mom:  Yes.

Anne:  We were being patience with him as he was doing that.

Mom:  Was doing that.

Abuse Can Involve Gaslighting and Manipulation

Anne:  Rather than realizing: oh, she’s being abused right now, and we need to set some boundaries around that until he can show that he’s never going to act like that again.

Mom:  That’s true, also, I don’t think I really had learned very much about boundaries and realized that even though I had used them in my life at times I was not thinking in those terms. I wasn’t thinking: she needs to set boundaries. Which now I’d probably would say: oh, you need to set some boundaries.

Anne:  You need to be safe now.

Mom:  Yes.

Anne:  Like, you’re not safe in this moment.

Mom:  Exactly.

Anne:  Yeah. What about you sister.

Abuse Can Involve Yelling And Verbal Attacks

Sister:  I think I basically misunderstood what abuse was. Because we use to call it his time of the month because about once a month you would call. Some crazy thing had happened, but the rest of the time he was great. So, we’d say: oh, I guess it was just his time of the month and just totally misunderstanding the nature of abuse and that it’s not necessarily some all or nothing kind of equation.

It’s not that someone is always terrible to be around or always great to be around. He was having these crazy episodes. I just basically misunderstood what abuse is and what it looks like. Just total ignorance about what abuse is I think was my main problem. Why I wouldn’t identify it as that. I didn’t understand emotional abuse.

Anne:  What you were seeing, that you didn’t know you were seeing, was the abuse cycle.

Sister:  Right.

Abuse Is Sometimes Secretive

Anne:  I mean, I didn’t know it was abuse either, right, at the time. So, we were all in the dark.

If you could go back in time what would you do now or what types of advice would you give people who are in that stage now?

Mom:  Allow them to talk at first and just listen to what they had to say and what they thought about it and how they were feeling about it. All those kinds of things, but then also everybody from time to time gets angry that’s just not the people that are abusive, but there is a line that people really cannot go over, which is hard to determine when you’re in that situation.

Family Must Be Able To Know What Abuse Is

So, if they were feeling unsafe then that’s a real red flag. If they were feeling threatened, unsafe, intimidated, forced; those kinds of things would be a real concern. I think maybe at this point in time once I’d listened to them and tried to understand exactly what was happening that I would suggest that they do set up some boundaries. That they walk out or that they get away and get safe somehow.

Mom:  Then revisit it and think through it. Process what was actually happening.

Anne:  People would ask me: do you feel safe, and I would say yes because I don’t think he would hit me or whatever. So, I think one of things might be do you feel emotionally safe, right.

Helping A Victim Know They Are Supported Can Help

Anne:  Do you feel supported? Do you feel loved? Do you feel cherished? Do you feel cared about?  Maybe those types of things, I don’t know.

Mom:  Maybe, but you were then also saying that he was shoving you up against the wall, he was spitting and yelling and screaming in your face. So, those kinds of things are not safe. But you said you felt safe.

Anne:  I know. I just read an article on CNN about one of the Larry Nassar victims who did not see herself as a victim for 2 years, and it took her a long time to figure out that she was actually a victim of his abuse, and she defended him for a while and I thought that’s really interesting that abuse victims we don’t see it.

I remember telling the clergy and therapist that I felt safe. I remember telling you that. At the same time, I remember saying that if I go missing it’s him.

Domestic Violence Is More Than Just Physical Abuse

For victims if we focus on the first thing as emotional safety rather than physical safety. It might be a little bit easier to determine. What about you?

Sister:  I think helping the person identify that it’s abuse is a big deal. I remember the first time you heard the counselor identify some of his behaviors as domestic violence and before then it hadn’t occurred to you that that’s what was happening. So, I think the first step would be to identify to a victim that this is abuse. That first step sometimes takes people a long time to identify with, or you’re continuing to try to excuse why it’s not abuse. I think that’s a big step for victims to realize that it’s abuse. So, I would try to help them notice that without being to forceful.

Anne:  Yeah, cause if they don’t think they’re being abused if makes it difficult.

Sister:  Right, and then also to try and get them to a professional who knows more about it than I do and get them some help because I don’t know what I’m talking about. 

Anne:  Well now we have Betrayal Trauma Recovery. Now we can send them here, but before we didn’t have that.

Domestic Violence Involves Abuse Of Power

Sister:  Right.

Anne:  So it was hard to know because Betrayal Trauma Recovery was rejected from being part of the domestic violence coalition because they don’t see this type of abuse as bad enough to warrant domestic violence services, but I know that it is that bad. It really is a form of insidious abuse that can eventually lead to physical violence. It’s scary, it’s super scary.

Emotionally to be deceived and to be harmed financially and emotionally is really, really tough.

Mom:  The other thing about that is that even though that counselor had seen what was going on and said and identified it as domestic violence, it wasn’t until after he was arrested

Support For A Survivor Is Essential

Anne:  So a month later.

Mom:  Yeah, so we were sent to the safe harbor place here for battered women that we read a book, she suggested that we read the book

Anne:  Which is Why Does He Do That, which I suggest to my listeners all the time.

Mom:  Yes, that’s what is was, and once we read that it was like: Whoa! This is abuse. It was check, check, check. Maybe some of the more traditional things weren’t there like isolation. He was physically intimidating, and he was violent in a way that maybe didn’t show marks I guess.

Anne:  He did on my walls. I had holes in my walls and then the last time I had the bruises on my butt and my hand was sprained.

Mom:  Yes, and it was interesting because we thought he was getting better. We thought he was working on it but looking over time we realized it was actually getting worse.

Knowing What Abuse Is Can Be So Helpful

Anne:  Yeah, yeah. The thing that was really helpful to me was once I identified it as abuse and once I gave the book to you Mom (Why Does He Do That) and you read it, you believed me.

Mom:  Yes.

Anne:  Right?

Sister:  Yeah.

Anne:  So, at that point it wasn’t like: no, no, no you are overreacting. Both of you were like: oh, this explains it, you know because I was going through that.

So, I would say that’s one thing too for friends and family is when she identifies the abuse don’t talk her out of it, right. Don’t be like: wait, no, no, no because if he’s abusive yikes! Then you might have to get divorced or this is serious.

I think a lot of clergy and friends and family try to talk someone out of it because the consequences are so extreme, right?

Abuse Must Be Labeled As Abuse

Sister:  Well that’s exactly what I think my main problem was. I think my main problem was always I was looking at it from a perspective of lets save this, lets not let it get out of control. Thinking that the best possible thing would be to stay together, but having no idea that abuse was happening.

So, my advice was always based on the idea that: oh, lets work this out, this can’t be that bad cause it needs to work out.

Anne:  Well, and I think staying together is the best-case scenario if they will change.

Sister:  Right but giving you advice based on staying safe instead of saving the relationship. It’s more important to stay safe.

Anne:  Right. Yeah, totally.

Mom:  It’s also more important for the abuser because when they are faced with what they’re doing and the consequences of those actions, then it could possibly be a motivation for change. Not always, and they are the ones that have to change, you cannot change another person, which we learned that they don’t change if they are not held accountable.

Boundaries Can Help Ensure Safety With Abuse

Anne:  Right, and in my case, he has not changed yet. He is continuing to lie and not take accountability for what’s happened, and that’s sad. So, I have to continue to hold boundaries.

So, lets talk about an acute situation where I called both of you and told you that he had screamed in my face and was spitting in my face. Do you guys remember this?

Sister:  A least a few times.

Mom:  Yes.

Sister:  Which time?

Anne:  So, we’ve talked about general things that you would do.

Mom:  And he wasn’t spitting in your face as just a spit, it was because he was so close, and he was yelling and screaming that spit flew from his mouth into your face.

Anne:  Yeah, and he was like bright red. Also, saying awful things, right.

Abuse Can Be Physical Intimidation

Mom:  And he is much larger

Anne:  Yeah.

Mom:  And stronger and looming over you and/or pushing you up against a wall.

Anne:  And it was scary. Yeah.

Anne:  So, in an acute situation like that what would you say now, if you have anything in that acute situation, if I call and say: this happened 10 minutes ago, I’m freaking out, what should I do? What would you say then for listeners who are like: okay, I want my mom and my sister to hear this. What do you think would have been the right thing to do in that particular, specific situation?

Sister:  I’m on my way over right now. I’m in the car and on my way over because you need another adult there to either say we are leaving and packing up and getting out of the house or you just need some support, you need a witness. To have someone there so that your loved one feels safe.  

It Is Vital To Keep The Victim Safe

Mom:  Now that we’ve done the safe harbor thing, now that we’ve read, now that we understand a little more I’ve learned about the Gray Rock Concept, and so anytime now when there is the slightest amount of abuse or escalation I would be advising Gray Rock, but I would also be advising: get out of there! Leave if you possibly can because it’s not safe and you should not be there if that’s happening.

Mom:  Now that we’ve done the safe harbor thing, now that we’ve read, now that we understand a little more I’ve learned about the Gray Rock Concept, and so anytime now when there is the slightest amount of abuse or escalation I would be advising Gray Rock, but I would also be advising: get out of there! Leave if you possibly can because it’s not safe and you should not be there if that’s happening.

Anne:  The best-case scenario for women is that they stay in their homes and that the abuser leaves. So, Sister’s recommendation of I will be there if you’re within driving distance, get there and set a boundary that he needs to leave.

Because then he feels the consequences of his actions more than she would. You’re going to need some backup. Clergy, family, friends, whatever, to get him out of the house. Because in my situation he refused to leave. I asked him to and he refused. It wasn’t until he sprained my fingers and the police forced him to leave that he actually left.

Abusers Will Rationalize Abuse

That I think is good, and then I think Gray Rock in the moment to de-escalate it, to get yourself to safety would be good. If you guys don’t know about Gray Rock it’s basically responding with no emotion, which is impossible when you’re being abused, with no emotion and with as little amount of words as possible.

I started doing Gray Rock and it got worse actually. At the very end I just started being like no, yes, and just trying not to talk to him and it got worse. He was like: why aren’t you talking to me? Why aren’t you reacting like you used to? And that kind of made things worse, so Gray Rock is helpful with when you’re trying to do no contact, but I don’t know if it’s super helpful in the moment when he’s screaming and yelling. I will talk about Gray Rock more on another episode.

So, I’m just going to conclude now with some tips that you might have for any women who is married to a porn user after what you’ve seen me go through.

Abusers Will Often Accuse The Victim of Abuse

Sister:  I think the first one is don’t underestimate the amount of other things that are happening because so many people make the mistake of thinking, and obviously you talk about this extensively on the podcast, but that there is so much that goes along with it that to believe them about all the things that are going along with it. All the other abuse and all the other feelings, and that it’s not just this one thing that is happening. That there is a myriad of problems and that just believe what they are telling you.

Mom:  Yes, I would agree that you would support them by believing them and by listening to them. By being there for them if they need babysitting, whatever they might need, be there for them and with them.

The other thing is, sometimes family members get in the position of like we did, wanting to save the marriage, and they don’t quite know who to believe. Do you believe the porn user who lied about this and this and this? Or do you think that the person that’s the spouse if they’re lying about what he might have been doing just to get back at him.

Those kinds of traps that we fall in to. Who is the liar there? What is the basis for thinking that the person who is being lied to is the liar. The term DARVO where the person that is the offender is actually gaslighting the other person and accusing them of lying, accusing them of doing all these things, and accusing them of setting them up for arrest, who knows what, all of these things.

Abusers Often Deflect Blame

So, how do you determine who is the liar and who isn’t? You can see it, and we could look back and see it, but at the time when we were far away, and we were on the phone and we felt like the marriage was more important, then it was hard to really see that: yeah, this person is lying.

Anne:  Yeah, DARVO is where they deny and then attack and then reverse the victim and defender role, which is exactly what’s happened in my situation. Now he really feels like he’s the victim and that everything I did to keep me safe from him he says was attacking him rather than realizing that those are the things I needed to do to protect myself from his abuse and his ongoing abuse and lies.

Sister:  So, I have one more thing that I thought of. Maybe try to help protect them from further victimization. So, if they are talking to clergy and they are getting bad advice, or if they’re talking to other people that are trying to say: oh, it’s both your fault, you need to go to couple’s counseling.

It Is Important That A Victim Has Someone To Trust

Help them understand that if they’re getting advice that’s making them feel terrible about themselves and that they’re at fault, then they should not be going to that person anymore. To help them see who they can trust because there is a lot of people out there who they can’t trust.

Anne:  There is a really good chapter in Why Does He Do That that’s about how to support abused women and one of the things it says is: tell her that she is strong and that she’s brave and that she’s doing a good job. Don’t undermine her by saying: well, maybe you could be doing this and maybe you could be doing that because that is not helpful in an abuse situation.   

Although we all have things we could improve on, right?

Sister:  Yeah.

Mom:  Yes.

Abuse Is Never The Victim’s Fault

Anne:  Which my sister and mom also told me during that.

Sister:  Yes, that’s the biggest mistake I think I made was saying: how did you contribute to this or what could you do different next time.

Mom:  Right.

Anne:  Yeah.

Sister:  Not understanding.

Mom:  Or maybe if you did this, or maybe if you did that, but what we found out from safe harbor is that if you would have been less assertive and more submissive it would have been worse, is what they told us.

Anne:  Uh huh. Yeah. Yep, because he would have been more getting his way.

Sister:  Yeah.

Mom:  Yeah and demanding his way.

Anne:  Yeah, because it worked, but in this case, I was a terrible victim.

Mom:  Yes.

Anne:  I was the worse victim ever.  I did not do what victims are supposed to do.

Abuse Is Confusing For A Victim

I know that many of you who are listening do not have supportive friends and family and my heart goes out to you especially during this holiday season, that’s really really difficult.

Hopefully in your search for safety you can find a safe network of friends or people that can help you. There are people out there. Betrayal Trauma Recovery is a great community to find safe people, and then there are other safe people that you’ll be able to find. Maybe at your local domestic violence shelter you can find a group. As a religious person I would say pray. Start praying and God will lead you to the support people and the support group that you need.

So, I’m really grateful to my mom and sister for coming on today, and from our whole family we wish you a Merry Christmas.

Anne/Sister/Mom: MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Anne:  That was really cheesy.

Sister:  You don’t have to use it.

Anne:  And I wish you a very peaceful holiday season.

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