People don’t want to believe a person they love can be capable of abuse. Just look at what happens when a beloved celebrity is accused. People look for any excuse to defend them. People get hurt, they feel betrayed, they feel defensive like they were personally attacked or accused of something. (Bless the bravery of anyone who waded into the comments section of articles about the DV allegations surrounding Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. They were ugly, nasty and personal: strangers on the internet hurling hatred, slut-shaming, threatening to doxx. It sucked.)
How much more difficult if we know the person being accused personally? It hurts to feel like that person we respect could do horrible, despicable things. Hearing that someone you care about is an abuser is a violation. A violation of normalcy. Of safety. We are raised to see bad people as cartoonish villains. We have certain images of abusive and violent people. We don’t know they can be calm, well mannered, that they can be seemingly loving and doting sons and daughters. We survive in life by drawing lines in the sand. The world is a bloody and chaotic place, and we create narratives of safety to shield us from the uglier sides of that life.
Allegations of abuse trigger personal and uncomfortable questions. What does it say about us? Did we miss something? Are we so bad at judging people’s characters? If we missed that person who else have we been fooled by? If they are family, especially our child, does it mean it’s our fault? The life we’ve constructed, our friend network, our family relationships, our work situations come into question and the ground starts to rumble. For many people it’s too much and they ask themselves if they really want that world of horrors intruding into their life, a life that’s probably taken decades to build and make theirs. Better to ignore, deny. Unfollow that friend posting about abuse on Facebook who was married to your friend – you don’t need that drama in your life.
The thing is, victims don’t want to know about the bloody, nasty aspects of life either. They don’t want to know the terrible things one human being can do to another. They went into the relationship trusting, loving. They don’t think they’re marrying monsters. The discomfort you feel when hearing a loved one might be an abuser is nothing compared to their victim’s. Yes, your brother or friend or sister or mother is an abuser. Life isn’t black and white. The baddies don’t wear super villain costumes, and sit in their lairs twirling their moustaches. The “baddies” are just like you but something has gone wrong and there’s something twisted in them. Humans exist upon continuums and an abuser isn’t abusive all the time.
You know an abuser and suddenly the ugliness of the world has slipped into your carefully curated life and you don’t want it? Tough. Neither do the victims. The difference is you don’t have to deal with the trauma, the lost years they’ll never get back, and years of recovery ahead of them.
You know an abuser. The person you love isn’t the good person they presented. And yes, as their victims can attest, it hurts. You were betrayed. Your trust was betrayed. Your judgement failed you. But don’t punish their victim. The abuser needs to be reigned in. The criminal justice system is terrible at properly dealing with physically violent offenders, let alone ones that use emotional, sexual, financial and psychological abuse. So society needs to step in when the courts fail. They need to face the consequences of their actions. Protecting them from facing these consequences is not protecting them, you’re hurting them. They need to enter programs, they need psychological help. They need to be removed from the lives of their children if they can’t stop their abusive behaviours. With the current state of the family courts much of the leg work must be done unofficially by those closest to the abuser.
You may want to stay neutral. You may think you can be a good friend while keeping your hands clean and you’ll respond to a text from your friend detailing horrific abuse with a “sorry, I can’t get involved. But know I love you and I’m here for you*” to make yourself feel better. (*This really happened to a friend of mine). You said you’d be there for them and that you love them so that makes you a good person, right? No.
You can’t be neutral when abuse is involved. Not getting involved is choosing to treat the abuser the same as the victim and that is actually a silent endorsement of their behaviour.
When a child acts up, you don’t stay silent. You discipline them. When someone is beating someone else up in front of you outside a nightclub you call for help, you call for the bouncers, if you’re physically strong enough you try to pull the violent person away. If you stand there doing nothing you are enabling that violence. It’s the same if the violence happens behind closed doors. It’s the same if a separated couple is going through a custody dispute and the abusive spouse is badgering and stalking the other. One person is being harmed and another is doing it and you’re letting it happen by staying neutral. You don’t have to take sole responsibility to stop it. You don’t have to take the punches. You don’t have to follow the abuser around to make sure they don’t drive by their ex’s house. But there is always something you can do. You can take the victim’s side. You can simply say you believe them and defend them when you hear false stories and rumours circulating.
You may say that the alleged victim is making it up. Statistically they most likely aren’t. But there is a small chance they are. Still seek them out to hear their story. If you have doubts because the abuser is very close to you and you want some kind of certainty then be gentle and ask them to tell you their side of things. Listen without judgement. After hearing their story you may want to know if there is anything that backs up their story. If you go down this path ask as gently as you can, don’t make it seem like you require proof before you believe them. Maybe there are police reports. Maybe they have medical reports from GPs. Maybe they’ve been diagnosed with anxiety, trauma or PTSD. Maybe they have been attending DV support groups. Maybe they’re seeing a therapist or psychologist and there’s a psychological medical report you can read? They may have none of these things and it doesn’t mean they’re lying, it just means they probably don’t understand the resources and help available to them. So use your empathy. How do they seem? Are they anxious, agitated, scared? They may seem jumpy, tense, stressed. And before you speak to them you need to educate yourself.
Perhaps you may use the excuse that there was no physical violence involved. He or she is saying they were abused and it was emotional or psychological and you know that abuse is serious, it involves physical harm, hospitals and police reports. And marriage is difficult and when it breaks down people feel hurt and angry. It sounds like they just weren’t suited and maybe things got a bit out of hand and now it’s getting nasty since the financial settlement is being worked through and that always brings out the worse in people. You tell yourself that you never saw any signs of abuse when you were around them. NO. No. Educate yourself about the legal definition of domestic violent in Australia. Understand that abusers rarely let their abusive behaviour be seen in public. If you hear an allegation of abuse talk to the alleged victim and hear their side of the story. Don’t just put it down to personality clashes. Imagine it was your daughter or son making the claims. Wouldn’t you do everything you could to understand the situation? Just because the abuser not the victim might be your daughter or son doesn’t mean the victim doesn’t still deserve your empathy and love.
You may read this and find yourself getting defensive. Why should you step in? Why is it your responsibility? You may play devils advocate and say that there are wars going on, famines, genocides. Are you partly to blame if you don’t donate money to try to help every bad thing going on in the world today? When does the responsibility of the individual stop? Only you can answer that. You don’t have to martyr yourself and make yourself poverty-stricken and homeless to donate to the needy. We want a world where there are fewer people in hardship not more. But you can always do something, and only you know what that balance is. It may just be donating clothes to charity stores. Maybe you sponsor one child. You know your income. You have a responsibility to understand your privilege and in some way try to pass some of your good fortune on.
Now take that mentality and turn it to your own life. When violence is happening in your friendship group, in your family, or even your workplace you can’t use the excuse that you’re just one person and it’s not your fight. When you know the abuser and you shield them or remain silent you are making a choice to leave the victim alone, possibly homeless, certainly traumatised and deeply hurt.
And know this from the women I’ve interviewed who have been abused: your silence hurts. Your defence of their abuser further traumatises them. Put your ego aside, your selfish wish to keep your life intact and untouched from the darkness of the world and stand up for the abused. You may worry it will rip your family or friend group apart. Tough. The abuser already did that when they violated another human being. You standing up for the victim is just the final dominoes falling that started when the first act of violence occurred. It is the abuser’s fault. It is not the victim’s fault. The damage is already done, you can’t undo it with silence. An abuser is toxic, what they have done and will do to someone else down the track will either eat away at your life slowly like cancer or you can confront it now and start fresh with the darkness fully exposed to the sun. Say something to your boss or a pastor, confront the abuser (if it’s safe to do so), seek out the victim to talk with them about what they’ve experienced or just to see if they need food or want to catch a movie. Figure out what you can do given your proximity to the situation and your influence. Just do *something* or you are part of the problem.
And finally, just know that if you currently have a family member or friend being accused of abuse and nothing I have written has moved you then I want to say this to you directly: if you do nothing or if you protect an abuser then you are selfish and a coward. You have chosen your own comfort and ego over the safety and wellbeing of a woman or man who could just have easily been you if you’d had the misfortune to get into a relationship with the wrong person. God help you if you ever find yourself in their shoes and are faced with a wall of silence and judgement rather than a sea of help and love. I hope you are treated better than you are treating them.