The Most Important Thing to Do If Someone Confides in You About Abuse
“Don’t speak to me unless it’s about reconciliation.”
“Don’t speak to me unless it’s about reconciliation.”
“Do NOT speak to me unless it’s about reconciliation.”
I’ll never forget those words repeated to me by my former pastor and friend during the summer of 2011; the summer that changed my life forever. I had been married to my ex-husband for eight years. Throughout our marriage, he was emotionally and psychologically abusive. I experienced a daily onslaught of name-calling, put-downs, manipulations and crazy making. That summer I also found out he was having an affair with a woman he met at work.
I needed space. I needed to find clarity and figure out my next steps, so I drove eight hours from my small town in Tennessee to Destin, Florida to get away and figure out once and for all what I needed to do.
I asked my ex-husband not to call me while I was there; a reasonable boundary considering the circumstances. But like every other boundary I had tried to set in our marriage, he failed to respect it. So I called my pastor and friend for help. My simple request, “Please ask my husband to stop calling me. I need the space to figure this all out.” And rather than listen to me or offer any kind of encouragement, my pastor cut me off mid-sentence and repeated those words over and over until I finally, through tears and anger said, “You don’t know anything that I’ve been through and I guess we will never speak again.”
And sadly, we haven’t.
Over the last six years since I made the decision to leave my ex and begin the healing processes, what I have found to be true is that it wasn’t the abuse from my ex-husband that was so traumatizing to me in the long term. It was the Double Abuse from my pastor and friends who responded in similarly harmful ways. When I reached out to them for help, their judgmental responses to my abuse took its toll on me. I still work to mend the brokenness in my soul from Double Abuse… even today. One way I do this is through my work at The MEND Project.
Along with principal founder Annette Oltmans, we co-founded The MEND Project to shine a light on the Double Abuse harming countless victims in our society. The MEND Project defines Double Abuse as what happens when a victim of any kind of Primary Abuse (bullying, rape, domestic violence, etc) finally gains the courage to speak out or reach out for help. Instead of being received with compassion, empathy and acceptance by her support system, she is ostracized from her family and/or community or subjected to judgment, ultimatums or incorrect therapeutic treatment.
Whether intentional or unintentional, Doubly Abusive responses often lead the victim to feel hopeless and alone and can contribute to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) and Complex PTSD. For example, my pastor thought he was responding to me in love, but his ultimatums were traumatizing and harmful. When I needed hope and a compassionate ear, he turned his back on me and refused to listen. And I will never forget that moment.
It’s important to recognize the power in our words, the harm we might do to another if we don’t slow down enough to be present, show compassion and really listen to someone if they are confiding in us about the trauma they’ve experienced or abuse they may be enduring. Often, we believe we know what’s best and we want to express that, or we want to fix the situation and give uninvited advice. What ends up happening is that we cause a victim exponentially more pain, making it that much harder for her to heal.
On the other hand, the gift of listening can have a profound impact on her that can literally shift her mindset from despair and self-blame to hope and restoration.
It’s important to recognize the power in our words, the harm we might do to another if we don’t slow down enough to be present, show compassion and really listen to someone …
So what does the act of listening look like? Listening means that instead of retreating or turning your back on a victim, tell her that you are there to listen only. Then do just that, listen, listen, listen. No judgments, no suggestions, no interpretations. A person experiencing abuse is vulnerable and must be approached with empathy and compassion, not pity or condemnation.
I cannot stress this enough: listen with big ears and a closed mouth. For the listener and the victim, it’s a much simpler solution because it takes the pressure off the listener to fix the situation and it fosters a safe environment for the victim/survivor to find clarity.
I think often of that day when my pastor failed to listen. I wonder how different things might have been had he done that one simple act. It wouldn’t have changed my decision to leave an abuser, but would it have helped my husband face accountability rather than unconditional support? Would it have aided my restoration? I believe that it would have.
I am one of the lucky ones. I have refused to be defined by my abusive and Doubly Abusive experiences and I have worked hard to mend. I have learned the hard way to surround myself with an empowering community of friends, loved ones, pastors and a small group who does listen with open minds and hearts.
Add to that a strength of character, a lot of soul-searching and trauma work which has led to a new life with a loving, listening husband, a new baby daughter on the way and a meaningful job to train communities on how to respond correctly to victims of abuse. I have thrived despite those destructive responses, not because of them. If you have faced something similar, I want you to know that you can thrive too.
So I leave you with this, if you have a friend or family member in an abusive situation and would like to know more about how to respond appropriately, please visit our website www.themendproject.com and check out our Healing Model of Compassion.
Images via Sadie Culberson