Montana Voices: This is how abusers silence their victims

Everyone sees headlines in the newspaper about abuse. People often ask, why didn’t the victim just leave? Why didn’t they tell anyone?

Beth Wiley

It’s understandable to feel that way when you might not know about the dynamics of abuse. I’d like to help shed light on some of those dynamics.

For starters, abuse is all about power and control of one person over another. Abusers use their power to control victims and keep them from speaking out. Abusers get power in many different ways. Power comes from all sorts of places — everything from a person’s physical stature and strength, to their job, to whether or not it’s their name on the bank accounts. And those are just a few examples.

Abusers find ways to control the perception of reality within abusive situations. And that allows them to exert control over a victim.

For example, say an abuser works in the justice system. The abuser might know and be friends with lawyers, judges, or police officers. Abusers might tell victims that they won’t get help from the justice system because the abusers’ friends would never believe or help the victim.

Another tactic abusers use is the threat of violence. Threats can be implied with words or actions, or threats can be directly verbalized. For instance, abusers who are religious leaders have been known to threaten that if the victim tells anyone, the victim will be kicked out of a church.

Threats don’t have to be logical. It doesn’t matter if the abuser could never follow through with the threat. If victims believe the threat is a possibility, that’s enough to keep them from speaking out.

No matter what behaviors abusers use to gain control of their victims, abusers are never justified in using those behaviors. Abusers cause their victims to feel a deep sense of shame, making the victims think the abuse is their fault. Victims frequently feel that if they came forward, they would be blamed for the abuse they are experiencing.

Learning about abuse can make the situations seem hopeless. However, despite all of these controlling behaviors used by abusers, victims can escape. There is hope.

If you think someone might be in an abusive situation, find a safe time and space to talk to them about domestic and sexual violence resources. Domestic and sexual violence advocates can offer services that are completely confidential. Advocates are trained to help in the complex situations of abuse.

Advocates can also offer advice or ideas to friends or family of victims, as well as the victims themselves. See the end of this article for a few helpline and website resources.

Some things you can say to someone experiencing abuse are:

♦  Remember you’re not alone – I’m here for you when you’re ready to talk about it.
♦  This isn’t your fault.
♦ No matter what you did, you do not deserve to be treated that way.
♦  I want to help. What can I do to support you?

It’s normal to struggle to relate to victims of abuse when you’re in a healthy relationship. I want to help everyone understand that abusers create obstacles that aren’t always obvious to someone on the outside looking in. Offering victims compassion, reserving judgment, and listening can be the first steps to getting a victim out of an abusive situation.

If you or someone you know has experienced domestic or sexual abuse, and you want help, please call our 24/7 Helpline, 406-425-2222. We serve Carbon and Stillwater counties in Montana. If you’re outside our service area, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-7233. Or visit their website.

Beth Wiley is the violence prevention trainer and communications and development coordinator for Domestic and Sexual Violence Services in Red Lodge.