How to Support A Survivor, 201: Survivor Doesn’t Mean ‘Angel’

This is just a quick piece I wanted to write about how I think there’s a set of seemingly counter-intuitive things some trauma survivors do, based on avoiding or even actively disrupting their own friendships and other support networks. I’m primarily writing for people who want to know how to support a survivor, but I hope the piece will also be useful for survivors themselves.

The subject came up during some recent conversations with friends; originally I just wanted to post a link to existing articles, but I wasn’t able to find anything. Instead, I’m trying to patch something together from the various areas of experience I have. I’ve sometimes needed support and noticed myself being avoidant in minor ways, and I’ve sometimes been in the position of offering support to friends who are either in a relationship with an abuser or who have survived abuse.

However I don’t write as a survivor and I don’t have much writing of survivors to draw on. So what I’m going to produce here is a fabric of intuitions and scraps of knowledge, which means it may have some serious flaws. It also won’t be as structured as most of the things I write here; all I’m really trying to do is start a conversation.

Trigger Warning: The other thing to know before you read it is that it tries to describe the experience of survivors, and that if you’d rather not read an account of the dynamics of abuse, you might want to skip this piece.

Introduction

So, I think that some trauma survivors use a set of strategies – sometimes deliberately, sometimes subconsciously – which on the surface have the immediate effect of making it more difficult for their support networks to support them. This may include doing things like imposing lots of conditions on meeting up, changing plans at the last moment, not responding to communication and similar actions. I believe that this is an approach which can concretely help a survivor, and which people aiming to support survivors should try to understand in its proper context.

In my examples, I’ll mostly use male pronouns for the abuser and female pronouns for the survivor, as I’d like them to reflect the prevalence of male-on-female abuse. That said, I want to state very clearly that abusers and survivors can be of any genders, and that we should never narrow our focus to only male abusers of women, because this creates additional difficulties for those survivors of other dynamics as their experience is not even recognised. On the other side, there is the risk of suggesting that abuse is somehow ‘gender-neutral’, which it certainly is not.

I’m mostly going to be talking about intimate partner abuse. Abuse doesn’t need to include physical violence, though it often does. Abuse is a system of control, operated by abusers, which can include making the survivor feel powerless, unloved or unlovable and extremely precarious in their relationships, romantic and otherwise. Even people who have escaped abuse may find it hugely difficult to understand themselves as people who can take meaningful actions with meaningful consequences, people who can be loved and who are worthy of love, and to trust that other people will be reliable and committed to them. Sometimes, the abuser can make it seem that only the abuser’s actions have any true effect on the world and that only they will ever love or be a reliable presence in the life of the person they abuse.

Survivors can be anyone. Sometimes, people think that the other women in their lives couldn’t possibly be in a relationship with an abuser. But abusers have successfully targeted some of the toughest women I know. Abuse is an extraordinarily effective system. Other times, it can be difficult to imagine that a specific person may be an abuser, because he seems like a ‘good guy’ when he’s around other people. But abusers are often expert social manipulators, and their ‘good guy’ image can be one of the tools they deliberately construct to enable their abuse.

You can read up more on the word ‘survivor’ in this excellent post on feministplus.

Supporting Survivors In A Relationship With An Abuser

First, please, imagine that someone – we’ll call her Beth – is in a relationship with an abuser, and a friend who is worried for her is trying to arrange meeting up. Not to make any kind of intervention in the situation, but just to spend time with Beth, to show her a slice of life outside of the distorted world created by her abuser, and to show her that people outside the abuser’s world still care about her. We’ll call the friend Charly.

When Charly tries to get in contact, Beth tells them that they mustn’t try to phone or email her at home. They also mustn’t phone her at work, but they can send her texts at work. When Charly does text, the responses are inconclusive and don’t really help pin down any particular date or time for hanging out. The medium of text is frustrating as Charly feels it could all just be sorted out if they could have a quick phone call, but they persist and eventually arrange a time.

Charly shows up on time but Beth never arrives. Eventually, Charly gets a text half an hour late from Beth saying that she can’t make it. This repeats once or twice until they eventually manage to meet up, even though Charly had to wait another half hour or so this time before Beth arrived. Perhaps because of this, Charly has missed several other engagements, as well as having gotten bored or stressed waiting.

This whole experience is difficult for Charly and they may feel like Beth just isn’t really trying very hard, or is even being deliberately difficult. At any stage during the story above, or during the many times in the future where it may repeat itself, Charly might stop trying to make contact with Beth altogether.

By doing so, Charly might be playing exactly into Beth’s expectations – as carefully built up by the abuser – that she isn’t able or allowed to make decisions without being punished, that she isn’t loved, and that she can’t trust her friends. Everything which happened while arranging a time to meet up may have been an effort by Beth to protect herself, to test whether Charly will respect her boundaries and to establish whether they can be trusted to offer her deep support. Beth may also be taking actions to keep herself safe, and to counteract the abuser’s behaviour. Not all of what she’s doing is necessarily deliberate, considered or even freely chosen – abusers like to destroy trust, especially trust in friends, and it may simply take Beth a long time to build trust back up.

Here’s an alternative explanation of what happened, understanding Beth’s actions in this way:

Beth knows that the abuser will listen in to any phone call if he’s in, and may check the phone logs to ask about any calls which happened in his absence. She suspects that he is reading her email. At work, she doesn’t feel able to take personal calls as she already feels that her professional image is fragile. She can just about manage texts, but fits them in to her busy breaks. Sometimes she experiences panic attacks and doesn’t feel able to communicate at all. It may be that arranging a meeting seems like a lot of effort, and that her energy to arrange anything is cut right down by the abuser’s treatment.

She doesn’t want to commit to any particular time because her abuser has taught her that any time she tries to do anything concrete, he’ll find a way to disrupt it, for example by conveniently ‘forgetting’ her plan and setting a ‘romantic’ date, or falling ‘ill’ and needing her support. The idea of meeting Charly at some time in the future feels safer than having an actual date set. Eventually she commits to a time but balks at the last minute. Perhaps she doesn’t want to go because she thinks her friend will force her to talk about a domestic relationship which she feels, at that moment, is fine. Maybe the abuser just entered the apology part of his cycle of abuse and she wants to believe that things will change. Perhaps the abuser has guilted Beth into prioritising their relationship over Beth’s friendships.

The same thing repeats, and again Beth doesn’t go. This time, maybe she thinks that Charly secretly doesn’t really want to meet her, and she’s really just waiting to hear a message that Charly’s sick of her, or hates her, or can’t be bothered any more. Perhaps Beth is very used to being ‘told off’ by the abuser, and is afraid that Charly will also tell her off. When, after some time, this still hasn’t happened, she eventually shows up, still not really expecting until the last moment that Charly will actually be there. The time they spend together is frightening, because she may only be used to going out (apart from work) when the abuser is accompanying her and controlling what she does, and she may not recently be used to talking to other people. She’s reluctant to repeat it but eventually agrees to try to meet again, and it all starts again from the beginning.

Throughout this process an abused person is working to keep herself safe and to figure out whether she can trust her friend. If she is ever to speak to her friend about the abuse she needs to know beyond all doubt that her friend has her back and will never side with her abuser against her. Shaking up arrangements with her friend repeatedly and apparently ‘messing them about’ is one way to tell if her friend will stick around regardless.

Trust is a huge issue, both for people currently in a relationship with an abuser and people who have escaped abuse. People need to be believed when they talk about abuse, a need they can’t be sure their friends will meet. They also need to know if the friendship is strong and understanding enough to contain the truth about their experience of abuse. Testing a friend repeatedly to see if they can be trusted is one way to ‘sound out’ that person for trust in the future.

Ideally, of course, the friend could be given an opportunity to consent to this! But it’s rarely (ever?) something a survivor does consciously. It might be simply what they need to do to cope – see the points about lack of energy, feelings of obligation/guilt towards the abuser – or it might be an unconscious way of acting to protect themselves, and to figure out what’s safe.

Survivors may think of themselves as a “horrible friend” or as untrustworthy instead of as people who are acting to protect themselves. This fits in well with the worldview created by the abuser in which the person they abuse is unworthy and unlovable. The abuser can even go further: “You are so untrustworthy / unfriendly, only I would ever like you” (which conveniently ignores the fact that the abuser is creating the situation which leads to those behaviours).

Supporting Survivors Who’ve Escaped An Abuser

In the case of people who’ve escaped abusive relationships, the difficulty in trusting people can be less about safety from a particular abuser and more about the long-term psychological impact of abuse.

Let’s imagine a survivor, Robin, who escaped from an abuser several years ago. Since then Robin’s felt isolated and has drifted away from many of their former friends. Their friend Lucy still spends time with them but has started to complain because she find them unreliable when making social arrangements. When Lucy and Robin do hang out, Lucy sometimes thinks that Robin doesn’t enjoy her company as much, because the two of them don’t ever seem to end up talking about anything personal any more.

Lucy knows that Robin’s a survivor of abuse, but also knows that it was years ago. She was happy to, as she puts it, “cut Robin some slack” in the months after the end of the relationship, but nowadays when she spends time with Robin she don’t really think about it any more. She eventually starts to wonder about letting Robin know that she doesn’t feel that Robin’s taking their friendship seriously.

What Lucy has picked up on, but hasn’t really understood, is the way in which the trust in her friendship with Robin might be damaged or broken. It could be for a few reasons. Perhaps Lucy was friends with Robin during Robin’s relationship with the abuser, and Lucy didn’t say or do anything at the time. As a result, Robin might feel that Lucy can’t be trusted. Or perhaps, since their time with the abuser, Robin has difficulty trusting anybody. After all, they trusted the abuser, who got close to them and hurt them. They tried to reach out to their friends during the abuse and some of their friends failed them. Or they may not have reached out at all but still feel that their friends should have realised that something was wrong.

Now Robin holds Lucy at a distance. It’s easy for them to forget that they’d planned to spend time with Lucy, or to come up with reasons to miss the meeting, perhaps because part of them would rather avoid her anyway. Actually spending time together may require more energy on Robin’s part than Lucy realises, and so if Robin’s had a difficult week, they might not feel up for it. When they do meet, Robin may not feel like opening up to Lucy because they don’t feel able to trust Lucy specifically, or because they don’t feel able to open up to anyone after the abuser’s treatment of them. Robin may even be concerned on some level that they are opening themselves up to danger if they allow themselves to become close to Lucy, because their previous experience of being close to the abuser was so destructive. And because society sends the message that a partner is the one person who will always have our backs, Robin might feel that, since a partner turned out to be untrustworthy, how could anyone else ever be trusted?

On Trust

One thing abusers do is try to break the trust between the person they are abusing and that person’s friends, and to disrupt that person’s ability to trust at all, except for a kind of reliance on the abuser himself. Abusers can find friends of the person they are abusing very threatening, because those friends threaten to disrupt his ability to control the self-esteem and general worldview of the person he abuses. Any kind of connection between the person they abuse and anybody else threatens the abuser’s conception of himself as the centre of his target’s world. The abuser can try to break up friendships by picking fights with those friends, by telling lies about them, by becoming ‘jealous’ of them or through a variety of other tricks.

So trust, like many things, might not only be something a survivor actively (whether consciously or unconsciously) withholds for self-protection, but also something they are literally unable to extend without great difficulty. The same applies for many of the other behaviours listed here. But whether they are active or inevitable consequences of abuse is a) probably a false binary and b) not important for someone whose friend may be a survivor to understand. The important thing to understand is a survivor is probably not being a “bad friend” – they are dealing, in the best way they can, with the reality/aftermath of an abuser’s mind-altering treatment of them.

Conclusions, And Keeping Your Own Boundaries

So whether you’re friends with a survivor, or with someone who you suspect may be in a relationship with an abuser, or even if your friend has just started to behave strangely, you might want to revisit how you understand their actions if it seems like they’re being a ‘bad friend’ in any of the ways described above. Perhaps you can help them more if you forgive them once or twice, or even twenty times, or even if you recomprehend their behaviour as something which doesn’t require forgiveness to be ok.

Of course, boundaries are very important, and it can also be helpful if the survivor-friend relationship models good boundary-setting. I’m not saying that friends should necessarily let survivors walk all over them, especially if it’s harmful for the friend. It’s ok to set boundaries and say, “I find it difficult when you’re late, because it can mean I end up sitting for a long time by myself wondering what’s going on. Would you mind letting me know by text if you think you won’t be able to make it?”

But these boundaries can be suggested in a generous and non-judgemental way, rather than by the friend telling the survivor that they’re angry or fed up with her. Friend can – as in the example just given – be careful not to set their own boundaries in such a way that they rule out providing any support. (Many survivors are very familiar with seemingly arbitrary rules being used to deny them something!)

I hope this piece is useful to some people. Like I said at the start, I’m not basing this on much personal experience or from recognised writing on the subject. It’s woven together from thoughts I have about how abuse works, accounts from survivors, experiences I’ve had supporting people at difficult times in their lives, the ways in which I’ve observed myself behaving when I’ve been low, and some of the things I’ve learned while in some professional training I’ve taken. So I’m very, very ready to hear that any of this is wrong or harmful and to change it in small or comprehensive ways or to take it down altogether.

Invitation For Comments

  • If you think that this piece needs changing, please let me know.
  • I’d also love to get any links to other articles which discuss this, quite possibly better than I have here!
  • If you’re a survivor, perhaps you’d like to talk in the comments about what is helpful / would have been helpful to you in terms of support.
  • If you’ve supported a survivor, perhaps you could share how you got past any ideas of them being a “bad friend” to offer genuine support.

(The comments section is not for anyone to share stories about, for example, ‘ungrateful’ survivors, or to suggest that survivors are hurting themselves through using these approaches.)

Links and Further Reading

If, after reading this, you feel like you would like to talk to somebody or get help about personal experiences of abuse:

There are so many other articles I could link to about abuse. Perhaps readers could post the ones they’ve found most helpful in the comments? Here are three I’d like to draw to people’s attention:

About these ads

12 thoughts on “How to Support A Survivor, 201: Survivor Doesn’t Mean ‘Angel’

  1. This is really, really good. As a survivor, all I can think to add is that, in terms of support, it is good to hear people talk at length about what is “normal” or, in other words, is emotionally healthy in a relationship or friendship. I personally did not realise that another emotional life was possible.

  2. This – “If you’re a survivor, perhaps you’d like to talk in the comments about what is helpful / would have been helpful to you in terms of support” – is really, really tough to come at from the dual perspectives of being a survivor and also being the sister of a survivor of relationship abuse. Sometimes it seems like my needs are and were at the exact opposite end of the spectrum of hers; sometimes it seems as though there is no kind of support whatsoever that she has ever needed or ever wanted that could be helpful, and of course that point of view is the unique privilege of being the friend in the situation and not the survivor.

    When you’re the friend/sister/other family member, the biggest hurdle is getting over your own goal-orientated focus; you want to give support, but it’s not for support’s sake, it’s for the sake of getting them “out,” getting them to change. Rescuing them. It’s frustrating to you when it doesn’t seem to work, and it just confirms for them that “everybody” wants to control them in some way, and that situation usually benefits the abuser because when everyone wants to change and control the abused person, well, at least the abuser can keep a roof over their head and food on the table, so better the devil you know. I know I certainly couldn’t offer my sister any concrete financial or practical support; I had an uncomfortable couch in a studio apartment she could sleep on, and I had all the numbers of the local refuges where she could go and bunk in with drug users and other “unfortunate” women and she wasn’t “one of them” (this is how it looked to her.) That’s all I had to offer. Our mother had more to offer, a roof over her head and financial support, and so that worked eventually, but it’s so hard to fill up the emptiness that’s left behind when the abuser is cut out of your life. I know that from personal experience. And with my sister, it seemed like although the “head” of the abuser had been removed, all the tentacles and suckers were still lodged nice and deep.

    It makes it so much harder when the abuser’s friends are the victim’s friends too. You have to pick a side. Sometimes I think I only managed to get out myself because I had more friends who hated my abuser than I did those who loved him – and those friends had to be good friends, to have an impact, because no matter how many friends hated him, my own family loved him to death. I think I was lucky to have friends who told me I deserved more *and backed that up with their behaviour towards my abuser.* My best friend was absolutely staunch in his stance against my abuser, but managed to never withdraw support from me – and he did it by being endlessly patient, endlessly forgiving, and never having a goal in mind other than being a person in my life who believed I deserved better. He never required anything of me – never required me to change, to renounce my abuser, to do anything.

    Of course, when I landed in another abusive relationship a couple years later, none of my “good” friends were willing to do it all again, and then it became an ultimatum – get rid of the guy, or we go. There is only one outcome to that ultimatum.

    It really all comes down to victim-blaming – if you can blame the abuser (or the potential abuser, if you’re not sure) and not blame the victim, keep those identities separate, then I think you’re in a better position to be that supportive friend. Once you start to treat your friend (or sister) with reproach, once you start to fuse those identities in your mind, then you’ve lost. The ultimatum should be for the abuser, not for the abused.

  3. Pingback: Links of Great Interest: boom boom boom — The Hathor Legacy

  4. Thanks for writing this. I wish more professionals knew this stuff, especially since they carry more power, and (hopefully) more ability to help. Social workers, medics, advocates etc often describe having a lot of problems with this kind of behaviour, and some are unforgiving, some are forgiving, and some, like you say, recognise that there’s nothing to be forgiven, that women just need to act in whatever way is best for them right then.

  5. This is very timely. Part of my thoughts are going to echo Rose’s comment.

    I was just recently contacted by someone with whom I’d had a friendship that sort of fizzled out. She was (is?) very manipulative, likes to spread rumors even/especially about those close to her, and hides her true thoughts on almost everything. We were only friends for 2 years; about a year in, she was raped by someone she’d had a romantic interest in. Another mutual friend and I tried to be immediately supportive in every way we knew how. I was a sexual assault/crisis counselor some time ago, and am a staunch advocate of ending rape culture– all of my instincts told me to help her, and I think (as you mention above) I may have been a little too…doormat-ish? The mutual friend, too. Eventually our friend became very flaky and misleading, lying outright about practically everything, even if there seemed no logic to it. She betrayed my trust numerous times and as a result I felt hurt and used. I felt she was giving me an unspoken ultimatum, which was that I had to get rid of my boyfriend (for whom she openly expressed contempt with our mutual friend) or our friendship was over. I felt I had violated in her in some way, and stopped calling her. This was more than six months after the rape.

    This piece was extremely triggering– lots of feelings of hurt and guilt and regret came back for me… And it also gave me some perspective.

    As a crisis counselor, I like to think I was pretty successful, if you can say that. Or at least I felt I connected to most clients, even where it took a huge effort; it was satisfying and rewarding, albeit in anonymous fashion. But as a sexual assault counselor, as important as I felt it was, I never felt those feelings of connection and satisfaction. Every time I went to the hospital to advocate for/counsel someone, I could feel a deep horror mounting as I drove there. And after each time, I would feel completely dead.

    I have always recognized that the fact of my own rape probably disqualifies me from being an effective rape counselor; this is absolutely NOT true of all rape survivors who become counselors. Indeed, the majority of counselors I worked with had experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives. But for whatever reason, having to be physically present with a survivor at a hospital (or at/near the place where the rape happened) just destroyed me every time.

    Maybe I haven’t gotten over this inability, maybe I never will; maybe this is why I let my friend just walk away from me and stop talking to me, even though six months can hardly be thought of as enough time to “get over” the immediate trauma of rape. It bears on my conscience. And I don’t know how to set it right. Her message to me said, “I don’t know why we stopped talking,” and that she wanted to meet up with me.

    She also knows I am still in a relationship with an emotional withholding and abusive person, who perhaps reminds her of her rapist. As much as I feel it is the right thing to support her and forgive her “crazy” behavior in the past, I don’t know how I can truly be a friend to her when I could further damaging her trust in me just by virtue of my present relationship.

    I’m still with him, by the way, because I really (perhaps stupidly) believe he is capable of change. Capability and willingness are certainly two different things. He must be in the apology swing of his abuse cycle.

    This comment was word vomit, but I just want to say thank you for this post and your blog effing rocks, in general.

  6. Being in an abusive relationship, and even coming out of one, can also lead to clinical depression, which would also explain all of those behaviors you talked about (flaking on commitments, not being interested in personal conversation, etc.).

  7. It’s all very recognizable. Trying to escape some harsh reality while living it means you have to shut down and ignore your friends who are worried and see you spiraling downwards. Then, when telling my experience, it helps when people just listen. Instead of turning the whole experience into a courtroom drama. People who don’t believe you and turn on the victim blaming do *massive* damage.

  8. This was amazing and thank you for writing it.

    I am a survivor. I was raped multiple times by my ex boyfriend. My rape was not typically violent, he used hours emotional abuse, manipulation, and inappropriate contact/groping until I was too physically/emotionally exhausted to fight back any more. Very much a situation of “this is going to happen wether I like it or not so I might as well just stop fighting and dissociate from my body because that would be easier”. I was constantly told that I was a bad girlfriend for not letting him have sex with other people, for not letting him have sex with me whenever I wanted, for not doing things he wanted me to do that I really didn’t want to do, for not letting other people get involved in our sex life, for not wanting sex as much as him, for not giving him good enough sex etc etc etc and I internalised all of this and repressed these feelings for well over a year until I had a breakdown and finally realised what the fuck had been happening to me.

    It was very hard for me to admit to myself that what happened was rape. And when I did all of those repressed emotions came back and I couldn’t even function. It was hard enough for me to trust 2 of my closest friends and tell them what happened to me. It was beyond hard enough actually it was one of the hardest things I have ever done.

    And they did not understand. Friend A, who I told first, has good intentions and tries very hard but a lot of the time she says very hurtful things. She has her own issues with her sexuality and stuff and this all stops her from getting her head around what happened to me. She says problematic things without realizing but does apologize and does try her best and is on my side. I just know that a lot of the time it is better for me to avoid some specific issues when talking to her about my experience because she can not understand, for whatever reason. She is still very supportive and we are still great friends.

    Friend B, who I told a little later, is a different story. Friend B was very close friends with my rapist throughout the duration of our friendship. B stated initially when I told her that I broke up with him that she didn’t want to chose sides or stop being friends with anyone. Later, in person I told her about what I had experienced. I cried and she hugged me and was angry and hurt for me and I was grateful and thought that this was finally going to be over and I would be safe. A week later pictures of her and my rapist keep on appearing all over my facebook, even though I have him blocked. This disturbs me greatly and causes a huge amount of anxiety. The next day I meet with her and it turns out he has been in her house for 3 days. Pretty quickly it is revealed that she doesn’t believe that I was raped, only “Sexually abused” (as if that makes things better?) that she is reporting back to my rapist, she is firmly staying friends with my rapist, her house mate is going out with my rapist (which she didn’t tell me, not thinking that I might need to know for my own safety), that she thinks I shouldn’t tell anyone because “everyone has different definitions of rape” and “no one wants to know that about someone”.

    This was devastating and infuriating and triggering.

    And so I want to say thank you for this article because it is amazingly important and I haven’t seen anything else explain this stuff as well as this does and after all of these experiences it makes me feel a lot more valid in my pain. It has helped me understand myself and my actions a little better. If you are to add anything, the only thing I can think of is what my counsellor said about the whole situation “Some people just can’t give you certain things you need and if you keep looking for those things that they can’t give you will end up hurt”. Something like that except she said it a lot better and less jumbled.

    Thanks

  9. @fortysevenlegs: That sounds horrific. I’m so sorry. What he did was vile. And you have a right to be believed and supported by your friends, and supporting the rapist like B did is never ok. It’s terrible that people do this so often. My feminism is the total of stories like yours and I’m really glad that this article could be helpful, although I wish it didn’t have the chance/need to be helpful, if that makes sense? I like your counsellor’s advice, although I hope one day we can get to a world where the kind of support survivors may need/want is more commonly given.

    Wishing you love, recovery and sisterhood,
    – Lisa

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s