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.
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?
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:
- Women in the UK/Ireland can visit the Women’s Aid website
- Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans* and Gay readers in the UK can visit Broken Rainbow or browse the LGBT Domestic Abuse Forum’s list of specialist LGBT domestic abuse services
- Trans* readers in the UK, and especially Scotland, can visit the website of the Edinburgh Women’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre, which has a good track record of trans*-inclusivity
- Cis women in the USA could visit RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network; the advice I’ve had for trans* women in the US is to go to local centres, as the lottery is better there than with RAINN
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: