Thoughtful words can make a big difference.
Even though we have good intentions when we speak with victims, we sometimes use language that can be harmful. That language may blame the victim for the abuse, even though that’s not what we mean. Or we may accidentally question the victim’s decision making.
When you’re offering support to a victim, be thoughtful about the language you use.
This question doesn’t consider how dangerous and challenging daily life can be for a victim. They are facing their partner’s abusive actions, and the impact that has on their ability to leave. They fear for their safety and the safety of anyone who helps them leave. The abuser has prevented them from saving their own money, so they know leaving may mean homelessness. The question also puts the responsibility on the victim to leave, instead of putting the blame on the abuser. The better question we can consider is “Why does he choose to abuse?”
This seems like a simple question that makes sense to ask, but it implies the victim did something to lead to the abuse. The abuse is the responsibility and choice of the abuser only, and there is nothing that justifies abuse. The question also tries to get the victim to talk about a very traumatic time, even though it is likely not important that you know the details. A better statement is “I’m so sorry to hear you have endured this abuse. You don’t deserve to be abused, no matter what he says.”
A question like this, without meaning to, makes the discussion about you, and not your friend. You may want to know that the victim realizes they can turn to you in a time of crisis. You want to feel like you are someone they trust. The victim is making the decisions they believe are best and safest every minute of every day. The timing likely has little to do with how they feel about you. Do not question those decisions. Just be the support they need in this moment. A helpful statement can be “Thank you for trusting me to help you and know that I believe you and care about your safety.”
When we try to use the most supportive language possible in our conversations with victims, the situation can get even more challenging when the language that’s most often used is not the language the victim prefers. The simplest example of this is the use of “victim” or “survivor”.
The word “victim” is still most commonly used for someone who is actively experiencing domestic violence. It is also commonly used for someone who has experienced domestic violence in the past, especially if that person is still healing from the physical, psychological, or emotional trauma. Regardless of whether the abuse is in the past or present, they are still a victim of crime and afforded certain rights. It’s for these reasons that we used “victim” throughout this website.
However, some people who have been abused do not like to call themselves a “victim.” They prefer “survivor,” which shows that they survived the abuse, that they have overcome it. “Survivor” can be used to describe someone who is actively being abused as well, because they are surviving each and every day.
If you are ever questioning what the right thing is to say, it’s best to ask the person you’re speaking with. You may not always say the right thing, but if you try to learn from your experiences and have the best interest of a person at heart, then you hope that person will understand your intention and forgive anything you say the wrong way.