Why Domestic Violence and Abuse Victims and Survivors Deserve All Our Respect and Support
They are soldiers fighting a war they did not choose. They are heroes.
In writing this new post, I wanted to provide a positive and affirming message about why domestic violence and abuse victims and survivors deserve all our respect and support.
Societies and communities often make victims and survivors feel bad about what happened — as though it was somehow their fault, that they made the wrong choices, and that they did something to cause the abuse. This is exactly how the perpetrator made the victim-survivor feel too. Hearing the perpetrator’s narratives spoken by other people is particularly cruel and harmful.
Bringing these issues to light helps to raise awareness and understanding of how domestic violence and abuse victims and survivors should be treated better by societies and communities. Please read more on coercive control on this site, and also follow me on my social media channels.
This blog is going to show why the idea that victims and survivors are to blame is the furthest thing from the truth.
A positive message
In the following paragraphs, I want to look at what victims and survivors go through from a very particular perspective. Above all, we need to do two things:
Blame perpetrators and societies for what has happened, not victims/survivors
Point out why it is wrong for people to take a victim-blaming attitude to victims and survivors — when people’s attitude is ‘why didn’t you do this’ or ‘you should/shouldn’t have done that’
Instead, turn the focus to how badly societies are letting people down by (a) not supporting victims and survivors and by (b) not stopping perpetrators and enabling perpetrators
Give appropriate recognition and respect to victims and survivors
Allow ourselves to fully appreciate how truly terrible it is to be subjected to domestic violence and abuse
Affirm how strong all victims and survivors really are, even if they don’t feel strong
I believe these perspectives are vital. To understand the many strengths of victims and survivors, we have to properly understand what they are going through and have been through. This includes the pre-separation abuse, the post-separation abuse, family court and more.
A note on the terms I am using
In this article I use the terms ‘victims’ and ‘survivors’, as these are commonly-used terms.
The terms which feel most suitable for people vary. Some people find ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ the most suitable to describe what they were subjected to and what they’ve endured.
Others might identify more with the terms ‘thriver’ or ‘expert by experience’ or something else altogether. Whatever your preference is, and whatever reasons you have for that preference, these should be honored.
It is not your fault: Perpetrators look for all kinds of people to target
The first point is that it is not your fault.
Contrary to what some people think, there is nothing about a person that causes them to become a victim.
Perpetrators look for all kinds of people to target with their harmful criminal behavior.
This is a scary thought, I know. We all want to be safe. However, there is no person who is safe from a perpetrator, because different perpetrators are looking for different kinds of things in a potential victim.
Some perpetrators look for someone who they think is really strong and successful. (They enjoy the challenge of harming people who they see as strong.) Other perpetrators look for someone who is at a very vulnerable point in their life. Some perpetrators seek someone who had a happy childhood; other perpetrators seek those who were mistreated as children.
This means that the victim’s personality or life circumstances are not the key factor here at all. The key factor is simply the perpetrator’s desire to abuse.
Victims and survivors of domestic violence and abuse were, and are, ORDINARY HUMAN BEINGS
What does this mean? It means victims and survivors of domestic violence and abuse (which may or may not have included physical violence) were and are no different from anyone else.
There is nothing ‘wrong’ with a victim-survivor that caused them to be abused — they are ordinary human beings.
As ordinary people, victims and survivors wanted the things we all tend to want: fun, excitement, adventure, an escape from boredom, love, passion, care, stability, safety, to be wanted and needed. (We want these things in varying amounts depending on our ages and circumstances.)
Abusers are incredibly good at offering (or rather seeming as though they are offering) all of the ordinary things that the victim-survivor wants and needs at the time they meet them.
This is why abusers seem like a dream come true in the early days. Yet carefully bit-by-bit, abusers introduce abuse into what seemed to be ‘good times’. They lace these ‘good times’ with abuse and manipulation.
It is incredibly hard for ordinary human beings to ‘see through’ abusers
A question: Do you think a victim or survivor should be criticized for not realizing in the early stages of the relationship that their date/boyfriend/girlfriend was an abuser?
My answer: No, definitely not.
The abuser seemed like they were offering exactly what the victim-survivor wanted, and what they had every right to want.
Any red flags shown by the abuser were simply not enough to overcome the strong positive overall impression the abuser was making, and what they seemed to be offering.
This is as much the case if this was ‘abuser number 1’ or ‘abuser number 4’. Being harmed by a previous abuser doesn’t usually help us detect new abusers who come along.
Do humans even have the ability to swiftly see through abusers? For the most part, no they don’t.
There is a whole way of thinking that revolves around the question: ‘Why didn’t the victim spot that the other person was an abuser?’, or: ‘Why did you pick the wrong partner?’ That way of thinking is totally unfair and unrealistic.
Some people can swiftly see through abusers, sometimes. However, it’s quite rare. It’s even rarer for someone to be able to do it consistently over time, correctly identifying multiple different abusers in different contexts.
What are the chances that any human could correctly and swiftly identify every abuser they encounter at work, on dates, in their family, in their neighborhoods, in their educational institutions, in their faith communities, in their political leaders and in the famous people (such as actors and musicians) who they are aware of?
The chances are very low.
Abusers of all kinds currently thrive on this planet.
A large percentage of people on the planet have experienced abuse of one kind or another. If it was human nature to be able to see through abusers, abusers wouldn’t be thriving as they clearly are doing.
Even trained professionals often can’t spot abusers who are right in front of them.
Maybe one day, in some shiny distant future, most humans could have a reliable and consistent ability to detect abusers. But we don’t have this ability today.
So much blame and judgment is created by the way of thinking that centers on: ‘Why didn’t you spot the abuse?’ — And quite frankly that whole way of thinking, along with all that blame and judgment, needs to be tossed out of the window.
Domestic violence and abuse is the torture of one human being by another.
Domestic violence and abuse (which can occur with or without physical violence and can continue post-separation) is often described as fights, tiffs, disagreements, arguments, conflicts, relationship problems, a bad marriage, a dispute with an ex, a jilted lover and so on.
What this means is that societies have a tendency to massively downplay domestic violence and abuse. They misunderstand the enormity of what victims and survivors have suffered and endured.
The truth is, domestic violence and abuse is a kind of torture.
‘Domestic violence often falls nothing short of torture’
You don’t have to take my work for this. You can read the words of Nils Melzer, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment from 2016–22. Melzer said:
Domestic violence includes a wide range of abusive conduct, from culpable neglect and abusive or coercive or excessively controlling behavior that aims to isolate, humiliate, intimidate or subordinate a person, to various forms of physical violence, sexual abuse and even murder.
In terms of the intentionality, purposefulness and severity of the inflicted pain and suffering, domestic violence often falls nothing short of torture.
It is particularly concerning, therefore, that it remains both extremely widespread and routinely trivialized.
Truer words have rarely been spoken.
Domestic Abuse as Torture: Comparing domestic abuse with Biderman’s Chart of Coercion
What is Biderman’s Chart of Coercion? It is a chart that explains the techniques that were used by the Chinese and Koreans to torture American prisoners during the Korean War (1950–53) — torture techniques later used by the Americans themselves at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp established in 2002.
People have been pointing out for some time now that domestic abusers use these same techniques against their own partners and children. So, if you are wondering exactly how domestic violence and abuse can be a kind of torture, Biderman’s Chart is a helpful way of understanding this.
The chart lists the eight methods of torture (in the bold text column on the left-hand side) that will psychologically break an individual.
A couple of notes:
The list focuses on psychological not physical violence. Physical violence is awful and reinforces coercive control, but Biderman’s Chart helps us to recognize that coercive control can happen without it.
Being subjected to these torture techniques is similar to being held hostage long-term: The abuser traps the victim-survivor in a distorted bubble of unreality. Any belief that the victim-survivor somehow chooses of their own free will to stay in that situation is very misplaced.
Thirdly, it is worth pointing out a typographical error in the second-from-bottom box on the right-hand column — Demonstrating Omnipotence involves showing complete control over the victim’s FATE:
By showing complete control over the victim’s fate, the abuser convinces the victim that they have complete control over what will happen to them. Biderman’s Chart here gives us a devastating example of domestic abuse as a form of torture.
The relevance of Biderman’s Chart: 7 Key Takeaways about domestic abuse
Does Biderman’s Chart look like what domestic violence and abuse perpetrators do? Yes, it certainly does look like that to me.
Probably, in most cases of domestic violence and abuse, nearly everyone in the victims’-survivors’ lives is hugely downplaying what’s happening. They are likely to be reducing it to words that don’t capture the harms at all, such as ‘fights’ and ‘marriage problems’.
Below, here are my 7 key takeaways from Biderman’s Chart that tell us how wrong it is to minimize domestic violence and abuse in those ways.
1. That abusers are subjecting victims to many or all of the tactics that have been proven to mentally break trained soldiers.
Their ‘partner’ is an intimate terrorist who is terrorizing them day and night. Every year that passes under these conditions is 365 days and 365 nights of abuse, torture and terrorization.
Even the nice things the terrorist does (the ‘occasional indulgences’ in Biderman’s Chart) are a way of manipulating the victim and maintaining control. After a while, the victim becomes aware of this, and life is especially bleak: They know that even when there are good things and ‘good times’, they cannot be accepted at face value.
2. How strong anyone would have to be to live through this day after day.
When I say they were strong for living through this, I don’t mean they were only strong if they were somehow okay while living through this. Biderman’s Chart tells us what living through it looks like — how dispiriting it is, and how bleak.
3. How victims and survivors who are living through this at all, in any shape or form, should be recognised and honored.
Victims and survivors were strong for living through it no matter how grimly, no matter how much they felt like they were going crazy, like they were living on autopilot, like they didn’t know who they were anymore, like they’d been broken into pieces, like they were terrified, like they made many mistakes.
4. How incredible is it that someone who has been broken into pieces psychologically (as well as exploited and weakened economically) can find the strength and the will to seek freedom.
Not only do victims and survivors get through day after day, some start trying to break free. Even as their abuser continues with their torture tactics (tactics that psychologically break trained soldiers), some victims and survivors start going through the hugely difficult process of escaping.
This is truly incredible. Communities and societies need to give so much more credit for this.
5. How the time it takes to leave an abuser is a sign of strength not weakness
Seeking freedom is really tough.
When someone tells me it took them 10 attempts and many years to leave their abuser, I don’t think they were weak, I think they were really strong.
After all, the victim-survivor is very wounded and entrapped and the perpetrator is still very powerful and knows exactly how to manipulate them. But the victim-survivor keeps on trying.
The number of attempts shows how well the abusers’ tactics of abuse were working and how very, very hard breaking free is.
6. How societies need to do better to support victims-survivors who have left abusers
Support for victims-survivors who have left an abuser can be very hard to come across. Some victims-survivors find that many of the people they hoped might be supportive of them and their children actually let them down.
Victims-survivors who’ve left abusers need a lot of support. Despite breaking free, they are still carrying the vast weight of the extensive harms that the abuser caused to them. None of this melts away immediately upon leaving.
Societies need to step up and keep them and their loved ones, including any children they might have, safe from the perpetrator.
Yet, this rarely actually happens. Societies and communities rarely step up and keep both the victim-survivor and their loved ones safe from the perpetrator. This hurts. It’s more betrayal on top of the catastrophic betrayal they have already experienced from the abuser who claimed to love them.
Societies should recognize the huge problems that victims-survivors have in their lives through no fault of their own, and should do anything they can to make their life easier and safer.
7. How societies need to do more to stop post-separation abuse
Some victims and survivors say that the post-separation abuse is as bad or even worse than what they were subjected to pre-separation.
Some victims and survivors of post-separation abuse do get good responses from police forces and courts, but many don’t. Many are left suffering through months and years of post-separation abuse.
That societies let this happen and do so little to effectively intervene and stop the perpetrators is a scandal. It’s unjust. It’s inhumane. It’s tragic. Victims and survivors deserve so much better than this.
Post-Separation Abuse Explained
Living through post-separation abuse after all the pre-separation abuse that came before it is an act of human endurance that few can comprehend. It probably requires more endurance, strength and determination than running a marathon every week.
Anyone who knows someone in this situation should be in awe of them.
See this breakdown by One Mom’s Battle of what post-separation abuse can involve:
Incredibly, victims and survivors experiencing post separation abuse find ways to keep living day by day.
This is not to imply that this is some picture-perfect experience. Surviving and staying alive under this abuse is incredible no matter how messy this is. Even if a person is only functioning at 2%, it is incredible that they are managing to function at all.
Victim-survivor mothers are often unsung heroes in their children’s lives.
Many victim-survivor mothers do their best to support their children through the terror and distress of the post-separation abuse, as well as supporting them to deal with the impacts of all that the abuser did pre-separation. These actions are heroic.
I explain in detail how victim-survivor mothers can support their children post separation in chapter 6 of my book Coercive Control in Children’s and Mothers’ Lives.
Post-separation abuse and the family courts
Not every victim’s-survivor’s case ends up in family court, but some do. Family court is quite commonly described by victims and survivors as crushing, traumatizing and financially devastating.
Victims and survivors often report that their ex’s abuse was ignored by the courts and that they themselves were seen by the courts as the problematic one.
It is often the case that the court orders the victim-survivor to jointly bring up their children with their torturer.
In a small but heart-breaking number of cases, the abuser goes on to kill the children.
These mothers did nothing wrong. The horror of these outcomes can hardly be overstated. The pain that victims-survivors experience when courts send their child into danger and cause them to be harmed is extreme.
Family court mothers — honoring the relentless quest for justice and fair treatment
I know a lot of mothers who’ve been through family court nightmares that were soul-crushing, traumatizing and financially devastating. They are relentless in their quests for justice and fair treatment.
Some spend much of their time trying to raise awareness of what is happening to victims and survivors and what needs to change in our societies. Some support other victims and survivors. Their health is often badly affected by all they’ve been subjected to, and they are still going through so much themselves.
They are probably permanently running on more adrenalin and navigating more complex emotions than most people can imagine.
Some of these mothers are among the kindest, most caring, most thoughtful people you could ever hope to meet. They are shining examples of human beings.
To be this kind of good person when you’ve experienced, and are still experiencing, such prolonged suffering is utterly amazing. Really, truly amazing. They should be given medals, awards, and national recognition.
I am deeply grateful to know them.
If domestic violence and abuse is torture, victims-survivors are SOLDIERS and HEROES.
This brings me to my final point.
Like veterans of ‘official’ wars between nations, victims of domestic violence and abuse should get national recognition. They should get medals and parades. Political leaders should lay wreaths for them.
They should be publicly celebrated for the fight they put up for their own lives and the lives of their children (if they have children) against a hostile enemy who wanted to destroy them.
Victims of domestic violence and abuse are like soldiers in many ways. They have experienced comparable levels of trauma. They’ve been subjected to the torture techniques that we know from history psychologically break trained soldiers. They were probably in the field of battle for far longer than most wars even last.
The war was for the safety and freedom of themselves and their loved ones.
Yet they never chose to go to war. They received no training. They had no team to turn to for support. This makes what they have achieved all the more heroic.
Of course, what victims and survivors usually want most of all is simply to get the safety, support, and justice they need, whatever that may look like in each individual case. And they want this for other victims and survivors too.
They don’t want anyone else to go through what they’ve been through. They are right. They deserve all this and so much more.
Goodbye for now
I hope you have found this message illuminating, supportive and validating — you deserve it. Feel free to share this blog far and wide so more victims and survivors can read it.
Please continue exploring Decoding Coercive Control with Dr Emma Katz.
If you are not already a paid subscriber, start a 7-day free trial to read my most recent posts including: