What NOT to Say to A Survivor of Emotional Abuse

I’ve been posting some pretty heavy stuff lately, so think it’s time to lighten things up and bring back some sarcasm. Adding humour to conversations about emotional abuse and mental health is something that’s always kind of “funny-not-funny” but I think we can laugh every now and then and not hurt our cause.

So today I would like to present to you, complete with the witty and charming commentary you’ve all come to love hearing from me,


Number 10: “Well, it takes two…”

Um, excuse me?

Whoever says this manages to both undermine the legitimacy of your experience and place responsibility for that experience on you, the victim. OBVIOUSLY relationships involve more than one person BUT only the abuser is responsible for their abusive actions. I’ve said it before and I will keep saying it: you are only responsible for yourself, no one else! You are not responsible for anyone else’s feelings, behaviour, or choices. Emotional abusers use tactics like gaslighting and playing the victim to convince you that everything is your fault and not theirs. There may be two of you in your relationship, and neither of you are perfect, but when you are being abused emotionally, you cannot be blamed for it.

Number 9: “No one’s life is perfect, so why are you complaining?”

Ugh. This one. The worst! Okay, well, one of the worst.

Saying this to someone is like when you were 6-years-old and refusing to eat your Brussels sprouts and your parents said, “There are starving children in Africa who would love to eat those” in an effort to guilt you into consuming what you’ve come to understand is a vile vegetable. (My adult-self now loves Brussels sprouts, for the record.)

Actually, it’s worse than that. Clearly anyone who says this has no understanding of what it feels like to be abused emotionally. When you come to someone and confide in them that you are experiencing abuse, there is no place for shaming. Yes, we all experience stress and hardship in our lives, but ABUSE IS NOT NORMAL STRESS OR HARDSHIP and therefore, it can’t be treated as such.

Number 8: “Couldn’t you just try harder?”

Wow. Okay, again, what a shitty thing to say to someone! When I was in abusive relationships, I worked my ass off to change them into healthy ones. I sacrificed and struggled and exhausted myself putting effort into making things work.

If your abuser isn’t putting equal effort in, or, if the effort they are putting in is narcissistic and hurtful, then it won’t matter how hard you try; your relationship will still remain abusive.

I think it is safe to assume that anyone who comes forward and says that they are being abused has spent an incredible amount of time and energy trying to avoid coming to that conclusion. So don’t say shit like this to them.

Number 7: “But how can you leave them? You have children together.”

There are probably lots of people who will disagree with me on this one and I’m betting some of those people have made the decision to “work through things” with their partner “for the sake of the children.”

I’m calling bullshit on that.

Who in their right mind thinks it’s better for kids to live in a dysfunctional home where one parent is being abused? What kind of model is this setting for those children? And why is it considered selfish to try to stop being abused?

Leaving an abusive partner when you share children is incredibly difficult; I know that firsthand. It’s not the kids’ fault and yet they have to endure the struggles of managing the breakup of their family. Some days I feel insanely guilty about putting my kids through a divorce, but then I return to the little mantra I made for myself: I would always rather explain why I left, than why I didn’t.

‘Nuff said.

Number 6: “But if you leave [insert name here], you’ll be all alone. Do you really want to be [insert age] years old and single??”

Fuck, it sucks to be a single divorcée! It especially sucks to be a single parent! Do you know what sucks worse, though? Being in an emotionally abusive relationship. As hard as it is to be alone, I would never EVER go back to my previous partners.

As if being single is someone’s primary concern when they come to you and admit that they are being abused! Please don’t say this to someone who comes to you looking for support. Just don’t.

Number 5: “Well, there are plenty of other fish in the sea…”

This one’s kind of the opposite of Number 6, isn’t it?

So someone’s just come and told you that they think they are being abused. Now is not the time to offer clichéd dating adages. Also, if someone has experienced emotional abuse with a partner, there is so, so much that they need to work through before they can feel safe and secure enough to trust somebody new. I’m not saying survivors don’t get into rebound relationships or go looking for another “fish” too quickly (yep, guilty of that!); I’m saying that to suggest that there are other, better fish out there in the sea, at a time when the fish this person had chosen has let them down and fucked them up monumentally, is completely inappropriate.

Number 4: “Suck it up; just get over it.”

In the most significant relationship of my life so far, I spent the majority of my time “sucking it up” and since ending that relationship, I’ve done everything in my power to “just get over it.” There is no magic way to recover from emotional abuse. There may not be physical reminders of a survivor’s experience, but emotional scars run incredibly deep and they have their own timeline for healing. Advising someone to “suck it up” is a callous and insensitive thing to say, no matter what they’re telling you about.

Number 3: “They didn’t actually hurt you, so it’s not abuse.”

Oh my goodness, this one drives me absolutely crazy! People don’t usually put it to words so clearly, but often there is a strong implication that emotional abuse doesn’t count because it wasn’t physical (something I argue against here).

If you tell an emotional abuse survivor that their experience wasn’t real, you continue the cycle of abuse by gaslighting them into believing your own misinformed perspective. I still struggle with accepting the legitimacy of my experience because I assume that since a) my former partners don’t recognize the abuse, and b) I have no police report, hospital stay, or physical reminders to show that I was abused, it must not count.

How messed up is that? I am literally writing a blog about my experience of emotional abuse and I continue to question my experience! No one who has gone through something like what I did should have to justify it with corporeal proof.

Number 2: “But he/she/they seem like such a nice person…”

Wow, gee, yeah…I guess since you think he’s such a nice guy, I must be totally wrong! Thanks so much for helping me see that!

I have heard this so many times in the last few years and it is infuriating.

Do you think an emotional abuser isn’t capable of “playing nice” outside of the home or wherever they proliferate their abuse? In my experience, emotional abusers are exceedingly talented at manipulating others, so they can seem “nice” when it serves them to do so. I was once told that my story couldn’t be true because my former partner was “so handsome and charming.” I think I threw up a little in my mouth when I heard that and it definitely set me back a few counselling sessions too.

Ugh. Let’s move on to number 1…

Number 1: “I don’t care. I don’t believe you.”

Clearly, this is the WORST thing you could ever say to a survivor of emotional abuse. I don’t think I need to say much more about it; survivors need to know that we have the love and support from the people we confide in. A much better response when someone tells you that they are being abused is to say, “How can I help and what do you need right now?”


Helpful? Not helpful? Fuck, I don’t know all the shitty things people say to each other! But I do know that there are lots of ways to mess up supporting someone who needs loving kindness after recognizing a pattern of abuse in their life. (If you think you need a better understanding of what emotional abuse looks like, check out my post “Looks Like/Sounds Like/Feels Like”.) 

I hope you laughed a little; I hope you thought more about what you could say to someone in need. I mean, no one’s perfect (see number 10) but we can all try to show compassion to those who come looking for support.

Emotional abuse = abuse. Period.

xxJ

Author: Juliana

Writer; musician; mother; survivor. Taking things a day at a time and sharing my story.

8 thoughts on “What NOT to Say to A Survivor of Emotional Abuse”

    1. I’m sorry to hear that, but can totally relate. I’ve been told things about my abusive exes like, they’re “charming”, “handsome”, “smart”, or the best one, “I can’t imagine him doing that!” Stay strong and remember that this is your life and your story; no one else gets to tell you what your experience is or how to handle it. And thank you so much for reading! xxJ

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This is such an important post. There are many people who say upsetting things to survivors and it can really be damaging. When I broke up with my abuser, I got a lot of #5 and it drove me crazy. Thank you for sharing this. I hope people see it and take it to heart. Much love – speak766

    Liked by 1 person

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