Posted by Elizabeth Schön Vainer

We have heard a great deal recently about the importance of "believing and supporting survivors." In fact, our Journey to Safety staff say it often. But what does it mean to support survivors of domestic abuse or sexual assault? Beyond listening to what they have to say, what else can we do?

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. With a nod to raising awareness and some recognition that there has been much conversation about "supporting survivors," we thought this might be a good time to share with you some of the key things you might say and think about if someone that you care about tells you that yes, they, too, are a survivor of domestic abuse and/or sexual assault.

"You are not alone."

This statement has two meanings. First of all, abuse and assault are much more common in our communities than many people realize. Nearly one in four (and some research puts this number at nearly one in three) women will be physically or sexually assaulted by an intimate partner in her lifetime. The numbers for men, too, are higher than often thought. Survivors frequently feel alone, but in fact, many people are carrying these stories with them.

The statement "you are not alone" also means you (and perhaps others) are there to listen and talk through the feelings and decisions that come after an assault or ongoing abuse.

"I believe and support you."

Tell people that you believe them. Survivors sometimes might not know what you are thinking after hearing a disclosure of deeply personal, incredibly painful information. Just saying that you believe and support them can be both validating and relieving.

"What happened to you isn't your fault."

It might seem obvious to you that what has happened is not the survivor's fault, but we encourage you to say it anyway. We live in a world that blames survivors in many subtle and not so subtle ways for the abuse and violence they experience. Survivors routinely still face questions about why they were with that person in the first place, why they didn't leave the relationship earlier, why they didn't report something when it happened. And yes, they still hear even more basic questions about what they were wearing, what they had been drinking, how accurate their memory is, how big of a deal what happened really was or why they made any of the choices they made along the way.

To add to that, abusive individuals often blame their partner for everything. Many survivors report hearing things from an abusive partner like "If you hadn't made me so mad, I wouldn't have done that to you" or other blaming statements that place the responsibility squarely on the survivor. Abuse of any kind is a choice. When speaking with someone who has experienced abuse and/or assault, it is very important to put that blame back where it belongs -- with abusive individuals.

"Help is available."

We sometimes hear from friends, family and professionals in the community that they are hesitant to talk about abuse and/or assault because they don't know how to help. It is so important to recognize that you are taking action when you listen and believe people. You don't have to have all of the answers, but you can be the bridge to those who are trained to help.

Moreover, don't give up on people if they aren't ready to talk or acknowledge the abuse. Provide support and validation whenever it's possible. A colleague recently shared her concerns about a friend who often references her husband's abusive behaviors (e.g. speaking badly about her in front of their children, screaming at her for no reason, or driving the car recklessly when the whole family is in it.) She can sense when her friend is receptive to comments like, "it's not okay for him to blame you," or "that kind of behavior is abusive." She knows her friend isn't ready to leave her husband and while my colleague avoids spending time with the husband she remains loyal to her friend and at times gently reminds her that his behavior isn't her fault and that she doesn't deserve to be treated that way.

There are a few other things to see if you can help with as well….

  • Does the person have a safe phone to call from or will their abusive partner look at the phone bill record and demand to know what all those calls are about?
  • Does the person have a private space to call from?
  • Does the person need help finding childcare or care for a vulnerable adult for a few hours?
  • Can you offer time on a computer or a ride to the library so that the person can learn more about abuse and local programs that offer services without the risk of leaving a search history on their phone or home computer?

In many Jewish communities, we talk about how we might participate in the work of repairing the world. Literally and metaphorically opening the door for survivors can change lives. You don't have to be an expert to support someone. You just have to be a person with a little time to listen, a list of a few key things to say and some knowledge about who in the community to contact. And with that, we can help to change the world, one supportive conversation at a time.

Community Resources for Domestic Abuse Survivors and People Who Support Them

Elizabeth Schon VainerElizabeth Schön Vainer has been the program director of Journey to Safety, the domestic abuse program of JF&CS, since March 2010. Elizabeth is passionate about Journey to Safety's commitment to prevent domestic abuse. She believes that we must work at the individual, community, and legislative levels to shift our societal view that allows abusive behavior to remain so prevalent and damaging. When we focus on speaking up, listening to, and collaborating with others we can have a real impact. Prior to working at JF&CS, Elizabeth worked for 25 years in victim services at both the Middlesex and Suffolk County District Attorney's offices. Elizabeth holds a BSW from the University of Tel Aviv and a MS in organization and management from Antioch University.