Fears for survival, lack of resources and disbelief from friends and family can keep people in abusive relationships silent.
On Nov. 16, news broke that singer Cassie accused rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs of years of sexual and physical abuse in a 35-page complaint.
The lawsuit was settled privately a day later, and both Cassie and Diddy stated they won’t be commenting on the lawsuit, but this hasn’t stopped online commenters from spewing misinformation and stigmatizing remarks.Unfortunately, as with most reports of abuse, the news has been met with doubts from uninvolved parties.
Experts say that false reports of abuse aren’t common. “We definitely don’t want to have people wrongfully accused or wrongfully demonized, but the data really shows that isn’t the majority of the case. It’s not that people mistakenly report or falsely report abuse in such large numbers,” said Racine Henry, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York City.
Specifically, online commenters are questioning the allegations due to the amount of time it took Cassie to come forward with the report (the pair broke up in 2018). For the record: This is a damaging and dangerous narrative.
Many barriers keep people from ending abusive relationships and/or reporting abuse immediately, including societal pressures, the isolation that is often part of abusive relationships, the vitriol that occurs as soon as someone steps forward, power dynamics and the cyclical nature of abuse.
Below, experts detail the reasons and offer resources for those who are in an unsafe relationship:
Fear can keep people from reporting abuse or leaving a relationship.
“I think the biggest barrier is fear. Leaving an abusive relationship, reporting the abuse can actually put the person in more danger, in some cases,” said Katie Young-Wildes, a senior communication specialist at Women Against Abuse, a domestic violence service provider in Philadelphia that operates domestic violence emergency shelters, prevention programs and more.
“Time and again, we see domestic violence becomes more severe when someone is trying to break free, and that’s because domestic violence is all about power and control,” she added.
If the person chooses to leave or breaks their silence, the perpetrator feels like they’re losing control. “And they’re more likely to escalate the violence, lash out or even kill their partner in retaliation,” Young-Wildes said.
Sometimes time is necessary to come to terms with what occurred, too.
Some survivors need time to believe their own story, according to Henry. People will often second-guess their memory because of the information they’re being fed by those around them, whether it’s from their abuser or people outside of the relationship.
“Because people are telling you, ‘Well, that can’t be true,’ and ‘It wasn’t that bad,’ and ‘Well, what about the things he bought you?’” Henry said.
Additionally, survivors are often manipulated by their abuser, which contributes to the cycle of abuse.
“Oftentimes, when you are in abusive situations ... the bedrock of that abuse is sustained on things like gaslighting, on dismissing your feelings, on minimizing your emotions,” said Meghan Watson, the founder and clinical director of Bloom Psychology and Wellness in Toronto.
This does not create an environment in which speaking out about the abuse is possible, Watson said.
Reporting abuse forces someone to relive trauma — and not everyone is ready for that.
“Reliving traumatic experiences is incredibly hard,” Watson said. “The symptoms of trauma, just to name a few, are hypervigilance, nightmares, distortions about the traumatic beliefs ... and all of these circumstances are very, very difficult to experience.”
Someone may be dealing with nightmares every night, flashbacks and even suicidal ideation, Watson noted. “You might be hypervigilant, paranoid — that is not the circumstance of someone who’s feeling free and open to talk about difficult things and heal from them.”
It could take months or years to get to the point when one is ready to relive their trauma by talking about their abuse.
“So, even just getting through that, and I’ll say this: The average person can barely name an emotion. Why would they think that they could suddenly talk about the worst thing that’s ever happened to them in their lives?” Watson added.
For public figures, it can be a risk to their career and will, inevitably, mean more media attention.
“Especially in so many public cases of relationship violence and assault, we see survivors not being believed,” Young-Wildes said. “So, if this happened to you, you have to wonder, would it be worth pursuing justice? Would it be worth putting your personal details out there publicly for everyone to know, when you’re not guaranteed relief, or even a fair outcome?”
Public figures who do speak out are challenged with the decision while worrying about things like jeopardizing their job and their reputation, and have to think about the media attention they’ll be getting, along with their family and children, Young-Wildes pointed out.
“When we doubt survivors we are really perpetuating that dangerous culture, and allowing abuse to thrive and silence, hidden behind closed doors,” she said.
Reporting abuse or leaving an abusive relationship is complicated; there are many barriers that keep people from doing so.
Additionally, people may rely on their abuser for shelter, food or money.
For many people, a lack of resources presents a huge barrier for ending a relationship or reporting abuse.
The abuser may be in charge of all of the person’s necessary resources ― providing shelter, paying for their car, medical expenses and more, Henry said.
For someone who doesn’t have an income or doesn’t make enough money, the idea of leaving the person who is supporting you can feel impossible. And it becomes more complicated when kids are involved, Young-Wildes pointed out.
The person may be isolated from their support system.
Many people who are in abusive relationships don’t have a network to turn to for support.
“Isolation is kind of a central component of intimate partner violence, which means that if you are ready to break free, or to reach out for help or to tell someone, you might feel like you have no one to even turn to,” Young-Wildes said.
This may mean a survivor isn’t in contact with their family or friends and does not have a support system they can count on for shelter or even a shoulder to cry on. These factors can make someone feel alone and afraid of moving forward with a breakup or pressing charges on their own, Young-Wildes said.
They also have to deal with red tape and doubts from law enforcement.
According to Watson, disbelief from law enforcement is one of the most common reasons why her clients don’t report abuse.
Watson said folks have told her that they did report the abuse but were met with pause from law enforcement who told them there’s nothing they can do until there’s a significant issue or crime.
“So, really, you have to wait to be harmed in many cases to have anything happen from a law enforcement and a first responder perspective, and that is so demoralizing,” Watson said.
Additionally, it can make people feel trapped in this cycle, leading them to give up, she added.
If you are in an unsafe situation, connect with support organizations.
Watson said it’s important for people in unsafe relationships to connect with local violence response programs.
(If you don’t know your local violence response program, Young-Wildes said the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE should be able to tell you.)
“[You] really want to make sure that you connect with people who are able to do the work of domestic violence awareness and interpersonal partner violence safety without having to then engage with law enforcement right away, unless you are in a completely unsafe situation and your life is at risk, of course, call 911, call the police immediately,” Watson said.
But, if you can plan your safe exit, it’s ideal to get in touch with the organizations who are trained in domestic violence and domestic abuse, Watson said.
“And then once you’ve gotten to a safe place, you can think about, OK, how do I address how this has impacted me? Because ... processing the trauma is not as important as finding safety, and finding professionals to get you to a place of safety physically,” Watson said.
And create a safety plan.
“Safety planning is a really crucial step for anyone experiencing relationship abuse,” said Young-Wildes. “A safety plan is simply a plan to keep yourself and your kids safe.”
It could mean leaving a relationship, but it doesn’t have to. It could also mean avoiding rooms with weapons during arguments or keeping a bag with essentials at a loved one’s house.
Your safety plan will look different from someone else’s, and that is OK. “Each person, [each] situation is going to be unique and different,” Young-Wildes added.
If you fear that a loved one is in an unsafe situation, be a neutral support for them.
It can be hard to know what to do if you suspect a loved one is experiencing abuse. Young-Wildes said this is a common question the folks at Women Against Abuse hear. Her advice?
“The best thing you can possibly do for a loved one is to be a safe, nonjudgmental support,” Young-Wildes said. “Part of the abuse means that they’ve been stripped of their autonomy, their decision-making power, and so telling them what to do is just adding to that.”
What’s more, your loved one knows what’s best and safest for their situation — they’re the one who has been navigating and surviving it, she noted.
“So, what we say is, don’t pressure them to do something. Instead, just listen,” Young-Wildes explained. “It might take multiple conversations over the span of months or even years, and it can be hard to be consistently supportive and open, but that can make all the difference in a person’s journey to safety.”
Being a safe space for your loved one to turn for nonjudgmental and consistent support can really make a huge difference.
It takes courage to report abuse. Doubting reports only makes it harder for future survivors to do so.
In the end, how or when someone reports abuse is no one’s business. And how or when they do it doesn’t make the report any less legitimate. Doubting abuse discourages future survivors from moving forward and creates unnecessary vitriol around the survivor who is already going through a hard time.
“There’s such a pervasive culture of victim blaming and not believing survivors ... doubting reports of abuse is only going to perpetuate that, and discourage victims from reaching out,” Young-Wildes said.
What’s more, Henry said the person being abused faces judgement whether or not they come forward.
“It’s almost like the ruler keeps moving, and it’s not until I think a woman loses her life at the hands of her abuser, that we say, ‘Oh, my God, why didn’t she leave? Why didn’t she find support,’” Henry explained. “But when that person enacts that plan of action in real-time, they get the same kind of pushback. And so there’s really no way to get the public entirely on your side.”
So when someone does report abuse, it’s important to be open and nonjudgmental.
“When you see a survivor who has articulated the wounds, they’ve been able to be open about how they’ve been harmed and damaged and hurt, sometimes irreparably by these abusers ... we should believe them, and at the very least, we should offer them a little bit of compassion and sensitivity to consider how hard it was for them to get here,” Watson said.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Call 1-866-331-9474 or text “loveis” to 22522 for the National Dating Abuse Helpline. Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.