real life

'Please listen better.' When I told my friend my ex abused me, she didn't believe me.

This post deals with domestic abuse and could be triggering for some readers.

This weekend, four years since my abusive ex-husband and I separated, I attended an event he was also at. The host, an old friend of mine, hadn't thought to tell me he'd be there. I had no opportunity to decline the invitation or to prepare myself mentally for the encounter.

Watch: Coercive control is a deliberate pattern of abuse. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia.

When I saw him, I left immediately because my heart started pumping so hard I thought I was having a heart attack and felt like I was going to pass out. After some time sitting in the car talking to my boyfriend and bestie on the phone, I went back in for an hour just to show myself I could.

Reflecting on all that later, here's what I learned:

  • Despite thinking I'd dealt with my fear, my body recognised danger and went into a fight/flight response. I trusted that response at the moment but am pleased I thought through the situation logically.
  • I now know my friend still doesn’t believe what happened to me. She never did.
  • Some friends are best let go.

After my ex-husband and I separated, a counsellor helped me to understand what had been happening to me. When she first referred to it as 'emotional abuse', I was shocked. After a while, I spoke about it but some friends didn't believe me. They couldn't accept my ex as the person I was describing and found it easier to nullify and deny my lived experience.

When a victim of emotional abuse finally musters the courage to speak out about what's happened to them, please do that person the honour of believing them. That is the moment people move from being a victim to a survivor. Choosing not to believe victims of abuse is a form of wilful blindness, defined as intentionally choosing to keep yourself unaware of the facts or not acknowledging what you know as truth. I now know my experience isn't uncommon, but it felt like betrayal and hurt like hell.

After that weekend, I wanted to write about that form of wilful blindness, because it's just so important that people believe survivors of emotional abuse.

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Emotional abuse isn't 'black eye obvious'.

Emotional abuse is a pervasive and cruel form of psychological abuse. It's often covert and administered in small, cunning ways over time. The impact is gradual, not 'black-eye obvious'; but destructive, nonetheless. This was my experience in case it helps others recognise what is going on:

  • He was most happy when I was the butt of his jokes or being made to feel small.
  • He constantly gaslit me, turning the tables by playing the victim, projecting fault onto me and twisting reality, distorting truth and simply lying so he could shine. His favourite thing was to claim that I was angry at him all the time, causing his sullenness, anger, absence, etc. This is a common play by narcissists, used to deflect from their own bad behaviour.
  • He pretended to have forgotten what actually occurred or denied things happened like agreeing to go out –'You never told me that'. Even when I'd emailed confirming something for his diary, he’d swear he never got it.
  • He would never take responsibility for his mistakes instead deflecting blame onto me.
  • He convinced me I was utterly undesirable – when I was told afterwards by a therapist, "Just because they did not love you, doesn't mean you aren't loveable", I burst into tears.
  • He controlled the conversation – "I'm not talking about this" – and wouldn't.
  • He rarely came out with me unless it was with friends; he chose not to eat with me, preferring to eat every meal in front of the TV.
  • He gave monosyllabic responses to attempts to engage him in conversation. I was not worth speaking to. He came home glued to the phone, laughing and talking to someone, rarely hanging up until dinner was placed in front of him.
  • He started zero affection. Once, as a test, I stopped initiating it too and for three entire weeks there wasn't even a touch. I shocked a counsellor we were seeing at the time when I mentioned this, but my ex just shrugged it off.
  • He deliberately neglected to share important pieces of information with me, like family members health conditions, so I had no opportunity to help until after the fact and therefore appearing to be uncaring.
  • He belittled my successes. When I started a small business, he kept reminding me how small, ignoring its purpose. When I was appointed to a not-for-profit board, he was quick to point out what a waste of my time that role was (it wasn't).
  • He angered quickly when challenged in a manner that scared me, so I rarely did. I kept stroking his ego, as narcissists need. One night during a dinner party when he lied and distorted the truth outrageously to entertain the guests, I corrected him. When the guests all left, he stood over me and menaced, 'Don't you ever, ever, contradict me in public again. Understand?'. I never did it again. And that made people think we were happy. In sync. Nothing could've been further from the truth.
  • He constantly questioned my memory of things, wanting tiny details, so when I didn’t have them, I ignored the entire thing.

I know now that a lot of this comes under the umbrella of gaslighting, which typically happens in an emotionally abusive relationship. Over time, the abuse habitualises and victims can get confused, anxious, isolated and depressed. The signs of being gaslit include:

  • You feel hopeless and joyless.
  • You feel as though you can't do anything right.
  • You are constantly apologising for your partner's behaviour to friends and family.
  • You constantly second-guess yourself.
  • You ask yourself, "Am I too sensitive?" multiple times a day.
  • You often feel confused and even crazy.
  • You're always apologising to your partner.
  • You can't understand why, with so many apparently good things in your life, you still aren't happy.
  • You withhold information from friends and family, so you don't have to explain or make excuses.
  • You know something is wrong, but can never quite express what it is, even to yourself.
  • You start lying to avoid the put downs and reality twists.
  • You have trouble making simple decisions.
  • You know you used to be a different person – more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.
  • You wonder if you are a "good enough" partner.

Listen to The Quicky and find out why people do it and is there a way to fight back against being a victim of a gaslighter? Post continues after podcast.


Adding salt to the wound

For abuse survivors, it's super scary talking about the experience. Taking that vulnerability and putting it out there is so hard for people who've already been weakened. So, what's it like for survivors not to be believed once they've mustered the courage to speak out?

It adds salt to an already very open wound.

Wilful blindness normalises emotional abuse. Saying things like this does not help:

  • "I thought you'd moved on". Just because you can't see it doesn't mean it didn't happen, or that you bounced back.
  • "I didn't know because you said nothing". If the victim says nothing, or doesn't want to talk about what happened, then it didn't happen or they must be lying, right? Really? They probably aren't talking about it because of what happened to them; not because it didn't. But when you've invested your time and your heart in a relationship and family life includes your abuser, it can feel easier or safer to make up excuses for them or downplay the impact of their abusive behaviour, than to call it out. Victims hide a lot.
  • "He'd do nothing violent!". Calling a male friend in a time of crisis, this was actually said to me with a faint, nervous laugh, like I was being silly. To not be believed at that critical time heightened the confusion and pain of that moment. But when we ignore a victim's emotional abuse, we give the abuser a free pass. We allow the abuse to be pushed under the rug. Abuse doesn’t always come with a black eye.

Not taking the victim's side in the name of 'fairness' feels to a victim exactly like taking sides. Even choosing to remain in contact with the perpetrator after the abuse has been revealed, sends a very strong message that;

  • You don't believe the victim
  • The victim's experience is trivial, inconsequential or forgivable
  • The perpetrators behaviour is normal and ethical, or
  • You're choosing the side of the abuser.

Remember, it's one thing not to take sides and another thing entirely to condone abusive behaviour. Your action will trigger the most isolating pain in the victim – you've effectively nullified their feelings.

Why people choose wilful blindness

There are many reasons people filter out what they don't want to believe.

  • It's tough to admit as truth things that question what we admire about our friends.
  • Abusers are often highly skilled at creating a façade. Some abusers can be quite charming on the outside, particularly if they're a narcissist. They're probably pretty good at manipulating people, including you.
  • If he's a narcissist, he's probably great company, the 'life of the party.' Loud and friendly, he probably tells great stories. Most of them aren't true. But who doesn't want to be around that shiny light, right? Most of the stories are distortions, usually with self-glorified bits at the heart. I will never forget when my ex got back from playing baseball in South Australia during my chemotherapy treatment and told four shocked friends around a dinner table about how he had been out dancing each night after pitching balls all day. No awareness of his lack of empathy.
  • Some friends can't cope with the grief that comes with the truth – they are going through their own stuff. A friend whose husband had recently passed away didn't want to know about my trouble, and to this day has never asked me about it. Although she asked a mutual friend if she thought I was making it up.
  • Adult children may also adopt a position of wilful blindness. This is really complicated; they could be very invested in a relationship with the abuser. The abuser is often manipulative and may have convinced the kids that he's a good guy. While adult kids deserve to have a relationship with both parents, victims of emotional abuse need to let adult children choose their own time to deal with the truth of what happened, notwithstanding how hurtful this is.

When someone reveals their emotional abuse

  • Please believe them! This not only supports them but helps loosen the control over them by their abuser by making the abused person understand they're not imaging it all.
  • Don't tell them they're mistaken. This nullifies their experience, and they will clam up. Most have spent a long time being told they are over-dramatic or imagining stuff, so the slightest hint that message is being repeated is hurtful and confusing.
  • Leaving an abusive relationship is difficult and devastating. It can polarize for friends. But while you are aiming for fairness, be open to the fact the victim is likely telling the truth. 

One in four Australian women have experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner. I wrote this to ask you to hear better and be ready to support a friend who comes out to you about abuse. With one hundred thousand other people, mostly women, I marched for justice for abuse survivors in 2021 because I want my fellow Australians to believe survivors.

The author of this story is known to Mamamia but has chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service.

Feature Image: Getty.