Victim Blaming: 5 Reasons Why Verbal Abuse is Not Your Fault
Victim blaming typically happens from the outside looking in, but there was a large amount of blaming myself for the verbal abuse aimed at me during my abusive relationship. There were many times when there was a voice inside of me wondering if it was my fault that my boyfriend verbally abused me. This, despite the fact that I knew it shouldn't be happening.
Sometimes the victim-blaming voice was just a whisper in the back of my mind.
Sometimes it was an all-consuming shame melody playing on an endless loop in my tired brain.
Sometimes it was just a simple "you should" sentence that slid its way into my thoughts as the look on someone else's face reflected back to me what they were thinking when there was an "incident."
Why Victims Blame Themselves for Verbal Abuse
Victims can internalize the victim-blaming attitudes present in the larger society. Psychologists say that one reason for victim-blaming is what's called the just-world hypothesis.1
The just-world hypothesis is a cognitive bias that most of us use without realizing it. If we see bad things happening to someone, we tend to believe that they are happening for a reason that can be attributed to something about that person.
In other words, we trace the incident backward to a characteristic about the person we find negative or choice they made as within their control. Because we then judge the person's lifestyle, behavior, or choices, we are able to distance ourselves from relating to what happened to them. We find a causal link between that thing we found problematic about them and the thing that happened to them, instead of viewing the outcome as its own separate event that we can empathize with.
We may say to ourselves things like, "Well, I would never have done what they did" or "No wonder that happened to them. They kind of asked for it." or "What do they expect?" because we have blocked ourselves from putting ourselves in the person's shoes and imagine the situation from our own perspectives instead.
The purpose of the just-world hypothesis is to protect us psychologically from the horrible and overwhelming idea that random and tragic events can strike without warning. You can find its application generally applied in many situations ranging from natural disasters to violent crime.
It serves a cognitive function in that it keeps us from feeling crippling anxiety over a lack of control over our environment. Yet at an extreme without the balance of rational evidence, it can be a hindrance to how we actually protect ourselves at the individual level.
It also doesn't help us do much to solve crises at the societal level, much less, support victims of these crises.
Nevertheless, the just-world hypothesis helps to explain where victim-blaming comes from and why even abuse survivors can blame themselves when they have been victims of abuse. We live in a world that grooms people who are being exploited or abused take the fall for it in their own minds.
Why Verbal Abuse Is Never Your Fault
Abuse is Always the Fault of the Abuser and Says Nothing About Us as Survivors. The only thing it says is that we were once or perhaps are now in a situation with someone who is abusive. It doesn't say anything about our character. Anyone can become a victim of abuse.2 One in three women and one in nine men will be a victim of domestic violence of some form at some time in their lives.3,4 People are groomed by abusers for abuse.
- There is Nothing We Can Do or Could Have Done to Change the Abuser. We may have now or may have had the fantasy that if we could only say or do the right things, our partner would stop verbally abusing us. If he or she only knew how much it hurt us when they did it, they would stop or if we could only fit ourselves into the tiny box they laid out for us, things would finally be perfect.
The problem is, the goal posts keep moving. My boyfriend would get angry if I didn't respond to texts fast enough. Then if I texted him at random times to say hello and make him feel important, he'd accuse me of checking up on him. If we were hanging out with his friends, and I engaged in conversation with them to be friendly, he would later accuse me of flirting with them. Yet if I sat next to him and didn't speak unless spoken to, he'd berate me for making him look bad by not interacting with anyone.
He hated me to be on my phone responding to my friends' texts when we were together because he claimed it was disrespectful to spend our time together that way (although, of course, it was fine for him to do it) In response, I'd leave my phone alone if I got a text. That made him suspicious, however, and he'd question me about why I wasn't picking up my phone to check it in front of him and accuse me of getting texts from men he didn't want me to see. If I shut off my phone completely to avoid an argument, he'd ask me why no one was texting me.
For abusers, your every move is a potential trigger to them signifying that you have your own life, and you are not truly within their control. They keep trying, but they are unaware or don't care that the methods of controlling you at any given time can contradict one another because they are only acting in the moment. It is they, however, who are out of control. They cannot control the emotions stemming from their interpretations of you merely being the agent of your own life, or even one trying to do what will make them happy. They are tormented by their own emotions, so they are endlessly trying to control their external environment and it will never end.
Abuse is Always About Control. Because of their abuse is always about controlling you, any reaction you may have to what they do doesn't make you responsible for their abuse. Abusers, however, will do their best to make you responsible for how they feel and how they act. You're not. If you reacted to their verbal abuse by snapping back at them with something nasty you are no more responsible for their abuse than if you didn't text back fast enough. Again, I'm not suggesting that victims are not responsible for their actions or don't need to reflect on how they may have crossed their own boundaries. There are important differences between how abusers who desire to control their partner and how victims react to that control. Let me say it again. There is nothing we did to cause our own abuse.
We Didn't Deserve It If We Didn't Leave Right Away. Not leaving the situation right away doesn't mean we deserve it. There are many reasons why people don't or can't leave. In fact, absorbing the victim-blaming attitudes around us can sometimes keep us in the relationship longer than it needs to. It can cause us to feel as if it's our fault or that we don't deserve better. It can also isolate us from the support we need. There are also social and financial barriers people may face, such as money or having children with the abuser. We may also have developed a trauma bond to the abuser. Finally, if the abuser is violent, We may fear that the abuser will seriously hurt or try to kill us if we try to leave.
It Doesn't Matter What Happened to Us in the Past. Sometimes, if we have been in more than one abusive relationship, or if we come from an abusive childhood, we may not know what normal relationship patterns look like. Others may also believe that we are seeking out dysfunctional relationships for some reason. They may believe that we have some unhealthy characteristics that we need to resolve and dismiss our painful reality. Whatever has happened to us in the past does not absolve the abuser for abusing us and still doesn't make us responsible for the abuse.
What victim-blaming does is create a dynamic where victims and survivors can beat themselves up over being verbally abused or even deny it's abusive. This is detrimental to leaving and recovering from the relationship.
1. Lerner, M. J., & Miller, D. T., "Just world research and the attribution process: Looking back and ahead." Psychological Bulletin, 85(5), 1978.
3. World Health Organization. "Violence against women." Accessed January 16, 2019.
4. National Coalition Against Domestic VIolence. "Statistics." Accessed January 16, 2019.
Milstead, K. (2019, January 16). Victim Blaming: 5 Reasons Why Verbal Abuse is Not Your Fault, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, December 2 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/verbalabuseinrelationships/2019/1/victim-blaming-5-reasons-why-verbal-abuse-is-not-your-fault