Basic Tips To Write Better Abuse Victims & Abuse Situations
Abuse is a horrible fact of life, and it takes many forms. Unfortunately, it's often misunderstood and handled badly in fiction. Here are some basic tips and pointers to keep in mind if you plan to involve this sort of thing in a story or character backstory.
Abuse often starts out small and gradually gets bigger.
If abusers started off new relationships at their prime levels of nastiness, they'd drive away just about everyone at first go. But by starting small, they can progressively desensitize victims to physical and/or emotional abuse, while the victim simultaneously becomes more and more invested in the relationship - so by the time the abuse is in full swing, cutting loose may be very difficult - if not next to impossible.
In some cases, the abuser escalates because the abuser discovers that xe can exert control over the other person and finds it enjoyable or rewarding to do so. The abuser's behavior will worsen upon finding out that xe can get away with more and more, while the abused might be too afraid of xir own safety or too afraid of the consequences of making waves (starting a fight, "ruining" the relationship, etc.) to speak up.
Victims are often reluctant to leave because they have a lot invested into their abusive situations.
Leaving the abuser/abusers could mean leaving behind friends, family, and even children. It could mean being without a source of income or even a home. Depending on how much and how long the victim has been in the situation, it could mean leaving behind xir entire life. And if the abuser has isolated the victim from others, then the victim may have no place to go or anyone else to rely on.
If the abuse comes from a cult/religious group, the victim may believe that leaving the group would mean losing salvation (or whatever metaphysical prize the group offers).
Some victims fail to leave because they think the abuse is normal.
Those who have grown up in abusive environments may see abusive behavior as perfectly fair and normal. Depending on the level of isolation the abused people experienced, it may have never even occurred to them that there could be any other way to do things.
Brainwashing is half the game (at least).
From abusive spouses to abusive religions, brainwashing plays a huge role in abuse. Abusers frequently wear down peoples' sense of worth and make them believe that they are utterly helpless without the gracious care of the abuser/abusers. ("You think anyone would want you? Without me, you'd be dead in a gutter!" or, "You wouldn't last a week out there in the world!") If the abuse has religious overtones, the victim may have been taught that leaving would be a mortal sin. ("What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder!") Also, abusers may put victims through guilt-trips, making them believe that they would be horrible and ungrateful people for ever leaving. ("How could you even think of doing something like that to me, after all I've done to you?")
Another brainwashing technique some abusers employ is to put their victims into double-binds - IE, no matter what choices they make or what answers they give, they'll always be "wrong." This results in the victims never trusting their own judgment for anything because they come to learn that no matter what they do, they're going to be wrong.
Similarly, some abusers will play head-games with their victims by pointing out nonexistant faults and mistakes. If this goes on long enough, victims may start to question their own sanity and competence until they no longer trust themselves. This technique is known as gaslighting.
There are often periods (sometimes long ones) everything seems normal, even wonderful.
After hurting a victim, an abuser might go to all effort to "make up" for it, such as by treating the victim with lavish gifts, fun experiences, or "make-up sex." This so-called "honeymoon period" tends to reinforce in the victim's mind that the abuser really does care and really can't be all that bad deep down inside. In fact, knowing that these good times will happen can be part of what keeps a victim hooked.
And on the flip side of the coin, many abusers behave themselves just fine and act like decent, reasonable people most of the time - that is, up until the point where things don't go their way. Victims might just learn to make sure they always go along with what their abusers want and to try to do everything they can to make sure things are always going how their abusers want. They may also learn to see it as their own faults when their abusers get angry with them - after all, they're such good people most of the time, the problem must be with themselves, right?
Many victims rationalize abusive behavior away.
There are the methods mentioned above - "If this person was really so bad, why spend all that money on that romantic evening just for us?" and "Well, this person is so nice and sweet most of the time, the reaction clearly must have been my fault. I just needed to mind my own behavior better." (Which is actually counterproductive, because it just rewards the abuser's bad behavior.) It can be very difficult for someone to come to realize that just because a person seems nice some of the time doesn't actually mean that person has a heart of gold that can be brought out with patient love and care.
Victims may also rationalize abusive behavior by deciding that the abuse is acceptable because the abuser just does it out of love for the victim - and in some cases, the abuser believes the same thing. ("It's okay if I forbid her from seeing her old boyfriends because I love her so much, I couldn't bear the thoughts of someone taking her away from me!") Unfortunately for the abuser, intent does not not matter - abuse is abuse, period.
Abusers often believe that their behavior is inconsequential to their victims... or even necessary.
When they say things like these...
- "It wasn't that bad!"
- "You're too sensitive!"
- "You think I'm bad? You've never met a real abuser!"
- "I'm only doing this for your own good!"
- "No, I'm not letting you do this. You're in no condition to make that kind of decision right now!"
- "I have to hit you. It's the only way you'll learn!"
Most manipulative abusers are not evil geniuses.
One might imagine that most manipulative abusers are essentially evil geniuses who have worked out to a fine science how to play their victims however they want and gleefully choose every action they take with calculated precision. In reality, most of them are people of around average intelligence who have found out that doing certain things makes certain people give them what they want. So, when they don't get that, they do more of whatever it is that's gotten them their way in the past - be it pouting, guilt-tripping, pointing out how they've been wronged (or think they have been wronged), threatening to leave, saying they'll hurt themselves, or something else.
Victims are frequently blamed by the abuser's friends and family.
Many abusers are very good at putting on a good public face - in front of other people, they can seem like warm, caring, friendly people. Sometimes, they strategically lie to others to create a narrative that paints themselves as good people and their victims as unfair, dishonest, or malicious. And then there's sometimes just good old ingroup protectiveness instinct.
So very often, friends and family just know the abuser is a great person and would never do anything like that, so it must be the victim's fault - the victim must have done something to provoke the abuser, or wasn't doing xir spousal duties, or just wasn't Godly enough.
Nothing will fix the victim's trauma overnight.
Recovery takes time, and plenty of it - and for some, recovery is never complete. Contrary to what some seem to think, a dose of good lovin' isn't going to make it all better. In fact, if the abuse involved physical contact in any way, then suddenly making physical contact with the victim is actually likely to make it worse as there's a good chance it will trigger a full-blown panic attack, or even a dysthemic state. (It's potentially possible for victims to become comfortable with physical contact again, but this would most likely take time and involve gradually working themselves up to it over time - EG, getting used to small touches at first, and gradually working up as the fear response wanes.)
Furthermore, when people are triggered by something that reminds them of the abuse in question, they are essentially snapped back to the despair, hopelessness, and fear they felt when the actual abuse was going on. Again, this can sometimes be lessened over time, but it does take time... and very often, it never goes away entirely.
The escape is only the beginning.
Depending on the situation, victims may have to deal with any of the following, plus more:
- Fighting court battles over custody, property, etc.
- Dealing with PTSD/trauma-related issues and anxieties, which include worrying that their abusers will come to further harm them, or being afraid that they'll be similarly harmed by other people they meet. (People who remind them of their abusers can provoke an involuntary fear response for a long while.)
- Dealing with friends/relatives who think they should go back to their abusers.
- Protecting themselves from their abusers.
- Coping with the loss of friends and relatives (particularly if they escaped from a cult, or from a group with cultish dynamics).
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On Writing Mentally Ill & Insane Characters
On Writing Misfits, Loners, & Malcontents
Basic Tips To Write Healthy Relationships
How It Feels To Be A Bigot
Mindsets & Rationales That Lend Well To Villainy
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