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People Who Are Silent in the Face of Abuse Have to Be Accountable, Too

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence or emotional abuse, sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering.

You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

They see themselves as good people. Conflict makes them uncomfortable. They don’t want to get involved. They fear losing friends and family. They wish everyone would just get along. They are the silent complicit, and they are as toxic as the overt abusers they enable.

In some ways, they are worse. They claim to be your friend, your family, your safe person. They claim to care. They may live in your own home. They also occupy every place of commerce, education, worship and leadership. When abuse happens right in front of their face, they pretend not to recognize it. They don’t understand why you are upset. They make lame excuses, often in the form of platitudes. “There are two sides to every story.” “Give him the benefit of the doubt.” “Time heals all wounds.” “Let’s not jump to conclusions.” “Prayer solves everything.”

The silent complicit would much rather believe an easy lie than to admit a hard truth. Some may do this out of laziness: admitting something is wrong means they have to do something about it. However, I suspect that most people are silent out of fear. Fear of change, fear of accountability, fear of admitting their own faults. They would perhaps have to make big, uncomfortable adjustments to their way of life. They may fear confronting their own shame. They may fear confronting others who will lose control and lash out at them. They may have to get authorities involved. They may fear losing relationships, although staying silent about an abuser almost always guarantees a lost relationship with the abused. They may fear retaliation from the abuser. Some of the silent complicit are silent because they actually agree with the abuse. They are covert abusers who back up an overt abuser.

Whatever the motivation, when someone fails to speak up about abuse, they become complicit in the abuse. Silence is a secondary trauma that can cause just as much harm as the primary trauma. Trauma survivors, devastated by an event, may find themselves inadvertently retraumatized by their supposed loved ones who deflect, minimize, deny or stay silent, especially when they are witnesses of the same event. For trauma survivors, a single event with a primary abuser often means sorting out several abusive circumstances from the fallout. One event which is denied or silenced by others quickly escalates into multiple traumas. Trauma survivors are then overwhelmed by the betrayal of those they once believed were the safe ones.

Abuse thrives in silence. Sometimes, all it takes is one brave soul to stand up and say, “this is wrong,” to turn the tide. One person willing to tell the truth becomes a secure foundation for others to step forward in accountability. One person willing to speak up and say what’s true can make the difference, for health over pain, life over death, or even democracy over sedition.

If you find yourself trying to keep the peace by tiptoeing around an abusive situation, plant your feet and speak up. It matters. Staying silent only helps the abusers and manipulators win. Is it potentially unsafe? Will you lose friends and family? Will life-changing decisions need to be made? The bigger the trauma, the more likely the answers will all be “yes.” But I can tell you, as a trauma survivor who has faced all of those things in order to stand in her own truth, it’s worth it. Let’s heed the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who knew a thing or two about abuse and injustice, when he said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

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