On Who to Believe

Cor asked: “how do you go about knowing who to believe, when allegations of abuse come up?”

And I’m mainly posting the link here to pass on to people who read this blog but not that one, but I’m also thinking about the question myself, too.

Any simple maxim you come up with can become something abusers will twist it to their advantage, so I don’t want to try for a clear answer.  Still, there are some factors that I have/would take into account, such as…

  • who made the accusation first, if knowable.
  • like Connie said, what their relative social standing is.  A White cis guy seems more capable of abusing a Black trans woman than the other way around, for instance.  But when privileges are mixed, this angle isn’t as helpful — as was the case with the guy who emotionally ran me into the ground last summer.  He’s Asian and I’m White, so I didn’t think things were stacked enough in his favor for him to have power over me.  Yeah, that turned out to be a bad assumption.
  • expression of certainty?  This one is even more tricky, since I don’t want to undermine rightful confidence, but in general abusers seem much more self-assured in their accounts of what happened.  But that’s not necessarily a constant, either, and abusers can be manipulative enough to feign victimhood, so.  It’s tricky.

I guess the last thing I’d say is that reading Lundy Bancroft’s book on abuser mentalities really improved my understanding of all this, and I think that might be helpful in sorting out these situations.  There are some sections of the book that I think could have been handled better (re: kink and porn stuff, which get a brief mention) but overall it seems like a good resource.  Also I’m pretty sure you can find a full pdf of it online.


20 responses to “On Who to Believe

  • luvtheheaven

    In general, if both people claiming that the other is abusive are coming to you with the claim, what’s the harm in believing them and giving them the benefit of the doubt as you hear them out, find out details, are there for them? Do it one person at a time. Don’t say “I’m not picking sides” because both people will feel like you’re not believing them. Pick the side of the person you’re talking to. This isn’t a “the abuser is innocent until proven guilty” court of law situation, because the consequence for believing someone is abusive is less extreme than prison. Perhaps put yourself in situations where you might be able to witness the abuse, firsthand, as well. Invite them to dinner. See how they act toward each other. Which person is actually abusive often will become clear if you spend time witnessing how they both act in each other’s presence. It’s not a foolproof method, but nothing is.

    There is a lot wrong with Lundy Bancroft’s book, because he writes it from the POV of “woman being abused by man” 95% of the time, no wiggle room, citing sexism as a core reason for most abuse. He considers pretty much only men who abuse their female romantic partners but don’t abuse their/her children, so their children are only victims in the sense of being witnesses, and people being abused by parents is to be read about in separate books.

    Yes he does bring up gay and lesbian couples briefly, but the majority of the book ignores them and other same-sex couples, and the main problem I have with it is just that SO MUCH of what he says applies to how my mother abused both my father, how she abused her new boyfriend after him, and how she abused me and my brother, but he acts like these things are a different situation entirely, like his book isn’t relevant to those things. Like the fact that women who are abusive are more likely to be diagnosably mentally ill than the men means this book doesn’t apply to their brand of abuse. BUT THE BOOK DOES. (Besides, sexism in the psychology community might just make it so that abusive women are more likely to be seen as “having something wrong with them” and it is a very complex issue.)

    So much of what he wrote about rings completely true to my experiences, and to what I witnessed and know about my mom toward these romantic partner men in her life, if you only switch the “Why does HE do that?” to “Why does SHE?”.

    As someone inside of it, who understand so much of it so intimately, it’s hard for me to guess how helpful the book would be to non-survivors/non-victims, but my first instinct is that yes, “reading Lundy Bancroft’s book on abuser mentalities… might be helpful in sorting out these situations.” I feel like it’s helped me step outside of my own and see how other abusive situations might play out differently.

    One main problem is that this book specifically, literally says, assuming man/woman romances, “if it’s the woman accusing the man of abuse, it’s almost certain she’s telling the truth,” and “if it’s the man accusing the woman, he’s almost ALWAYS lying” so if both the man and the woman are accusing each other of abuse, it’s tempting to use his guide to help by simply saying “oh it’s the man who’s the abuser” and leave it at that, especially if the man is better adjusted – like conniedeer said in response to that tumblr post, it seems intuitive to “be inclined to believe the person with less social capital (i can’t figure out a better way to word that sorry). Like, the person who is less likely to have people to back them up? Bc it’s more risky for them to make an accusation?”.

    But that’d go against my experience.

    What I’d say is better is to specifically read the chapter about “The Victim” abuser mentality. It gives more insight into exactly how someone who is actually an abuser but is claiming to be a victim will act/think, and some of the differences. Like Coyote hinted at, there is no correct way to be a victim/survivor, and there are no easy answers to this question, but “in general abusers seem much more self-assured in their accounts of what happened” feels pretty accurate, but a victim could also be someone who is confident about what happened, angry, etc, and a manipulative abuser could be acting unsure. It certainly rings true to my experiences that the abuser can be one to both exaggerate and have a clear cut “they abused me and it’s the worst thing ever, I should be pitied” mentality, while almost every abuse survivor I’ve come across at FIRST is more likely to be like “does this count as abuse? They only did ___ which I mean was bad, but they also said they were sorry, or they were good in this other aspect of life, or maybe they weren’t sorry and weren’t good in any other way but at least it could’ve been worse”. This tendency to minimize what happened to oneself or acknowledge how bad it is for other victims seems a lot less likely for an abuser who, as Lundy Bancroft explains, usually has this warped sense of entitlement.

    • Kasey Weird

      I definitely was disappointed with the gendered focus in Lundy’s book as well, (and with pretty much any other otherwise good book on relationship abuse I’ve ever found :/ ), but I do want to add in his defense here that the book is based directly on his practice and his actual experience as a therapist for, specifically, abusive men. Any generalization he did would be speculation from his point of view, and to that extent I understand why his focus was so hyper-narrow. And I think that his lens which acknowledges, recognizes, and names the sexist belief systems that often cause and also help men justify and get away with their behaviours is actually really, really important. It is just unfortunate that he presents that discussion without explicitly considering other dynamics alongside it.

      Maybe someday we will have that book?

      • luvtheheaven

        He specifically has worked with abusive men, yes, so he is very biased toward thinking of women as always being victims and of the variety of ways men can and are abusive, and I acknowledge that, and I also appreiciate how much he’s revealed about what experiences of his own have led to most of his insights… he makes it clear throughout the book. It still frustrates me because his book is *the* go to guide despite being decades old now – nothing better has come along, nothing to consider the way gender dynamics might not always play out the way he says, nothing to explain how sometimes men being in a more powerful position than women in society doesn’t ALWAYS 100% of the time prevent a man from being the one that’s abused by a woman etc.

      • luvtheheaven

        You’re right though. The role sexism can play in men abusing women is an important role to acknowledge, it is true.

        (You’re also right that pretty much every other book on abuse is gendered in this way. The gendered thing is so frustrating, for me personally. There are even some books about mothers abusing daughters that ignore the potential for sons to be victims. I mean come on. WHY people? Why are the only books that have been written like this when it comes to gender? I look forward to the day when non-binary genders are acknowledged in books like these, but not only that – when male victims of female abusers at the very least get acknowledged, at all, in a reputable book.)

  • epochryphal

    It’s tricky, because I’m very worried about doubting a survivor who has come to be Certain and Firm (probably after a long quest of uncertainty – but then again, this isn’t a linear path everyone traverses).

    There’s a lot going into my asking this which I’ve witnessed/been part of:
    1. When it’s two prominent community figures, and seems to turn into a popularity war;
    2. When it’s two close friends/partners, who DO want you to choose a side;
    3. When you’ve believed someone’s allegations, but later realize they were abusing you;
    4. When you send/receive an anon/private message about “um, i see you reblogged so-and-so, who actually abused me/my friend, and you asked for followers/mutuals to let you know if you reblogged from someone hurtful, so yeah.”

    That’s about the order from least to most recent that these have come up for me.

    Specifically there’s a popular internet blogger who abused my partner, and how do I address that? How do I make myself believable? And avoid crossing my partner’s boundaries (which I think I’m doing well on)?

    And what if my ex who abused me shows up in my spaces again? How do I make myself credible. About mine and my dear people’s experiences. And also not perpetuate exile culture? Or get into callout wars? But not feel powerless unable to comment? I want to tell the people I follow yknow.

    Especially hard when we’re all marginalized in pretty darn similar ways, and they’re the ones who’ve always called others abusive, including me.

    *throws up hands*

  • epochryphal

    Oh — right, andddd it’s symptomatic of having BEEN abused, to pick up traits that look abusive. Like I started getting so desperate about my ex’s parceled attention that I checked his text messages – red flag on me, right? But that was after years of crisis/honeymoon cycles and as everything was crashing and he was distancing while promising later, and. Ack.

    • luvtheheaven

      I think it’s really complicated and obviously there are no easy answers. I’m sorry you have to deal with so many of these types of situations.

      In general, people should be believed when they are accusing someone of abuse, but if both people are accusing each other, it becomes so much harder for a third party to know what to do. “When you’ve believed someone’s allegations, but later realize they were abusing you” – two options – someone could’ve been abused and still be abusive, OR they could’ve been lying (or mistaken) all along, the latter option (their allegations were false all along) seeming more likely if they are now accusing you of abuse and you know what abuse is and know you didn’t do that to them.

      You can tell people “you know what, I used to believe they were an abuser, but I don’t anymore, and here’s why” and the third party can take from that what they will…

    • Elizabeth

      Omg, I so hear you on this one. Like, I don’t want to get into any details about the similar situations I/friends have been in, but really… when it gets to the point where you really feel so unsafe and can’t even figure out if you’re being abused, sometimes doing things like checking their text messages might be the only way you can come up with to try to figure it out. But then that can be used against you as “look, [she’s] abusing me!” It’s really, really hard when it’s a psychological game like that. Even harder when it’s sort of a peripheral situation. Like, maybe one person you’re not even directly involved with is trying to manipulate someone who is closer to you into seeing you as abusive. Trying to isolate you from each other to target both of you in different ways. That’s something I’ve seen happen too, although I don’t mean to imply that must be what’s going on here.

      What could be useful is to watch how closely each person’s story resembles stereotypes. There was a study (although I don’t recall specifically what it was called atm—if you want me to look it up again let me know) that determined that the few people who actually do bring false rape charges tend to VERY strongly stick to the stereotypical “model victim” type of story. I think that’s probably extensible to most other types of situations with fraudulent accusations of abuse. Really pay close attention to who has control of the conversation if you can, and how they frame it. If they’re specifically trying to play into stereotypes for sympathy, that would be a big red flag. Although, also keep in mind that the most masterful psychological abusers will tailor their approach to whatever it is you expect to see, so maybe they would try to play into that instead of general stereotypes.

      Other than that… well, you may already know this, but for the benefit of everyone reading, I think it’s useful to keep in mind how trauma affects the brain and how that might affect their memory of the details. This article gives a pretty good rundown. I think I saw another article about it that was even better a while ago, but I can’t remember where I saw it now…

      • epochryphal

        Thanks – it’s really helpful to hear again, and hear this resonates with folks. Mindgames, ugh.

        Right now all I have is my wobbly gut, which is working okay in terms of “hmmmm I feel weird about this person after I have time apart to process, should probably avoid them.” Hard though, I was trained out of that discernment for so long. And of course it’s fallible which is scary. (It was extra scary when I was institutionalized bc ptsd stuff, and couldn’t leave, and there was someone who prompted that feeling. Aaaahhhhhhh.)

        The most immediate one for me is, how do I “prove” to people who only know me loosely, that hey um that person whose work you’re promoting, has hurt someone very close to me and denied it. Like “receipts” are scary and fakeable, and not having them feels fake, and probably just ignoring their prescence would be easiest but since it wasn’t ME (and I know multiple people abused by this person) I feel more able, and obliged, to say something.

        (And I recently did, to someone I greatly respect, and was asked to come off anon to be more believable, which ok, and then we both went yeah how do we ever decide/navigate this when you don’t know me. And since then I’ve felt some internal pressure to be, Not Problematic, to be Believable without Controversial Opinions That Might Sneakily Enable Abuse, which the whole criticizing of “abuser” noun feels vulnerable to me.)

        /Blahhh thanks Coyote for picking this up and porting it to a safer space with more discussion (that’s also away from ex’s bff who won’t unfollow my tumblr and prob knows my wordpress).

        • Elizabeth

          Yeah, seriously, ughhh, the mindgames are so awful. I’m so sorry to hear that you and the people close to you are having to deal with them right now. I hope it gets resolved in the safest, gentlest way possible for all of you.

          And also, omg, that situation with being institutionalized sounds so, so awful. I’m so glad you’re out of that now! And so sorry that you had to go through it. :( I can only imagine.

          You’re doing so much better on discernment, I can tell just from reading your comment! I know how hard that is, and how scary it is to know it’s fallible. But, look! Even after all that you’ve gone through, you still have it, and it’s getting stronger! Take pride in that. I think your intuition is right on about this person. And I know, it’s so hard to trust it. But yes, definitely, if you feel weird about someone after some processing time, trust that feeling. Even if a person is not doing anything you can clearly tell is abusive, and even if you can’t explain that feeling to anyone, you still have the right to set a personal boundary based on that “this is weird” gut feeling. Something is certainly not right here. Even if you can’t define what that is, it’s completely okay to listen to it. Someone might come along and try to tell you that you’re doing something wrong to avoid that person, but you’re not. There’s nothing wrong with that at all.

          I wish I could help more with credibility. I feel that threat of not being considered credible so, so often too. And I mean… the fact is, there are always going to be some people who won’t believe abuse is going on. People are so motivated not to believe, and so often caught in the grooming process themselves, that they just can’t. It’s not really even about you—it’s just that they’re not in a place to hear you right now, and may be looking for excuses not to listen. But what I can tell you is, a lot of times people will be resistant at first, but then reconsider and realize that what you’re saying is true. I think providing people with some links that talk about the grooming process, cycle of abuse, neurobiology of trauma, and the way that people tend to disbelieve/discredit survivors might help them break out of that. It probably won’t convince them 100% or right away, but… I dunno, it seems to help to give people information and let them judge for themselves. There’s always the possibility that manipulative people will still try to twist those resources to their advantage, but maybe making them aware that THAT is a thing too could help? I’m thinking specifically of something like the post on disingenuous support I wrote a while back. Some of the links in there might help?

          I also hear you re: abusers, abusive patterns not single acts, not seeing abusive people as monsters… all of that from your comment below. You may feel muddled, but your point is coming through loud & clear to me. I totally get it. And oh man, that internal pressure to not be controversial, etc. It’s a doozy. But I think you’re right on with those controversial opinions. And maybe it will take a really, really long time… but I think they will eventually become less controversial, and more accepted. If it doesn’t feel safe to voice them right now, that’s okay. You don’t have to. But just know this: I think that’s another instance of your discernment in action, and it’s right on. Actually, it’s sort of a double instance of it, since your opinions come from your discernment, and so does your sense of how others will react to them. And they’re both correct.

          Also echoing the thanks to Coyote for providing a safer place to discuss! That’s so important. And since it’s relevant, I want to let you know I’ve been working on a way provide a safe place for survivors to have private discussions, where you could have full control of who gets to see it. If you really need it right now, I can get it ready sooner.

          • epochryphal

            Elizabeth…you are so amazing. Every time you respond to me I am floored with how detailed and compassionate and helpful you are. I am so incredibly grateful.

            Time is a funny thing, as is processing, and I dunno. I just finally blocked a bunch of people, and am apprehensive that they’ll try to re-find me in more public spaces. I also do want to help you and Queenie with your amazing projects, but currently am needing to work after doing too much unpaid work for Icarus (which I’m interested in tying to your work, actually).

            All that to say, vast outpouring of appreciation, no rush but much anticipation, and you/your words percolate in my thoughts often.

          • Elizabeth

            I’m glad my responses have helped! <3 I feel like I go overboard on detail sometimes and maybe overwhelm people with it, haha. It's good to know it's still helpful, even if it's a lot to take in.

            You won't have to wait too long now, we're pretty much ready to go as soon as we take care of one more thing. Which is super exciting!

            You take care of yourself and don't worry about doing stuff for us until you're ready. :) And don't feel bad about blocking people—it's a necessary step, I think. I've had to do the same, and I totally understand the apprehension. I've found that most of the time people might get offended and make some passive-aggressive posts, but they don't usually make too much effort to find you again, for whatever that's worth. Even if they do… You don't owe them anything. You're just doing what's best for you.

          • Coyote

            I’ve been busy for a few days now and y’all don’t know how nice it is to come back to a comment section full of people helping and appreciating each other. Man.

            <3 to you all

  • Captain Heartless

    I’m really uncertain about any of this, but maybe my initial thoughts will be helpful for something:

    Part of the problem may be the tendency to try and sort things in to “abuser”/”abused”. It might be more proper to say a certain activity or type of behavior is abusive or not? And also to understand that everyone will, to some extent, show bad tendencies, so you if you do have a binary mentality where everyone is an abuser of not, an abuser will just use minor, not abusive in context but still scary, behavior to make the other person appear as if they are an abuser. Likewise, some of the most abusive people I’ve met were also themselves abused.

    I’d also add that, looking instead at specific activities, I’d just interact with each person individually and conditionally take their word for things- basically validating both stories, for each person, pretty much saying “yes, acting in that way is wrong”. I feel like my experience has been while doing that it eventually shows when someone is abusive, albeit usually in subtle ways (and this may only be for me- I suspect I’ve become very sensitive to people who seem to see social interactions as a competition to try and conquer and rule people, and of course there’s always the possibility of a more sophisticated abuser). And if two people are calling each other abusive, they probably shouldn’t be interacting with each other anyways, so it’s easier to avoid a situation where you have to interact with both at the same time.

    • luvtheheaven

      I think you make a lot of great points, Captain Heartless.

    • Coyote

      “Part of the problem may be the tendency to try and sort things in to ‘abuser’/’abused’. It might be more proper to say a certain activity or type of behavior is abusive or not? And also to understand that everyone will, to some extent, show bad tendencies,”

      Um. Well, while I’m generally supportive of moving morality frameworks away from labeling people to labeling behaviors, I’m hesitant to entirely isolate abuse in single acts, since I don’t think of “being abusive” as being the same thing as bad tendencies or an individual behavior. It’s the exploitation of a power dynamic; it’s a relationship, an atmosphere. So, while avoiding the word “abuser” could be helpful for some, I’m… not sure about the rest of this.

      • epochryphal

        Mm. I think, not so much single acts, but patterns of behavior, as abusive. And yes, away from reifying “abuser” into monster permanent identifiable zero redemption noun. And much more about receptiveness to feedback and efforts to change, than it ever is in these convos. (Bonus convolution: I have a good friend who identifies as having been abusive and working on it, and intersects it with but doesn’t excuse it by their multiple mental illnesses.)

        As for exploiting power dynamics–I feel like sometimes ’tis the very creation of them? Like, so much can be a power dynamic, that didn’t have to be. And it can be exploiting guilt about privilege (my people were younger than me), or things rarely considered (they were still more sexually experienced than me).

        I also wrestle with the distinctions versus dysfunctional, toxic, incompatible. For awhile my old therapist was very firm about the “buzzwordiness of abuse” and degrees of fucked up and intent. Nowadays I’m parsing those words as gaslighting and unhelpful. But also…ugh, I dunno, I feel so muddled.

    • Elizabeth

      Part of the problem may be the tendency to try and sort things in to “abuser”/”abused”.

      I think I might understand what you’re trying to get at here, but maybe shifting this away from the words abuser/abused might help elucidate that dynamic somewhat. Let’s say instead, that “part of the problem may be the tendency to try and sort things into villain / victim.”

      I want to put a caveat here that I’m relying on some terminology that I don’t fully agree with, and that tends to be really difficult to tell apart from victim-blaming. There’s a tendency for people to see “victim” in this context as a helpless “damsel-in-distress” and that’s BS, and super sexist as well. They say it’s not supposed to refer to genuinely victimized people (or real rescuers). But I think choosing “victim” for this context has been a hell of a bad choice and really harmed survivors with anti-victim rhetoric, but that’s how people talk about this stuff, so.

      But, okay. Here’s what I see happening a lot: person A comes to you and wants you to see themself as a victim/damsel-in-distress in need of rescuing, and construes person B as an incorrigible villain/monster. Person B has been abused in the past and is dealing with PTSD, and has serious symptoms like self-harm or suicidal ideation. Person A then tries to convince you (and A may genuinely be convinced) that Person B’s real feelings/symptoms are just manipulative guilt-tripping. They construe minor statements that Person B says and then retracts as passive-aggressive and manipulative, and their symptoms as threats or ways to “make” you give them attention. Person B might fight this by pointing out (rightly) that they’re actually the victim in this situation and Person A is a villain, but that might play right into Person A’s hands, because A has already framed the situation as being one where you have to sort them both as either victim/damsel or villain/monster. (And both people are looking to you to fill the “hero” role, and pick one side to save.)

      Is that the kind of thing you meant to refer to with that statement?

      This kind of framing is called the Drama Triangle. (Drama as in storytelling/narrative.) But nobody is 100% a villain, victim, or hero. People switch roles all the time. And it can be extremely difficult to tell whether someone genuinely thinks of themself as one of those three or not. Technically according to this theory, if they’re aware of this dynamic, then they’re not “playing the game,” but using it as a strategy to manipulate/abuse. And if they’re not aware, then they’re unconsciously playing this game, and they think they’re right—which may still mean they’re being abusive, just that they don’t know they’re doing it.

      Sometimes this doesn’t rise to the level of being considered abuse, it’s just mildly manipulative. And yeah, everyone has these traits to some extent. But sometimes, like you said, people will just exploit this mentality (“binary mentality”—but I think more accurately it’s a triadic mentality) to harm—with or without actually understanding that’s what they’re doing. The harm is still being done. Being aware of this script/pattern and resisting it is important to avoid that happening.

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