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The Difficulty of Making Sense of Public and Private Abuse

Making sense of public abuse is hard and can be even tougher when in private.

Key points

  • It can be difficult to make sense of abuse, whether public or private.
  • Survivors often experience self-blame, shame, and dissociation, complicating understanding.
  • Listener reactions to abuse disclosures can also be challenging for survivors who may be met with disbelief.
Ashish_Choudhary/ Pixabay
Source: Ashish_Choudhary/ Pixabay

When abuse, violence, or other forms of trauma occur, the brain can have a hard time making sense of what is happening. Indeed, survivors commonly describe thinking some version of, "Wait, what is happening?” or “This can’t be happening,” as abuse unfolds and in the aftermath. And yet, when survivors disclose their experiences, listeners sometimes respond with skepticism if survivors express uncertainty about what occurred.

Looking at recent public events can help us appreciate how difficult it can be to make sense of private events. After Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars, many viewers and attendees expressed shock, questioning what happened, even though the event occurred in front of a live audience.

More recently, Luis Rubiales, then the Spanish soccer federation president, lifted and kissed women players—one on the mouth—from the award stage. Earlier, he was seen on film grabbing his crotch on a VIP platform as the Spanish women’s team won.

In the weeks since, countless commentaries, news reports, and social media posts have tried to make sense of his actions, which unfolded in plain view and ricocheted around the globe on instant replay. There was a collective sense of, "Wait, what just happened?" In the days that followed, commentaries and news reports tried to make sense of the events that happened in public view, as Rubiales continued to deny any wrongdoing. This week, Rubiales resigned from his post.

Recognizing how hard it can be to make sense of a public situation—even one that is televised live and available for instant replay—can offer insight into how difficult it can be for survivors to make sense of private abuse as it happens in real time. Let’s take a look.

Real-Time Dynamics

As abuse unfolds, the person being victimized has to make sense of what is happening. In real-time, this can be challenging for a host of reasons. For example, unlike sudden public events that loop on our media feeds, abuse that occurs in private can involve gradual violations of a person’s boundaries that escalate over time.

For example, abusive people may use strategies long before any abusive event occurs, such as isolating victims from others, building trust with them, or slowly increasing sexual or physical contact. Those strategies can make it difficult for the person being victimized to make sense of what is happening, particularly in the context of a trusted relationship.

In my team’s research on betrayal traumas—that is, the abuse perpetrated by someone on whom a victim or survivor depended—we find that self-blame and shame are common, as well as dissociation, all of which can make it difficult to make sense of instances of abuse or violence.

Dynamics Afterward

One thing that further complicates making sense of abuse is the tendency for people who have abused others to deny, attack, or reverse victim-offender (DARVO), as Jennifer Freyd and her colleagues have described.

Where victims and survivors may feel unsure of what transpired during abuse or violence, those who deny mistreating others or perpetrating abuse are often highly confident in their proclamations. One of the original studies of DARVO by Freyd and colleagues found that such tactics were linked with targets blaming themselves for what happened.

Public events offer a window into DARVO dynamics. Consider again the press about Rubiales, which has emphasized his emphatic denials and claims that he is being persecuted.

When there is no instant replay of events that happened in private, a perpetrator’s confidence in defining what did (and didn’t) happen can sow even greater doubt for victims and survivors, who are trying to make sense of the abuse. Furthermore, common myths about abuse and violence can make it challenging for survivors to label or disclose what happened to them.

Why It Matters

There are so many reasons why the dynamics involved in making sense of abuse, violence, and other traumas matter—including for survivors’ healing. After all, shame, self-blame, and dissociation are all linked with psychological suffering in many forms, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

But there’s more. These dynamics matter for how you and I respond when someone discloses abuse. Indeed, when victims and survivors of intimate violence disclose what happened to them, many of these dynamics come into play. Listeners can find themselves reacting with the same sort of, “Wait, what happened?”

In addition, listeners tend to expect survivors to behave and tell their stories in very particular ways: To be emotional, but not too emotional. To tell the story the same way over and over, from start to finish. To be sure of themselves and of what happened.

In her 2019 memoir about surviving sexual assault, Chanel Miller described this as needing to be the perfect victim. All of these expectations are part of myths about sexual assault and other forms of intimate abuse, including the myth that women commonly lie about sexual assault. When survivors' disclosures don't fit listeners' expectations, listeners can be quick to doubt—or to sound like they doubt when they end up asking a version of, "Wait, what happened?"

Recognizing the collective confusion and difficulty that happens when trying to make sense of televised events can offer a new appreciation for how challenging it can be to make sense of abuse, violence, and trauma that happen in private. We can translate that understanding into action in how each of us responds to abuse disclosures, focusing on asking survivors what they need, instead of a version of "Wait, what happened?"

For more, see these three suggestions for responding to sexual assault disclosure and my book, Every 90 Seconds: Our Common Cause Ending Violence against Women.


DePrince, A.P. (2022). Every 90 Seconds: Our Common Cause Ending Violence against Women. New York: Oxford University Press.

Miller, Chanel. 2019. Know My Name: A Memoir. New York: Viking.

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