Hey healthy mamas!

Welcome to the 36th episode of the Healthy Mom After Divorce Podcast!

Everything shared on this podcast is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be taken as mental health or legal advice. Please contact a mental health professional or legal professional for specific questions related to your situation.

How do you know if someone is safe to talk to?

After leaving my abusive relationship, I remember wanting to make sense of what happened to me and what was continuing to happen. I reached out to people I thought I could trust to share with them my experiences and to get some validation because I was just so lost and confused.

For the most part, my experiences with sharing my story were good but I did discover that there were people in my life that were not allies anymore. And I don’t necessarily mean people who were gathering intel and reporting back to my co-parent but rather people who just didn’t get it.

When I explained some of the things that were happening to me, they just couldn’t grasp the reality of it. So, although I was looking for safe, supportive people to talk to, I quickly learned that I needed be selective if for no other reason than to protect my own mental health.

If you’re like me, when you’re trying to make sense of the chaos you’ve been living in, you really feel like you want to talk to someone like family, friends or coworkers. You want to have a voice, to share, to feel… all things that were likely not allowed or safe to do in your relationship.

I understand that impulse to tell your story and hash it all out to make sense of it. But it’s important to test the waters before fully opening up to someone, even if that someone is a person you previously trusted.

And although this episode will provide my thoughts on how survivors can better protect themselves from opening up to unsafe people, it will also have some insights for people who want to support them but are inadvertently sending the wrong signals.

It’s very important that we all recognize our biases, assumptions and belief systems if we want to live in a society that prioritizes the safety of children. As a culture, we tend to believe the vindictive, vengeful ex-wife story so much faster than the abusive, cruel, coercively controlling ex-husband story.

Survivors, I know you want a voice, to talk about and share what happened to you. But it’s important to recognize that not everyone is safe to talk to. In our compulsion to share with people closest to us, we may miss warning signs that they’re not the safe, supportive people we think they are.

What they might do with the information you give them may range anywhere from full support to using it against you. So, before you share too much, you need to find out where they fall on the spectrum.

So the million-dollar question is: how you tell if someone is safe to talk to?

You can never be 100% sure but there are things you can do and pay attention to that can help and that’s what I am going to talk about today.

#1. Start from the assumption that everyone has the capacity to be unsafe.

We are all human. We all have a lifetime of experiences, childhoods, biases and belief systems. No matter how someone presents on the outside, there is so much going on under the surface and they do have the capacity to be unsafe for you.

And unsafe can range from simply being disinterested to dismissive and invalidating to physically putting you at risk by repeating what you tell them to your ex-partner.

As empaths and trustworthy people, we naturally see the best in others and give them the benefit of the doubt. And those are good qualities but only if they don’t put us at risk for further harm.

Yes, most people are inherently good but there are lots that aren’t.

And frankly, even the nicest, most wonderful people have the capacity to do things we never dreamed of if the conditions are right.

So how do you know if you’re talking to a safe person or not? Well, that brings me to my second point.

#2. You take it slow.

It just takes time.

Even if you’ve known this person for years like ex-in-laws, friends, family, don’t rush to spill all the details of what happened in your marriage or what you’re dealing with now.

You will have people close to you that you’re confident will be supportive and safe for you but that doesn’t mean you still don’t take it slow.

You can bet every penny you have that if you’re dealing with a coercive controller in an ex-partner, they’re going to reach out to your closest family members and friends in an attempt to turn them against you, get information or deter them from supporting you.

Remember coercive controllers are masters at manipulation through isolation, fear, gaslighting, lying… so turning your closest family and friends against you, or even just make them afraid to help you, is a very good way to isolate you beyond your relationship when you’re out from under their direct control.

Of course, the people truly on your team will not turn on you, but you need to wait to be sure. As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding.

So take your time. Even people who felt safe before may not be safe after so go slow, baby steps and keep those cards close to your chest until you’re sure.

#3. Listen to their responses to the things you do tell them.

Their responses will be your biggest clues as to whether they’re someone you can trust or not.

Their responses may indicate any number of things like perhaps they don’t have the emotional capacity to be supportive right now or maybe they have inherent biases that favour your ex-partner. Either way, the experience will be invalidating and unhelpful.

Or, if they do have malicious intent, they may set you up to share details which can be used as intel against you.

So I’m going to go through some common red-flag responses that I’ve heard survivors report hearing after sharing what they’re going through.

If you start hearing some of these things, I’m not saying this person is evil and out to get you. They’re just things to pay attention to and perhaps re-evaluate that particular relationship and decide to either continue and take it slow or cut and run.

Now, for those listeners who are supporting someone who’s out of an abusive relationship and co-parenting with this person, you may recognize some of these. And that’s ok.

Lots of times we say things that we think are supportive but, in reality, they’re invalidating and damaging. So thank you for taking the time to listen and being part of the army fighting cultural and societal assumptions and biases around abuse.

(i) “Geez, you two always seemed like the perfect couple.”

Always a classic and, frankly, makes me want to vomit.

I’m not sure what message this is supposed to send. I don’t generally believe it’s intended to be hurtful, but it is. To me, it sounds like this person is processing their surprise that this relationship was not what it appeared to be on the outside. But it’s not helpful.

To supporters: This is not the time to process that shock. Keep it to yourself because it does not make a survivor feel seen or heard.

What it does do, though, is confirm to them once again that no one really saw who their partner was and what they were doing. At a time when a survivor is reaching out for lifelines, it’s time to believe them, not express that you can’t believe it.

To survivors: This person may be safe, but proceed with caution. Even if they do ultimately believe you, they may only have space for their reality and perceptions and may not be capable of offering the support you need.

(ii) “He/She/They just doesn’t seem like the type.”

This one may be my most hated on the list.

This ‘not the type’ nonsense needs to stop. Everyone has the capacity to be ‘the type’.

Do an exercise with me: Take a minute and think about something you’d say “Oh, I would never do that.”

Think of something unthinkable for you. It can even be something cruel and heinous if that’s safe for you to think about, but it doesn’t have to be. Just anything that if someone asked if you’d do, you’d immediately say, “Oh, I would never do that”.

Now ask yourself this, and be honest: What conditions would need to be present for me to be willing to do that very thing?

Maybe to protect your kids or to save your life? Whatever it is, there are conditions that exist that would make any human do unthinkable things, the very things they said they’d never do.

The point in me saying this is what we need to recognize is that anyone is capable of anything. The difference between us and abusers and coercive controllers is that the conditions they need to have met in order to do terrible things are far more common and typical. Their bar is lower, and it’s primarily based on belief systems rooted in superiority and entitlement to do whatever it takes.

To supporters: the point is they are the type. Yes, that person you just saw last week at the park, playing with their kids, that passes the collection plate at church every Sunday is the type. So let’s just stop saying this.

To survivors: tread very carefully here. This person may eventually see the error in their assumptions over time, but they also may really struggle with viewing your ex-partner through that new lens, especially if they continue to see them doing the same things they’ve always done, like pass the collection plate.

If this was me, depending on who I was talking to and how close my prior relationship was with them, there’s a good chance that I’m not giving them any more information and they’re not a safe person for me.

(iii) “Why didn’t you leave sooner if he was doing that?”

Now this one is more likely rooted in ignorance and misinformation around domestic abuse. Society at large is still trying to come to terms with what can and does happen frequently behind closed doors.

For so long, the cultural narrative was ‘what happens between couple stays between them’. It wasn’t appropriate for outsiders to get involved in matters of the heart between a couple.

The problem with that is that is it created the perfect environment and set of conditions for abusers to isolate their adult and child victims.

The reasons why a victim doesn’t leave sooner are numerous. First and foremost, they may not even know they’re being abused. But even if they do, the reasons could be financial, the children, lack of support, fear for their safety, religious views, the list goes on and on.

To supporters: my point is that it’s never as simple as ‘he’s abusing me so I’ll leave’. Trust that this person would have left if they knew they were being groomed, love-bombed, future-faked, and gaslighted early on.

They would have left if they felt safe to. They would have left if they weren’t being manipulated and threatened.

And frankly, maybe they did leave many times before. Survivors of abuse often report having left the relationship more than once before doing it a final time.

So just don’t ask them this question. If they’re standing there telling you what happened to them, they have left or are trying to. So don’t ask them why it wasn’t done sooner. Just ask them how you can help.

To survivors: I think people who say this are often just confused. They’re trying to make sense of a reality they know and a different one you’re sharing now. You could give them a pass on this one the first time but proceed with caution and if they don’t move off of it very quickly, it’s a hard pass.

(iv) “It must be so nice to not have your kids half the time! You get to do whatever you want. I’d love to be free from mine more.”

Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever understand why this one makes the rounds. I think it’s an attempt to help the person going through a divorce and sharing parenting time ‘look at the bright side’ but it’s not helpful.

If this person is sharing parenting time, especially with an abusive co-parent, trust me, not seeing their kids part of the time is not a benefit of the situation.

Nobody has kids to see them half the time.

Now I’m not shaming anyone for enjoying the time they have to themselves. In fact, I say all the time that it’s ok to have fun when your kids aren’t around. It’s so easy to feel guilty but we really shouldn’t.

But that’s not what’s happening here.

To supporters: when someone shares how hard this is on them, especially when their kids’ safety is in question, please do not tell them the upside is all their free time. I can you, that free time is probably filled with fear and anxiety and worry.

Instead, listen with an empathetic ear, validate how hard this must be on them, follow their lead on what they want to do if they’re with you during that time and, again, ask how you can help.

To survivors: I think people who say this often mean well, it’s just insensitive. Consider giving them a second chance if they are someone you’re close with and feel that they are safe.

But if you continually walk away feeling like crap after talking to them, it may be time to strike them off the safe list.

(v) “I never thought someone like you would end up in a situation like that.”

Last on my list is one that hits very hard. And the reason it’s so damaging is because it hits a survivor in a sore spot they may already have.

When someone finally sees that what’s been happening to them is abuse, there’s often this overwhelming feeling of ‘How did I get into this? How did I miss the signs?’.

Maybe they see themselves as smart, capable, strong, educated, feminist… all attributes that we might associate with someone who could avoid an abusive relationship.

But it just doesn’t work like that.

Honestly, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard stories of the most ‘unlikely’ people to get into abusive relationships. Counsellors, therapists, social workers, phds, people who work in the mental health field, story after story of them reporting having missed the signs and ending up in a terribly abusive relationship for years and decades.

To supporters: I know this may sound like a supportive thing to say but try to avoid it. This survivor is probably already asking themselves the same question and feeling a ton of shame around it. It really can happen to anyone so let’s work to let go of what a victim should look like just we need to let go of what an abuser should look like.

To survivors: this person is likely trying to be supportive and make sense of what they’re hearing. They think highly of you, respect you, which is probably why it’s so shocking to them.

Just like the last one, you could consider giving them a pass on this one the first time, especially if this person is important to you. But if it continues, they really might not be the person you think they are.

Remember, many of these responses are not being said with malicious intent, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t hurtful, invalidating and entirely unhelpful.

Survivors, I’m not saying live in suspicion and fear, just take your time so you can protect your peace.

That said, there are people in your life that you thought were safe that actually aren’t. I know it’s hard, but it’s really important that you take the time you need to make sure before opening up too much about what happened to you.

If you’re in a financial position to do so, consider seeing a trauma-informed counsellor or therapist. And even with them, take it slow. You don’t have to open up about everything at the first session.

And if after a few sessions you still aren’t feeling comfortable, they might not be right mental health professional for you. And that’s ok. Keep looking.

You can do this. And a silver lining of a massive life change like a divorce is you get a new chance at relationships in your life that are healthy and supportive.

You get to find and build a new tribe.

Chin up and keep moving forward, one step at a time, carefully and with intention. Trust that the people who are safe for you will show themselves if you pay close attention. You get the opportunity to build a new, healthier life for you and your kids and that’s good news because healthy moms raise healthy kids.