According to current statistics, at some point in your life, you will know someone who is being abused by their partner. This also means that someone you know may actually be an abusive partner: a good friend, family member or co-worker. Once you know or suspect this is happening, it is very hard to know what to do. In many cases, it will not be obvious. They will not just come out and tell you. You will not see bruises or hear fighting. They may even seem to be just fine when you do see them together. If someone gets into a new relationship, changes will seem normal. You may not see your friend as much. Your family member may not coming to events as often as they used to do. Then things will begin to change. They might break dates and make excuses. Your co-worker may miss work or call in sick more frequently. Their partner may start making a majority of the decisions. Your friend may deny any problems or minimize them by saying their partner has been under a lot of stress. You may not know what is going on, but something about it makes you uncomfortable. These may be signs of abuse.
Remember, most abuse is NOT physical. Not all bad behavior in a relationship is abuse. Abusers come in all shapes, all personalities, and all professions. If you are unsure, talk to a domestic violence advocate. They can help you identify what you see and give you some suggestions on what to do to help.
Before you bring up the subject, find out all you can about domestic violence. For more information see the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Encourage your friend to do things with you and with other friends. Encourage them to take part in activities outside of their relationship with their partner.
Help you friend focus on safety and to explore resources in the community. Help them see the pattern in the abuser’s behavior and to figure out ways to be safe during incidents. Remember your friend knows their partner better than you – do not assume you know the abusive partners’ behavior. Your friend is the expert in the relationship.
When someone you know and/or love is being abused, the first thing to remember is that you cannot fix it. Our first reactions are to panic and jump in, start telling them what to do, and what you would do. We urge you to not do any of these things–it will not help your friend. If you are not sure if someone is being abused, the best thing you can do is to learn about intimate partner violence. Read about all the different forms it can take. Talk to a domestic violence advocate about what you are seeing and what resources are available. If you have been abused in your past, this could be especially troubling for you. Seek support for yourself as well.
Having that first conversation and trying to find out if they are indeed being abused by their partner may be challenging. They may deny it. They may be embarrassed. They may get mad at you. All of these things are normal. What is important is how you handle it and what happens after. If someone tells you they are being abused, listen. Believe them. You may be the first person they have ever told. Remember, you cannot make any decisions for your friend but you can help them in any way you can, be supportive, and hear them out. Taking the next step may save someone’s life.
Two important things NOT to do: put-down the abuser and put blame on the person you are worried about. You may be angry at the abuser, but enough focus is already on that person. It is better to spend the time finding out how your friend is doing. Ask them what is going on in their life and how they are being affected. A put-down session is not helpful and you end up spending the entire time talking about the abuser and not helping the person who needs help.
Blaming goes beyond saying the survivor must be doing something wrong to be abused. Firstly, that is not true. It is never their fault. Secondly, blaming does not respect their reasons for staying in the relationship. There are hundreds of reasons why someone would want or need to stay in an abusive relationship, but not one good reason for why they are being abused in the first place.
See the next section for more ideas of how to help, or speak with an advocate.
This is more difficult than it seems. When someone you know is being abused, the most effective thing you can do is to listen to what they are telling you with an open mind and without judgment. They may be confused themselves. Survivors commonly say and think that “no one wants to hear this again” and/or “no one will believe me.” We hear this from just about everyone. It usually takes about 7-10 tries before someone leaves an abusive relationship, so get ready to be patient.
If this is the first conversation you have had with them about the abuse, ask them what they want to do. Doing this reminds them that they have the power to make decisions in their own life. They may answer by saying what they think their abuser wants or what their fears are, but ask them to think about what they want. It may be hard for them, especially if they do not have that freedom in their relationship. In an abusive relationship it can be hard to think outside of day-to-day survival. Being able to verbalize their desires is a big step towards accomplishing them.
If they do not know what they want to do, that is okay. It is okay for them and that has to be okay with you. Tell them that! They may apologize to you or tell you they think they will let you down, but assure them they will not and make sure you mean it. Try not to fill in the gaps for them or tell them they have to leave or do this or that. You have the best of intentions, but it will not enter their heart that way. They will hear it as a failure on their part and they may retreat even further. Just let them know you believe them and offer to help them in whatever way you think you can. They may not be handling it the way you think they should be, but they are the true experts on their situation and ultimately they will know what to do and when to do it. How successful they are depends on the support they have behind them-that is where you come in!
When someone leaves an abusive relationship, sometimes things can get even worse. It can take 7-10 tries for someone to successfully leave an abusive situation. No matter what kind of relationship it is, ending it is always difficult. It is admitting that what you thought your future would be is not going to happen and that is always painful, even if what you actually had was a nightmare.
This is when things get challenging in a whole different way. The cycle of abuse tends to keep going even after the survivor has left the relationship. Any number of things can happen. The abuser may sweeten up, promise to change, and even start to make those changes which can be confusing for the survivor. It can seem very real. The abuser can also go in the opposite direction and become more violent. This can put your friend’s physical and emotional life in real danger. Abusers may go after the survivor’s children, their house, and/or make all kinds of allegations against the person who was abused. Navigating all of the legal issues, social services, and going through the break-up itself is tiring, so this is when your friend needs your support the most. These events can be terrifying for the survivor. Survivors may return to their abuser just because it can be too scary not knowing what the future holds.
As a friend, set your boundaries and only do what you know you can do. Be honest with your friend about your boundaries. Make sure you are comfortable with hearing the same stories over and over again. If this is happening to someone close to you, a lot of stress can enter your life. It is okay, even recommended, to seek support for yourself as well.
You cannot fix your friend’s life. You cannot rescue them and you cannot neglect your own life to take care of them. Ultimately, we all make our own choices. We are all the experts in our own lives. We may not always make the best decisions, but they are our decisions to make.
For many reasons, it is in your friend’s best interest for you to be supportive, but not deeply involved. Confronting the abuser may make things much worse for everyone, including you, and this will not change the abuser. Your friend cannot live on your couch forever and it will be more healing and healthier for them to have their own safe and stress-free space. In a situation where control has been taken from someone, helping them learn how to take that control back on their own terms is far more helpful than doing it for them.
Stay calm and find support for yourself, especially if there has been abuse in your life. Be very mindful of your own safety. Be patient, and remember that this is their story. When you need a break, take a break. You may make mistakes and say some things wrong, but in the end it is up to them to decide what to do with their life.
The above information is also available as a downloadable brochure (PDF): What You Can Do for a Friend Who is Being Abused