How to Support Someone Who’s Being Abused
Don’t name their experience for them. Give them agency. Let them forge their own path.
TW: this piece includes brief descriptions of abuse, manipulation, and sexual assault
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a fact I was reminded of today when I walked past a church absolutely smothered in shiny purple DV awareness ribbons. I’m usually not one for “awareness” days or months, their sentimentality always rings false to me, but seeing the church ablaze in purple gave me a sudden trauma flashback.
All at once I was transported back to 2010, when I was caught up in an abusive relationship but wasn’t ready to admit it yet. Back then, seeing a such a glaring reminder of my abuse would have sent me spiraling into self-doubt and denial for the rest of the day. The truth of what I was trapped in would have overwhelmed me, and I would have done everything in my power to keep that truth at bay.
Domestic violence is nasty like that; recognizing you’re being mistreated is one of the most upsetting and traumatic parts of it. You almost have to be out of the relationship before you can really let the reality sink in. It took me years after the abuse ended for me to fully articulate how emotionally, psychologically, and sexually terrorized I had been.
When I was in an abusive relationship, I was hostile to any direct reminders of that fact. I avoided friends who put my mistreatment into too sharp of a relief. If anyone was pushy, or tried to pressure me to leave my abuser, I avoided them in order to save face. I obscured signs of my mistreatment, withdrew from the world, and behaved impulsively and self-destructively, so there was always an alternate explanation for why I was so sick and so sad.
No one could have gotten me out any sooner than I chose to get out. It had to happen on my own timeline, as my mind slowly adapted to the fact that I was in trapped in a miserable and terrifying situation. Even once I made up my mind that I wanted to dump my abuser, I needed additional time to plan my escape. People who haven’t been abused don’t always recognize things like this; they want to force their loved one to make a clean break, or they fantasize about “saving” them from the abuser’s clutches.
A forceful, “heroic” approach is self-defeating, and it disrespects the abused person’s agency. If you want to help, really help, you have to find another outlet for your frantic, desperate feelings, and approach the abused person with trust and respect. You have to help them cultivate a sense of inner strength, and affirm their own perceptions. You have to facilitate their decisions, not try to make decisions for them. If you leave them feeling embarrassed, undermined, or judged, they won’t turn to you when the time finally comes to break away.
So, how can you do all this for a loved one who is currently caught in the throes of abuse? Here are my tips, as someone who has been abused, and has supported other abused people:
Listen without Judgement
When I was actively being abused, I had almost no one to turn to. I was deeply lonely, and utterly obsessed with my abuser’s ever-shifting moods and inconsistent signs of affection and anger. I was afraid to tell anyone about how miserable my relationship was making me, or how much it consumed my thoughts because I was afraid of looking like a pathetic fool.
My abuser was always behaving erratically, which fascinated me and kept me on my toes. He told me elaborate stories about his own trauma history, as if that somehow excused his outbursts. He kept giving me mixed signals, and cheated on me with various women and men, and playing our insecurities off one another. As he cycled through love, disinterest, and rage, he kept dropping me encouraging breadcrumbs, telling me that soon he’d finally be over all of his problems, and we could finally be happy together. I hung on his every word, was hyper-vigilant to every change in his posture or tone of voice.
This fixation was tiresome. I knew I couldn’t tell anyone about it. Which meant that I had no one to divulge my abuse to. There was only one exception to this: my friend Heather, who lived hundreds of miles away. Heather and I had gone to college together, then became pen-pals when I moved away. We wrote one another incredibly long-winded, meandering emails about our lives, our crushes, our academic setbacks and artistic heartbreaks.
With Heather, I felt comfortable untwisting my tangled-up thoughts about my abuser. She had been raw and vulnerable in her emails to me, so I wasn’t ashamed of sounding pitiful and obsessive in my emails to her. I shared my despair and confusion, time and time again. My updates on my relationship were repetitive, but she never complained. She just listened and read, and kept loving me.
Our long email chains created a record of my abuse; I could look back at the archive and see I had been complaining about the exact same problems weeks prior, months prior, years prior. These emails allowed me to work out the fact that I was being abused in real time, with a supportive reader on my side. When the self-doubt started creeping up, all I had to do was return to my emails to Heather, and see that yes, things really were as bad as I felt they were. Heather made me feel supported in my decision to leave, but never forced or pressured. Which brings me to my next tip:
Don’t Force an Interpretation
Years ago, long before I escaped my own abuser, a friend was working under a manager who gave off seriously creepy vibes. (I’ll be calling my friend “Sophie” here). Sophie’s boss constantly made sexual jokes when he was alone with her, and made lots of observations about the bodies of women who came to the library where they both worked. He stood a little too close to her, and complimented her in demeaning ways. Lots of saying “good girl” and touching her softly on the arm, things like that.
Whenever Sophie shared these stories with me, I was forceful and direct.
“He’s a fucking pervert,” I’d tell her. Or, “You should get the hell away from that dude.”
This was not the right approach. Sophie was already in her manager’s thrall. She was in her mid-twenties, freshly out of college and eager to move up in the university’s library system. And her manager was slowly grooming her to view his impropriety as a sign of trust and connection. He wasn’t destroying her defenses by talking about sex, he was treating her “like one of the guys”! He wasn’t invading her personal space, he was showing her respect! She constantly defended his actions and downplayed them, especially when I tried to name it as abusive.
Then, one day, Sophie’s manager sexually assaulted her when they were alone in an elevator. She texted me about the incident, freaked out and confused. I immediately called her up.
“Sophie, oh my god,” I said into the phone, desperate to ‘help’ her. “You realize you were just raped, right?”
She fell silent for a few seconds. Then, in an uncertain voice, she said, “Well… I don’t know if I would call it that…”
I was still in an abusive relationship myself when I treated Sophie this way. I was eager to name her experience for her, perhaps because it felt so much more obvious than my own abuse. I thought that by defining the experience as rape, I could shake Sophie out of her trance. I thought I had to convince her it was really “that bad.”
But my approach was disrespectful, and heightened Sophie’s trauma. She wasn’t ready to call it rape yet. She wasn’t even ready to admit her boss wasn’t a good person. By forcing an interpretation on Sophie, I drew a deep line in the sand, and forced her to either agree to cross it, or to reject me and my support entirely. She chose the latter.
I never heard from Sophie about her abusive manager again. I had tried to take her agency away from her, and had talked down to her about her experience — so she stopped trusting me with stories of her abuse. When I began opening up about my own abuse a few months later, I did the exact same thing. Any friend who tried to tell me what I was experiencing or how I “should” be feeling was someone I couldn’t trust.
Respect Their Agency and Judgement
Abusers strip away the confidence and agency of their victims. This breeds passivity and learned helplessness, which of course makes it hard to work up the will to leave.
My abuser was constantly calling me “useless,” and mocking how physically “inept” I was. It’s true that I’m clumsy and uncoordinated (because I’m Autistic)— but my healthy partners have found these traits cute and loveable. Instead, my abuser made me feel utterly helpless and worthless. He also controlled my schedule in subtle ways, by having meltdowns or manufacturing crises whenever I had plans that didn’t involve him. Or he’d get me excited about a date he’d planned for us, then would cancel it at the last minute because he’d “forgotten” to study for an exam or had “lost” his wallet.
If you want to support a person who is being abused, do what you can to give them their power back. Their abuser makes them feel inert and empty, so you want to remind them that they’re actually really smart, interesting, and well-rounded. Ask them for feedback on a creative project, or invite them to help you build a fire in your back yard or put together some new furniture. Request their advice on a topic they know a lot about. Invite them to engage with their old hobbies — play video games together, or take a hike and identify local plants. Ask them to pick the restaurant, the movie, the museum you’re gonna go to, and affirm that their decisions are good.
As much as it will pain you to do so, you should also trust your friend’s judgement about their own relationship. Assume that they know a lot more about what their abuser is capable of than you are. Trust that if they don’t feel ready to leave yet, they have a good reason for it. If they say they “can’t” do something, or aren’t “allowed” to do something, let them explain their thought process and accept it. Respect their boundaries and limits, even if it’s informed by an abuser’s manipulation and control. You want to cultivate agency in your abused friend without putting them at risk or having their abuser turn against you.
Don’t Be a Wedge
Abusers isolate their victims. They push friends and family away using intimidation and aggression, and they manipulate their victims into seeing loved ones in a negative light. So if you are one of the few people still permitted into the abused person’s life, you want to do all you can to remain a helpful, supportive presence.
Don’t start fights with the abuser. Don’t confront them, call them out, or make them angry. They will take their anger out on your friend. When you have time alone with your friend, avoid being accusatory or critical. Remember, their abuser is probably trying to them that you are unsupportive, judgemental, and “toxic” to be around. Give the abuser as little possible ammunition as you can by instead being warm, calm, and tolerant. Even if the abuser has an obvious problem with you, act like you don’t have a problem with them. You just want your friend to be happy.
Don’t Triangulate or Manipulate
You should also avoid engaging in triangulation. Triangulation is a manipulation tactic where messages and concerns are passed indirectly from one person to another, sometimes inaccurately, in order to keep people feeling codependent and on-edge. Abusers may utilize triangulation to confuse their victim and police their behavior; an abuse victim may also be forced to triangulate on their abusers’ behalf.
Your abused friend may serve as a mouthpiece for their abuser. While cooking dinner together, they might say something like, “We don’t like garlic,” when actually it’s just their abuser who hates eating garlic, for example. Or they might privately warn you that their abusive partner is having a bad day, and that you should avoid talking about subjects that make them mad. In some cases, you should “play along” so as not to invoke the abuser’s wrath — remember that if you make the abuser angry, they will take that rage out on your friend.
On the flip side, you may also be asked to triangulate messages from people the victim is no longer “allowed” to talk to. Family and friends may ask you to deliver messages to the abused person. Or they may pressure you to convey their concerns, and “help” your friend get out of the abusive relationship. Abusive or unhealthy networks of people may transmit important messages solely through triangulation, in order to maintain hierarchies and isolate the vulnerable.
Ultimately, triangulation is a coping mechanism that develops in abusive environments. Indirect, shadowy messaging helps prop up an unjust relationship where honesty and directness are not allowed. Step outside of this dynamic when you can, so that your friend can clearly see the codependent house of cards they have crafted around their abusive relationship.
Generally, you should avoid contributing to triangulation. Communicate directly and honestly to your friend. Speak to them on your own behalf, not as a representative of anyone else. Don’t use other people’s emotions or reactions as a tool of control or a source of guilt. Don’t serve as an intermediary in situations where doing so would only leave the abuse and isolation even more deeply entrenched.
Use phrases like, “He can talk to me about that if he’s concerned,” or “She hasn’t brought that up to me yet, so I’ll just wait and see if she does,” or “sounds like you should tell your mom how you feel,” to help reset people’s expectations and pull the abused person out of the middle ground. Sometimes an abuse victim may be forced to triangulate in order to maintain their safety and privacy; when this happens, do not “out” them to their abuser. Just provide a consistent example of what normal, direct communication looks and feels like.
Don’t guess what other people are feeling, don’t try to control other people’s reactions to information they need to hear, and work on letting passive aggressive hints slide off your back. You are not in control of anyone else, and you are not responsible for anyone else’s feelings, or for keeping the peace. Your job is to be true to yourself, and to not subject your abused friend to any additional manipulation and harm.
On average, it takes seven attempts for a domestic violence victim to successfully leave their abuser. I dumped my abuser and moved away from him about four times before it finally stuck. Why didn’t it “take” at first? I was addicted to his love and our intense, unhealthy connection, and I felt guilty leaving him alone to cope with his own trauma and mental illness. He had warped my sense of self, so it was hard to imagine a life without him. Plus I had to wait until he was out of town on a weeks-long trip before I felt physically safe enough to dump him. This instinct proved correct: once he came back into town, he started stalking me.
My friend Ryan spent over a year trying to leave his abuser. He spent months journaling about the relationship, filling up hundreds of pages with “pros” and “cons” until he was confident in his perceptions. Then he moved several states away, so he wouldn’t feel tempted to take his abuser back. But Ryan’s abuser followed him to the new state, and fawned over him with presents and apologies, so Ryan took him back for a while.
Finally, their relationship became violent and depressing enough that Ryan was ready to take decisive action. He took a new job that granted him better privacy. He moved in with an older relative, who helped keep him safe. Ryan’s been out of the abusive relationship for going on two years now, but the temptation to call his ex still lingers. It’s a compulsion that’s hard to break.
If you care for someone who is being abused, watching them work up the courage to leave will be an exercise in frustration. You’ll get your hopes up, then have those hopes dashed when you friend returns to the relationship two, three, four, five times. Your heart will break as you watch your friend sacrifice their career, end dozens of friendships, and give up years of their life. But you can’t rush their process. All you can do is remain present and supportive, so that when they are ready, they can make a clean break and get the help they need.
That brings me to my final piece of advice:
Tend to Your Secondary Trauma
Caring for an abuse victim is a powerful form of secondary trauma. It is deeply upsetting to know that someone you love is enduring sexual assault, violence, and emotionally manipulation. Research shows that feeling powerless is one of the worst forms of stress a person can experience, and caring for someone who is trapped in an abusive relationship is an exercise in being powerless. It can cause psychological wounds just as severe as if you were being directly abused yourself.
If you are going to be in this struggle for the long haul, you will need a support team in your corner. Identify a few safe people to vent to about how hopeless and sad your friend’s abuse makes you feel. (Get their permission before offloading your stress onto them, though — they’re susceptible to secondary trauma, too!). Set limits on how often you speak to your abused friend, and make a plan for how you’ll decompress after spending time with them and their abuser. Make time to journal, or take long power-walks to get your anger out.
When I found out that my former abuser had gone on to harm somebody else, I sought out the help of a therapist immediately. I knew that hearing about his new victim would send me psychologically reeling, and I want to be able to help her from a position of stability and strength. A few virtual appointments was all I needed. Now, when I get updates from friends and colleagues about what my abuser is up to, I set aside an afternoon to freak out and have long crying jags about it. I’m no longer overwhelmed with panic, and I don’t see myself as responsible for “stopping” him or “saving” everyone he harms. I mourn the things I’ve lost, and I provide validation and encouragement to the survivors who seek me out.
If you have your own past trauma, supporting an abuse victim will probably be a huge trigger for you. Ask yourself if you really have the emotional energy and psychological stability to be an abuse victim’s “safe” person right now. It is not your responsibility to save somebody else. I needed several years away from my abuser before I was ready to really be there for other survivors, and you never have to take on that role if you don’t want to. Furthermore, it might not ever be a good fit for you; if you are righteously angry, or you try to help abuse survivors out of some misplaced hope that it will soothe your own pain, it’s probably not a good fit.
If you’re reading this article, you are probably carrying a very heavy burden. It’s terrifying to watch a loved one be harmed. Your first instinct is probably to jump in, call out the abuse for what it is, and to try and wrest the victim from their abuser’s clutches. But research has shown time and time again that approach doesn’t work.
Abusers limit their victims’ choices, undermine their intelligence and independence, avoid directly communicating with them, and fail to draw boundaries between their victims lives and their own. So if you want to help someone who is trapped in a domestic violence situation, you have to counter the abuse with the exact opposite approach. Take your friend’s lead. Listen to them, and trust their perceptions. Let them make decisions about how their life ought to look. Remind them that they’re a capable, multifaceted being while a rich life ahead of them. And let them follow their own path. Your love cannot save them; they have to save themselves. Your job is to trust them, and help empower them to do exactly that.