These are the steps you can take to help someone in an abusive relationship
If someone you love is in an abusive relationship, help them by cultivating the understanding you need to empower them.
by: E.B. Johnson
One of the most difficult human experiences we can encounter is witnessing the abuse of a friend or loved one. Millions of people around the world experience abuse every day, and among them are the silent witnesses; watching as the men, women and children they once knew and loved are destroyed by the evil and manipulative machinations of an abusive partner, spouse or parental figure.
From physical abuse to emotional abuse, most of us will experience the pain of witnessing the abuse of a friend or family member in our lifetimes. If you’ve found yourself witnessing an abusive relationship, it is possible to help them escape. It’s a delicate situation, however, and one that has to be approached with the utmost caution, understanding and know-how.
Why abusers hurt people.
Abusive people are as ranged and varied as any normal human being, but their actions are far from normal, and they are never, ever justified. Abusers believe they have the right to control others either because of their inferiority or superiority complexes. Either way, they enjoy the feeling that power gives them, and they find joy in exerting that power over others by any means possible.
Your typical abuser believes their own needs or feelings should take priority over their partner’s, and they use abusive, manipulative tactics in order to dismantle the equality in the relationship and destroy the other person’s self-worth. Abuse is a learned behavior, most often picked up in childhood, but it is also something that can be learned over time as negative behaviors develop in correlation to romantic or relational experiences. Outside sources like alcohol addiction can also help bring-on or exacerbate these behaviors.
What are the signs of an abusive relationship?
When it comes to abuse, the signs aren’t always easy to spot. In our society, abuse is still seen as something taboo, something to be ashamed of. For this reason (along with a myriad of others) those in abusive relationships often work hard to conceal the struggles they’re experiencing. If you suspect your friend or loved on is in an abusive relationship, look for these signs.
An insulting partner
It is not normal for a partner to constantly belittle or insult their other-half in front of others. This is abusive behavior and often one of the first and most telling signs that your friend or loved one might be dealing with a dangerously manipulative and controlling relationship. Insulting a partner or spouse in front of friends is a means of destroying self-esteem, thereby keeping the other party in-check through insecurity, fear and low self-worth.
Fear of making the other party angry
Walking on eggshells, likewise, is not a normal part of a healthy and loving relationship. If your friend or partner is constantly worrying that they’ll upset or make their spouse angry — it might be a sign of something serious going on.
Depression, anxiety, personality changes
Sudden (or even gradual) signs of depression and anxiety can often be a telling symptom of deep issues occurring at home. Personality changes, too, can be an indication that your friend or loved one is dealing with something deeply serious, personal and heartbreaking. If your loved one has suddenly stopped calling and acting like they used to — check in on them.
There’s no excuse for cruel behavior, but that’s exactly what victims of abuse do — make excuses for their partner’s horrendous behavior. It doesn’t matter if the abuse is physical or emotional, the abused person will always find a way to excuse and internalize the irrational and vicious behavior of their spouses and partners.
Jealousy and possessiveness
Noticing that your friend’s boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife is extremely jealous or possessive is one of the biggest tale-tale signs that something serious is bubbling beneath the surface. These emotions manifest through behaviors like escalation, emotional manipulation and even outright physical abuse. A means to control, jealousy and possessiveness are some of the most dangerous aspects of an abusive relationship.
Has your friend suddenly dropped off the radar, never to be seen again? Are they missing time with family and failing to show up for the things they once loved? Isolation is another common sign of abuse and one of the ways by which abusers keep their victims under control.
Bruises, black eyes and arms in slings don’t just happen. The body manifests trauma in these physical ways in order to warn ourselves (and others) that we have encountered something dangerous. If your friend can’t seem to explain where their injuries are coming from, it might be because of a dangerous situation at home.
How to help someone in an abusive relationship.
Helping someone in an abusive relationship isn’t always easy as just getting them to pick up and leave. It’s a delicate process that takes time and planning, as well as a substantial amount of compassion and understanding. Once you’ve confirmed that your friend or loved one is stuck in an abusive relationship, use these techniques to help them free themselves.
1. Talk it out
The first step in helping someone that is experiencing abuse is a conversation. Once they’re ready to accept their relationship for what it is, sit down and have an honest and open conversation with them about where they’re at and how they’re feeling. Let them open up to you, and drop your own judgements and hang-up’s at the door.
When it comes to your side of the dialogue, don’t forget to listen. Don’t shame them, don’t blame them. Listen to what they have to say and don’t — under any circumstances — make the victim feel as though this is their fault. Let them know they’re not alone and let them know that this is something that can be overcome. The first step is showing support to your friend is opening up communications. Remember to make listening a major component of that task.
Reassurance will help your friend or loved one gradually open up. They have options, but those options can be hard to see when you’re stuck in the midst of abusive chaos. The act of accepting that you’re in an abusive state is a brave step all on its own. Use that courage to encourage them, and use that same courage to carry you both forward.
2. Get specific about your support
Once you’ve both conquered the gargantuan task of that big first talk, it’s time to get specific about the kind of support you’re ready to offer. Be honest with yourself and your loved one, and let them know that you’re worried about their safety. The ultimate decision to go (and the decision on how it gets done) is theirs, but there are specific things you can do to assist in that process, but you both have to have a clear understanding of what those things are.
If you can offer child care, say that. If all you can give a few rides to a doctor, a lawyer or a women’s shelter — say that. Maybe all you can offer is a caring shoulder to cry on, or a phone call once or twice a week. How you help isn’t as important as the act of actually helping, so get specific (and honest) with yourself and your loved one.
The level of help you offer doesn’t matter. What matters is making sure your friend knows that people care and people want to help. Often, just knowing that someone is there for something as small as a phone call is enough to empower you to get off the couch and change your day — and your life.
3. Make a safety plan
A safety plan allows for victims to prepare for future abuse and escalated situations that could prevent them from severing ties for good. Safety plans can be as simple as finding a “safe word” or as complicated as having packed go-bags and a strategic plan of emergency escape. The truly important part of the plan is making sure it’s carefully considered and shared with people who can be trusted. If something goes wrong, it’s critical to be able to retrace final steps.
Identify several safe spaces and safe friends who can be contacted in the need of an emergency. Neighbors, too, are good to have an awareness of. If abuse is particularly bad, keep a burner phone nearby and memorize the numbers of friends, family members and shelters. Make lists of the things you’ll need to grab in a hurry and (if possible) make sure to hide an extra set of car keys.
It can also help to have documentation on hand for any legal protections like restraining orders or safety orders. Keep copies of all important documents and — if possible — digitize them and store them with a handful of trusted friends or family members. There’s no wrong way to create a safety plan, the only wrong move is not to have one.
4. Reach out to an expert
No matter how much you educate yourself, it’s imperative to reach out for the expert help of a domestic abuse professional. These experts can be found in domestic violence agencies across the country, and often offer their services for free. Hotlines like the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
These organizations can be invaluable not only when it comes to identifying abuse, but also when it comes to getting victims out and making safety plans and arrangements. Both organizations allow those who reach out to remain anonymous, and they have a huge wealth of resources and knowledge at their disposal.
Domestic violence professionals are highly trained and qualified specialists who understand the intricate difficulties that come along with abuse. No matter how much you love your friend, when it comes to fleeing an abusive household, it’s imperative to pick the brain of someone who knows the best way to manage a very dangerous situation.
5. Continue to show support
The hardest part of helping a victim of abuse can often be continuing to show support even after they fail to leave the relationship. Though it’s a heartbreaking fact, many choose to stay in abusive relationships and many others choose to return to abusive relationships. If you do manage to get your friend or loved one free, you have to accept that they might return to the same circumstances again. And you’ve got to keep showing support, no matter what.
It is not your responsibility to understand where the victim is coming from, it’s only your responsibility to love and care for them in the ways that every friend should. Continue to offer help, and let them know that you’ll be there for them no matter what. Try to keep them active and engaged in things outside their relationship, and don’t let them shut down and shut out again.
Even though it can be frustrating to watch a friend return to a bad situation, we don’t have the power to control them and we don’t have the right to judge them. If you can’t continue to show loving, judgement-free support — have enough respect for yourself to walk away. Try your best first, however, to extend your compassion and the caring shoulder they will inevitably need to cry on.
How to report domestic violence and abuse.
You can report domestic violence and abuse whether from the privacy of your home or in a public place. If you see a situation that isn’t right, or if you see someone who is at the mercy and abuse of someone violent, malicious or dangerous — call 911 and don’t worry about whether or not your friend will be angry with you. Their safety matters more than their opinion of you and, sometimes, safety plans aren’t quick enough.
If you’re looking to report a situation that’s less of an immediate danger and more of a “big picture” situation, contact local police or child services and request that they perform a welfare check. These local authorities can often discover abuse and offer help on scene to victims by surprising abusers in the midst of poor behavior.
BONUS: How NOT to help an abuse victim
Though it often comes from the best of places, there are a number of behaviors that are actually counterproductive when it comes to helping a victim escape an abusive situation. Avoid these behaviors in order to avoid making things worse or increasing the isolation your loved one is already experiencing.
Don’t bombard them
Bombarding a victim with a million and one questions will only cause them to shut down or feel as though they aren’t being listened to. Rather than asking a million and one questions, leave more space for listening than for talking. There will be plenty of time for questions when you start making safety plans. If you’re just getting someone to open up, be gentle. Led them lead you to the truth, not the other way around.
Don’t make demands
Don’t tell the victim what to do, and don’t start making commands and demands like their abusive partner does. Though it might come from the best of places, telling a loved one to “leave immediately” or “just cut ties” isn’t really helpful advice in an extremely complex and nuanced situation.
Don’t speak to the abuser
Though you might want to confront the abuser, this is often one of the worst things you can do. Confronting an abuser with their behavior often leads to excalated behaviors and can put the victim at even bigger risk. If you’ve got something to say, say it to the victim, but be kind, compassionate and understanding when you do. No matter what you think of the abuser, the victim loves them.
Putting it all together…
Helping someone get out of an abusive relationship is a delicate process that takes time, compassion, and understanding to manage. While we might want to scoop up our friend or loved one and whisk them away to safer shores, that’s not how reality works. If you want to help a victim of emotional and physical abuse free themselves, you have to arm yourself with the know-how and understanding needed to empower them to rediscover their inner strength.
Let your friend or loved one know you’re there for them, and open up a dialogue about where they’re at and where they’re coming from. Listen to what they have to say, and drop your judgements and reservations at the door. Be specific about the type of support you can show them, and help them make a safety plan so they can escape if things get too hot. Abusive relationships are dynamic and complex, and they often require the insight of experts and professionals to overcome. Don’t order your friend out of the relationship, and don’t confront the abuser. Whatever happens, continue to show your friend support and let them know that they’re loved, deserving and beautiful. Abuse is a very serious issue and it can’t be overcome alone. Be present. Be the love they don’t get at home.