How Can Bystanders and Witnesses Help Domestic Violence Victims?

Whether A Family Member, Friend, or Co-Worker, What Can Be Done to Help?

Samantha Clarke
Oct 9, 2019 · 9 min read
Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

It can be incredibly painful to stand back and watch someone who you know or suspect is being abused seemingly fall apart. You might feel helpless or that you don’t have any power or authority to help, feel as though there’s nothing you could do even if you wanted to, or be genuinely afraid of interfering with the person’s situation.

However, there are some basic things you can do to help, or at least not inflict further hurt, on a victim of domestic violence. Here are some things you should know should you find yourself in a position of awareness and wonder what you can do or say to help.

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This might just be one of the worst mechanisms to help an abused person. It is not the fault of the victim that she is being abused, so this type of question automatically places blame onto the victim, further harming them by inflicting guilt and shame, just like their abuser does to them. Victims likely already think that they are the one who is “abusive”…because their abuser told them so.

Language matters, and violence starts with words.

So, instead, you might try asking if there are any known barriers that are preventing that person to leaving, such as “There might be some resources you would find helpful. Is there something you can identify that is preventing you from leaving?” More than likely, it is related to financial dependency, housing, or children. By asking these types of questions, you’ll be able to put thoughts in the victim’s head, allowing them to start planning an escape for themselves.

Although there are patterns to domestic violence and similarities across the board, each situation is unique to the victim. How they approach the problem will depend on them knowing their own situation. Don’t try to tell the victim how to do something. If you have a personal story or experience particularly with abuse or domestic violence, you can offer an empathetic sharing of your story and how you dealt with it to show you care and that freedom is possible.

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Despite however gentle you might present your discussion, a victim might become instantly “sensitive” or appear defensive when you suggest or ask about her situation. She might not be ready to face this reality that the abuse is really happening, or might be ashamed that it is happening.

There is an incredible amount of humiliation involved in coming forward about abuse.

If this happens, you can almost be completely sure this person who you’ve suspected as a victim really is a victim. Continue to approach with caution, and don’t completely give up on the idea of helping this person. If they’ve become defensive, tell them that “It’s okay, we don’t need to talk about that. I’m sorry if I’ve made you feel uncomfortable.” This shows the victim that you are there for them, and that you respect them. They will probably be more likely to trust you after they see you are being respectful and genuine.

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The ideas you inspire in the mind of the victim will truly help alter the state of their thinking. A victim’s mind has been played and warped at the abuser who has been controlling and manipulating them. They feel very confused and are unsure about what is real and what is not. A victim will likely feel useless, worthless, and that they can’t do anything right. Let the victim know her feelings are valid and that “It’s okay to feel sad and confused.” Also try offering words of hope, such as “You’ll make it through this, I know you are very strong.”

Also, if the victim has already admitted there is an issue at home, you can offer other comments when appropriate such as “this will keep happening” or “this will never stop” or “no one deserves that.” The victim may be dismissive or made slightly uncomfortable by the comments, but hearing a truthful, yet respectful, affirmation that the situation is real will help lead the victim to acceptance.

The more positive reaffirmations you can offer, the more it will begin to change how the victim sees herself.

It will offer a different perspective that the victim is not used to seeing. In turn, this will help her to psychologically accept the reality of the abuse and gain confidence to attempt escape.

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This might just be one of the biggest things that “helpers” should realize. Victims often see who really cares about them when they try to leave. It seems that everyone before would be willing to help at the drop of a hat, yet there is radio silence when help is needed most, especially in regards to housing.

Know that making false promises or offers of help can be fatal, as the life and survival of the woman depend on this. A woman is at 70% increased risk of being killed when she tries to leave. Ask any survivor how important this aspect is, and I guarantee they’ll have a shocking story.

This is NOT a time that it is appropriate to flake out. If you can’t help, say you can’t help. If you can’t help, don’t say you can help.

Often the best form of help can be making a list of resources such as the local women’s shelter for domestic violence. Do some research, find information and resources that can help the victim make an escape plan. Many victims can’t take this information home, so presenting it somewhere outside the home might be beneficial in many circumstances. Remember, you are a human too. While you care, you might not be able to “rescue” a person. However, you can certainly be an important part of that process.

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It could cause further confusion for the victim, and she might pull away her trust from you if you do this. She will see you as trying to steal her joy, because that’s what’s really happening to her by the abuser. Ultimately, this would further prolong the stay of the victim and prevent leaving.

Victims are bonded to their abusers, much like a hostage can be bonded to their captors. They have learned that they are punished if they do not comply, and so they avoid conflict at all costs, by constantly walking on eggshells to please the abuser. The times when they are happiest is after an escalation of violence has occurred, the dispute has been reconciled, and the two in the relationship are back to square one where there is contentment and a sense of normalcy.

Abuse victims often do not see their partner as an abuser.

They might know they are having relationship problems, drama, or that they person is abusive — but they usually do not see them as a monster. To them they are people, a “loved one.” A “soul mate.” A “companion.” Not only do they care deeply about this person, they have developed their own identity around this individual to define their own sense of self…because they’ve had no choice but to do so in coping with the abuse dynamic. If you must speak up at this time, say something such as “I know that you love him and you care about him deeply. But, he’s hurting you…and that’s not okay. I think he will do it again.”

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Many victims of domestic violence have been victimized by others, including their own family members, in the past. Childhood survivors of trauma, assault, and abuse are more likely than the general population to become victims later in life. Some may not even recognize that they have narcissistic or abusive parents.

Just like domestic violence is hidden behind closed doors, abuse has crept into our lives in many other aspects that are often unknown because they are kept in secret.

Further, many victims are being controlled and spied on, and their abusers have set up a secretive network of espionage. They have a group of “flying monkeys,” a network of individuals who side with, enable, and protect the abuser should the victim “try something.” The victim herself may not even be aware of the extent of this issue, and it could put her in more danger.

There may be situations where reporting to the police may be appropriate in extreme cases to save the victim’s life— but only do this if you fully understand the implications of such an action. Anything you do or do not do will have an affect, so be cautious in your approach, but don’t let that prevent you from reporting if you feel compelled to do so. You being a witness could help women who otherwise would not receive it from the authorities.

Help someone for the right reasons, and don’t ever help someone because you expect something in return. Don’t expect praise, glory, or any reciprocity. If you plan to continue to be involved in the life of the victim after they’ve left the abuse, don’t expect them to act “normal.” They have been through a great deal of trauma, and they are used to using a response that was appropriate for THAT environment, which enabled their survival.

It will take time, patience, understanding, and care to get a victim of abuse back up and running. Even after physically leaving the abusive home, survivors are plagued with confusion and thoughts that affect their behavior. This is a normal response to trauma, and it will take time and the presence of a safe space to heal the emotional, psychological, and physical wounds left behind from abuse. Even though the victim has escaped with her life, the battle is not yet over in her mind.

So, if you see someone who is being abused, there are things you can do to help. Don’t stay silent. You could very well be one of the reasons she will live.

We Are Warriors

Stronghold for victims and survivors of abuse to share…

Samantha Clarke

Written by

A Funny Human That Writes | Domestic Violence Survivor & Advocate for Women | Versed in Psychology & Criminology | Painter by Day, Poetic Vigilante by Night.

We Are Warriors

Stronghold for victims and survivors of abuse to share, heal & learn together.

Samantha Clarke

Written by

A Funny Human That Writes | Domestic Violence Survivor & Advocate for Women | Versed in Psychology & Criminology | Painter by Day, Poetic Vigilante by Night.

We Are Warriors

Stronghold for victims and survivors of abuse to share, heal & learn together.

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