What do you do when someone you care about is being hurt? Most of us want to help — to find a way to defend and support them.
But if the person hurting your friend or family member is also their life partner— somebody they love, live with, or maybe even share kids with — what does being helpful really mean?
Most of us aren’t so sure. Plus, it can be difficult to recognize the early warning signs of abuse or to even know what abuse can look like. We usually don’t directly witness the abuse, and with the stakes especially high, we rightfully worry about doing the wrong thing.
So, here’s a list of 6 things you can do to help a friend or loved one who you suspect (or know) is being abused. Some of these will best apply if the person has already disclosed the abuse to you, others are things you can do without knowing for sure. They’re all helpful.
1. Listen without judgment
People experiencing intimate partner violence may not feel like they have someone who they can safely confide in. So, if they come to you wanting to talk, let them. Listen not to find the pause so you can share your thoughts, but to let them take up as much space as they need to talk about what is happening.
Mindful listening is key here. Someone who is being abused might not outright say “my partner hits me and I’m scared.” They might talk about (even jokingly) the arguments they’ve been getting in, that their partner is obsessive, or that they’re relieved to be away from them for a few hours.
Pay attention to what they are and aren’t sharing and give them plenty of space to talk. Then, you can ask some open-ended, non-judgmental follow-up questions. For example, “How are you feeling about your relationship?”, “Do you feel like your relationship is changing lately?” and “How are you and your partner coping with stress?”
2. Mind your gut reactions
If you suspect that someone is being abused — or if they tell you that they are — you’re probably going to have a sudden, instinctive reaction. For some people, that might be crying. For others, it might be anger. Your gut reactions might be especially strong if partner violence is a personal trigger for you.
Regardless of what your gut reaction is, mind it. Yes, you might feel angry that your loved one is being hurt — but that doesn’t mean you should yell about it or say things like “I want to kill them because they hurt you.” Your angry reaction may trigger them, making them feel unsafe, and they may retreat from the conversation. That’s also true of crying, expressing disbelief, or asking invalidating questions (“are you sure that’s what happened?” “had they been drinking?”). Those gut reactions all center you in this experience, not the person who is seeking support.
You obviously can’t control what your gut tells you, but you are in control of how you express your emotions. Your reaction in these moments will inform how comfortable that person feels further confiding in you and in others.
Don’t ignore your emotions, though — decompress later with a counselor, therapist, or using another emotional outlet. Just make sure you keep your friend’s confidence and don’t share trusted information with others.
3. Ask what they need or want
It’s easy to assume that someone who is in an abusive relationship wants to leave, but the reality is much more complicated. People might not feel ready to leave an abusive relationship because they don’t have enough money saved, because they share children with the person, because they don’t have a place to go, or because they feel an attachment to how the relationship was before the abuse began.
So, don’t assume that you know what they want or what is best for them. Instead, ask what they want and need. Don’t pressure them toward any one plan of action. It’s important for survivors of interpersonal violence to have the autonomy to make their own decisions, so give them that space.
4. Know your resources
If you’re worried that a loved one might be in an abusive relationship, it’s a good idea to research what your local resources are. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a list of all state-level coalitions, and from there, you can find all of the domestic violence organizations in your state. Some organizations may also offer no-cost appointments to loved ones to help develop safety plans and support systems.
Keep in mind that some domestic violence organizations only serve women, so if your friend isn’t a woman, it’s worth giving the organization a call in advance to see if they work with people of other genders.
If you aren’t able to look into your local resources before a friend comes to you, offer to look into local options together. They might not have safe, private access to a computer or phone, so using yours (or a public device) might be a safer option.
5. Talk about a safety plan
It’s important that anybody experiencing domestic violence develop a safety plan, ideally with the help of a victim advocate, counselor, or therapist. A safety plan can involve harm reduction techniques (like, if an argument starts, to move to a part of the house that doesn’t have sharp objects), escape plans, and methods for ensuring the children and pets are able to be cared for. Your friend might involve you in that process, potentially to safely store a suitcase of clothes, a back-up cell phone, or even money or gift cards. The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides advice on creating a safety plan.
If a friend or loved one shares a part of their safety plan with you, it is essential to keep the information they share confidential. Which brings us to item #6…
6. Respect their safety
After someone discloses partner violence to you, it’s natural to need an outlet or a way to process that information. But it’s also vital to keep that information private — don’t talk to your partner or friends about it unless the person being abused gives you their clear consent or asks you to. That’s because information could get back to the abuser, and ultimately, that might escalate their violent behaviors, both toward your loved one and potentially toward you.
Leaving an abusive relationship is the most dangerous time for someone who is being abused; the abuser feels a sudden loss of power and control, which means they’re more likely to escalate violence. So, ask your friend what you can do to help them feel safe. If they tell you that they need to stay and you disagree, know that keeping them safe is the most important goal. Work toward that together, with support from trained victim advocates from your local domestic violence resource center.
About the Author
Cassandra Corrado is an independent sex educator who teaches at colleges and universities across the United States. Formerly a victim advocate, she mostly teaches on topics related to un/healthy relationships, violence prevention, LGBTQ+ health, and sexual pleasure.
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