When you first become aware of the abusive nature of a friend’s relationship, it can be hard to know what to do and how to help them. Regardless of the type of abuse they are suffering, you need to tread carefully in order to support them without risking any escalation or retaliation from their partner.
If you are in this situation and are unsure of the appropriate steps to take, the following advice may be of use.
*Please note that this article uses the feminine pronouns she and her for ease of reading, but men can be and are victims of abuse too.
1. Believe her!
Abusive relationships are not always immediately apparent to the outside observer, and it may be that your friend chooses to confide in you when she feels ready.
If she does want to talk to you about the abuse she is suffering, for heaven’s sake believe her! If you have never suffered abuse yourself, it can be easy to cast doubt on what you are being told.
You may have always found their partner to be good natured and personable, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t also abusive behind closed doors. In some circumstances, the partner will be holding down a good job, have lots of friends, and be outwardly cheerful, but manipulators are masters at disguising their more malevolent side.
So don’t dismiss your friend’s concerns by suggesting she is ‘too sensitive’ or that ‘he would never do something like that,’ because she wouldn’t be talking to you if she didn’t feel threatened.
2. Let her know that you are concerned.
If your friend doesn’t speak to you about it first, but there are clear signs of an abusive relationship, you might have to raise the topic with her yourself.
She may not even consider herself to be a victim of abuse, so you can’t go in all guns blazing. You need to calmly sit her down and let her know that you have concerns for her wellbeing.
Let her know what you have witnessed and why it troubles you, but keep it as factual and objective as possible. Don’t let your opinion of her partner tempt you into exaggerating or fabricating events to help make your case. Keep it short and friendly.
3. Create a safe space where she can talk openly and free from judgment.
When your friend is ready to talk to you about her situation, it is important that you create a space (both physically and mentally/emotionally) that she feels safe and comfortable in.
The most important thing is to listen to what she has to say and remove all judgement from your response and demeanor. She will likely feel a degree of shame about how her relationship has ended up, and it is your job to try and alleviate this shame, NOT exacerbate it.
Don’t go asking her how she could have ‘let this happen,’ and avoid any ‘told you so’ moments if you had previously warned her about her partner. She wants to feel your love and support, not your disappointment.
Remember, even the act of speaking up is a triumph in itself, and you should do everything in your power to make it a positive experience so that she feels able to confide in you again.
4. Reassure her that the abuse is not her fault.
One of the key ways that perpetrators of abuse manipulate their victims is by convincing them that they are to blame for what happens. They use twisted logic to apportion the blame on the victim because they are totally unable to accept responsibility for their actions.
With this in mind, it is important that you repeatedly reassure your friend that the abuse she is suffering is not her fault. She may insist that she should accept some, if not all, of the blame and provide reasons why her partner might behave the way they do.
You have to combat this rhetoric and state in clear terms that abuse is never an acceptable response to anything she may have done.
5. Use neutral language, especially when talking about the abuser.
When discussing the situation with your friend, it is vital that you refrain from using language that she may find provocative. This is especially important when talking about her partner.
You may be able to recognize what he is, but she will very likely still have strong feelings of love and adoration for him. If you go on the offensive and slate him for how he has treated her, she may well try to defend him and his actions. This will be counterproductive for both your friendship and her eventual separation from her partner.
As much as possible, the conversation should remain focused on her and how she is feeling, while avoiding too much direct discussion about her partner. Obviously you will want to know the details, but try to avoid talking too much about him for the reasons outlined above.
6. Let her know that she is not alone.
Victims of abuse will often feel isolated, and afraid of opening up about the extent of their troubles. There is an unfortunate stigma attached to abuse and this can lead to a level of shame being felt by those who experience it.
As her friend, you need to make it clear from the start that she has nothing to feel ashamed about. You should make her aware that she is not alone in her plight, and that many people have suffered abuse and come through it.
Just the knowledge that she doesn’t have to suffer alone can be of great comfort to her. With the support of friends like you, she will be more likely to escape her abusive relationship and begin the healing process.
7. Tell her that you will always be there for her.
For your support to be effective, it has to be steadfast and consistent. Your friend needs to know that, no matter what happens in the future, you will be there for her when she needs you.
There will be times when you will shake your head in disbelief at her actions, and you need to be prepared when she goes against the advice you have given her. It takes guts to remove yourself from a relationship like this, so don’t assume that a few chats will be enough to make her see sense.
If she knows that you will stand by her whatever, then she will continue to feel comfortable talking over her problems with you. If she isn’t sure of your commitment, she may waver and hesitate to come to you when she needs help.
8. Give her time to make her own way out of the relationship.
If you want to be a true friend to someone in an abusive relationship, you must have patience. Leaving one is rarely a straightforward process, especially if there are things such as children to consider. It takes time and, more often than not, many failed attempts at escape before it finally sticks.
Your friend may have the best intentions to get out of her relationship, but she may also struggle with the realities of doing just that. There are many reasons why people remain in abusive relationships, including financial burdens, fear, low self-esteem, and cultural expectations.
If she feels unable to leave him, she will put up with the abuse until a time comes when she finds the courage to do so. Remember, abusive partners are typically master manipulators who may have controlled their victim’s behavior for years or more; breaking free of this is never going to be easy.
9. Try to understand her reasons for staying.
To remain a dedicated friend for prolonged periods of time, you need to try and put yourself in her shoes. They may not seem logical to you at the time, but if you can try to understand her reasons for staying in the relationship, you will be better equipped to help and support her.
You will struggle to sympathize with her if you are not able to dig below the surface to uncover the emotional ties that keep her going back to her partner. So stop looking at things from your perspective and try to see them through her eyes.
Try to feel the love she may still hold, the fear that paralyses her, the hopelessness that clouds her vision, and the doubt that casts a shadow over her mind. Achieve this and you will find the motivation to keep giving her your love, care, and friendship.
Your friend will make decisions that completely baffle you and that you totally disagree with, but even if this is the case, you must respect her right to choose her own path.
As hard as it may be to hold back, do not show your disappointment when she does something that you know will bring her further heartache (like staying with, or going back to her partner). Use the understanding you gained from the previous point to channel your feelings into something more positive.
Tell her that you fully accept her decision, and that you do not judge her for making it. Let her know that you understand how difficult things must be for her, and that you only wish the best for her.
11. Empower her, don’t take her power away.
It can be very tempting to try to step in and take control of a situation by telling her what she needs to do. Unfortunately, she may see this in a completely different way.
If you get involved in her personal business, she may well resent you for it. As a victim of abuse, she will have had her power taken away from her over and over again; she may well see you in the same light if you try to take charge of her life.
Instead, you need to try and build up the confidence she has in her own ability to end the abuse and leave the relationship. Remember, she may not be fully ready to confront the abuse at first, which is why the patience mentioned above is so vital.
Don’t try and force her into anything, but remind her that she has the power to change the course of her own story when she is ready for it. Just keep reinforcing this positive message whenever you see or speak to her so that she can start to alter her own thinking patterns.
12. Remember that you aren’t there to rescue her.
Following on from the previous point, it is important that you understand what your role is in the situation. You are not her saviour; you can’t rescue her and you shouldn’t attempt to (unless point 15 comes into play). She will rescue herself when she feels ready.
You are an important figure in her life, one who helps her to see a better future for herself. You are an ear to speak to, a shoulder to cry on, and the arms needed to provide comforting hugs. These are important things for her to have available and you should recognize the value they bring.
13. Let her know that everyone deserves a healthy, loving relationship.
It isn’t uncommon for a victim of abuse to believe that they deserve such treatment, and that this is just how relationships are. If your friend hasn’t known the type of healthy, loving relationships that you’ve enjoyed in your life, she may not comprehend that her situation isn’t typical.
You may need to teach her what a truly caring relationship looks like so that she can begin to grasp how unhealthy hers is. Moreover, once she knows what ones looks like, you need to convince her that everyone in this world deserves to be loved this way.
14. Direct her to specialized services…when she is ready.
As a friend, you will be a crucial part of her escape from her abusive relationship, but there will be things that you cannot do for her. She may need the specialized support services of a dedicated organization to help her process what has happened and give her the tools she needs to recover from her ordeal.
You may want to mention such services to her when discussing her relationship, but don’t be too pushy with it. Seeking out this type of support is a far bigger step than confiding in a friend; she may need time before she is prepared to contact them. Just have the details ready for when she does finally ask for them.
15. If you witness violence, get out and call the police.
Sadly, it is possible that you may witness violent acts towards your friend, and there is only one course of action to take when this happens: remove yourself from the situation and call the police immediately.
If you can get your friend out too, then do, but never put yourself in danger. Even if you feel like you want to try and help, it is best not to put your own wellbeing at risk. Just call the police and make it clear to them that an act of violence is taking place.
There are various forms of abuse in relationships, but they all cause harm to the victims. Hopefully this article has given you some tips for how to best support a friend who is in the grip of such a relationship.
You can get more advice by calling these hotlines:
US – The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233)
UK – National Domestic Violence Helpline (0808 2000 247)
Have you suffered abuse at the hands of a partner? Or do you know someone who has? What other advice would you give to friends who want to do their best to help? Leave a comment below to share your advice.