If you are worried someone you care about is in an abusive relationship, there are ways to be an effective ally. Your instinct might be to intervene to save them, but that’s not actually advisable. Here are some ideas to consider instead.
1. Understand the warning signs and how abuse works.
Every victim’s story is different. Not all abuse looks like physical violence.
Abuse is ultimately about control, and it shows up in many ways that can be hard to spot or easy to write off as typical relationship struggles. For example, it’s normal for a partner to want to keep in touch throughout the day, but if that partner is constantly texting and calling to track what the other person is doing and gets paranoid when they don’t answer, that’s a sign of possible abuse.
Understanding all the warning signs of abuse will help you spot when someone might be in trouble and will help you validate a survivor’s experiences.
2. Reach out to talk in a safe and confidential manner.
You may be tempted to text your friend that you’re concerned her boyfriend is mistreating her, but what if he reads her texts and gets mad? You might have just put her in danger. Always think about the victim’s safety when making contact.
Simply reach out and let them know you care about them and are there if they ever need to talk. If they want to share (and they might not! that’s up to them) then make arrangements to meet in a safe, quiet, private place.
3. Listen wholeheartedly, without judgment.
If your friend decides to open up, please be empathetic. Acknowledge they are in a very difficult and scary situation. Communicate that you care. Remind them the way they’re feeling is normal and this is not their fault. Victims of domestic abuse are accustomed to feeling like their emotions aren’t valid, so one of the most empowering things you can do is to validate their feelings.
There’s a good chance that some of the things they share, you won’t agree with. The victim might say something like, “I know he can be tough but he’s not such a bad guy,” or “When he gets like that it’s best if I just do what he says.” Even if you don’t agree, don’t judge. You don’t know everything this person has been through nor do you understand the complexity of that relationship.
Your job here isn’t to decide what’s right or wrong and provide a solution. Your job is to listen open-mindedly to anything this person needs to share. Your job is to say, “I hear you. That sounds really difficult. You don’t deserve this. Please do what’s best for you and know that I’ll support you no matter what.”
4. Don’t pressure them to leave, but offer to help them develop a safety plan.
It’s difficult living with the knowledge that a loved one is experiencing abuse. It’s normal to feel like you just want to get them to safety ASAP! But you can’t force that decision on them no matter what.
Be patient. There may be many reasons they are choosing to stay. Maybe the abuser threatened to hurt her or her children if she leaves; maybe he’s threatened to kill himself; maybe she doesn’t have financial resources; maybe she’s been cut off from her support network; or maybe she still loves her abuser and hopes things will get better.
No matter the victim’s reasons you have to respect their decision. After all, fleeing is the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship, and the decision to walk out must be made carefully and by the victim when he or she feels ready.
To support them, remind them that they always have a choice and that there are people who care about them. When the timing is right (when they’re open to the idea of leaving), talk about safety plans and offer to help them create their unique safety plan.
5. Offer support in other ways.
For example, offer them a place to stay when things get turbulent.
Arrange for the two of you to have regular get togethers, to give them chances to be away from the situation and clear their head. The stress of dealing with an abusive and controlling partner takes an enormous daily toll. It might seem like a bandaid fix, but just focusing on something else for a couple hours can be really healthy for them.
6. Point them to resources.
You’re not an expert and you don’t have to be. Only professionals are fully equipped to provide adequate counseling or advice in situations of abuse. Encourage your loved one to seek professional help.
GET HELP:The National Domestic Violence Hotline’s number is (1-800-799-7233). They also operate a hotline specifically for young people called LoveIsRespect (1-866-331-9474). Both websites offer confidential online chat.
Many cities have local domestic violence hotlines. Do you know yours?
Also encourage your loved one to build a wide support network by asking for support from other friends and family.
7. Respect their choices.
Remember it’s not your job to be a hero. You can’t make decisions for the victim—only they have that right. Even when a victim makes and remakes poor decisions like staying with their abuser, you must respect the fact that they are doing what they think is safest. Even when a victim’s judgment is clearly compromised by their abuser’s psychological manipulation, you can’t call them out on that. Judging a victim’s feelings or choices is not helpful! What’s helpful is affirming their right and ability to make choices that are best for them.
Exceptions to this rule: If you find out anyone is in immediate danger, call 911. Your friend might beg you not to because they’re scared or they don’t want their abuser to end up in jail. If there is an immediate danger to someone’s life, make the executive decision. If you’re not sure, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 and ask for advice.
8. After the victim leaves, support them.
The most dangerous time for a victim is right after they leave their abuser. Domestic violence is all about power and control, and when the victim leaves the abuser has lost their power and control, so they may act out in extreme ways.
Make sure the victim has a safe place to stay. Help them connect to resources like women’s shelters and programs that give financial support to single mothers.
Validate their decision to leave. Understand they may be feeling conflicted or scared, so remind them they are strong! Encourage them to practice self-care and seek counseling when they’re ready. Say, “I care about you and I’m proud of you.”
In the long term, a survivor will need ongoing support to help them recover from their experiences. That includes psychological support like therapy and practical support like help with finding a job. Do whatever you are able and willing to do to help them along that long journey toward healing.
Karen Rauppius is Manager of LiveYourDream.org, an online community of over 100,000 volunteers and activists committed to improving the lives of women and girls. A digital enthusiast, data geek, and lover of learning, she is interested in using education to lay the foundation for dismantling inequity. Her previous nonprofit work supported programs helping individuals lead with authenticity and integrity.