Two things always seem to happen when I’m in a group of people and it comes out that I work for an organization helping those experiencing domestic violence. The first is someone will tell me – usually aside and in a quiet voice – that they experienced abuse in their past. The second is someone – usually several people – will say something along the lines of “I have a friend who I think is in an abusive relationship. What should I do?”
When the latest statistics say 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, it’s virtually guaranteed someone you know well has, is or will experience it. Yet, despite the widespread nature of the issue, few of us know how to address it when we see our friend or family member in the midst of it. This is largely due to the historical precedence that domestic violence was a private, “family issue.” We’ve been taught, mostly indirectly, to look the other way. Conversely, those of us who want to be helpful agents have lived our lives in social environments where abuse isn’t addressed openly, so we often lack the tools to effectively and compassionately assist. Is it any wonder that CORA employees are so often asked, “What should I do?”
At this point, you’re probably asking how we answer in those moments. Ironically, the answer is very simple yet surprisingly complex: talk to them. Yes, it’s difficult to approach the subject, but the most caring, important thing you can do is let them know that they have your support and that there are options and they are not alone.
LEARN ABOUT DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
One of the first things to do is learn all you can about domestic violence: do some research, familiarize yourself with the cycle of domestic violence, understand the psychology at play in an abusive relationship, familiarize yourself with the resources for survivors of abuse in your community, etc. Understanding the issue and knowing what assistance is available is key to everything that follows.
STARTING THE CONVERSATION
Most people agree, the most difficult step is beginning the dialogue. Again, this is a subject that is not usually considered culturally appropriate to raise, so being uncomfortable is to be expected.
Also, make sure you are in the right place yourself, emotionally and mentally, to be a good friend. While it can be heartbreaking to see a loved one in an abusive situation, you need to keep in mind that, ultimately, any decision must come from them. You can’t do it for them or “rescue” them. You can only be supportive and helpful.
As difficult as it may be, don’t “badmouth” the abuser. Despite the situation, your friend or family member may love the person, so statements like, “They’re such a horrible person.” or “How can you stay with them?” can cause the person you’d like to help to shut down. Instead, try using language that focuses on your friend. For instance: “No relationship is perfect, and I know you love them. But I’ve noticed they don’t always treat you well, and I’m concerned about you.”
In fact, that’s an excellent way to begin this challenging conversation. Some useful phrases could be:
“No relationship is perfect, and I know you love them. But I’ve noticed they don’t always treat you well, and I’m concerned about you.”
“I just want to be there for you. How can I help?”
You love your friends and family. It’s why you’re concerned about the abuse they’re experiencing. Don’t be afraid to tell them you’re concerned about their safety. You can acknowledge that it’s a difficult situation for them while also recognizing the abuse. It’s important to verbalize your concern. Some helpful phrases might be:
“I’m worried about your safety and am afraid they’ll really hurt you next time.”
“Promise me you’ll come to me if you need to talk.”
Remember, you’re trying to avoid confrontation when you show support. Let them guide how much they want to address the issue. They should choose when they’re ready to discuss or act on their situation. Here are some great ways to show support without being confrontational:
“Remember you’re not alone. I’m here whenever you need to talk.”
Don’t make decisions for them or tell them what to do. Calm, patient, vocal concern and support is paramount.
THE POWER OF COMFORT
Comfort is a powerful tool in these situations. It’s important to let them know that the abuse is not their fault. This may sound intuitive to you, but to someone in the emotional battle zone of an abusive relationship, self-blame can be a normal part of their outlook. Some useful phrases are:
“It’s not your fault they treat you this way.”
“You are not responsible for their behavior.”
“No matter what you did, you do not deserve this.”
By gently helping them understand the fact that, despite any feelings they may have, no one deserves to be abused under any circumstances, you can break down barriers of shame, guilt and isolation.
It’s normal to want to see the situation improve, but understand that your friend may dismiss your concern, may acknowledge everything but want to stay in the relationship, or may leave and then return to it. There are a multitude of reasons someone would choose to stay in an abusive relationship (despite how foreign they may seem to us on the outside), but it’s important to support them in whatever decision they make, without criticism or judgment. Remember, they may have spent a long time feeling unempowered or being told what they think is “wrong” or “stupid.” Don’t let your actions amplify that voice in their head.
ENCOURAGE THEM TO GET HELP
Remember that homework you did at the beginning? Now’s the moment to show them the resources you’ve discovered. Have some websites you can recommend. Give them the information about their local domestic violence agency or hotline, like CORA. Getting them in touch with professional counselors with resources will drastically improve their situation.
“Here’s the number to our local domestic violence agency. They can help you with safety plans, housing and support groups.”
“If you need to go somewhere, I can go with you for support.”
It’s not easy to watch someone you love go through the trauma and turmoil of domestic violence. With love, patience and awareness, your support can be a powerful tool helping them through this terrible time.
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