How to Help a Friend in an Abusive Relationship
If a loved one was being abused by her partner, you would catch on, right? Maybe not. These are the signs to look for, plus the steps to take to get her to a safe space.
If a friend was in an abusive relationship, you would figure it out so she could get help, right? Don't be so sure.
That's because domestic abuse—also known as intimate partner abuse—isn't as obvious as you'd think. Though it's characterized by physical violence and the threat of violence, it also includes emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and stalking. While signs of physical assault can be evident, these other behaviors are likely to go under the radar.
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so we’ve asked experts to tell us how to recognize that what might seem like a toxic or difficult relationship a friend is in is something more serious—and then help her find safety before the abuse escalates.
Recognize the signs
A bruised leg, a black eye—physical signs of harm like this can be caused by one-time accidents. But if you repeatedly notice visible symptoms of injury, consider them red flags. You might be wrong—your friend really could be accident prone or suffer a string of gym-related mishaps. But it's worth the risk to follow up.
Unfortunately, signs of emotional or sexual abuse aren't always obvious. So pay attention to a loved one's actions. “There are certain types of body language or little cues you can pick up on that might indicate that a victim is fearful of their partner,” says David B. Wexler, PhD, author of When Good Men Behave Badly and executive director of the Relationship Training Institute in San Diego. You might also notice your friend going to great lengths to keep her partner happy, or blowing off plans with sketchy excuses. “This is often an indicator the abuser is being excessively demanding of their partner’s attention,” explains Wexler.
If she's bombarded by texts and calls from her boo when they're apart, tune in. “I’ve met with survivors who receive multiple calls and texts from their partner just while they’re sitting in my office,” says Jimmy Meagher, director of the Domestic Violence and Empowerment Initiative at Safe Horizon, the nation’s leading victim assistance. If she has to repeatedly check in with her partner, that could be a tip-off that her significant other is tracking her behavior in an unhealthy way.
And keep an eye out for how your friend and her partner interact. “If someone is very controlling, they’ll hover almost in a stalking fashion,” says Wexler. “A man might show up without warning when his partner gets off work not because he’s a nice guy, but because he wants her to know she can’t linger or hang out with coworkers. That extra level of vigilance is another sign.”
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Broach the subject
“If you suspect a friend or family member is being abused, talk to them at a safe time and place, away from their partner or anybody else who could overhear and potentially compromise their safety,” advises Meagher. Arrange to meet up for coffee after work, for example, or plan an evening jog or fro-yo run that's just the two of you.
When you bring up your concerns, use “I” statements instead of sentences filled with “you,” which will make her less likely to feel blamed or attacked and then react defensively. For example, "I notice Sam has been calling and texting you all night and I’m concerned about that. Is everything okay?" You're not accusing her partner of anything; just voicing your observations.
“It’s helpful to ask questions that start to paint a picture for them that something isn’t right,” adds Wexler. “Maybe you say something like, ‘I’m wondering how the kids are reacting to what’s going on in your house.’ These are ways to supportively indicate concern that actually help the victim come to some of their own realizations about what is going on.” You want to be calm and direct, not accusatory or overly emotional, so she feels like she can confide in you.
Listen and don't judge
It’s natural to want to immediately step in if you think a loved one might be involved with an abuser. But telling your friend how to handle the situation or asserting that you're going to call authorities won’t necessarily help. “Survivors are the experts in their own safety,” says Meagher. “They know their abusers best and they know what has worked to keep them safe in the past and what hasn’t.”
If they do share that they have experienced abuse, validate what they are saying and how they are feeling. Avoid "you need tos," "you have tos," and "you shoulds." This language can actually make victims feel even more disempowered. Plus, you could come off as judgy—behavior no one responds well to.
“I would voice concern in a non-judgemental way and normalize their experience by saying something like, ‘I think anybody who has experience X would feel similar to how you’re feeling right now,’” suggests Meagher. Remind her that you are there for her and willing to do whatever she wants you to do to help her get out of the relationship or find safety.
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Offer to help—but accept limitations
Abusive behavior tends to spike around the time a victim tries to leave a relationship, so victims may be especially in need of support if they decide to end it. What can you do to make sure she's safe and out of harm's way once she leaves?
Do your homework and gather information on local resources such as shelters, hotlines, and counseling centers, suggests Meagher. “You can also escort or accompany them to a clinic, police station, or court, if that’s what they want to do,” he adds. Keep a go-bag in your house so your friend can have extra clothing, toiletries, and documents on hand, should she need to get away fast.
And remember this: “While we see patterns of abuse, every relationship is unique,” says Meagher. “It’s always a good idea for somebody experiencing abuse to reach out to program and service providers who understand domestic violence and its complexities. We can help them make a safety plan, whether that’s going to a shelter, sleeping at a friend or family member’s home, or staying in the relationship.”
Safe Horizon's free and confidential domestic violence hotline is a good place to start: 1-800-621-4673.