The statistics are startling. In the United States, one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, while over 800,000 men will suffer physical attacks at the hands of a partner each year. Sadly, millions of children are witnesses to this abuse.
When a friend confides they are experiencing domestic violence, it can feel like you’re at a loss to say or do the right thing. It’s natural to want to step in, give opinions and tell them what actions to take—it’s human nature to try to fix things, and of course you will want to protect your loved one from harm. However, despite your instinct to remove your friend from the situation, it is important to remember this is a time to simply start with listening.
Offering empathy and insight
It may be difficult to understand why your friend is waiting to leave or why they would choose to stay in an abusive relationship. Do not criticize or pass judgment. Instead, let them know they are strong enough to leave and that you will be there to support and help however you can. Not only are they most likely afraid of the unknowns associated with leaving, but they may also be scared of being harmed in the process of separating from their abuser.
Further, many are ashamed they have allowed someone to hurt them, and there is also a very real fear of possible repercussions from the legal system if their children have been exposed to the abuse.
Express your concern, and make sure you do so when your friend is alone and safe. It may seem like you are only hearing one half of the story from a “perfect couple”, but do not doubt what you are being told. It could keep your friend from confiding you in the future.
It may be difficult, but do not vilify their partner during these conversations. While you may not “get it”, your friend still cares about them and there may be hoping the person will change or there may be familial pressure to stay together. Financial worries also weigh heavily upon many considering leaving an abusive relationship.
It is important you are prepared for your friend to make excuses on their partner’s behalf. Some will even blame themselves for the abuse. Remind your loved one it is not their fault, and that the treatment they are experiencing is wrong under any circumstances. There is always a choice to walk away before a disagreement escalates, and becoming physical is never acceptable.
Safety and limitations
If the decision is made to leave an abuser, offer to keep resources on hand so no internet search history or evidence of calls can appear should a partner look through computer or phone records. In addition, speak to your friend about developing a safety plan. This will provide an organized method of handling action items when things become overwhelming or confusing. Having such a resource allows for clearer thinking and decision-making.
It is also important to remember your limits. Encourage your friend to speak to a qualified counselor and offer to attend sessions or support groups with them, but respect their boundaries if they want to go alone. Provide information on domestic violence agencies that can refer your friend to a trained professional or a program that is right for them.
In addition, keep your conversations private. If there is evidence of physical abuse, photograph the injuries, document the dates and times, and keep these records in a safe place for your friend. Do not send cards or gifts that can be construed as flirtatious or inappropriate.
Compassion and respect
Be kind and patient, remembering that your friend is going through a grieving process. It is highly likely the process of leaving will take time; for example, most women will leave a relationship a total of seven times before leaving for good. You can be there and offer support, but you cannot change things or make your friends leave.
Finally, respect the choices your friend makes. They may feel powerless, and how they deal with the abuse is one area of life they can control. Don’t take that away—instead, celebrate the good in them and the strengths they have. And when the time comes for them to leave their abuser behind, applaud and admire them for how far they’ve come.
If you or someone you love is experiencing domestic violence, there are options. I know, because I’ve been there. It took over two years to leave, and almost ten years later I still work through the shame. The first step is usually the most terrifying. For help, please visit any of the resources listed below, or call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. Against all odds, it can and does get better. Don’t give up hope—know that you or your loved one will get through this.