How to Safely Support Someone in an Abusive Relationship
When someone you know is in an abusive relationship, it may be difficult to know how to help. We want the people we care about to be loved, respected, and safe. Unfortunately, sometimes even in our best attempts to help, we may unintentionally make matters worse and put the victim in harm’s way, as well as ourselves.
The following are examples of what not to do or say to someone in an abusive relationship, each followed by a more productive, and helpful alternative:
“Just leave them.”
Keep in mind that leaving an abusive relationship is the most dangerous time for a victim (the rate of homicide increases to 75%). Never pressure someone to leave their abuser if they are not ready.
Instead, listen. Sometimes people need time before they feel comfortable seeking help. Having a friend who continues to listen, and support can prevent them from being isolated in the abuse. Keep in mind, they are the experts in their lives and their relationship. If they feel ready to leave, you can encourage to them to contact our HELPline at 512-396-4357 to discuss creating a safety plan.
A question like this is a form of “victim blaming” and reinforces what the abusive partner is already saying to the victim, that they are to blame for the harm being done to them. The person who has caused harm made a choice to do so, and it is unacceptable. There is no excuse for abuse.
Instead, validate. Oftentimes, the best support you can offer is a listening ear and validate their experience. Remind them that what is happening is absolutely not their fault, and they deserve love and respect.
“I can’t imagine them doing that to you, they’re so nice!”
People who abuse their partners tend to be very charming in public, have many friends or connections, and may even hold positions of power or influence in the community.
Instead, believe them. It can be hard for people to reach out and ask for help. You may be the first person they’ve talked to about their partner hurting them (verbally, emotionally, physically, sexually, etc.). They may not even understand that what they’re experiencing is considered abuse. Simply believing them when they tell you their partner is hurting them can have an incredibly positive impact.
Abuse exists on a cycle, and typically escalates overtime. In the beginning, everything may feel “perfect” and loving, then tension builds which typically results in abuse or an “explosion”. Over time, the “happy times” decrease, while the abuse grows in intensity and longevity.
Instead, offer support. On the outside, things may seem much better than they are behind closed doors. Abuse is complex. Listen to their experience, share resources, and encourage them to contact our 24-hr helpline for support, legal advocacy, counseling, safety planning, short-term shelter, or other resources. Or, if they just need someone to talk to, our trained staff is available 24/7.
Last, but often most important, remember to take care of yourself and practice self-compassion.
Helping ourselves puts us in a better position to help others. Also, don’t put pressure on yourself to say or do the perfect thing. These situations are incredibly difficult, and we are only human. Sometimes we make mistakes, but keep in mind, the fact that you want to help others says a lot about who you are. Together, we can all make a difference and help to end abuse and violence in our community.
In addition to the topics covered in this article, it’s important to educate ourselves on the complexities of both abuse and the reasons people stay in abusive relationships in order to safely support them. For more information, you can download our Domestic Violence Awareness Month Toolkit on www.stopthehurt.org/resources
Kirsten is a water bug and “lazy adventurer” whose passions include social justice, deep conversations, being outside, and taking naps. She is the Prevention Educator for Hays County at HCWC, where she provides resources and awareness for healthy relationships, intimate partner violence, and sexual assault to adolescents and the community. Kirsten believes we can create safer communities by encouraging empathy and providing education to prevent violence and injustice. Kirsten graduated with her BA from the University of Colorado in Boulder and is hopeful to obtain her master's in professional counseling in the future. Kirsten spends most of her free time in her garden with her cat and two dogs, listening to audiobooks, swimming, napping, or planning the next camping trip.