How to Help Your Loved One in an Abusive Relationship
By Franki Hanke
How to respond when you spot warning signs of abusive behaviors.
After moving in with their boyfriend, your friend cancels plans over and over again, seemingly an endless game of phone tag. Your co-worker refuses an offer to get lunch together because her girlfriend controls her budget. Your family member hides a collection of bruises, but his collar shifted at dinner.
The urge is to rush in to help someone in an abusive relationship, right? Before you go any further, shift away from your immediate mindset to act now.
Wherever you spot abuse in your life, you’ve likely seen a warning sign of an abusive partner already. We’re not questioning the validity of your concern. One in three women and one in four men have been physically abused by a partner, so your concerns aren’t ungrounded. Instead, it’s about acting the right way.
Change your goal to support, not rescue.
Don’t Immediately Call the Police
If you fear for a loved one in immediate danger, you likely want to instantly call for help. It’s okay. That’s a natural gut instinct. If my friends were being hurt, I’d feel it too.
However, it may not be the best course of action, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline which is the helpline resource from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Have you spoken to them yet?
Involving the police without preparation may limit your loved one’s options or cause more harm.
If you haven’t spoken to your loved one yet, here’s why you don’t immediately call the police and check in with them first.
-Your loved one might not be ready to talk. They may feel it’s safest to deny or downplay the abuse.
– The abuser may respond to the police with more violence because of their own temper.
-The police may not be the best help because of connections to the abuser or their own poor judgment calls or implicit bias towards intimate partner violence.
If you’re unsure, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline instead.
As expert advocates on domestic abuse, this org is well-equipped to guide you with what’s happening with your loved one. If you’re concerned about an urgent situation right now, call their helpline at 1-800-799-7233 or chat live on their website.
Start a Private Dialogue
Find a safe place and time to speak with your loved one. Ensure you’re alone together and it’s not a monitored communication method. Text messages, instant messages, or social media might be read by their partner in an abusive situation.
Once it’s safe, ask how you can best support them, and try to limit the emotional dumping onto them. Our natural instinct can be to unload how much we care onto the victim but focus on offering support without pressure. Let them open up on their schedule and make their own decisions.
If they are ready to talk about the next steps, work together to make a safety plan. Investigate your local resources for geographic-specific resources like shelters, support groups, and non-profits as a part of safety planning.
Keep Your Own Records
Write down incidents of abuse that you are informed of or witness. With permission from your loved one, keep documentation like photographs of injuries and transcripts of interactions. Carefully time and date your records so they may be used for any future legal action like obtaining restraining orders.
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Domestic violence is not uncommon. It is disgustingly frequent.
In the time that you’re not actively engaged with your loved one, further your own understanding. Read what abuse looks like both emotional abuse and physical abuse, different tactics, why people stay in relationships, and the depth of planning necessary to safely leave an abusive relationship.
Offer Emotional Support
Your goal in every interaction with your loved one should be to listen more than you talk. They are already in a situation where they are not in power, do not further that.
Put down your urge to control or understand. Focus on them.
-Acknowledge that their situation is scary and they are brave.
-Do not judge their decisions.
-Support them through any emotions without judgment of whether it’s ‘right.’
-Do not bad mouth their abuser.
Beyond conversation, you can help with the logistics of their action plan.
-Store a go-bag or important documentation safely.
-Document instances of abuse, with their permission. Include pictures of injuries, transcripts, and a timeline of incidents.
-Do not post information online that may identify them or reveal where they spend time.
Right now, it may not be possible for your loved one to see a mental health professional, however, remember that you’re not a therapist. Support them, but when possible encourage a shift to speak with someone more experienced.
Don’t overlook yourself when you help someone in an abusive relationship.
This situation is scary and hard for you, too. You are allowed to need support. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has resources for family & friends, too. Don’t hesitate to call their helpline at 1.800.799.7233 or chat with their advocates.
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