You may be in the position of knowing someone whom you suspect is in an abusive relationship. Being in this situation is not easy, as knowing how and whether to address the issue of the abuse with that person can be tricky. Additionally, while our understandings of abuse have broadened beyond the level of physical violence, it may be especially tricky to broach the subject of coercive control with an individual who you suspect may be experiencing it as such abuse often goes unacknowledged by the victim themselves.
But if you suspect someone may be in an abusive relationship, doing what you can to help them is important. However, you don’t want to pressure someone into telling you stuff they’re not ready to talk about, or lecture them on what they should and shouldn’t be doing when they’re not in a place to necessarily be able to undertake that action.
So, what are some of the ways you can help people who might be in an abusive relationship?
Listen, listen, listen
Listening doesn’t just mean awaiting responses to the questions you have asked; it also means being prepared to have an open ear to everything that person has to say.
People might not feel ready to talk directly about the abuse they are experiencing, or even to label it as abuse. As a listener, you must be prepared for this and not attempt to push anybody into saying things that they aren’t comfortable with. You need to encourage that person to express themselves in the way that makes them most comfortable. Many of those experiencing abuse will not have been able to communicate in a way that feels comfortable with their partner; you do not want to cause a duplication of distress by being a poor listener.
Part of listening is also making sure that you do just that. We tend to offer advice after listening to people’s problems and while this isn’t a bad thing, you must make sure that you’re not going overboard on offering advice at the expense of properly listening to that person. Besides, advice can be overwhelming for someone who has only just managed to express their thoughts and feelings – sometimes all that person needs initially is to have their struggle recognised. So proceed cautiously and carefully and don’t assume that that person wants an entire course of action mapped out for them.
Tell that person they are not alone and point them to useful resources
Being trapped in an abusive relationship can be very isolating for any individual. Abusers often keep victims under their control by isolating them from their friends and family and convincing them that are not wanted or needed by anybody else. This can simultaneously lead a victim to feel as if they are very different from everybody else.
To help a victim realise that they are not alone (and also to help them perhaps even acknowledge the abuse they are experiencing) it can help to point them to useful resources which illuminate on the subject of abusive relationships. You can find a list of resources here.
By gently suggesting that someone reads something, you are allowing them to take things at their own pace and not forcing them to move at a speed they are not comfortable with. You must show that person that you are there for them, and that your solidarity and support can be counted on. Showing a victim that they have other constants in their life other than their abuser is really important, and your presence as a supportive force will likely be invaluable, even if you can’t always see that.
For a person experiencing abuse, confiding in someone else can be really tricky and takes a lot of courage. You should make sure to acknowledge this, as this will help the victim to realise that they are brave and courageous and have the ability to do things for themselves. Many abusers thrive on breaking down a victim’s self-esteem; you can help to build that up again by ensuring the victim realises that they are brave and strong.
Offer your support in a way that isn’t bound by conditions
Don’t tell a victim that you’ll provide her a safe place to stay if she goes to the police. If you are in a position to offer a victim a safe place, don’t make it conditional on her doing something that might seem very difficult or near impossible for her. Simply tell her she can always stay with you if needed.
Similarly, you should offer your help in a way that isn’t too obtrusive but is simply supportive. Tell the victim you will support her in whatever action she decides to take, and offer to help her out in small ways. For example, you could let her use your phone in the event that hers is being monitored by her abuser, or you could offer to help her speak to other people about the abuse she’s experiencing if that’s something she wants to do. She make not take you up on any of these offers and that’s ok – don’t feel you need to press the point. The important thing is that she knows that there is somebody there for her.
Ensure that she realises you are there for her as a friend. For her to know that someone else cares and is looking out for her can reassure the victim and help her to potentially see through any manipulative behaviours which make her feel friendless and alone.
Don’t put yourself or the victim in danger
While you may feel tempted to directly confront your friend’s abuser, this step can be counter-productive. It may be contrary to what your friend wants and it might risk putting your friend or you in danger.
The abuser, realising that their victim has been able to speak out about their experiences, may intensify their threats and abuse and attempt to make the victim feel more isolated. They may forbid the victim from seeing you as well – something that might alienate the victim from her sole source of support.
You could also be putting yourself in danger if you confront an abuser, and it is better for you to stay safe and be available for support than risk your own safety and protection.
Don’t force the victim to do anything they don’t want to do. There may be a very good reason they don’t want to do it, which you might not be able to fully appreciate. Don’t risk the victim’s mental or physical health and safety just because you are convinced something is the correct course of action – it may well not be.