Scrolling through Instagram, it’s easy to think everyone’s romantic relationships are picture-perfect bliss. But, 1 in 4 women in the United States will experience severe physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner in her lifetime. Odds are, someone you know is one of the four.
What should you do if a friend confides in you about relationship violence? What if you suspect your friend is in an unhealthy relationship? The words you speak to a survivor of abuse are powerful. Even well-intentioned words of unsolicited advice can intensify the hurt of someone already suffering. On the other hand, your words of empathy and encouragement could be the catalyst for someone’s healing. Being prepared for those conversations makes all the difference.
Learn the signs and understand the situation
Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behavior in a relationship used to gain power and control over another person. Abuse can take many forms— In addition to overt physical force, abuse can consist of threats, coercively controlling all finances, using children as leverage, playing mind games, humiliation and name calling, and isolation from family and friends. Look for warning signs of a potentially abusive relationship: possessive and controlling behavior, a short temper, restricting a partner’s ability to see loved ones, inhibiting work or schooling, substance abuse, and making harsh or demeaning verbal comments.
While difficult to understand from the outside, an individual in an abusive relationship may choose to stay for countless reasons. A survivor of domestic violence may fear being alone, worry about the impact on her kids, feel shame and embarrassment at the idea of someone finding out, lack the financial resources to live independently, and fear retaliation from her partner if she tries to leave. She may also sincerely love her partner and hope things will change.
It takes courage and vulnerability to open up about an experience of relationship abuse. Affirm your friend’s bravery and show compassion. Really listen to her story, and don’t immediately jump in and try to fix the situation. Every relationship and process of healing from abuse is different. Encouraging a friend to immediately leave an abusive situation may not be the best choice for her situation. In fact, attempting to leave an abusive partner exponentially increases the likelihood a partner will use lethal force in retaliation. Additionally, her religious beliefs, family, or other community may encourage her to stay in the relationship. Offer your friend hope and let her know you’re a safe and steady source of support.
- If you’re approaching a friend about a relationship you suspect may be abusive, share your observations about her interactions with her partner.
- Point to specific behaviors and explain how that behavior would make you feel if you were in her shoes.
- Ask her if she wants to talk about it and let her know she’s not alone, and always remind your friend the situation is not her fault.
- No matter the reason for the behavior, everyone is responsible for their own actions and no one deserves abuse.
Pass on resources
In addition to offering your support and a listening ear, pass on resources you think may help. Learn about organizations in your community offering services to domestic violence survivors. Local organizations may offer support groups, emergency shelters, hotlines, legal advocacy, and other resources that could be valuable for your friend. Once you learn about available resources, consider sharing that information spontaneously with your circle of influence— you never know who might be in need of help. National educational resources are available from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, and The Mend Project. The National Domestic Violence Hotline offers confidential help 24/7 at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY).
Domestic violence is far too common and very often overlooked. Take the time to educate yourself about domestic violence and learn about organizations working to reduce the statistics. Being available and prepared to talk about relationship violence with your friend may be the support she needs to recognize, escape, or heal from an abusive relationship.