Knowing that one of your dear friends or family members is going through abuse can be a defeating fact. You might fear for their health, both mental and physical, and for all the right reasons. You also might try your best to rescue them or make them leave the abuser. Even though everything you do comes from the right place, every abuse situation is different, so you need to be careful about how you approach it. If you don’t know how to help someone in an abusive relationship, here are a few tips that might offer some insight.
Get to know the signs
First things first, before you do anything else, you need to make sure that your friend is indeed dealing with the abuse. If you notice their partner is insulting them in front of other people, if they are worried they will anger their partner, they make excuses for their abusive behavior, if their partner exhibits extreme jealousy or your friend has marks or injuries, these are just some of the red flags you should keep an eye on.
When you notice the signs, it’s time to approach your friend carefully and with patience and understanding. Start by talking to them, and building trust. Remember that this person may not see the situation in the same perspective that you have, or even that they have taken on some of the blame for the abuse (called gaslighting, which is a common tactic that abusers use to maintain their control of a person). It may not even be on the agenda of this person to leave, but helping them to see clearly, within their own boundaries and sometimes more slowly than you would like, is key.
Honesty is the best policy in these situations, so make sure to tell them you’re worried. Help them see that the abuse they are going through is wrong, that it is not their fault, and get ready for them to get quiet or even defensive. Still, you need to be honest and show that you support your friend no matter what they decide to do.
There are a lot of help lines and trauma centers in larger urban areas, but if you live out in Boony’sVille or are simply unfamiliar with the area in which you live, you likely don’t have people to help on speed dial. Find and bookmark relevant websites, put numbers into your phone to have on hand, and do the legwork that your friend either is not emotionally ready to do, or simply is afraid to do because of backlash. Armor yourself with information from as many sources as possible, dig in for the long haul, and be patient.
Make a defense plan
This is one of the most important parts and the part where you can help the most. In case violence starts again, your friend needs to have a plan—phone numbers of reliable friends, shelters and advocacies. It’s especially important to have the law on your side. If you’re lucky to live in a developed country with a good legal system like Australia, you can easily find experienced criminal lawyers in Sydney who can take your case and help with any issues. Best lawyers even have programs that offer accessible representation to clients with limited financial means, so choose your representative well. It is helpful to make notes of specific incidents, dates and any important info that can be used down the road, but that information should not be kept in the house for the abuser to find. Your safety plan must also include a quick way to pack and a place to stay in case of an emergency.
Listening is the key to helping an abused party. Remember that talking about abuse is never easy, so offer support and listen carefully. If your friend requires help, be there to provide it. Your support should not only be verbal, but it needs to be concrete. When talking about their abusive relationship, don’t use aggressive language like “You need to leave them”, but try saying something like “I’m worried about what might happen to you if you stay”. People stay in abusive relationships because they lose their feeling of control. Use empowering language that reminds them that they can control the narrative. Even if your friend decides to stay, you need to continue with your support and be there once they are ready to escape the abusive relationship. Often once they realize they are not stuck in their role, they begin to see what is really happening and are more open to making changes.
In case they choose to stay in an abusive relationship (which is something that happens often) stay with your friend. Offer reassurance that you will always be there to help in case she needs assistance in the future—that fact means so much. You can’t rescue someone by force, but you can stay by their side and let them know they can rely on you. If they decide to leave, know that they will feel sad and lonely, so this is when they need your support the most.
Know when to call the police
If you know your friend’s taking abuse and that violence is occurring actively, call the police right away. If you witness abuse taking place, do the same, and again, create a written document of the incident(s) with as much detail as possible. Do this as soon after the situation as possible. The police are the safest and most effective way to protect the victim (and their kids if that’s the case). Kids should never be left in an abusive situation, so don’t hesitate to do whatever is necessary to ensure their safety, even if it requires ignoring the wishes of the victim or the abuser.
In short, you should be trying to actively help instead of to ‘rescue’ your friend. Remember that you’re dealing with an adult who makes their own decisions, so respect their wishes and needs and offer your support and help if they ask for it—this is the best thing you can do. When they are ready to take your advice or come to you for help, have the necessary info and resources already planned and contacted to make any transitions as seamless as possible.