If you suspect or know for sure that someone in your life is in an abusive relationship, it can be difficult to know how to help.
The victim is usually very secretive and will go to great lengths to physically hide or minimize the abuse. He/she may make excuses, literally and/or physically cover up the signs of abuse or devise other ways of deflecting attention away from the situation.
The perpetrator of the abuse is often filled with shame and remorse after an incident, even if it is only short-lived. Trying to discuss his/her abusive behavior even if you have a close relationship, must be approached with caution because of the possibility of making the situation worse for the victim.
I offer the following as a partial list of DOs and DON’Ts when thinking about how to help:
1. Ask. This should be done tactfully and sympathetically, not aggressively. If you are vehement and aggressive, you are just heaping more abuse on an already abused person.
2. Express concern. You might say that you are concerned because you have noticed some changes in behavior, both emotional and physical.
3. Listen and validate. Once you express concern, leave room for the individual to respond. When/if he/she confides in you, let him/her know how difficult it must be and at times confusing.
4. Offer help. Before you even mention your suspicions to the individual, do some research about what’s available in terms of treatment and protection. You can also supply phone numbers and even offer to be present when the person calls or has to visit the police station.
5. Support his/her decisions. Whether he/she decides to leave and asks for help in making that happen or if the person decides to stay, it is not up to you to make the call.
1. Wait for him/her to come to you. Both victims and perpetrators are notoriously secretive about abuse. They are also filled with shame and guilt. They may never confide in you, regardless of your relationship with them.
2. Judge or blame. It can be difficult to understand why people who are in an abusive relationship stay. It is important to realize that these relationships are complex psychologically. Fear of exacerbating the situation is often part of the reason people seem paralyzed. A sense of helplessness, feelings of deserving to be badly treated, financial dependence and so on are only some of the reasons why change can seem terrifying.
3. Pressure him/her. Once you have offered help, respect that you have done as much as you can. Stay involved but do not expect that the person will act on your timeline.
4. Give advice. Instead, give information, support and encouragement.
5. Place conditions on your support. One of the least supportive things you can do in situations like this is to abandon the person if you feel he/she is not taking the steps you think he/she should take.
All of these recommendations require loving detachment. That is easier said than done, especially when the individuals involved are close to you. There is nothing more frustrating and even infuriating when you know that Domestic Violence is occurring. Not taking immediate action triggers our own feelings of helplessness.
It is important to accept that sometimes our desire to help is limited. It is difficult to understand why people do what they do, especially in situations like this.
However, compassion and empathy, non-judgmental support and real solid information about options are the most effective and loving things you can do.
In my next post, I will discuss how this does NOT apply when there are children involved.