Emotional abuse can happen to anyone at any time in their lives. Children, teens and adults all experience emotional abuse. And emotional abuse can have devastating consequences on relationships and all those involved. Just because there is no physical mark doesn’t mean the abuse isn’t real and isn’t a problem or even a crime in some countries.
Definition of Emotional Abuse
One definition of emotional abuse is: “any act including confinement, isolation, verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, infantilization, or any other treatment which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth.” 1
Emotional abuse is also known as psychological abuse or as “chronic verbal aggression” by researchers. People who suffer from emotional abuse tend to have very low self-esteem, show personality changes (such as becoming withdrawn) and may even become depressed, anxious or suicidal.
Emotional Abuse Signs and Symptoms
Emotional abuse symptoms vary but can invade any part of a person’s life. Signs of emotional abuse include:
- Yelling or swearing (read about Emotional Bullying and How to Deal with an Emotional Bully)
- Name calling or insults; mocking
- Threats and intimidation
- Ignoring or excluding
- Denial of the abuse and blaming of the victim
Emotional abuse, like other types of abuse, tends to take the form of a cycle. 2 In a relationship, this cycle starts when one partner emotionally abuses the other, typically to show dominance. The abuser then feels guilt, but not about what he (or she) has done, but more over the consequences of his actions. The abuser then makes up excuses for his own behavior to avoid taking responsibility for what has happened. The abuser then resumes “normal” behavior as if the abuse never happened and may, in fact, be extra charming, apologetic and giving – making the abused party believe that the abuser is sorry. The abuser then begins to fantasize about abusing his partner again and sets up a situation in which more emotional abuse can take place.
Examples of Emotional Abuse
In some countries emotional abuse is defined and the following examples of emotional abuse are given by Justice Canada:
Whether you suspect that a friend or family member is being abused or you witnessed someone being abused, you can take steps to help.
What are signs that someone may be abused?
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, some warning signs include the following: 1
- Their partner insults them in front of other people.
- They are constantly worried about making their partner angry.
- They make excuses for their partner’s behavior.
- Their partner is extremely jealous or possessive.
- They have unexplained marks or injuries.
- They’ve stopped spending time with friends and family.
- They are depressed or anxious, or you notice changes in their personality.
If you think your friend or family member is being abused, be supportive by listening to them and asking questions about how they’re doing. The person being abused may not be ready or able to leave the relationship right now.
How can I help someone who is being abused?
Knowing or thinking that someone you care about is in a violent relationship can be very hard. You may fear for her safety — and maybe for good reason. You may want to rescue her or insist she leave, but every adult must make her own decisions.
Each situation is different, and the people involved are all different too. Here are some ways to help a loved one who is being abused:
- Setupa time to talk. Try to make sure you have privacy and won’t be distracted or interrupted. Visit your loved one in person if possible.
- Let her know you’re concerned about her safety. Be honest. Tell her about times when you were worried about her. Help her see that abuse is wrong. She may not respond right away, or she may even get defensive or deny the abuse. Let her know you want to help and will be there to support her in whatever decision she makes.
- Be supportive. Listen to your loved one. Keep in mind that it may be very hard for her to talk about the abuse. Tell her that she is not alone and that people want to help. If she wants help, ask her what you can do.
- Offer specific help. You might say you are willing to just listen, to help her with child care, or to provide transportation, for example.
- Don’t place shame, blame, or guilt on her. Don’t say, “You just need to leave.” Instead, say something like, “I get scared thinking about what might happen to you.” Tell her you understand that her situation is very difficult.
- Help her make a safety plan.Safety planning might include packing important items and helping her find a “safe” word. This is a code word she can use to let you know she is in danger without an abuser knowing. It might also include agreeing on a place to meet her if she has to leave in a hurry.
- Encourage her to talk to someone who can help. Offer to help her find a local domestic violence agency. Offer to go with her to the agency, the police, or court. The National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-799-SAFE (7233); the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 800-656-HOPE (4673); and the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline, 866-331-9474, are all available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They can offer advice based on experience and can help find local support and services.
- If she decides to stay, continue to be supportive. She may decide to stay in the relationship, or she may leave and then go back many times. It may be hard for you to understand, but people stay in abusive relationships for many reasons. Be supportive, no matter what she decides to do.
- Encourage her to do things outside of the relationship. It’s important for her to see friends and family.
- If she decides to leave, continue to offer help. Even though the relationship was abusive, she may feel sad and lonely once it is over. She may also need help getting services from agencies or community groups.
- Let her know that you will always be there no matter what. It can be very frustrating to see a friend or loved one stay in an abusive relationship. But if you end your relationship, she has one less safe place to go in the future. You cannot force a person to leave a relationship, but you can let them know you’ll help, whatever they decide to do.
How do I report domestic violence or abuse?
If you see or hear domestic violence or child abuse in your neighborhood or in a public place, call 911. Don’t worry about whether the couple or person will be angry with you for calling. It could be a matter of life and death, and it’s better to be safe than sorry. You don’t have to give your name if you are afraid for your own safety.
If you want to report abuse but there is no immediate danger, ask local police or child/adult protective services to make a welfare check. This surprise check-in by local authorities may help the person being abused.
Did we answer your question about helping someone who is being abused?
For more information about helping someone who is being abused, call the OWH Helpline at 1-800-994-9662 or check out the following resources from other organizations:
If you think that a friend or someone you know is in an abusive or unhealthy relationship, it can be difficult to know what to do. You may want to help, but be scared to lose them as a friend or feel as though it is not your place to step in. All of these feelings are normal, but at One Love we believe the most important thing you can do as friend is start a conversation. Here are a few tips to help you talk to your friend.
Calmly start a conversation on a positive note
Find time to talk to your friend one-on-one in a private setting. Start by giving your friend positive affirmations and complimentary statements like, “You’re always so fun to be around. I’ve missed you!” Once your friend feels comfortable, you can begin calmly voicing your concern for your friend. It is likely that they feel as though things are already chaotic enough in their life, so to best help them, you will need to be a steady support with whom they can talk openly and peacefully. If you don’t panic and do your best to make them feel safe, then it is pretty likely that they will continue to seek your advice. You don’t want to scare your friend by worrying, starting an argument or blaming them.
Listen to your friend and let them open up about the situation on their own terms. Don’t be forceful with the conversation. It may be very hard for your friend to talk about their relationship, but remind them that they are not alone and that you want to help.
Focus on the unhealthy behaviors
The focus of the conversation should be on the unhealthy behaviors in the relationship and to provide your friend with a safe space to talk about it. Sometimes, our instinct is to immediately label the relationship as “abusive” to drive home the severity of the situation. This instinct, however, can cause your friend to retreat and shut down. Instead, focus on the specific behaviors you’re seeing and how that behavior makes them feel. For example, saying something like “It seems like your partner wants to know where you are a lot and is always texting and calling – how does that make you feel?” pinpoints the specific behavior and gets your friend to think about how it makes them feel. You can also gently point out that certain behaviors seem unhealthy and be honest about how you would feel if someone did it to you. This is one of the first steps in getting your friend to understand what is and is not an appropriate behavior in a relationship. Help them to understand for themselves that something is off about the relationship, and acknowledge that their feelings are legitimate.
Keep the conversation friendly, not preachy
Very few people in abusive relationships recognize themselves as victims and it is likely that they do not want to be viewed that way. If you want to be helpful, make yourself emotionally accessible and available to your friend. One way to reassure your friend that you are not judging them is to normalize the situation. Talking openly about your own experiences with relationship troubles will help them feel as though they are not alone. Be careful not to derail the conversation and keep the focus on your friend’s situation. Try to make it feel like an equal exchange between two friends — not like a therapist and a patient or a crisis counselor and a victim.
Don’t place the blame on your friend
Help your friend understand that the behaviors they are experiencing are not normal, and that it is NOT their fault their partner is acting this way. They may feel personally responsible for their partner’s behavior or as though they brought on the abuse, but assure them that this is not the case. Everyone is responsible for their own behavior, and no matter what the reason, abuse is never okay.
Allow your friend to make their own decision
If your friend is in an abusive relationship, the last thing you want to do is tell them to “just break up!” Relationship abuse is very complex, and your friend may be experiencing some form of trauma bonding—or loyalty to the person who is abusing them. Also, your friend is already dealing with a controlling and manipulative partner and the last thing that they need is for you to mimic those behaviors by forcefully telling them what to do.
Offer solutions to your friend
The best way for you to help your friend is to offer them options. Don’t push any one of them in particular, but instead let your friend know that you will support them no matter what they decide to do. Some of these options include visiting the campus violence prevention center or behavioral health center, talking to a R.A. or faculty member, or even calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Depending on how ready your friend is to open up, they may feel more comfortable vetting the situation with someone anonymously over the phone, or they may want to have the conversation in person with someone on campus who can help. If your friend is planning to end things with their partner, you should create a safety plan with them because the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is post-break up. Maintain a calm approach when dealing with the situation and be open to what your friend is most comfortable with. At the suggestion of seeking help, it is possible that your friend may try to cover up or down play the abuse. Reassure your friend that they are the expert in their own life and make them feel as though they are in control of the situation.
The only exception here is if someone is in imminent danger – whether it is self-harm or harm inflicted by another person. If your friend is in immediate danger, you should alert authorities (i.e., campus safety or 911) right away. Even if you think your friend will feel betrayed or angry with you for going to the police, saving someone’s life is the most important thing. Relationship abuse can be fatal and you should not hesitate to take serious action if you think that anyone is at risk for physical or sexual harm.
Expect more conversations in the future
The first time you have this conversation with your friend, they may admit a few things that have happened and then suddenly pull away or take it back. You do not have to get your friend to change their mind completely about their partner and you don’t need them to “admit” that they are being abused. The goal of the conversation is to let them know that you care and that you are available for them when they need to talk. It is not likely for the situation to be resolved neatly after one conversation, so you should expect to have more talks like this. Be patient through the process, and know that you are doing the right thing by talking to them about this difficult topic. Let your friend know that you support them and that you are there for them should they need you.
If you would like more information on how you can help a friend in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, please check out the US Department of Health’s Office on Women’s Health, or call the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233 to get advice.
Emotionally abusive relationships often affect more than the people directly involved. If you suspect that a family member or friend is in an unhealthy relationship, you might want to do something – anything – to help. It’s natural for that urge to get even stronger when that person tells you that they are experiencing emotional abuse.
What is Emotional Abuse?
Emotional abuse involves nonphysical behavior that belittles another person. Emotional abuse can include insults, put downs, verbal threats or other tactics that make someone feel threatened, inferior, ashamed, or degraded. You can learn about the five signs of emotional abuse here.
Since emotional abuse is isolating, complicated and disorienting, it can be difficult to figure out how to support a friend or family member experiencing emotional abuse. Below are tips on how to support someone in an emotionally abusive relationship:
Give the person experiencing emotional abuse space to share their story. It may be difficult, but do not jump in with advice, your personal thoughts or emotions. When listening to a story that’s difficult to hear, check in to make sure you’re actively listening by paraphrasing or repeating what you’ve heard, for example: “I’m so sorry you’re going through all of this. It sounds like a lot.”
DON’T Shame, Judge, or Critique
Remember, emotional abuse is complicated and confusing. It’s natural to have a lot of questions but be aware of your tone and phrasing. The person sharing with you is experiencing a lot in their relationship and most likely already feels a mix of emotions, including guilt and shame. Try not to add onto that.
DO Believe Someone if They Tell You They’re Experiencing Emotional Abuse
Abusers are often very skilled at creating a façade: it may be hard to believe that they are capable of abuse. This doubt is a tool used to exercise control.
Believing someone when they tell you they were abused not only supports them but can also serve to loosen the control exercised over them by the person who is hurting them.
DON’T Make Excuses for the Abuser
Abusive behavior in relationships is typically motivated by a desire for power and control. Yet the specific circumstances of the abuser can vary widely. Whatever the situation, there’s no excuse for abuse. When your friend or family member is sharing their experience with you, it is not the right time to contemplate or try to understand “why” someone is abusive – even if your intentions are good, trying to understand the why in that moment can make the person experiencing the abuse feel dismissed, unheard, and unsupported.
DO Share and be Honest About Your Concerns
It’s okay to voice concerns you may have, but be sure to take a non-judgmental position. Communicate that you are coming from a place of compassion. Try starting by normalizing the experience using a phrase such as, “I think anyone who experienced what you have been through could feel that way”. Use “I” statements to express your concern, such as, “I feel: (emotion) when: (scenario/behavior) because: (reason).” This example could sound like: “I feel worried when I hear about what you’ve been through because I don’t think this behavior is okay.”
DON’T Make it All About You
If a friend or family member is sharing details of their experience with emotional abuse, it’s normal to have a lot of strong emotions. You may be scared or confused. You may be upset, hurt or feel betrayed like they kept an important secret from you.
It’s okay for you to feel whatever you are feeling. Try and be aware of the impact your reaction may have on the person who is opening up to you. Share your concerns and keep in mind this person is coming to you for support, not the other way around. Try not to put them in a position where they feel they have to justify their actions or choices.
DO Research Resources
Knowledge is power. Collaborate with the person experiencing emotional abuse to figure out what kind of support they might need or want. This post about the five signs of emotional abuse can help in your conversation. Offer to do the leg work of making phone calls, scheduling appointments, or arranging transportation. If you’re stuck, try calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233; they can connect you to resources in your area. If you live in New York, visit our Hotlines page or call our 24-hour Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-621-HOPE(4673). For in-person, ongoing assistance, contact one of our Community Programs.
DON’T Pressure or Force your Opinions or Views
Pressuring or forcing someone who is in an emotionally abusive relationship to leave or take action may end up pushing them away from you. It might feel like you’re helping them, but it can end up further isolating them. While you can offer resources and be there to listen and validate, know that you can’t force change. Help by supporting the person who is experiencing emotional abuse to make choices that are right for them, not you.
To learn more about emotional abuse, click here to read the five signs of emotional abuse. To learn more about Safe Horizon programs that may help, you can visit our Community Programs page, Hotlines page, or learn the facts about domestic violence.
DO Take Care of Yourself
It’s possible you may start feeling emotionally or physically exhausted as the result of supporting a friend or family member in an emotionally abusive relationship – this is known as compassion fatigue. People experiencing compassion fatigue often start to display a lack of empathy or indifference toward the person they are supporting and/or experience headaches, digestive problems, or feel overwhelmed and irritable.
If you are supporting someone in an emotionally abusive relationship, you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, helpless, or prioritizing other people’s needs before your own. That’s why it’s important that you make sure you check in with yourself and be open to seeking support. Here are some self-care tips our experts recommend.
Chat With Us!
Safe Horizon client advocates are now available by chat to offer information, advocacy and support to people who have been impacted by violence, crime, and abuse. To chat with an advocate during business hours, visit our SafeChat page.
How To Help a Friend
Most survivors of sexual and relationship violence disclose the assault or abuse to at least one other person, usually a friend. You can’t rescue your friend or solve their problems. But being there to listen, believe and support your friend in a positive way can greatly influence their healing process. The following suggestions/information can help you be a supportive friend.
Listen and Support
It’s tough to be prepared when a friend tells you that they been the victim of sexual or relationship abuse. Faced with that situation, the worst thing you can do is nothing. Remember, you can’t rescue your friends or solve their problems. You can only provide support.
- Support and understanding are essential. It takes a lot of courage for a survivor to share their experience;
- Try to provide a safe/non-judgmental environment, emotional comfort, and support for the survivor to express feelings;
- Let them know that they can talk with you. Listen. Don’t rush to provide solutions.
Believe Your Friend
The most common reason people choose not to tell anyone about sexual abuse is the fear that the listener won’t believe them. People rarely lie or exaggerate about abuse; if someone tells you, it’s because they trust you and needs someone to talk to.
- People rarely make up stories of abuse. It is not necessary for you to decide if they were “really hurt.” If the survivor says they were hurt, that should be enough;
- Believe what your friend tells you. It may have been difficult for them to talk to you and trust you.
- Sexual assault is NEVER the survivor’s fault. No one asks to be sexually assaulted by what they wear, say or do. Let the survivor know that only the perpetrator is to blame;
- The survivor needs to hear that fears, anxieties, guilt, and anger are normal, understandable and acceptable emotions;
- Remember, no one ever deserves to be abused or harassed.
- Don’t press for details – let your friend decide how much they want to share. Ask them how you can help;
- Survivors have to struggle with complex decisions and feelings of powerlessness, trying to make decisions for them may only increase that sense of powerlessness.
- You can be supportive by helping your friend to identify all the available options and then help by supporting their decision-making process.
- The survivor can’t just “forget it” or just move on. Recovery is a long term process and each individual moves at their own pace.
- Encourage the survivor to seek medical attention, report the assault, and or contact SHARPP. Remember, the survivor must ultimately make the decision as to what to do. They are the expert in their own lives. Don’t push. Remember, support your friend’s choices no matter what they decide.
- Don’t tell others what the survivor tells you. Let the individual decide who they will tell. It is important not to share information with others who are not involved;
- If you do need to share information for your friend’s safety, get permission by letting your friend know what you will share and with whom it will be shared;
- Don’t confront the perpetrator. Though you might want to fix the situation or get back at the abuser, this could make things worse, for you and your friend.
- An important part of helping the survivor is to identify ways in which the survivor can re-establish their sense of physical and emotional safety. You are a step in the process. Ask your friend what would make they feel safe and how you can help them accomplish this.
- If the stalking or harassment is ongoing, help your friend to develop a plan of what to do if they are in immediate danger. Having a specific plan and preparing in advance can be important if the violence escalates.
- SHARPP can assist with creating safety plans that are specific to the situation and individuals involved.
Things you can say
It is hard to know what to say to a friend when they confide in you. Refrain from asking a lot of questions, instead, support your friend with these phrases:
- It’s not your fault
- I’m sorry this happened
- I believe you
- How can I help you?
- I am glad you told me
- I’ll support your choices
- You’re not alone
You may also find it helpful to share with your friend what you have learned about violence. This is also a good time to share with them your belief in the possibility to heal. Let your friend know that you believe that them and that they have strength and capacity to heal.
Get Support for Yourself
Sometimes the family and friends of victims can also feel the impact of the crime and experience emotional and physical reactions. This is called secondary victimization. Hearing about relationship abuse, sexual assault, and stalking can be upsetting. You may feel angry, sad, frustrated, and helpless. If you have experienced crime or other traumatic events in the past, your friend’s experience might bring up memories and feelings of that time. You may want to talk about your feelings but also respect your friend’s privacy. You too can contact SHARPP and speak to an advocate confidentially to get help for yourself.
If you have questions about any of the material on this page, please call SHARPP at (603) 862-3494 or reach out online via our webchat.
If you have a friend in an abusive relationship, you might feel scared, hopeless, and most of all, helpless. Whether the intimate partner violence in question is physical, emotional, economic, or falls into multiple categories, you may be at a complete loss as to what you can do.
The best ways to show up for your friend will depend on your relationship, the nature of the abuse, and what stage your friend is on in their journey. “There’s no cookie-cutter approach,” Arlene Vassell, vice president of Programs, Prevention, and Social Change at the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence (NRCDV), tells SELF.
With that in mind, “most of the time, what you’re trying to do is build trust,” Vassell explains. “Your goal as a friend is to create a space where someone will open up to you and to support and empower them.” Here, domestic violence counselors and a survivor share what you can say to get closer to this goal, plus some sentiments to avoid.
Here are some statements to try:
This expresses your intention to be a reliable, nonjudgmental ally whose love and support aren’t contingent on your friend making certain choices. “Show yourself as a friend no matter whether they decide to leave or not,” Vassell says. It really is about showing, not just telling. “Continue to be supportive and stay connected and show up and invite them out,” Vassell says.
People in abusive relationships often have a hard time trusting their inner voice. Your friend’s abuser has likely conditioned them to devalue their gut instincts, Jeanne King, Ph.D., founding director of Partners In Prevention, a 501(c)3 that educates doctors and nurses on how to recognize and intervene when their patients are being abused, tells SELF. Instead of telling your friend what to do, like their abuser does, “guide them to hear their own inner voice,” King says. “You want to help them find what’s right for themselves.”
One way to do this is to ask thoughtful questions about your friend’s feelings, wants, and needs surrounding the relationship. Some questions you might ask, per the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) site Loveisrespect: What is it like when you two have an argument? How do you wish things were different between you two? When did you last feel truly safe and happy with this person?
Respond to what your friend says by affirming their feelings, King suggests. You can try something like, “that sounds really tough to deal with” or “that must hurt you.” Keep in mind that your friend may not be ready to open up to you, and that’s OK. Putting the questions out there shows that you care enough to ask and could get your friend thinking.
Emily R., 39, was in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship for about six years. She wonders if it would have helped to have these types of conversations with her closest friends, she tells SELF. “I don’t blame them for not [asking these questions], obviously,” Emily says. “I wouldn’t have known what to say, either.”
If your friend has told you about abuse they’re experiencing—no matter who started the conversation and whether or not they’re asking for your help—do not take it lightly. “Disclosing is often one of the hardest things a survivor has to do,” Vassell explains. “They’ve decided they want to share their most personal, hurtful, painful experiences with you. It’s a huge step. As a friend, you need to recognize that.”
Sharing even a little bit can be hard. Reassure your friend that they only need to tell you however much feels comfortable. You can also take this opportunity to direct your friend to resources like the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1−800−799−7233), which is staffed by trained advocates 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. In addition to offering help in emergency situations, this type of resource might make your friend feel more at ease sharing. “It’s so important [for] your friend to have an outlet for them to talk freely,” Vassell explains.
“Once you start to see physical violence, the odds [of serious injury or death] go up,” King points out. “If it can happen once, it can happen again, and each time it can escalate in terms of the consequences.”
If there are clear signs that your friend is experiencing physical abuse (or they have told you about it), it’s generally OK to express calmly and matter-of-factly that you care about them, that what is going on is not normal, and that you believe they are at risk.
You can show this concern without being judgmental or demanding. Consider trying something along the lines of: “The way your partner is treating you appears to be hurting you. I care about you, and I’m worried that you’re in a dangerous situation,” Vassell says.
A safety plan is a practical tool that lists how someone in an abusive relationship will ensure their physical, emotional, and economic security in an emergency, according to the NDVH. “It’s a tool created before the crisis situation so that the person knows what to do when things get really bad,” Vassell explains.
Safety plans are tailored to the person and should account for various scenarios that could arise while they’re still in the relationship, while they’re planning to leave, and after they leave. A couple of basic questions a safety plan should answer: Who will your friend contact (and how) if they’re in danger? Where will they go when they leave? As the NDVH points out, these things might seem obvious, but they’re worth having a conversation about now because it can be difficult to think clearly in stressful situations.
Although your friend should be the one to lead the planning, you can offer to help. Ask your friend, “If things should escalate, what would you want me to do?” Vassell says. For example, is there an emergency code word they can text you if they’re in danger and can’t make a call? Can you hold on to some cash for them?
If your friend doesn’t want to involve you, you can still point them towards resources. They can call the NDVH, find local support through the National Network to End Domestic Violence, or read up online about safety planning under different circumstances (like during pregnancy or with children).
If your friend is in imminent danger, you may need to call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline ASAP for crisis intervention.
If your friend is not currently in need of emergency assistance, it may still be good to help them find a counselor, King says. There are therapists who specialize in this area and social workers at local domestic abuse shelters and agencies who are trained in this kind of counseling too.
For Emily, about six months of counseling was what she needed to find her inner voice, make a decision, and carry out a plan to leave her abusive relationship.
Here are a few things you should never say:
The unfortunate reality is that leaving is not always a practical or even safe decision, Vassell says.
T he control was gradual, Dana recalls. At first, her husband began creating conflicts with important people in her life, including her parents. After their daughter was born, he pushed for a cross-country move, cutting Dana off from her support network. They’d fight, and he’d threaten to use the depression and anxiety she was experiencing against her, saying he’d paint her as an unfit mother. Before she finally left for good, he held her hostage in the house, took away her phone and threw her to the ground when she banged on the window for a neighbour’s attention.
But none of her friends or family members knew how dangerous Dana’s home life had become. “I hid so much of what the reality was,” Dana says. “A lot of us do.” She didn’t want people to know she was in an unhappy relationship; it made her feel like she was failing. And she didn’t know how to explain the abuse, as her now-ex would try to manipulate her into thinking she’d wronged him.
“ Statistics show women will leave several times before they cut ties for good, and they have good reasons for doing s o”
Eventually, though, she revealed a few details to a close friend, and the friend expressed her concern. “She said, ‘Hey, I think this is wrong,’” Dana recalls. Her friend didn’t tell Dana she had to leave her husband, and she didn’t condemn her when she would go back to him. Instead, she continued to let Dana know she was there for her, anytime she wanted to talk.
The approach was the right one, says Amanda Dale, executive director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, a United Way agency that provides legal advice, counselling and other supports for women who are currently in, or have left abusive relationships. It’s tempting to “go into rescue mode,” Dale says, including trying to plan a woman’s escape for her. “But that can feel very similar to the control the abuser has, in form, if not content,” Dale says. “It feels like somebody else is telling you what you should be doing.”
Instead, it’s better to provide non-judgmental support—especially when a friend or family member chooses to stay in or returns to an abusive relationship. Statistics show women will leave several times before they cut ties for good, and they have good reasons for doing so. Dana faced a nine-month custody battle after she left her partner (though her daughter remained with her the whole time). Your loved one has to be emotionally ready to endure what is often a difficult break—and that often requires the gradual building up of esteem that’s been knocked down by the abuser.
Make a plan
One way to help give a friend back some of the control they’ve lost is to create a “safety plan” with them. If a friend has revealed she was afraid during an argument, you could say, “If your partner has another episode like that one, where’s the closest escape in your home? Is there a place you can call?” Dale suggests. Provide phone numbers for local resources like the Schlifer clinic, local shelters and the 24-hour Ontario Assaulted Women’s Helpline.
Get expert help
It’s also okay to call in an expert. Hypothetical fears can often be barriers to leaving, including concerns that a woman will lose her children, get deported from the country or get cut off from financial supports. Community organizations are well versed in a woman’s legal rights and can help allay concerns. They can also help folks secretly create safe escape plans, which is key. “The risk for violence actually rises once he knows she’s thinking about leaving,” explains Dale.
Think twice before opening your door
That’s why Dale suggests advocates think through the risks before offering their homes as temporary housing. “If a very volatile abuser knows where you live, you don’t necessarily want to engage your whole family in that experience,” says Dale. Shelters, on the other hand, can provide more security. That said, a friend’s house might be a good place for a woman to store photocopies of children’s birth certificates and passports, and even money for an eventual escape.
Offer conversation starters
Of course, in the early stages, many folks aren’t ready to use the word ‘abuse,’ let alone make a safety plan. Helping friends to see patterns of control and manipulation can plant the seed that the behaviour is not normal in healthy relationships. You could say something like, “I noticed you’re a lot more scared recently” or “I notice that you’ve stopped talking about the things that used to be important to you,” Dale explains.
Dana suggests frequently reminding the person you’re there for them, and always erring on the side of reaching out. “Say something as opposed to not saying something,” she says.
For more information: The Neighbours, Friends & Families project, which was launched by Western University, offers advice on how to recognize the signs of abuse, what to say and do, and provides a list of community resources across the province.
The best strategies for helping loved ones in abusive intimate relationships.
Posted October 17, 2015 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
In my book Unhealthy Helping, I emphasize that well-intended intervention isn’t enough to effectively help others, and some forms of helping are subject to backfire. This is especially true when it comes to helping friends or loved ones experiencing domestic violence.
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month in the United States and a good time to think about how to best help a friend or relative in an abusive intimate relationship. Although U.S. government data indicate that domestic violence has declined by approximately 67 percent since 1994, millions of people experience it every year with far-ranging negative costs to individuals, families, businesses, and society.
Victimization by current or former spouses, boyfriends, or girlfriends is a type of domestic violence called intimate partner violence (IPV) which involves the use of physical or psychological aggression to gain and maintain power and control over a relationship partner. IPV may include physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. Sexual violence, like forcing a relationship partner to engage in sexual acts, and psychological aggression like belittling and threats, are forms of IPV. IPV may continue after a relationship ends. For example, stalking by an ex-partner is a form of IPV. Because intimate partner violence cuts across all groups (young to old, straight to gay, rich to poor, men and women) it’s likely that someone you care about will experience it.
Caution is warranted when trying to help IPV victims in leaving an abusive relationship because intervention is potentially dangerous to you both. You also have to proceed sensitively and respectfully. Otherwise, your sound advice is likely to be rejected and a relationship wall erected between you and the victim.
IPV victims already feel badly about themselves and their situation. This is why IPV experts advise us to be non-judgmental when providing support to IPV victims. There are many reasons why people stay in abusive intimate relationships, including threats of harm, for the sake of the children, economic dependency, social status, unacceptability of divorce, immigration status, “honeymoons” where things are okay, love, and hope that things will change.
It’s good to remember that it’s not just a simple matter of leaving, and if they feel ashamed or embarrassed because of your reactions, they’re likely to get defensive and stop sharing with you, and may even cut off the relationship with you. Remember too that they may decide to stay at least temporarily, and if they think you disapprove, they may distance from you. It’s best to not to cut the lines of communication with your judgment.
It’s alarming when someone you care about is being abused and you may be tempted to launch a rescue and take charge to get your friend or loved one “out.” But people who are abused and controlled by their intimate partner don’t respond well to helpers that try to “boss them” into immediate action. Experts say that’s because it can feel like more abuse and control. Pushing them to do something they’re not ready to do or don’t feel safe doing, may only lead them to avoid you.
So how can we effectively help? Experts suggest telling them, gently and without judgment, that you’re concerned for their safety (or emotional or physical health). Listen, believe them, and say: “I’m sorry this is happening to you.” “I know it’s complicated.” “It’s not your fault.” “You don’t deserve this.” “This doesn’t change how I feel about you.”
Because unsolicited intervention can feel disrespectful and controlling, it’s best to tread carefully. Victims must make their own decision to leave or take action, such as reporting stalking to authorities. To gently push them in that direction it’s best to ask questions: “Are you open to getting medical attention, calling a hotline, reporting the stalking, going to the police, talking to an attorney?” Avoid telling them what they must do.
You can offer help but it should be their choice whether or not to take you up on it. (Exception: Call 9-1-1 if you witness violence.) Ask what you can do to help. Say: “You’re not alone. People care about you and want to help,” “What can I do?” “Do you want me to identify resources, go with you, watch your kids so you can get help?”
Check on your friend frequently but be aware that the abusive partner may read your friend or loved one’s texts, phone messages, and emails and may listen in on conversations. Choose your words carefully until you’re sure it’s safe to talk. When calling, ask: “Is now a good time to talk?” You don’t want to endanger your loved one or your ability to provide support. If the abuser thinks you’re against them, they may demand an end to your relationship with the abused, or target you.
The other thing you can do is plant the seeds of change by gently telling them that expert help and guidance is available: “This happens to a lot of people. Help is available when you’re ready.” Empower them with the tools to act when they’re ready. For example, share resources. Encourage them to memorize the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE) or the local domestic violence shelter phone number in case things worsen. Ask them where they’d go if they had to leave and suggest they develop a safety plan (a practical plan that includes ways to stay safe while in a relationship, planning to leave, or after leaving).
The National Domestic Violence Hotline will help individuals develop plans that fit each situation. Helping others doesn’t mean taking over to solve their problems. In fact, that’s often not very helpful at all. For an intervention to be effective, we often have to tame our impulse to rescue and instead offer emotional support and tools for empowerment. This is especially true when it comes to intimate partner violence.
Here are some resources you might recommend to friends or relatives in abusive relationships:
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233) or 800-787-3224 (TDD)
RAINN (Rape Abuse National Network)
Stalking Resource Center (a program of the National Center for Victims of Crime)
WomensLaw.org (information on restraining orders)
For more on the fine art of healthy helping and giving relationships, see my book . Also available for Kindle, Nook, Kobu, and iBook e-readers.
For my other blogs on the topic of healthy/unhealthy helping and giving see: