If you’ve ever stood witness to a loved one enduring an abusive relationship, or if you’ve been there when someone is struggling to cope with the trauma after the end of an abusive relationship, you know that the impact of domestic violence reaches far beyond the partners behind closed doors. Helplessness, frustration, grief…having these emotions are normal when trying to figure out how to support someone who’s hurting.
- How do I know if someone is in an abusive relationship?
- Someone came to me for help and I don’t know what to do.
- General tips and skills for the support person.
Just remember: your loved one’s experience is not about you.
While there are some general predictions we might make around how a survivor responds to trauma, it’s ultimately deeply personal and unique. An individual’s background and lived experiences (e.g. gender, sexuality, race, culture, mental and physical health, and so on), as well as the particular circumstances around the abuse that occurred, will shape a survivor’s understanding of the trauma and inform how they work on healing from it in the ways that are healthiest for them as unique people. This means that an approach that works for some people may not work for all.
How do I know if someone is in an abusive relationship?
Sometimes the signs may be a little more obvious. Is someone showing up with physical injuries that seem unexpected for the person’s daily lifestyle (e.g. bruises that are unusual for an office employee), or do their explanations of injuries somehow seem forced, practiced, or awkward? Have you witnessed their partner being disrespectful, verbally cruel, physically rough, or emotionally manipulative?
Sometimes the signs are so subtle that you may not readily recognize them. Is someone spending less time with friends and family than before and becoming more socially isolated? Are they making decisions that seem out of character compared to the decisions they made before they entered this relationship (such as sudden and unexpected changes to lifestyle or daily routines)? Do they seem nervous or even afraid about disappointing or offending their partner?
While the following articles are written for the perspective of someone being abused, many of these behaviors and warnings signs are visible to outside observers as well.
- MJ’s “Is It Abuse?” page
- NCADV: “Signs of Abuse“
- Domestic Abuse Intervention Services: “Common Warning Signs of Domestic Violence“
Someone came to me for help and I don’t know what to do.
That’s okay. The two most helpful things anyone can do:
- Believe their story.
- Provide a resource for them to turn to.
There is absolutely no shame or guilt in recognizing your own boundaries and challenges and referring someone to a more appropriate resource. You can still be supportive while both holding your boundaries and encouraging the survivor to find additional help. For example, you might say things like, “I’m not sure what to do and I want to make sure you’re safe – may I drive you to [domestic violence agency/nonprofit/therapist’s]?” or, “I know things are really rough right now. Can I bring over some dinner for you and the kids so it’s one less thing you need to worry about?”
General Tips & Skills for the Support Person
Believe the other person’s story.
Domestic violence can be shocking, terrifying, or even horrifying. Sometimes the abusive person is someone that is considered an upstanding member of the community (“I know them! They’re so kind and generous – they couldn’t possibly be abusive!”). Statistically speaking, while false allegations do happen, they are vanishingly rare and usually due to more complex factors; all known evidence supports defaulting to believing in a victim.
Even if you’re not sure that the allegations are true, act like you believe the victim until you have a very, very good reason not to. The statistics overwhelmingly show that this is the best default reaction to have, no matter how strange or unbelievable it may seem at first.
- The Conversation: “Here’s the truth about false accusations of sexual violence“
Remember that this isn’t about you.
It’s never easy to hear that someone you care about in some capacity is suffering, and understandably, you may have emotions of your own coming up: anger that someone hurt the person you care about, grief over the person’s pain, maybe panic if you know you want to do something but you have no idea what.
All those emotions and more are completely valid and understandable, but you don’t want to end up needing emotional support from the survivor over the survivor’s own experiences. This distracts the survivor from their own needs during a time when they should be focusing on those needs before anyone else’s.
As a support person, it is essential to keep the focus on the survivor and their process. However, you still have the right to find support of your own and doing so will make it easier to be an ally in the long run without burning out. Most hotlines and many advocacy agencies are available to allies, too, not only survivors, and therapists can also be useful. If you choose to rely on another loved one, make sure it’s someone you can trust and, if possible, isn’t someone who knows the survivor, as that can make the web of relationships more complicated or make the survivor think you’re talking about them behind their back.
There are many, many reasons people end up in abusive relationships and why they may be unwilling or unable to leave. What matters is that they’re seeking help now. Try to keep both yourself and the survivor focused on what needs to be done in the present moment to achieve the survivor’s self-identified goal, whether that means planning for safety while remaining in the abusive relationship, planning how to leave safely, or working on their healing process after leaving.
Don’t pressure someone into a particular decision.
Some people choose to remain in abusive relationships. Reasons for doing so may be about love, practical concerns around shelter or finances, child custody, hope that things will change, or any number of other possibilities. Regardless of your personal opinion, pushing someone to leave before they’re ready can backfire, either by the survivor deciding not to confide in you anymore or by choosing to return to the relationship later because they’re weren’t committed to ending it in the first place.
Alternatively, if someone wants to end a relationship, including a familial one, you should respect that decision even if you disagree. People end relationships all the time for a variety of reasons, including ones that have nothing to do with abuse, and that’s okay! Do your best to support their decision, and if you can’t, then be clear about the ways in which you can and also cannot support them. Avoid victim-blaming language, and be aware of the ways in which people can accidentally end up excusing (or “colluding”) with abusive behavior.
- Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness: “Avoiding Victim-Blaming” (note: this article uses gendered language; victim-blaming applies to survivors of all genders)
Practice active listening.
People who have experienced ongoing periods of control and abuse from someone they trusted, whether that person was an intimate partner, a friend, or a family member, often develop a tendency to pay very close attention to other people’s body language and emotional states. This is because being able to anticipate a change in mood or behavior could mean the difference between safety and harm.
- Street Medic Wiki: “Active Listening Skills“
- HelpGuide.org: “Nonverbal Communication: Improving Your Nonverbal Skills and Reading Body Language“
Be aware of your own boundaries, triggers, and well-being.
Whether or not someone has personally experienced abuse, they can be intimately affected by someone else’s experience. This is called “vicarious trauma.” The closer a relationship you have with someone, or the more you share an identity or lived experience, the more likely you are to be impacted.
This is normal and natural for humans, and fortunately there has been a lot of research on how to build up one’s emotional “resiliency” – that is, a person’s ability to recover from emotional challenges and minimize long-term impact. Being aware of the ways in which you are vulnerable to certain situations means being better able to protect both yourself and the person you’re supporting. Always check in with your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual states: has your eating or sleeping pattern changed? Are you more exhausted than usual?
- American Counseling Association: “Vicarious Trauma (Fact Sheet)“
- Joyful Heart Foundation: “Signs of Vicarious Trauma“
- Office for Victims of Crime: “The Vicarious Trauma Toolkit“
- American Medical Association: “Caregiver Self-Assessment Questionnaire“
- American Psychological Association: “The Road to Resilience“
When in doubt, call a hotline or advocacy agency.
Hotlines are anonymous and will provide support and resources to you as the ally. If you’re not sure what to do and the survivor doesn’t want to make the call themselves, you can call a hotline or domestic violence agency and ask for information without sharing personally identifying details. This protects both you and the survivor while allowing you to figure out what options are available for the survivor or how you can keep yourself safe, too.