It is a sad truth that many people still experience domestic violence, or DV, in this day and age. In the United States, domestic violence affects as many as one out of four women and one out of nine men. UN Women reports that a staggering 35 – 70% of women worldwide experience some kind of physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes.
With figures like these, it is more than likely that you will know someone affected by domestic violence at some point in your life. If a friend or family member entrusts you with this information, your first question will probably be: “What can I do to help?”
1. Educate yourself about domestic violence
If you truly want to help uplift someone in a DV situation, it is important to come from an informed position. This is an extremely sensitive, and potentially dangerous issue, and it is possible to make it worse without care and serious thoughtfulness.
Get familiar with resources like RAINN and the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Though their services are geared towards people going through these situations themselves, they do offer help for bystanders.
Seeing someone you love get hurt is upsetting, painful, and frustrating — especially when the situation does not seem to change. But information from these organizations can go a long way to help you understand, and have patience with, your friend’s situation.
Katie Ray-Jones, president of the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Dating Abuse Helpline shares that a woman in an abusive relationship will leave an average of seven times before ending the relationship for good.
Knowing this can help you have sympathy when you find out your friend has gone back to the abusive relationship — an all too likely reality.
2. Be present for your friend
One of the easiest ways we can help someone in an abusive relationship is to simply be there with them.
Make time to hang out together one-on-one. This can serve a number of purposes:
Giving them an outlet from their difficult day-to-day reality.
If a person isn’t yet ready to leave their abuser (or if they physically or financially can’t), it’s best not to pressure them. Sometimes the best way to help, is to spend time with them doing normal things.
You’ll provide a distraction from the intense stress they usually feel at home. And perhaps even better, you’ll show them what safe relationships can look like – and that they deserve to feel at ease with people who treat them right.
Giving them understanding and a safe space to open up.
When you spend time in person, you will also give them a chance to open up (if they become comfortable enough to do so). Try to listen without judgement.
It is hard, since everything in you probably hates that they are in this situation. Know that they hate it, too, but it’s not a simple dynamic to break free from.
Pressuring them to leave may make them worry your support is conditional. But do try to gently agree when they express the reality of their own situation. This can help them begin to overcome the rationalization and even brainwashing that can come along with domestic violence.
Giving them a safe place to contact the professionals.
If your friend has trusted you enough to tell you about their abusive relationship, he or she may also be open to receiving help. Check in with your friend about this: they will let you what kind of help they feel comfortable with.
Offer to go through informative websites or call a hotline together, in-person with your friend. Being there physically can be extremely helpful. It’s hard for DV victims to feel safe enough to ask for help; but you can provide a safe place where they don’t fear further retaliation from the abuser.
3. Offer your belief and your validation
You may have never seen the perpetrator’s dark side, but that does not mean it is not there. Believe your friend when they share their abuse with you.
It is an incredibly hard thing to open up about abuse. Many domestic violence victims are regularly gaslighted, and doubt their own realities – even when physical evidence of their abuse exists. Those who live in DV situations may feel they have no other alternative than to stay with their abuser; but they may also feel ashamed of their ‘weakness’ or view themselves as cowards. They also often believe they’re overreacting (due to the gaslighting), or worse, that they deserve the abuse they’ve received.
With all that context, it’s pretty easy to understand how admitting one’s own abuse can feel nearly impossible.
So, you do not want to shut this kind of conversation down, which may discourage them from coming forward to anyone else.
- “I believe you.”
- “I am sorry this happened to you.”
- and “You do not deserve to be treated like this.”
are ways you can support a friend or loved one in a DV situation.
4. Help them make a safety plan
Leaving a relationship becomes all the more complicated when things like a shared home, pets and children are involved. But leaving a DV situation is difficult and scary even without these extra factors.
That is why the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence recommends making a safety plan to escape abusive situations. They have a handy DIY plan you and your friend can fill out together, if they want your help with this.
5. Use the CARE method to intervene
What do you do if you’re in-person with both the victim and the abuser?
Firstly, know that your own safety is paramount. It’s admirable to want to help, but you cannot help if your own wellbeing is in danger. If the situation is safe for you, but you see abuse taking place, you can use the CARE Method to intervene.
RAINN outlines a specific method for intervening in a situation where you think a sexual assault may occur, but it can easily be applied to situations of domestic violence as well. The method involves:
Creating a distraction.
Referring to an authority, and
Read more on RAINN’s site to understand these steps and how to use them safely and effectively.
6. Tell your friend you value them
When someone is used to being abused, they lose confidence in themselves and internalize more and more negative self-beliefs. Often this negative talk comes from partners who use it to put them down and control them. It then becomes an inner belief, which becomes just as hard to break free from as the relationship, itself.
Before giving them a physical copy of any support materials, consider whether their abuser might find it; sometimes it’s less risky to keep things digital.
Abusers tend to make their victims feel worthless, which keeps them from leaving – they feel their abuser is the only one who would want or even tolerate them. That’s what they’ve been told over and over again, under the conditioning power of violence and threat.
Violence and threat are easy ways to form habits in humans, because it makes the habits feel life or death. This is how brainwashing and conditioned loyalty can take hold in even very intelligent and otherwise self-reliant people.
This is why it is so important to reiterate how much this person means to you. Tell them you value you them and why. Remind them they are smart, capable, strong, and worthy of love. You cannot save someone from a DV situation, but you can lighten the load by just being honest about why you love them. This builds evidence against whatever their abuser has told them.
7. Remember: “As long as they are in the relationship, you are also in the relationship.”
Years ago, I found out a close friend was being abused by her partner. When they got back together, she asked me if it would be okay to bring him to a party I was planning. I felt extremely uncomfortable about this and did not know how to best help my friend, while protecting myself, so I spoke to a volunteer on the National DV Hotline website.
The volunteer told me that if I want to keep my friendship with my friend, and help her, I have to also accept her decision about the relationship. I would have to accept that I may have to interact with her partner. Though having personal boundaries is vital, you may exclude your friend when you exclude their abusive partner, and that means further isolating them.
In the end I decided to allow both of them to come and swallowed my own discomfort. I decided the best way I could be a friend to her is to be as present with her as possible in our time together, to let her vent to me if she chose, and to let her know how much she is valued and loved.