How to help and support a friend or family member experiencing domestic violence

Credits: Anna Kövecses

It’s very hard to know what the right thing to do is if you suspect or discover that a friend, a family member or even a co-worker, suffers from domestic violence. You may be confused and that’s normal, because it can be very upsetting to find out that someone you care for is in such a dark place. Even if your first instinct is to protect or to make the victim leave right away, that might not be the best attitude – it can be a very dangerous one for both parts. After all, there are many reasons why people stay in abusive relationships, and leaving can be a very dangerous time for a victim. Of course, if you are experiencing an assault you should call the police right away. But ignoring the situation is definitely not the answer!

These are some warning signs you should be looking out for:

• The partner puts the woman down in front of other people
• The victim is constantly worried about making her partner angry
• She makes excuses for her partner’s behavior
• Her partner is extremely jealous or possessive
• She has unexplained marks or injuries
• She stopped spending time with friends and family
• She is depressed or anxious, and you notice changes in her personality

These are some facts you should consider:

• Domestic violence is very dangerous.
• Even though domestic violence is not considered a crime in many countries in the world, it is, without any doubt, a crime.
• Domestic violence is much more common than you think. 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence at some point of her life.
• Abused women may live many years with the situation before anyone finds out or she seeks help, and sometimes you will only find out when she’s dead.
• The abuser is solely responsible for his abusive behavior. There is no blame for the woman, violence is not a choice she makes.

An abused woman can feel and experience:

• An abused woman is usually overwhelmed by fear, and always acts under fear. The fear can be based on: violence, the unknown, safety, the safety of her children… Just imagine yourself constantly in fear.
• She usually thinks that if she changes her behavior the abuser will stop. And this is never the case.
• There is usually a mixed feeling of emotions, she may love her partner but she hates the violence, physical or emotional, and she may live in the hope that things will change.
• She may experience the feeling of shame, because she is afraid that people and family will judge her for not leaving.
• She might depend on her partner, financially, physically or emotionally.
• She might experience feelings of guilt that keep her from leaving.
• She might feel hopeless about her future so she may experience difficulty in seeing good things coming her way.

How can you help?

• Talk to her and make her feel safe, guaranteeing you will keep her story private. Also, the person might take a while to open up to you, so be patient.
• It’s always a good idea to start your approach by saying “I’m worried about you because…”
• Don’t ever judge or criticize the person!
• Listen and believe what the person tells you, unfortunately it’s very common for people not to believe a woman when she talks about being abused – especially if she has never talked about this with anyone, and hides all the signs.
• Let her know the abuse is not her fault and that you are there for her.
• Don’t ever criticize her, especially for not leaving. Although you might want her to leave right away, it’s a decision she has to make on her own, at her own time.
• You have to know that a woman is most at risk immediately after she leaves the abuser.
• An abused woman that leaves the abuser usually faces hard challenges, such as finding a new house, finding a new school for the kids, finding a new job, no money, and she might not have any support and no one to turn to. It’s a very hard moment and one of the most dangerous too. So if you can, focus on supporting her and helping her gain new self-confidence.
• Help her get help, find an organization that supports victims of domestic violence, not only regarding shelter, if that’s the case, but also emotional support.
• Acknowledge her strengths and remind her that she can count on you and she is stronger than she thinks.
• An abused woman is usually someone very isolated, usually in an environment created by the abuser, so that she has no support and he keeps abusing her. So helping her develop new friendships and helping her make peace with family members, are all great ways to help boost her self-esteem.
• It’s very important that she talks about what happened to her and that she seeks professional help, even if she doesn’t have the financial means, there are associations that can help in these cases.
• Be patient, it takes a while for a woman to realize she was or is being abused and even longer to decide to leave the abuser.
• If the person has children, their safety is also an issue, so talk to her about how to keep her and her children safe. Plan a safe signal, for instance, if she or her children are in danger and she can’t access help, sending a text message that apparently doesn’t say anything important, could be a code for help. Do this, because usually abusers control everything including the communication between the victim and the outside world.
• Keep her passport, a set of spare keys in a place where she can easily access them in an emergency.

Remember that you cannot “rescue” the person. Although it is difficult to see someone you care about get hurt, ultimately she is the one who has to make the decision about what she wants to do. It’s important for you to support her no matter what she decides, and help her find a way to safety and peace.

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