By: Alexandria Roswick
Intimate partner violence is unfortunately a prevalent issue in our society. That being said, people and systems still are not informed to effectively treat, help or prevent the creation of victims. As a result of this societal shortcoming, recognizing the signs of abuse can be impossibly complex for a victim let alone their friends or family members.
It’s uncomfortable to think about it this way, but the undeniable truth is that somebody you know has or is currently experiencing some form of sexual or domestic violence at the hands of a person they love and trust.
One of our largest cultural blind spots is the misunderstanding as to why victims stay with their abusers. The harsh reality is that even once the people closest to them figure out that they are in danger, victims of abuse usually don’t want to be saved.
Despite that — as their friends, relatives, mentors, neighbors etc.— it is up to us. We need to do more to prevent it.
How do I help someone who doesn’t want to be helped?
It’s complicated to comprehend if you haven’t been in one, but an abusive relationship can feel similar to an addiction. Victims ironically feel like they need their abuser in order to survive. This makes it a challenge to help them, which is why many give up.
The love-bombing and manipulation that goes into abuse is impeccably calculated and always works. It doesn’t matter if they’re a CEO, a professionally trained fighter, or a marine.
Although young women(ages 19–26) are most commonly preyed on, a victim can be any gender/non-binary of any age. Everyone and anyone is vulnerable to this type of grooming.
If you know your friend is being abused, you need to understand that their brain has been altered by ongoing and compounded trauma. The unhealthy bond that forms between abuser and victim is strategically designed so that it feels excruciating for the victim to try break it.
His abuse made me the most mentally ill I’ve ever felt in my life, yet he was the only one who could also make me feel better. He had the power — all of it. -Danielle Norkin, How To Help Someone Who Isn’t Ready To Be Saved From Domestic Violence
That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t help them. You absolutely should, and you can. What you may not realize is that you’re one of the only people they have, since the abuser has likely isolated them from most friends and family. They need you more than you know. You just need to know what you’re up against before you proceed.
Create a safe space.
The non-negotiable first step is that your friend must feel like your friendship is completely judgment-free. Make it known that you are trustworthy, open-minded and will always listen to them. Tell them that your door is open any time they need to spend the night away.
The largest obstacle that victims face is that it feels impossible to imagine a way out. If they feel completely safe with you, they could eventually reveal their desire to leave the relationship. When they do, you can help them to devise a safety plan.
Offer empathy and most importantly, have patience with them. Your friend will most likely be horrified of this process and express many doubts. Expect that they may change their mind several times.
It’s crucial that you don’t judge them for this. Do your best to reassure them that they can escape whenever they are ready and that they will be protected.
Do not badmouth or confront the abuser.
Victims don’t want to leave their abuser because they have formed a co-dependent attachment to them. Harsh judgment from friends or family, even if it is against the abuser, will feel personal.
It’s completely understandable if you feel the urge to confront the abuser to protect your friend. However, doing so will only further isolate them.
Victims are usually aware of their partner’s off-putting behavior to the public, but excuse it away because they think they’re supposed to do that for the people they love. They usually build up a strong savior complex and believe that only their love can save the abuser from their demons.
This concept is leveraged against them so that they feel guilty any time they hold their partner accountable or threaten to leave.
If you try to call out the abuser, it may reinforce the message that nobody could possibly understand your friend’s situation besides the abusive partner. In this case, your friend will cling tighter to the relationship.
Another risk of confrontation is that, in most instances, it gives the abuser an excuse to blame and retaliate against the victim. This could put your friend in serious danger.
Connect yourself to local non-profit organizations, shelters and victim advocates.
Your state most likely has a confidential hotline for victims of domestic or sexual violence. Even if you are not the victim, you can still talk to an advocate about your friend’s situation.
The advocate can not take action without consent from the actual victim, so don’t worry about them notifying your friend. It’s confidential. You can ask the advocate for guidance and information about best practices when it comes to planning a safe escape.
They should be able to direct you to any shelters or non-profit aid that your friend can seek out when the time comes. If they are unable to (which I’ve experienced due to a lack of funding and proper training in some states), it is fairly easy to find local shelters and resources on the internet. For SayItLoud's suggested services, see here.
Discreetly equip your friend with empowering media.
As mentioned before, directly confronting the problem may make your friend feel disrespected. So, don’t go straight to doling out the Domestic Violence Hotline or calling 911/999. It’s in both of your best interests not to reveal that you suspect your friend is in danger. You need to get creative.
There is an endless amount of content created by or about survivors. One way to empower your friend is to recommend books, podcasts, movies, or media related to abuse. The key is to express these ideas without making it obvious that your intention is to save them.
Try suggesting an article or podcast episode because it is relevant, or genuinely something that they may be interested in. Or maybe plan a road trip and listen to an audiobook in the car together. Even the posts you share on social media can aid in this awareness.
Any way that you can, it’s important to inundate them with inspirational material so that they start to feel more capable of getting out. It may sound a little odd, but if they hear/see the right message, everything could just click. It’s worked this way for many of the survivors I know.
Think twice before calling the police.
Unless you have reason to believe that your friend will be in immediate or severe danger, it’s not usually productive to send an officer over. When the police go to the door and speak to the partners separately, usually the victim will stay silent from shock or remain loyal to the abuser out of fear.
The police can only save your friend if they decide to press charges. Even then, the process is complicated and daunting for the victim. It’s worth mentioning that, typically, even if an arrest is made, the abusive partner may only receive a “slap on the wrist.”
Your friend most likely isn’t ready to leave the relationship, and the police can not force her to. Of course, every situation is different, so use discretion.
My main concern is that the presence of a police officer will cause the abuser to feel angry and embarrassed. They will potentially take it out on your friend afterward.
It’s a tough decision either way, and you’re not a bad person if you call the police, but just understand the risks and realities of this choice.
Introduce them to another victim.
Without making it obvious, plan a movie night or coffee date with another friend who is a survivor. If the survivor is comfortable, have them tell their story. At the very least, it will reinforce the feeling of safety and trust you’ve cultivated and hopefully encourage your friend to speak up.
Hearing the words of another survivor can help your friend to feel less isolated, and more validated. I truly believe that the power of camaraderie and storytelling can strengthen any inkling of a desire they’ve had to leave their abuser.
The presence of a survivor can provide your friend with physical proof that there is life after abuse, which is exactly what they need to know in order to calm their fears.
One of the reasons friends and family members may hesitate to intervene in abusive relationships is that they are afraid of retaliation from the abuser. It is absolutely crucial that you are aware of this risk beforehand.
Even though you are simply looking out for your friend, it is quite a heroic act. Once the abuser knows you are even slightly against them, you could potentially become a target. This is a reason why I won’t encourage direct confrontation or involving authorities.
Although you should remain trustworthy to your friend, you need to tell somebody else about the situation. Don’t disclose this information to just anyone, but tell the people closest to you. The family members or friends you trust significantly. Notify them of when you are going to be with your friend or anywhere around the abuser.
You can also talk to an advocate about your fear of retaliation and they should be able to provide best safety practices for yourself. The key here is to surround yourself with options.
Trying to save a victim of abuse is not easy. You may fail several times. Your hands are ultimately tied until your friend decides they are ready to accept your help.
Instead of being frustrated with them, recognize that they are living in a constant state of doubt and powerlessness. If you can make them feel important or empowered in any way, you are helping them.
There is only so much you can do, so do not put all of this on your own shoulders. Do not feel guilty. You can’t force it. One thing I know for sure is that as long as you stay in the picture, there is hope that your friend will make it out someday.
Abuse thrives in silence, repression, and inaction. We tend to believe it’s best to let people deal with their own business because we wouldn't dare intrude on a relationship.
Throw that attitude out the window. The only way to end domestic and sexual violence is to keep up the conversation and trauma-informed action. I’ve personally witnessed the circulation of this discourse save people’s lives, so I will never stop writing about it.
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