Discovering that a friend of yours may be in an abusive relationship can send you through a whirlwind of emotions. Understandably, you may feel scared, sad, angry, and nervous. Your first thoughts are probably how you can help, especially if children are involved. But the challenge and difficulty of situations like this can be very complicated. While you want to offer support in any way possible, the way you go about offering that help must be done carefully so as not to put your friend (or yourself) more at risk. To help, we interviewed Psychologist Dr. Robin Hornstein for guidance on how to best help a friend in an abusive relationship.
How can I begin to help a friend in an abusive relationship?
“This is such a nuanced question,” says Dr. Hornstein. “I suppose the short answer is, making sure the abusive party is unaware of [your] support and thoughts is key to start.”
Letting one’s abusive partner know that you know what is happening may be comforting to the person in the relationship but can be endangering to them as well. Luckily, there are many online and in-person support systems for someone in an abusive relationship that can be shared with a friend.
Places such as The National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233) can be shared with your friend. Even letting her use your phone to make the calls, so it does not show up on her phone can be of help. If this is not an option, make sure your friend knows to clear their browser history on their phone or computer just in case their spouse or partner is checking on them.
Since many people who are abusive toward their partner or spouse are controlling, it is wise not to send text messages to your friend talking about their current situation. Their partner could be checking their phone. Try to keep interactions with your friend about their current situation strictly in-person or via phone conversations. That way, there is no record of what you were discussing. Discuss a “safe word” with your friend as well. That way, should she be in danger but can’t say anything, you have a code word. This lets you know she feels she may be in immediate danger, and you should call 911.
Dr. Hornstein also suggested sharing the Office on Women’s Health website which has ideas on how to help a friend. “The main thing is not to put yourself in harm’s way and to call 911 if you witness an act of violence,” said Dr. Hornstein. “You want to help your friend get to safety and to the right therapist to work through this relationship.”
What support can I offer a friend in an abusive relationship?
The best approach is to act with boundaries while you help your friend set boundaries, explained Dr. Hornstein. “Do not try to be a hero, nor to expect that as a listener it is your job to get things to change at the speed of light. Sometimes it takes people time to gather courage to leave.” Being there as a friend to listen can be of great help. Recognize that your friend is going through trauma. Understand that it may take them some time to change their current situation.
Be as supportive as you can. Try to demonstrate kindness and love to your friend. It can be even harder when you see the abuse clearly, and your friend is in a state of denial. Dr. Hornstein said you need to find ways to support your friend and allow time for them to notice your reflections of surprise or dismay.
While it may sound selfish, being a friend to someone in an abusive relationship can take its toll on your mental health, as well. Understanding that a friend is being abused while accepting that there is only so much that you can do, can be upsetting. You may feel at a loss sometimes of how to help. At a time like this, your friend probably feels very alone and seeks support from someone they trust. Take comfort in the fact that you are helping a friend during a very difficult period. While it can be upsetting, know that you are doing right by them.
What not to do
And while you may consider going to talk to your friend’s spouse or partner, DO NOT DO THIS. This will only put your friend and yourself more at risk. With someone that is physically abusive, there is no reasoning with them. Dr. Hornstein said that it is best to avoid confrontations with the abusive party. Do not reach out to the abusive party’s friends, family, or co-workers. Essentially, limit any contact with the abuser and their circle.
Resources to help
While no one wants to imagine themselves or their loved one in an abusive relationship, it’s unfortunately common. More than 1 in 3 women (35.6%) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5%) in the United States have experienced physical abuse by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Below are additional resources to help if you or a loved one is experiencing abuse.