If a friend is at risk of relationship or familial violence and abuse (also called ‘domestic violence’) it can be alarming and upsetting. You may want to help but not know what to do and possibly fear making things worse if you get things wrong. This post is here to help you if you are worried about a friend or loved one, and may also be comforting if you’re also at risk yourself, it explains…
- who can be a victim of abuse?
- what is abuse?
- why is leaving so difficult?
- if abuse has started since isolation
- creating a safety plan
- ways to help a friend who’s being abused
- where to get help (you might want to skip straight to this and read the rest later).
Who can be a victim of abuse?
Anyone. Domestic abuse can, and does, happen to all of us. You can be abused whether you’re dating, married, living together, separated or divorced. You can also be abused by family members. Children and teens can be abused by parents or witness their parents being harmed by a partner or relative; teens can also be abused by people they are dating. Adults can be abused by other adults (spouses, siblings or parents), and older people by their children or other relatives. People of any gender and any sexuality can be abused in relationships. And abuse happens in relationships and homes of all kinds – regardless of whether you are religious or not, are wealthy or poor, whatever your ethnicity, or your health status.
What is abuse?
There are many different forms of abuse that may occur as a single incident or repeated harms and includes one or more of the following:
Physical; psychological/emotional; financial/economic; sexual; coercive control; stalking and harassment; online/digital abuse. All of these are described in more detail here.
As the stereotype of domestic abuse is physical violence we may miss other harmful and dangerous behaviours that are putting us at risk. Abusers may convince victims they have caused the abuse to happen, are being oversensitive, or minimize their actions claiming ‘it wasn’t that bad’. Where abuse results in physical harm a victim (or their abuser) might assume something that didn’t require medical attention wasn’t that serious and therefore not abuse. Or if abuse did require medical assistance abusers may assure victims it will never happen again. Or encourage victims to lie to healthcare staff about how they were injured. Some abusers prevent their victims getting medical attention. If you’re supporting a friend, it will make a big difference if you can listen to them and reassure them that what is happening is not okay; pointing them to other areas of support that will explain and confirm that what they are experiencing is abusive and wrong, including…
Why is leaving so difficult?
Abusers make a point of ensuring their victims feel ground down, muddle-headed (sometimes described as feeling like your head is full of spaghetti or that you’re permanently in a fog), under confident, unattractive, uncertain and afraid. Abusers can also act in very contradictory ways – acting in angry and domineering ways; followed by appearing vulnerable, helpless and needy; perhaps with ‘love bombing’ or ‘hoovering’; alongside gaslighting. Doing this ensures people don’t get the time, headspace or energy to take steps to end the relationship.
It is exhausting to live in conditions where you are constantly on edge and hyper vigilant about your own safety or that of dependents; and where you cannot be certain what will happen from one minute to the next. It can impact on physical and mental wellbeing, worsen existing health conditions, and affect sleep and appetite.
If an abuser switches between hateful and controlling to loving and charming, victims may also feel unable to trust their own judgments about whether abuse really is happening or is as bad as they fear. This is why if your friend is a victim they may sometimes seem ready to leave and/or want you to help them; and at others are saying it isn’t so bad, they don’t want to make a fuss, their abuser can’t help it, or begging you not to do anything.
Unsurprisingly if people are confused emotionally and not at their best mentally or physically then trying to also work out how to end a relationship may feel overwhelming. As a friend, being able to give a victim space to relax, decompress and be themselves may be hugely important even if it may not seem like that to you.
Also, due stigma associated with abuse (which some abusers may play upon), people may not want to accept it is happening to them. They may also worry if they accept they are being abused they also have to do something about it. And that may be something they are either unsure how to go about, or uncertain if they can manage.
For those with children or other dependents, acknowledging abuse is happening may bring additional fears of their children being harmed or taken from them, again something abusers may threaten. Or feel guilty about either staying in, or contemplating leaving, an abusive relationship.
Victims worry they won’t be able to cope alone, something that abusers may often reinforce. Or fear what the consequences of leaving might be for dependents, pets, or wider family. Particularly if an abuser has threatened to harm them if any attempts are made to end the relationship.
Sometimes abusers threaten to harm themselves if the relationship ends, so victims stay to keep the abuser from hurting themselves.
Some victims don’t seek help because they don’t think anyone would believe them or that they don’t fit the stereotype of an abuse victim. This is particularly true for men, bisexuals and lesbians, children and seniors.
Victims may also be concerned about where they might go if they leave a violent relationship, what might happen to any property they leave behind, or how to manage financially (especially if they have no savings or limited income and/or if they believe they wouldn’t qualify for benefits).
In the case of those in forced marriages, who are very young or very old, who have disabilities or chronic illnesses or are otherwise isolated and/or dependent on their abuser the opportunity to find an escape route will be limited further.
It’s common for victims to try and leave, but to return to a relationship because of threats made by an abuser or other behaviour described above, or because coping alone was difficult, or because they’re reliant on their abuser for care, or perhaps wider family or community members forced them back.
Alternatively they may have tried to get their abuser to leave, but discovered they would not comply, and possibly that any abuse worsened afterwards.
Creating a safety plan (aka exit plan)
A safety plan is a stepwise approach to working out what a victim needs to do to stay as safe as possible when an abuser is present, while working out how to get away. That could include quietly packing a bag or noting the phone number of a helpline to call. There is a clear guide on creating a safety plan here (please note the phone numbers listed in this guide may not be suitable to all readers, so check what is available in your local area). Alongside other information about why safety/exit plans are useful here and here. You may want to work through these plans together with your friend or family member, potentially helping to store essential items in your home, alongside encouraging your friend to pack a go bag.
Ways to help a friend who’s being abused
If you’re worried about a friend, neighbour or relative, here are ideas to try:
- Be a safe and dependable person for your friend to rely on – in person, over the phone or via email [the latter two will be more appropriate during isolation].
- Read about how to give support appropriately
- Offer them support with childcare or other dependents if needed.
- Encourage them to find/use resources and information about ending an abusive relationship (see end of this blog post).
- Help them get to appointments with doctors, advice services, solicitors etc.
- Encourage them to make a safety plan (see above).
- If there are particular things they need keeping safe, then store them at your home or another safe location. That might include passports, financial information, bankcards, birth certificates, photographs or other items of emotional value. [If you are in isolation they could leave these on the doorstep for you to collect]
- Let them use your home/phone/computer for any calls or transactions they do not feel safe doing in their own home; or (only) if they request it, make calls for them.
- Remind them to delete browsing histories and stay safe online on computer/phone (see the first safety plan link above for tips on how to do this).
- Help your friend to seek medical care should they need it. This can include their Family Doctor/GP for advice, or A&E/ER if injured, or calling emergency services (police/ambulance) if they have been severely harmed or fear their life is in danger.
- Encourage them to seek legal and financial advice via professional services or charities.
- Prepare a package of things your friend may need if they might exit suddenly. A change of clothing, toiletries, nappies, foodstuffs, toys (see exit plan above).
- Give them space and time to rest/sleep if they need it and encourage them to eat healthily, perhaps sharing food with them if they would welcome this. [If it wouldn’t place them in more danger you could drop this at their home if they haven’t yet been able to leave].
- Discourage them from sharing any plans about ending the relationship with their abuser in case it places them at more risk. Victims are at their most vulnerable if abusers sense they want to leave.
- Ask what they need and want, right now, and in the future, letting them form their own strategy for coping and reassuring them they are making progress, even if the steps they are taking seem slow to you.
- Regularly remind them they are loved, valued, wanted, important, and that you believe they can take steps to change/end this.
Remember it may take more than one go for your friend to end the relationship. They may make several attempts before they do end things. It may take a while before they make decisions to act. They may well return to their abuser more than once before finally getting out of the relationship. [Or in the case of isolation they may ask you to help them leave or tell you they are leaving, then appear to change their mind once or several times].
Noting that you will be there, even if it takes time and several efforts, may give your friend the strength they need to keep trying to reach safety.
What not to do if a friend is being abused
Avoiding shaming, belittling, or judging your friend – they’re getting enough of that already. Ideally you want to represent the opposite to their abuser.
Don’t threaten, shout at, or scare them. Telling them if they don’t do something they will be badly hurt or their children may be taken away. Even if you fear these things could happen it may be better to support them to find ways to end things so they and other dependents can be safe.
Don’t take control and tell them what you feel they ought to be doing.
If they have tried to leave before use this to remind them it is a possibility in the future, rather than ‘I told you so’ when abuse has started up again.
Do not break your friend’s confidence – if they want to tell other people about their situation that’s their choice, but it is not for you to tell other friends, neighbours etc what is going on; or to share gossip on social media.
Don’t stay quiet. If you are upset about what is happening, or want to say you are concerned or you recognize they are being abused you can be honest about your worries, in the context of prioritizing your friend’s wellbeing. You recognizing and naming their abuse may give them a greater awareness that it isn’t them causing problems or imagining things; other people they trust have noticed too.
Looking out for yourself
You may need support if you are the main person your friend or family member is turning to (the resources listed below are there for you too). This may be especially acute if you are isolated from each other and are hearing from them what is happening but feel you cannot help. If your friend feels able you may want to encourage them to create their own support network or ‘safety blanket’ of friends, family, agencies or charities who are there to assist them in feeling able to leave.
Work out where your boundaries lie and what you can feasibly offer your friend. This may be particularly important if you have survived abuse and find dealing with your friend necessary but triggering.
If the abuse is escalating, or if you feel your friend and/or any dependents are in serious danger, or if you witness abuse happening (including hearing your friends/neighbours being attacked) then you should call the police.
There are several situations when people can be at more risk from abuse. That may be if:
- they cannot escape their abuser (e.g. are being held hostage or locked in their home)
- they are dependent on their abuser, permanently or temporarily
- they return to a relationship after past abuse
- an abuser senses they are losing control
- an abuser is drinking heavily or using drugs
- the victim tries to end or leave an abusive relationship
In high-risk situations where someone needs emergency help but are prevented from accessing it or are too afraid to call, you may want to work out a code where they may call, text or email so you know you either have to go and get them or notify the police on their behalf. If you’re a victim of abuse think of a code word or phrase to use when you call or text a friend so they know to take action. Some people are using everyday phrases to avoid arousing suspicion of abusers such as ‘could you get me some apples when you next go shopping?’ in a call or text which is the sign for ‘call the police’. Alternatively encourage your friend/loved one to learn a hand signal if you’re on a video call so they can surreptitiously indicate you need to act on their behalf.
Where to get help
Refuge (support for women and girls)
Women’s Aid (support for women and girls)
iRISE (support for women and children)
Southall Black Sisters (support for BAME women and children)
Imkaan (support for BAME women and girls)
Men’s Advice Line (support for men)
Broken Rainbow (for LGBTQ+ people affected by relationship violence)
Childline (help for children and teens)
NSPCC (for children and teens)
Hourglass (support for seniors)
Rape Crisis (support for women and girls who’ve been raped or sexually assaulted)
Survivors (support for men who’ve been raped or sexually abused)
Respect (for domestic violence perpetrators)
Panahghar (aka Safehouse) (support for women and children)
NAPAC (for those abused in childhood)
Mosac (for non abusing parents and carers of sexually abused children)
Karma Nirvana (for those affected by or at risk of honour based abuse and forced marriage)
Mending the Sacred Hoop (US service for Native Women)
Djirra (Australian service for Aboriginal women and other people affected by family violence)
A version of this blog post appeared in The Telegraph in November 2015.
Domestic abuse: help and evidence for abused women and those supporting them from Evidently Cochrane.