The statistics are harrowing: 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men report being the target of physical violence by an intimate partner at some point during their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States, reveals the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. While some interactions are less violent than others—grabbing, shoving, pushing, slapping, and hitting—serious and sometimes fatal injuries do occur, notes Rudi Rahbar, a licensed clinical psychologist in Southern California. “Victims of domestic violence often feel and believe they are helpless and stuck in their situation and, most of the time, they are too afraid to tell anyone about the abuse,” she says. “As friends or family members, it is imperative to look for signs and if there’s a suspicion of something, if it just doesn’t seem right, ask.” While it’s not easy to ask the tough questions, you could save a life. Here are the steps you can take to help a loved one who may be experiencing domestic violence.
Learn about domestic violence
You can find plenty of information, resources, and workshops offered by local and national organizations; a good place to start is with the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). Even if you think you understand what domestic violence is and how the cycle begins, there’s probably more to learn. “Many friends and family members are not aware of the intricacies and dangers present in domestic violence situations, or of the dangers that are often a daily concern for survivors even when they’ve left the relationship,” says Ili Rivera Walter, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist and professor of marriage and family therapy. “Learning will broaden your perspective and make it easier for you to take a supportive position with your friend.”
Get informed about options
Before attempting to help, make sure you know the options available for your friend, especially when there are children involved. Write down the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), the number for child protective services (ask the operator for your local Child Abuse Hotline or go to childhelp.org) and numbers for local women’s shelters, suggests Tina B. Tessina, PhD, a psychotherapist and author of The 10 Smartest Decisions a Woman Can Make Before 40. “Call the numbers, explain that you want to help a female friend, and find out what information these organizations need to help your friend or family member.” Here are 10 things women who’ve escaped abusive relationships want you to know.
Listen intently to your friend
It’s not easy to hear traumatizing stories of someone you love being hurt. However, it’s important to listen to their stories. “As much as possible, try not to put down their partner, or to give suggestions, as these two approaches are likely to alienate your friend,” warns Walter. “Keep the lines of communication open in your friendship, which can prevent isolation and shame for your friend.”
Don’t pass judgment
While it might seem sensible to you that leaving is the best option, it’s not that simple for your friend. “If you use words that are negative about the abuser or the relationship, or if you ask why they are still with that person, your friend may just shut down,” says Laura Dabney, a relationship psychiatrist in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “I always tell my patients to use the formula of ‘I feel X when you say Y.’ Sometimes using their words and experiences and showing your concern may help them see that what is happening is not their fault—or normal.” (Here are 9 signs of emotional abuse.)
Ask the tough questions
If your friend hasn’t come forward to you about his or her domestic violence experience, or perhaps isn’t offering up many details, ask the important questions so you have the information you need. And when responding to them, be specific. “Don’t talk in overly emotional language, in spite of how you feel, fight to speak rationally and thoughtfully, as that kind of communication has a much greater impact on people,” explains Kevin Gilliland, a licensed clinical psychologist and the executive director of Innovation360 (I360). “It’s far more inviting and welcoming to conversations than statements of fact that may or may not be accurate and nobody likes to talk with people who know everything.”
Avoid going into “fix-it” mode
Of course you want to solve your friend’s problems, but with domestic violence, it’s not that simple. “Domestic violence creates a very toxic and manipulative dynamic between two people, where the victim feels they oftentimes simply cannot leave,” says Rahbar. “This is tough for a lot of friends, so I suggest just listening, providing support, and reminding their friends that what their partner is doing is not ok and that you are there for them if they are ready to leave.”
Tell them it’s not their fault
As a friend, you can help the victim understand that he or she is not to blame for what is happening. It is not their fault that someone they love is controlling and oppressive, even if their significant other is trying to convince them of that, says Mayra Mendez, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California.
Help your friend devise a safe plan
Providing your friend with valuable options is monumentally helpful, even if you think he or she already knows such escape routes exist. “You can encourage the development of an emergency plan that may include steps for leaving an abusive situation, but the victim needs to decide when and under what circumstances will she take the initiative to leave,” says Mendez. “Support your friend in covering as many details of the plan as possible, as the more information she has, the greater power she builds to defend against the control and oppression of the abusive situation.” Also, encourage your friend to use caution as they make calls or internet searches on domestic abuse, warns Mendez: Domestic violence offenders may track the victim’s records and react violently. (Science just debunked 6 of the biggest myths about happy relationships.)
Know when enough is enough
If your friend’s partner has threatened to kill them or their children or has attempted to end their life with some weapon, call authorities immediately. “This is past the point of no return,” says Rahbar. “As a friend, it’s so difficult to know what your boundaries are in these situations; however, when a life has been threatened (either verbally or physically), the boundary needs to be crossed and the police need to be notified.”
Take care of yourself
“Do not underestimate the toll that a friend’s pain and trauma can have on your own emotions,” says Walter. “If you find yourself offering ongoing support to someone living in a domestic violence situation, find your own support network.” You may want to check out support groups or even therapy, she says, and be sure to take care of yourself by getting adequate sleep and connecting with friends and family—you’ll need to maintain your own energy and sense of self. (Learn ways you can deal with a depressed spouse.)