How to Help a Friend Experiencing Domestic Violence

By Jessica Newsome

 

I wish that I could tell you that this was the first—or the second, third—time that I have written about domestic violence. If I never have to answer another phone call from a friend who says, “He would never hit me, but…” it’ll be too soon. This is an edited version of an email I wrote to a friend a few years ago, asking how to help someone who was in a violent relationship and was in and out of the hospital because of her abuser. This is not a domestic violence 101 article, though I can link you to those. This is meant to help the friend of someone in an abusive relationship. In it, I refer to the victimized person with feminine pronouns and the abusive person with masculine pronouns, but that is just the most common scenario and is not all-inclusive. Abuse can happen in any relationship—parent to child, between siblings, between same sex partners, etc. I deliberately tried to make this advice as generalizable as possible by speaking strictly with regard to abuser-abused dynamics; that being said, the lenses of gender, race, religious background, socioeconomic status, immigration, ability, sexuality and others will make a difference when it comes to how to handle individual situations.

 

Dear Friend,

 

The first thing you have to decide is how much you can handle. You’ve offered your friendship and your apartment to her, and I think that’s wonderful. However, this is going to be a testing time for you to see how much you can take on and still be a healthy friend. That is the choice that you have to make—but know that you are not responsible for her, for her choices, or for her safety. You can’t be.

 

The ideas I’m going to share are based on different things that I saw helped with the women I worked with in the shelter and with my family and other friends I’ve had in similar situations. You cannot do all of these things. Find friendships for yourself outside of this one and don’t burn yourself out on her. It won’t help her. She needs you to be a healthy person—so that must come first. If you need to talk, I’m here, too. We all move together in circles around each other—we ease each other’s burden’s that way. It’s ok to lean a little more on your circle while she’s leaning on you.

 

1) Do what you can not to alienate her. Don’t give her ultimatums. If you’ve let her know how you feel about her partner’s behavior, there is little need to repeat it. It should always be said that what he’s doing is wrong, unacceptable, that it is not her fault, etc. But don’t let that slip into you urging her to leave him or to make any decisions she’s not ready to. Say things like, “When you’re ready, my apartment is available.” But don’t say it over and over again. The first reason is this: he’s trying to isolate her. He’s trying to make sure she can’t talk to other people about what is going on so that his voice is the only one she listens to. You don’t want to add to his scenario of it’s us against the world, baby. Unfortunately, this is a fuzzy gray area where I can’t really tell you specifics of how to talk about the situation or what not to say to upset her, etc.; this is only a template. The second reason not to tell her what to do is that he’s trying to control her behavior. Don’t recreate the situation she is already struggling to address in your friendship. It is really hard, because you want to keep her safe—but it’s important.

 

2) Going back to that gray area: you will make a “mistake” eventually that may upset her a little or a lot. You will push too hard or not hard enough and she may get offended. Because that is how these relationships go—she needs your help. But she may not know what that help needs to look like for her to take it, or she may not know that she needs help. But that is not your fault. It’s her abuser’s fault. The only thing to remember is that you both are in this friendship voluntarily, and you both deserve to be treated with respect. But there will probably be bumps because he may be actively trying to ruin your relationship with her through whatever means necessary. Don’t hold yourself responsible for his actions. Say that again with me a few times. Don’t hold yourself responsible for his actions. Don’t hold yourself responsible for his actions.

 

3) Do some safety planning with her. Tell her to have a box ready (maybe a safety deposit box, a safe, luggage, whatever works for her). It should have: her birth certificate, marriage certificate, immigration papers, a credit card that is only in her name, social security card, copies of health insurance information, extra car keys, a track phone, copies of any of the above that she would need for kids, and anything else he could try to use to hold her there—like financial information, allergies, medications, etc. These are the things she needs to have somewhere safe and hidden for whenever she needs a break. Say it like that. “Needing a break.” That gives her space to take that option if she needs to without feeling like she’s made the decision to end her marriage/relationship. You don’t necessarily need to say this to her if it would scare her, but if she “takes a break” he may cut off her credit cards, drain accounts, deny her access to joint accounts, etc. She should have some way to access money that is independent of him. She should load the “burner” cell phone with emergency contacts already stored so that if her regular phone is unusable she still has numbers for people she may need to contact—including banks, health insurance, children’s school, etc. She should give you or someone else she trusts the number. Wherever she decides to keep the box, it needs to be somewhere he cannot access or destroy it.

 

4) Beyond the box of very essential things she might consider adding things like extra changes of clothes, food, etc. or comfort items like a favorite book or a bottle of whiskey (my occasional comfort item). If you are comfortable you can tell her she can keep it at your apartment.

 

5) If you have a close enough relationship that you can talk to her about sex, check and see how proactive she is about birth control. If possible she absolutely should not get pregnant right now. Obviously, if she does intentionally then that is her choice, but abusive, controlling people can use that to get her to stay with him. Many women stay once there are children involved because they think anything is better for the children than divorce or ending a relationship. And if she does get pregnant, the violence will likely escalate. That is horrible and cruel and unjust but unfortunately statistically likely. He’ll use the baby to keep her but then get jealous of the baby even before it arrives. He may be poking holes in condoms or hiding her birth control pills. It should be noted that these are the very worst case scenarios but I’m going to go through them based on the level of violence you described to me. This may not be one of his tactics—but it’s sort of one of those hidden things that people don’t always think about—and she very well may not be thinking about it at all so it might be good to ask a few questions if you feel comfortable doing so. It’s also worth noting here that sometimes women think that having a baby will change the person they are with from abusive to healthy. A baby won’t change that. A baby can make two healthy people closer—a baby can help a healthy person identify things that they need to work on to become even healthier—but those are not guarantees even in a healthy situation and a baby does not ever make an abusive person healthy. But she may not know that yet. It’s really hard to know that.

 

6) She is going to change her mind. A lot. She is confiding in you to test the waters. It’s okay. Don’t hold on too much to what she says. Hope for the best. Plan for the worst. She’ll say she’s going to leave because he did X but then he’ll make up for it by doing Y. It’s okay. It’s normal. It is human. She’s preparing, every time she does this. She has to eradicate every single instance in which he possibly could change. How long this takes is different for each person. It is horrible, because she is following her instincts and all of the things she has been taught to try to make it work—things that would be the “right” thing to try in a healthy relationship that has just had some bumps. Unfortunately, this is not a healthy relationship and cannot ever be. But… it will take some time for her to realize that. Try to breathe through it. She’s practicing, every time she thinks about leaving, for the time when she will. Remember that the moments before and after leaving carry a heightened lethality risk (the chances that his violence will escalate to killing her), meaning that she is statistically more likely to die while leaving than at any other point in the relationship.

 

7) Try to see if she’ll see a therapist. This can be good because it is unlikely he will want to see a counselor with her. Maybe try to pitch it as working on her own issues. They should not do couples’ counseling. Anything she says in a couples’ session to a counselor about his abuse may come back on her tenfold. But if she thinks seeing a counselor by herself would help the relationship, it can be very positive (assuming it’s a decent therapist). Therapy for her will not make the abusive person healthy. But, one of the most important things is to get her to have other voices in her head besides his. Someone to tell her she is smart, wonderful, and kind, and that he is wrong to hurt her. No matter what.

 

8) Try to identify a women’s program near her that would help if she needed it. Put the number in your phone so you can get it to her if necessary. Here is the website for Harbor House, the domestic violence shelter I worked at. There are things to read that she may find helpful. She should not look for resources online at home, or she should remember to use private browsing and delete her web history, depending on how computer savvy he is.

 

9) When violent incidents do occur, talk to her about potential legal options. I would look up the local state laws—your local domestic violence program will have information on this. That way she knows what her options are. She does not have to call the police, but it is good to know that she can. Depending on the person’s situation (prior convictions, immigration status, race, socioeconomic status of the abuser), involving law enforcement is not necessarily always the best option. However, it is important to note that in abusive relationships that take place in religious contexts, law enforcement tends to be severely underutilized and discouraged in churches and from the pulpit by pastors. So whether or not to call law enforcement or encourage her to call is a matter that requires a lot of context.

 

10) In violent incidents, it’s important to be able to either lock oneself in a room without the abuser, or be able to get out of the house entirely. Some people prefer being able to hide in a closet or bathroom–for others that is more dangerous. It depends on how he gets, unfortunately. She should try to go to rooms without knives (not the kitchen) or guns or other things that can be used as weapons.  These are things she can do that may minimize severity of violence, but it is not something that will stop the violence. Only he can do that. If he has guns, everything I have said takes on even more importance—guns, like pregnancy, increases the likelihood that his violence will escalate. The other two more dangerous scenarios that increase lethality risk are if he strangles her, or if she is trying to leave him. That is why it is so important that she have access to so many resources and support systems. Most women who are in an abusive relationship do leave them for good. On average, it takes about seven times, but they do leave. And most women who leave do so successfully because of their social support network (friends, family, formal networks like domestic violence programs, etc.). The things I’ve written about are to help you to try to figure out what to say—but you’re already doing the right thing to help her just because you love her and want her to be safe and happy.

 

Again—you will not be the perfect friend. She will ultimately have to make the decision. Your response will not necessarily be her response. But, that doesn’t mean nothing can be done. You can do a lot. And you are.

 

For more information and resources about domestic violence, please visit the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, the Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1 (800) 799-SAFE and 1 (800) 787-3224 TTY.

 
 
 
 

Jessica Newsome is a social worker who lives in Chicago, IL. She is not attached to any other writing projects at the moment but to read her outdated blog you can visit renaissance-muse.blogspot.com. Or you can try to follow her protected Twitter, @jess_news. She’s currently working on a better way to connect with readers.

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