How to Help a Friend in an Abusive Relationship

Updated on April 17, 2018
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Sadie writes about healthy relationships. She has years of experience working for non-profits that support survivors of domestic violence.

Are you worried that an adult friend or family member is being abused by her partner? Are you scared she's in a bad relationship that she can’t get out of because she is afraid? Learn more about some of the safe, gentle, and respectful ways to help your friend who’s trapped in an unhealthy relationship.

What do you say to a friend when you are worried that she is being abused by her partner? Learn more about how to start a difficult conversation about domestic violence.
What do you say to a friend when you are worried that she is being abused by her partner? Learn more about how to start a difficult conversation about domestic violence. | Source

What Is verbal abuse?

Verbal abuse is when someone intentionally uses words to hurt or harm another person. Verbal abuse can be hard to detect sometimes because it is often very subtle—it doesn't always involve physical abuse. But when the way someone speaks to you deliberately causes emotional distress, fear, and anxiety, that's abusive. Have you noticed your friend's partner uses any of these abusive verbal techniques?

  • blaming
  • finger-pointing
  • judging
  • making racist, bigoted comments
  • interrupting
  • name-calling
  • mocking

If you suspect someone you care about-—a friend, a family member, or a co-worker-—is in an abusive relationship, finding a way to talk to her about it can be difficult.

Perhaps you're worried your gut instinct is wrong and you’ll upset your friend. Or maybe you're scared you won’t be able to give her the information she needs to leave an abusive relationship. It’s normal to be nervous about starting a conversation on a difficult matter, but her safety and well-being are so important. By letting her know that she has your support and that there are options to help her leave an abusive relationship, you'll be taking kind, compassionate steps to help your friend in her difficult time of need.

One of the things that friends and family often want to do when they’re worried about someone who’s in an abusive relationship is to try to ‘save’ them.

As hard as it may be to see someone you care about being hurt, telling her what to do, offering advice, or even giving her an ultimatum to leave (i.e.; “If you don’t leave him, I can’t stick around and watch you being hurt.”) aren’t helpful solutions and may even make it harder for her to get out of the abusive situation. She’s the only one who can decide when and if she’s ready to leave.

I'm here to help you through this. You are not alone.

What can you say to someone who is being abused by her partner?

There are many complex reasons that a woman may be afraid to leave her abusive spouse. Even women who do leave an abusive partner often return, again for complex reasons that you may not understand. That’s why it’s so important to:

  • Let your friend know the abuse is not her fault and that she's not alone.
  • Respect her decisions, even when you don't agree.
  • Avoid criticizing her choices or making her feel bad for staying in an abusive relationship. Your friend needs to feel safe talking to you. If she's scared that she'll be judged when she shares what's going on, she may not talk about the abuse at all. Let her know that when she is ready to talk, you will be there to listen, unconditionally.

You may find some of these phrases helpful in letting your friend know that she has your support:

  • "I know this may be difficult to talk about, but I want you to know you can talk to me about anything."
  • "I care about you and I’m here for you. You're not alone. When you're ready, I'm here to help."
  • "You're not responsible for his behavior. You did not ask to be hurt. No matter what you said or did, you always deserve to be treated with respect. You deserve to feel safe in your own home."

It’s OK to tell your friend or loved one that you're concerned about her safety. Your feelings are valid, too. Let her know that you understand she's in a difficult situation. Your role as a supportive friend is to listen and let her know you want to help.

You deserve to feel safe and secure in your own home. How can I help? What will it take to make you feel safe?

Here are some additional suggestions on how to help a friend in an abusive relationship:

  • Treat your friend as a competent, capable person. Even if you have a hard time accepting her decisions, she is still an adult.
  • Don't attempt to make decisions for your friend or act on her behalf without her consent. Trying to solve her problems for her implies you don’t trust her judgment or believe she’s able to make good choices. This can feel very disempowering to someone in a crisis situation and it may discourage her from talking to you in the future.
  • There are gentle ways to encourage her to get help by offering to help her access professional support and resources. For example, you could offer to help look into available resources in her community. You could help put her in touch with women’s shelters, domestic violence support organizations, and transition houses. Remember, you don’t have to have all of the answers. Let her know that you are there by her side and will help her find the answers she’s looking for.

What happened to you isn't your fault.

Take care of yourself, too.

Supporting a friend in crisis can be emotionally hard on you as well. That's why it's so important to take care of your own safety and health and wellness needs when helping a friend in an abusive relationship. If you don't know what to do, don't be afraid to call a crisis line or domestic violence support center and ask for resources to help you be there for your friend. You can't help someone get out of an unhealthy relationship if you aren't taking care of your own health. Don't be afraid to reach out to your healthcare providers for support and resources if the situation is starting to take a stressful toll on you.

One of the best things you can do for a friend in a bad relationship is to listen to her without judgement.
One of the best things you can do for a friend in a bad relationship is to listen to her without judgement. | Source

When you are ready to talk, I am here to listen.

Educate yourself on domestic violence and abusive relationships.

One of the best ways to help a friend who is in a bad relationship is to educate yourself about the prevalence of domestic violence and the resources available to help women who are being hurt and abused by their partners.

What would make you feel safe right now?

Put yourself in her shoes.

Be the friend that you would want if you were in an abusive relationship and didn't know what to do. Would you reach out to a friend who was supportive, listened to you without judging you, offered help when you needed it, and kept her word about respecting your wishes and protecting your privacy? Empathy and understanding are some of the most important gifts you can offer to some who is in a bad relationship.

© 2015 Sadie Holloway

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