Domestic violence is an uncomfortable topic that can conjure up sensationalized images of crime scenes and public trials. In reality, family law professionals like us who focus their practice on domestic violence know that abuse between partners is so common that it can seem almost mundane. In fact, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the US have experienced some type of violence from their partner, and the staggering majority of female victims of homicide are killed by their husband, boyfriend, or past lovers.
Given the monstrously high rate of domestic violence, it’s more likely than not that you know someone that is being abused, or who is abusing their partner. Despite its prevalence, however, there’s very little practical information on how to help when you think a friend or family member is in trouble. Moreover, because women are so socialized to gloss over conflict, we tend to minimize or shy away from having truly difficult conversations about things like relationship violence.
This article offers some practical guidance— beyond the ‘just be supportive’ trite advice— on if, how, and when to intervene when you know or suspect that someone is dealing with domestic violence.
There’s a common misconception that domestic violence is a black and white issue. There’s a victim, and a perpetrator. There’s only one ‘bad guy’. In reality, sometimes both parties engage in abusive behavior towards each other, be it verbally, emotionally or physically. There is never, ever a justification for such type of behavior, but relationship dynamics and human emotions are complicated.
It’s less important to get clear on the details than it is to get help for your friend.
What does this background info mean for you as a friend or loved one? It means that you should be wary of “taking sides” when trying to intervene. It’s less important to get clear on the details than it is to get help for your friend. Don’t spin your wheels getting dragged into the drama of the back-and-forth that’s happening in a violent relationship! Rather, focus on how to offer tactical support. Be a resource, not a referee!
One of the things that can be the biggest stumbling block for someone to get out of an abusive relationship is simply recognizing that they are, in fact, in an abusive relationship. Because the good guy/bad guy dynamic can be murky, and because abuse often escalates gradually over a period of time, people caught in abusive relationships can have a hard time rallying to their own cause enough to make a decision to leave.
With this in mind, know that one of the best things you can do to help a friend is to simply call out what you see. This is more impactful if you simply reflect back what you are witnessing, rather than make a plea for them to leave. Say “I saw Brandon cut you off midsentence at the party. The look he gave you made me nervous for you,” rather than “Brandon was a real asshole last night, you deserve better.”
Know that one of the best things you can do to help a friend is to simply call out what you see.
If you only suspect abuse but haven’t witnessed anything, say as much; “I’m not sure if something is off between you and Susan, but something feels really amiss.” Reflecting back your observations, without editorializing or offering advice, can be an invitation for someone to start to recognize their situation as abnormal or dangerous. Pressuring a friend to leave can often have the adverse effect of driving someone closer to their toxic partner, as they may perceive your friendship as a threat to their relationship. If they have not done the work of recognizing the reality of their situation, they are unlikely to take your guidance.
Instead of advocating for a particular outcome— your friend leaving an abuser, or entering therapy, or any other action you think they should take— be ready to offer help if and when they ask for it. Gather some information about safety planning, track down the number for local resources like domestic violence hotlines in your area or House of Ruth, and local shelters.
Offering resources like shelter information may seem extreme and cold-hearted. Why not just open your home, right? You’d do anything to help a friend through a tough spot, right? Here’s the deal though; offering support in the form of space to stay may not actually provide safety, if your friend’s abuser knows their partner is likely to come to you. Moreover, the actual act of leaving is one of the most dangerous points in the domestic violence cycle— in fact, 75% of women killed by their husbands or boyfriends try to leave their abusers.
Another way that you may feel compelled to help is by trying to mediate the conflict. If you are close with both partners— say, your best friend and her husband, who you’ve been friends with since they started dating— it can feel natural to try to help them find common ground. Please, please fight any inclination you have to step into the middle of things. Getting drawn into the fray likely will not transform the situation, and may put you (and your kids, if you have them) in danger.
Watching a friend or family member suffer in an abusive relationship can be excruciating. As a divorce coach with a deep understanding of domestic violence, I know that these cycles can take years— even decades— to come to a head before people make the decision to leave. The fear you feel for your loved one and your emotional involvement in the situation can take a toll on your health and happiness, not to mention your actual friendship with the person in the abusive relationship.
If you are finding yourself losing sleep, feeling physically overwhelmed (think tension headaches and that sinking feeling in your stomach), or burning business hours and personal time with your kids worrying or attempting to intervene, know that it really, really is ok to walk away.
In fact, in situations where people are stuck in a violent conflict cycle, having friends say “this is too much for me, I love you but I can’t watch this anymore” can be a powerful wake-up call.
Above all else, remember that it’s not on you to fix the situation. In fact, the most frustrating part about knowing what to do when you see domestic violence is recognizing that you can’t, in fact, fix it.
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