You know your friend is being abused, but what can you do? These ideas on how to help a friend in an abusive relationship will give you some of the tools you need to support her.
Knowledge is power. Read books like Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft. Women in abusive relationships tell themselves things like “He doesn’t mean to hurt me – he just loses control,” and “He’s scared me a few times, but he never hurts the children, he’s a great father.” This books offers insight and information into the minds of abusive men, which helps us understand what can and can’t be fixed.
These tips on how to help a friend in an abusive relationship are inspired by a reader’s question. She says: “I’m looking for ideas on how to encourage a friend who is in an abusive relationship, but didn’t see anything. Have you written anything for those of us who are trying to help a friend, or perhaps have a suggestion on where to go for resources?”
A few years ago I wrote How to Help a Friend Get Out of a Bad Relationship – but now I disagree with my own advice! What changed my mind? I now work at a safe house for women fleeing domestic violence, and I have a whole new perspective on how to help a friend in an abusive relationship. These are my suggestions…
How to Help a Friend in an Abusive Relationship
Note that every friendship and every abusive relationship is different! These tips are merely suggestions, and may not be the best course of action for your friend’s situation.
If you believe your friend’s life is in immediate danger, call the police. These tips on how to help a friend in an abusive relationship are for non-life-threatening situations.
Be patient with your friend
The first thing you need to know is that leaving an unhealthy relationship that takes time. Think back to the bad work environments or personal relationships you’ve been in….how long did it take you to actually leave?
On Why Is It So Hard to Leave a Man Who Hurts You?, Samantha says “I left my husband four times but always went back, even though he hurt me worse each time. I thought I had no one, but when he left me to die I went to the police station for the first time…I was scared, really scared…He always said to me no one will ever believe you and I thought he was right, but he wasn’t.”
Samantha said her husband said nobody would believe her. Sometimes men say much worse things, call their partners horrible names, threaten them, and hold their children or pets “hostage.” If you want to know how to help a friend in an abusive relationship, you need to accept that she may not be ready to leave him yet.
Accept that you can’t understand their relationship
Abusive relationships are complicated and full of power dynamics that aren’t easy to understand. Even professional counselors and psychologists don’t always understand what happens between men who abuse and women who stay in the relationship.
One of my friends is in an abusive marriage, and it confuses me, infuriates me, and breaks my heart. I can barely stand to run into her husband on the street, and I don’t know why she stays with him! On an intellectual level I understand the psychological reasons for staying in abusive relationships. But on a personal level, I just don’t get how she can stay with him.
Ah, but as Blaise Pascal said, the heart has reasons that reason cannot know.
Listen without offering unsolicited advice or help
Verbal abuse, physical abuse, financial abuse, cultural abuse, emotional abuse and mental abuse may seem obvious and easy to leave, but there are powerful undercurrents that are driving the relationship. It is not easy or simple for your friend to leave the relationship – or even to admit the abuse is happening.
Your friend may not want to talk about the abuse, or she may want to talk about it all the time. I wouldn’t recommend letting her abusive relationship dominate your conversations, but when it comes up it’s important that you listen without giving her advice.
Since you don’t understand the relationship, you can’t tell her what to do. You can’t presume to know what’s best for your friend or her children even when it seems obvious to you. All you can do is learn how to help a friend in an abusive relationship without telling her what to do or making her situation more dangerous.
Learn about abusive relationships
One of the most important things to know is the “honeymoon cycle” or the Cycle of Abuse in a Relationship. Most women trapped in chronic abuse experience this cycle of “love” and connection, tension buildup, and the abusive explosion – and this cycle is often what keeps women in abusive relationships. In some relationships this cycle happens all the time; in others, it happens once or twice a year. Sometimes there are periods of no abuse for a long time, and other times the abuse is happening daily or even hourly.
The honeymoon stage of the cycle of abuse is part of the many reasons women stay with abusive men. Most women want to believe their partners are truly sorry and will never hurt them again. Hope, faith, love, and yearning for closeness keeps women trapped in abusive relationships. So how do you help a friend in this situation?
At the very least, know that abusive relationships are complicated – and it’s not easy to “just leave.” If you want to understand more about your friend’s relationship, read books like Why Does He Do That?
Avoid counseling or advising your friend
Every relationship is different, which is why it’s difficult to offer specific tips on how to help a friend in an abusive relationship.
But a common denominator for most friendships is NOT giving advice (unless it’s asked for), NOT counseling, and NOT presuming to know what’s best for your friend.
I used to encourage people to give women in abusive relationships brochures, books, and other literature about domestic violence, but I don’t anymore. Why? Because of what could happen to her if her partner found the information in her purse or car. Even emailing information or online articles about abusive relationships could put her at risk! Protecting her safety is more important than trying to get your friend out of the abusive relationship.
Get info from the domestic violence resources in your area
Research the local resources for women in violent relationships, such as transition houses, support groups, women’s organizations, hotlines, etc. Ask what information and help they offer. Ask them for their strategies on how to help a friend in an abusive relationship. They’ll have solid information for you, which will help you support your friend.
You might also get prepared for the day your friend asks for help leaving her relationship. That day may be tomorrow, or 10 years from now. It may happen at the most inconvenient time, such as Christmas Day or your birthday! But if you’ve prepared a little stack of information for her, then she’ll have an easier time getting help and getting out.
For more information, read 5 Stages of Leaving an Abusive Relationship. It’s especially helpful to read through the comments section, so you can learn what it’s like to be with a man who is violent.
I welcome your thoughts on how to help a friend in an abusive relationship. I can’t offer advice or counseling, but writing may help you cope.
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There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. – Anais Nin.