I’d like to take a moment to point out some of the dos and don’ts from the perspective of the abused for the support they need from friends and family.
Hearing, or suspecting that your friend or loved one has been, or is currently in an abusive relationship is a hard truth to swallow.
Be supportive, encouraging, patient, loving and open minded.
Tell them they are being crazy, overreacting or lying. They are likely already broken, defeated or in denial, no one wants to hear more negativity.
It also justifies the abuser, and confuses her even more. It is much more likely for her to minimize the abuse than to exaggerate.
Offer help at stages where you think they could use support, they may not realize they needed that kind of support, eg. elements of a safety plan, child care, pet care, grocery shopping etc.
Force or heavily influence them to flee, press charges, confront, or go to couples counselling. If you are pushing in one direction, and the abuser is pushing in the other, it merely reinforces their lack of control over their own lives.
Even if they are for good intentions, you cannot force them to take steps they aren’t ready for or don’t want to take.
Be a voice of reason. It is always much easier to see a situation clearly when you are not in it.
Make excuses for the abuser. It is not because of their alcohol, drugs, past relationship, past abuse or anger. Abuse is a choice.
Get support for yourself. Make sure to take care of your own mental health as well, listening to traumatic experiences can take a toll on you too.
Bottle it in. There is no shame in seeing a counselor for yourself, and they will be able to help you handle strong emotions, especially if they have returned to the abuser, or not taken any action at all.
It’s also not your fault that you, perhaps didn’t notice or reach out, or that you could be doing something to help. Sometimes all you can do is just be there.
Why is it important?
The abuser will likely have tried to cut off any support network that your loved one may have. You may even notice that they support their abuser (I’ll include a section on traumatic bonding).
It’s important to be patient and just be there when they need you, no matter how frustrating it may be.
Having been both inside and outside, I have definitely experienced the feelings of helplessness, wanting to be involved and to help my friend. Unfortunately, there was nothing more that I could do than just be there. Ultimately it is their decision.
Knowing my mindset while I was in that relationship, I know that I would have been entirely unreceptive of any outside help. In fact, it would have only pushed me closer to them.
A word of caution on the type of advice that you give them.
If they are a violent abuser, it is probably not a good idea to advise them to confront their abuser, or to leave their abuser without important personal belongings or a safety plan (especially if there are children involved).
Abusers can be both predictable and unpredictable. The best predictor is the person’s own gut feeling, after all they should know their abusers the best.
Taking legal action may only provoke retaliation, and there is no guarantee that they will be convicted. It may be safer not to take legal action.
Failed convictions, or counselling for the abuser/couples counselling may only provide them with another platform for abuse, and a heightened false sense of justification.
For example, if they explain a history of abuse, but the abuser counters with how she is always yelling or criticizing him, a couples counselor works on the premise that the relationship is equal, thereby putting an equal share of responsibility for both partners.
This only leaves the abuser feeling justified in their behavior. Try the book: To Be An Anchor in the Storm for advice as a supporter.
The most important thing to take from this is to let them know that you are there for them. If they haven’t come to you, you could mention it casually eg. “I’ve noticed you’ve been unhappy lately, is there anything I can do?”
The knowledge that someone can be there to support them is powerful, and could even save their life.