We've all had the experience of listening to a friend lament the state of a crumbling romantic relationship. We stared at them across a coffee table as they cried after a love went sour. Such a scene may be familiar even in relationships that were once healthy. However, what do you do when the break up can be dangerous? Maybe your loved one faces acts of retaliation like enduring scratched in the paint of their cars, being outed for their sexual lifestyle, or fighting off a physical assaulted.
You being a caring family member or friend to a survivor in this situation may bring feelings helplessness, confusion, and anger. Understandably, there isn't much you can do to change their relationship or the abuser. However, there is a lot you can do to support the survivor.
Don't Rescue them
You got the call or the text you've been waiting for. Your loved one tells you they need your help. The abusive partner hit them during a big flight. One of the biggest mistakes loved ones make at the moment they receive this message is acting above and beyond the request that was made. "I need your help," can mean a lot of things. So, you show up with a U-haul and boxes ready to move your loved one and the kids out of the apartment. When you get there, no one is ready to leave. You discover that help meant "Take the kids for the remainder of the weekdays and get them to school on time." Deciding to rescue the survivor the former way takes away their agency whereas adhere to the request to escort the kids shows allyship.
And make no mistake that your loved one is "surviving." Look at the amount of emotional legwork involved in dancing around figurative landmines: appeasing their partner, maintaining a facade, managing household tasks, parenting distressed children, and going to work on time. All of this takes a lot of finesse. Your loved one excels in this dance everyday without your help. They are strong, capable, and smart which are not qualifiers we tend to extend to the stereotype of a "battered woman [person]." Remember they entrusted one aspect of that dance to you, and if you overstep the request, this will only show them that they cannot trust you, that you judge them.
Don't Make Ultimatums
To the last point don't give your help with conditions. Attaching strings is often a common tactic of abusers, a tactic your loved one will recognize all to well.
"If you don't leave them in three months, I cannot watch your kids anymore. You're setting a bad example for them!"
"I'll pay your rent on a new place if you just leave him."
When your help comes with contingencies, your help only builds resentment. It also might give the survivor timelines they cannot realistically meet. Your loved one needs to make decisions without added elements of control and additional barriers because they already live with control and barriers to leaving as is. To that point...
Don't Tell Them to Leave
"Because I was delusional, I thought we could love past this"- Kelis on her relationship with Nas
A colleague of mine at a previous agency used to start a presentation she called Intimate Partner Violence 202 with explaining how she and her non-abusive husband had been together for 12 years. She explained that if he were to punch her in the face that night, she wouldn't leave him immediately. Do this exercise with yourself: Imagine that your significant other punches you and I tell you to go to shelter tonight. What stops you? Do you want the familiarity of your bed? Do you think about getting to work on time? Would you go, if you weren't responsible to an aging parent or pet? Would you consider that this is the first time and worth a second chance if it never happens again? With your exact educational level, income, support networks, and self-esteem, this could still happen to you. Try to extend the same empathy to your loved one.
Indeed most people wouldn't just leave.
The reasons are often complex and unique to individual circumstance. Most survivors want to exhaust all options before ending relationships of some investment. Maybe they want to see a couples therapist (even though it is bad practice to provide couples counseling to someone who may be in danger of further retaliation at home when sessions ends.) More appropriately, your loved one may encourage their abuser to seek counseling services of some sort (12 step programs, religious counseling, batters intervention services, etc.). Finally and most importantly, the survivor may be terrified to leave and need to buy time to do so safely.
I have heard stories of abusers destroying apartments and draining bank accounts at the point that survivors were leaving, effectively bankrupting the survivors and preventing them from passing background checks to new places to live. I have read stories of abuser camping out in front of doors to bar his partner from sneaking away in the night.
Another huge factor might be stigma. It can be difficult to leave a relationship with social status or celebrity status. Meaning the person may be viewed as part of a power couple or have built a reputation on having an ideal marriage. The survivor may face the prospect of being a single parent and this stigma may be compounded at the intersection of being black or poor. There's stigma related just to being single after many failed relationships. There's a lot of shame when a family member may have told you from the start that the relationship wouldn't work, or when the survivor bragged about how wonderful the relationship was in the beginning. Perhaps the survivor hoped to interrupt a long history of divorce and unwed relationships.
Don't Put Down OR Confront the Abuser
If the violence is escalating, getting in between the abuser and the survivor could be dangerous for both you and your loved one. Minimize the damage, but do not threaten or physically assault the abuser. Remember that your loved one faces retaliation even after you leave.
I actually think that confrontation can be helpful in some circumstance of verbal abuse. If an abuser is putting the survivor down in front of people. Tell them that their language is inappropriate. Many abusers think that their criticism is valid and feel entitled to putting down their partners. Many survivors begin to believe the emotional abuse over time. One way abusers do this well is finding the survivor's insecurities and blowing them up out of proportion. So, help your loved one to keep inventory of the abuse because the abuser may have a tendency to "forget" what happened and gaslight the survivor. Additonally, sticking up for a survivor in these instances of emotional abuse shows survivor that what they are experiencing is not normal, funny, nor is it okay.
Don't Be the Expert on Their Relationship
Do you want to get back with your ex from 9 years ago? Do I go up to you and say 'You should get back together?"- Kelis
Most likely, you are not a matchmaker or a therapist. Don't tell them how not to provoke their abuser. Do not read them a laundry list of their flaws, challenges, or supposed contributions to the problems in the relationship. Do not counsel them on how to get back together or improve the relationship. All of these things implies and equal playing field where both people just need skills to make the relationship succeed. In abuse, there is not equal playing field. There is always ONE person who is primarily to offender and ONE person who is primarily degraded and afraid most of the time.
Don't Relate their experience to Yours
Yes. You may have left a toxic friendship. You may have even left an outright abusive, romantic relationship. Even still, your situation is not their situation. People can have very similar experiences and walk away with starkly different feelings, mental health challenges, and impacts on their future. Also, pontificating will alienate you from your loved one. It may also play into the abuser's hands. A common emotionally abusive tactic is isolating the survivor. The abuser may tell the survivor that you do not understand their love and use such pontificating as proof that you are judgmental of your loved one. Imagine how lecturing about your relationships plays into this narrative. Obviously, it drives your loved one back into the abuser's arms.
Do Tell the Survivor "It's not Your Fault"
This will feel like throw away advice to some survivors. In some cases "It's not your fault" is all they need to hear. Do not just say this upfront without hearing some details of what the survivor is going through or else it may come across as hollow.
The survivor may specify something like, "You know I did hit them, too" or "She's just been under a lot of stress."
Make sure the blame is squarely back on the abusive person's shoulders and not the survivor's by reminding them, "We all go through stress. It's never okay to take it out on those we love."
Likewise, you may say "I see you trying so hard to look out for them. Defending yourself is not an excuse for them to hit you."
Do Connect them to Multiple Types of Professionals
Pressing charges is not always right for everyone. Some people of color, immigrant populations, and queer folks have had poor relationships with the criminal justice system. At the same time, do not assume that your loved one does not want to pursue protection orders or criminal convictions just because they are part of a marginalized group. Some cities also have trained detectives and first responders in specialized units who support survivors moving through intimate partner violence.
Also, advocates are often employed or volunteered through civil courts to walk your loved one through the very complicated process of filing protection orders and moving towards trial. During these proceeding, survivors often have an urge to word vomit months and years of abuse. This confuses judges who are looking for succinct answers. An advocate knows how to help the survivor focus, calm down, and speak to the lethality of their situation with brevity.
In addition, individual therapy can provide a safe space for the survivor to heal from trauma. EMDR Certified therapists like myself, specialize in somatic work, challenging negative thoughts, and decreasing the impact of trauma symptoms like flashbacks. EMDR can help people find a new sense of normal after leaving abusive situations and while navigating ongoing triggers due to having to co-parent smoothly, divorce amicably, and battle for custody.
Ultimately, you are just as important as any legal aid, police officer, therapist, or advocate. If your loved one asks you to escort them to court, make sure you do not speak for them. If your loved one asks you to sit with them while police respond to their home or take a report, do not interject. Your testimony can corrupt the investigation for later.
Do Actively Listen
'This is my partner; I chose this. We're gonna do this. We're gonna make it work.' I stayed for years after that, and you keep it moving. Like I said, I'm not frail, I'm not scared, I'm not weak.- Kelis
Reframe from the urge to chastise you loved one. Listening does not include us preaching. Do not shame them for raising kids with an abuser, or question their image as a strong person. Sometimes they really need to vent about something that the abusive person did. Instead label any acts that are emotionally abusive as such, and help your loved one name their emotions. "I'd be mad too. You seem really hurt by that."
Do be Patient
I have edited myself for 9 years. I woke up and said "Not to day."- kelis
Again, abusers have a tendency to isolate their victims over time. If you stop reaching out because you become frustrated you leave your loved one without support if and when the violence escalates. The abuser may do things like monitor your loved one phones calls, texts, and social media messages, making it difficult to respond right away. So, do not take long gaps of time without contact as a personal slight against you.
Also, survivors may break up and go back to the abuser several times, but often times when some one makes up their mind to leave they really mean it. The abuser may try to wear them down with promises to change. As mentioned earlier, the survivor may want to try one last ditch effort to salvage the relationship. They may want to trust the abusers promises, gifts, and pseudo-efforts to change. They may want to appear as though they are serious about leaving without really severing the entire relationship. All of these efforts to elicit change in the relationship are normal albeit unlikely to work. Remind loved one that you're here for them no matter what they choose.
Do Make a Safety Plan
Firstly, let the survivor know that if they are experiencing physical violence to avoid hard surfaces during a fight. This means, that moving towards bedrooms may be their best bet when staying inside the house and navigating an escalating conflict. Kitchens and bathrooms pose the biggest risks for injury because there are knives, counter tops, and more blunt objects. Secondly, help your loved one identify short term and long term solutions to their problems including financial support. Thirdly, come up with code language to designate that it is okay to talk or text freely like "Hey! Do you want to study later at the dining hall?" Hang up immediately or wait for the survivor to text you first if the answer is "no."
Bear in mind that the risk of violence goes up 7x at the point that the survivor is trying to leave a relationship because the abuser is losing control and is likely to escalate to more desperate means of maintaining control. Be exceptionally careful not to leave evidence of plans lying around where the abuser can find it. One of my favorite safety plans is by Love Is Respect. You can find it here for guidance.
Do Keep the Focus on your Concern
"He was angry, and he was dark, and he's always been that way."-Kelis
Do listen, but know that the abuse is not because the abuser drinks too much, has an anger problem, has their own mental health issues, their own abuse history, or any other excuse. Many survivors will internalize these things about their partners and think, "If my partner just get's help then the abuse will stop. I should have know better than to ask him that while he was drunk." Abuser will often appear very apologetic after and episode of abuse and externalize their abuse onto an outside factor like alcohol. Outside factors like alcohol may make them more unpredictable and less able to temper their violence, but they are violent even when they are not drinking. They sometime drink first to intentionally scapegoat their actions. When you hear yourself about to lecture, or agree with these excuses, bring your focus back to the survivor's safety instead. Say things like
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