by Heather, a loveisrespect advocate
Here at loveisrespect, we often hear from people who are worried about a loved one’s relationship and want to help. It can be painful and frustrating to see someone you care about being mistreated. Even harder still is feeling helpless to intervene. If you think that your friend or family member may be in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, one way to provide support is to ask them questions about how they are feeling about the relationship and reflect on that together. Specifically, we suggest trying to work a couple of these questions into a conversation when your loved one has already brought up their partner or their relationship:
- How have things been with you two lately?
- What is an argument between you and your partner usually like?
- What have you been doing to try to work things out?
- How does [partner’s name] treat you when they’re upset?
- What do you wish things between you guys were like?
- When is the last time you were truly safe and happy in your relationship?
- What do you want out of a partner?
- How do you see things playing out if nothing changes?
- What’s keeping you in the relationship?
- What are you thinking about doing?
- How can I help?
- How would you feel about chatting with someone at loveisrespect?
How to Respond
Be a friend! This might sound obvious, but it’s true. You care about your loved one, and you can remind them that there is more to their identity than this one relationship. Remind them what healthy relationships look like, and ask if you can help with their self-care and emotional safety. Sometimes it can be especially helpful to talk things unrelated to the relationship as it might give them a break from the drama they’re going through; try asking them about hobbies, work, children, other relationships, health and nutrition, media, etc. Other times someone may find it helpful to tell their story as a way to process their experiences. Another option could be to go to them with a problem of your own, to remind them that you trust and respect their judgment and perspective, which may help them feel more comfortable opening up to you. Everyone is different, so think about what might work best to support your family member or friend, or ask them how they want to be supported.
When you do talk about their relationship, focus on behaviors. Talking about your friend or family member’s partner (e.g. he’s a jerk, she doesn’t deserve you, they weren’t raised right) can make your loved one feel like they must defend their choice to be with that person. Discussing an abusive partner’s behavior as immoral, unfair, illegal, or sinful might cause your friend to feel defensive, since those are subjective concepts. Instead, it can be helpful to label what kinds of behaviors are healthy, unhealthy, or abusive to draw a contrast for them. For example, “Wow, it’s concerning to hear that your partner is pressuring you to either give up your social media or give them your passwords. In a healthy relationship, everyone has a right to privacy and can trust that their boundaries will be respected.”
Understand the Stages of Change
If your friend or family member’s relationship has moved from unhealthy to abusive- where their partner has shown a pattern of behaving in ways designed to control and have power over them- it’s important to understand what it may take for your family member or friend to make a change in their situation. The healing process isn’t linear. While it’s understandable to be concerned for your loved one’s safety, it’s important to know that leaving an abusive partner is the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship because it’s the ultimate threat to the abuser’s power and control. Given these safety risks, it’s important that a survivor has time and space to carefully consider and plan any decisions about making changes in their abusive relationship.
- In pre-contemplation, your loved one has not yet begun considering what change could look like. They may feel like something is wrong but haven’t identified what the problem is or thought seriously about change.
- In contemplation, they consider what changes they could make to better prioritize their safety. Still, these steps are just a thought, and they are unlikely to make changes in the immediate future.
- In preparation, a survivor independently and voluntarily begins actively planning to stay safe.
- Action is when a survivor makes significant, life-affirming changes.
- In maintenance, a survivor continues to adapt to changing circumstances in order to preserve a safe, supportive, and empowering environment.
It’s alright for a survivor to be in any one of these stages of change. Moving through them can take weeks, months, or even years, and people don’t always move through them in a consecutive order. Forcing or pressuring someone who is in pre-contemplation to consider leaving will likely be ineffective, since they haven’t even admitted to themselves yet that they are experiencing abuse. It’s also important to remember that it takes survivors an average of seven attempts at leaving an abusive relationship before they’re able to leave for good.
Why Autonomy is Vital
We know that when survivors feel supported, they are more likely to feel strong enough take steps to keep themselves safer. Because abuse is all about power and control, everything your loved one’s partner does in their relationship is about undermining your friend or family member’s confidence, autonomy and self-esteem. To combat this, it’s crucial that people who support survivors and have their best interests at heart understand that the survivor is the expert in their own situation. Encouraging your loved one to trust their instincts, and letting them know that they know their situation best, is more helpful than you could imagine.
It’s also important to keep in mind that safety is not always black and white, and that trying to tell a survivor what to do, especially if you’re telling them to leave, sets up a false dichotomy for survivors, with no middle ground: they can either be safe outside the relationship, or in danger within it. This oversimplifies the process of leaving and overlooks major safety concerns:
- Leaving an abuser is the most dangerous time in a relationship, as the abuse tends to escalate as the abuser feels their power and control slipping away.
- Ending an abusive relationship does not usually mean the end of abuse. Emotionally abusive behaviors such as stalking and threats may even increase after a survivor leaves.
- Leaving safely requires careful preparation and planning. Simply leaving an abusive situation without considering both immediate and long-term safety and emotional support needs can actually put a survivor in more danger.
- Survivors know their situation best, and leaving may not be the safest or even most worthwhile choice for them. For example, abusers often threaten very real harm to family, friends, children, property, pets, or even themselves if a survivor leaves. Many shelters cannot accommodate survivors’ adult dependents, stepchildren, teenage male children, or pets. A survivor may not be willing to leave their loved ones behind. There are countless other reasons a survivor may decide to stay with an abuser, too.
- Unfortunately, CPS, APS, counselors, law enforcement and the justice system don’t always provide the protection or services necessary to meet a survivor’s needs.
- Shelters often do not have enough space for all of the survivors who are seeking safety, and many survivors rely on their abusers for financial stability. Leaving may not be a sustainable long-term option for a survivor.
- Revisiting their situation again and again through criminal justice proceedings, custody hearings, regulatory agencies, employers, medical and mental health professionals, religious leaders, family, friends, or the media, can be incredibly traumatic for survivors.
- Asking for help can be fatiguing and time consuming, as it involves contacting many sources and retelling stories in order to meet just one of many needs that must be addressed. This can be even harder for survivors who don’t have the technology, privacy, or transportation to safely seek support.
- Abusers seek to isolate their partners from their support systems. Excessive pressure or criticism from family and friends can make survivors feel like they can’t turn to these loved ones when they do need support in the future, playing right into the abuser’s hand.
Take Care of You, Too
Know your limits, and set appropriate boundaries. Not everyone has the emotional capacity to support a survivor, and there’s no shame in that. Knowing our limits is an act of strength, because naming our vulnerabilities takes courage. Know the signs of vicarious trauma and pay attention to your own emotions. Your loved one deserves support, and if you are at your limit, it’s okay to refer them to us or a local domestic violence program that could better assist them. Then, prioritize your emotional well-being and practice self-care to replenish your emotional resources.
If you have questions about how to support a friend or family member in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, we’re here to help! Reach out to a loveisrespect advocate 24/7 by calling 1-866-331-9474, chatting at www.loveisrespect.org, or texting LOVEIS to 22522.