Whether you realize it or not, you probably know someone who has been affected by domestic violence. In America, more than 10 million individuals are abused every year. This means that one out of every four women — and one in seven men — are and/or have been victims of severe physical violence, including but not limited to pushing, punching, beating, burning, or strangling by an intimate partner. One in four. And if you didn’t know someone prior to this, you do now. I am a survivor of domestic abuse. But while you probably (okay, undoubtedly) want to help, you may not know how. Figuring out where to begin is tricky, at best.
Here are some ways to help domestic violence survivors, both during and after an abusive relationship.
How to help an individual who is being actively abused
Remind the victim of their worth. It is common for individuals in abusive relationships to have low self-esteem and/or struggle with their sense of self-worth. For this reason, it is essential that you remind them they are important. They matter, and nothing they did justifies the behaviors of their abuser[s], i.e. they did nothing wrong and do not deserve this.
Validate their feelings. Many domestic violence victims experience conflicting feelings about their partner and/or situation. My emotions ran the gamut, from guilt and anger to shame and despair. But validation is key. Let the individual know that these thoughts are normal but abuse is not. Violence is never okay.
Believe them. If someone tells you they are the victim of domestic violence, listen to them and believe them without hesitation. No questions asked. You also can (and should) offer reassurances. Say things like “I believe you,” “this is not your fault,” and “you don’t deserve this.”
Let the individual know you are worried about their safety. In addition to validating the victim’s feelings and reminding them of their self-worth, you should also express concern, letting the individual know you are worried about their safety. Why? Because saying things like “I’m worried about you because” and/or “I have noticed some changes that concern me” reminds the individual they are the victim of inappropriate and unacceptable behavior. It also lets them know that someone loves them enough to notice. Someone cares.
Help them develop a safety plan. Safety plans are documents which outline what an individual can and should do in a crisis situation, i.e. there are occupational safety plans, first-aid safety plans, and suicide safety plans, which outlines what someone should do if they have thoughts of ending their life. Domestic violence safety plans, however, give individuals tangible steps they can take if the violence occurs again and/or they decide to leave.
How to help a survivor of domestic abuse
Make time for them. While leaving an abusive relationship is hard, the days and weeks which follow can be harder. After all, in walking away from your partner, you’ve lost a piece of yourself. Many survivors struggle with forward motion and “what comes next.” As such, it’s important that you make yourself available to the individual not only in times of crisis but afterward. They still need your ear, love, and support.
Remind them they are not alone. Abuse is an isolating experience. Many abuse victims are controlled by their partners and are quite literally confined to their homes. Physical indicators of abuse make it difficult to be out in the world, which causes many abusees to detach from family and friends, and it is a very disconnected experience. For this reason, you can and should remind the survivor they are not alone not only with your words but with your actions, i.e. you should answer the phone when they call or visit if they express the need to talk to a friend. You should also invite them out, to dinner, dancing, or for drinks.
Listen, without shame or judgement. If a friend or loved one shares their abuse story with you, it is important you listen without shame or judgement. Without stigma. You should also avoid giving advice. Why? Because if they are talking, they want to be acknowledged. They just want to be heard. So let the person share their thoughts, feelings, and fears. Give them a safe space and place to vent and the opportunity to open up.
Offer resources and ongoing support. While you cannot force an individual to leave or get help, you can encourage them to do so by providing resources and/or support. Look up telephone numbers for shelters, social services, attorneys, mental health professionals, and support groups. If available, offer pamphlets and brochures about domestic violence. Connect them with crisis hotlines, including the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and let them know you are there to support them no matter what.
Respect their choices. Finally, while it may seem counterintuitive — especially if the victim in your life is being actively physically abused, i.e. they are being punched, kicked, beaten, pushed, or choked — know this: You cannot make them leave. You can help them and guide them to be sure, but the decision to leave is theirs and theirs alone. So do not pressure them. Do not shame or blame them, and do not be judgmental or make them feel bad for staying in an abusive relationship. Let them know you will be there for them, no matter what choice they make.