How to Help a Friend Who Is the Victim of Domestic Abuse

How To Help A Friend Who Is The Victim Of Domestic Abuse

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Trigger warning: abuse

I fucking hate bananas. I mean, they are a fine fruit, soft and sweet and full of potassium. They are also brightly colored. In fact, yellow is one of my favorite hues. But we have a sordid past, bananas and I, and that is because the first time my husband hit me was during a fight over a banana. (Yes, really.) He clocked me square in the nose, crunching the cartilage and breaking the skin above my eye. And while I should have walked away then, in that moment, I didn’t. I stayed for more than a decade, in a dangerous and volatile situation. I was abused for years. The reason? Bananas. Well, that and unsupportive friends. 

Let me explain.

You see, after that first incident, I was hurt and angry. I was shocked, stunned, and scared, and I didn’t know what to do. The man I loved had betrayed my trust, albeit in a drunken rage. I was also ashamed. I “let” this happen to me. And so I turned to a dear friend for advice, guidance, love, and support. But the words that came out of her mouth after two glasses of wine (or three) rocked me; I was stunned to my core.

“You must have done something to deserve it,” she said. “I mean, you didn’t deserve it, but you probably egged him on.”

Now, a normal person would have retorted objectively or, perhaps, defensively. They would have said “bullshit” because that’s what her remarks were: bullshit, through and through. No one deserves to be beaten or battered. There is nothing another person can say or do that justifies violence. I didn’t “deserve it” or “ask for it.” I shouldn’t have been hit, slapped, kicked, choked, or struck, full stop. But I wasn’t in a normal place or headspace; I was broken, vulnerable, and emotional. So instead of dismissing her remarks, I internalized them.

I did “deserve it,” I thought. This was my fault. 

And I felt this way for years, long after the abuse ended, after the cuts healed and my bruises began to fade. Why? Because her words echoed my deepest fears. They perpetuated feelings many abuse survivors face, feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse. They also gave meaning to the meaningless. If I did something wrong, then his actions would make sense.

What happened to me when I sought advice doesn’t — and shouldn’t — have to happen to anyone else going through this; there are ways to help individuals who are living in these situations. Here are six ways to support a victim of domestic violence.

Make time for them.

The best and (arguably) most important thing you can do for someone who is being domestically abused is to be present. Being open and available is key. It also helps the victim realize they are not alone. Whether you are discussing something as benign as parenting or the incident itself, they know they have your ear and your support.

Listen, without shame, judgement, or stigma.

If your friend does decide to talk to you, it is imperative you listen to their story without shame, judgement, or stigma. You should also avoid giving advice and/or offering solutions. Why? Because if they are talking, they want to be acknowledged. They just want to be heard. Plus, chances are if you actively listen, the person will tell you exactly what they need. Just give the person a safe space and place to vent and the full opportunity to talk.

Validate the victim’s feelings.

You’ve heard some of the details. You know bits and pieces surrounding the violent event(s) but what now? What should you do? What can you say? While you shouldn’t offer advice, you can offer empathy. A little understanding goes a long way. You should also make sure the victim knows you believe them. Saying things like “this is not your fault” and “you don’t deserve this” are validating. It confirms they are not bad, wrong, crazy, or alone.

Ask them what they need.

If someone you love tells you they are being abused, your gut reaction will (likely) be to act. You’ll want to stand between the abuser and abused, literally or physically. You’ll want to help your friend leave. If you’re at their house, you may begin grabbing their belongings or packing their bags, and you may want to call the police to report the incident(s). After all, they can help. However, the National Domestic Violence Hotline advises against this.

“No matter how well you know a survivor, the only person who can tell you how they feel or what they need is them,” an article on the National Domestic Violence Hotline reads. “Calling the police when your neighbor is being yelled at may put them in danger if that’s not something they’ve asked you to do. Survivors of intimate partner violence have already been dealing with their abusive partner disregarding their wants, needs and boundaries, so to help a survivor it’s vital that you respect their autonomy. The best way to do that is with one simple question, ‘How can I help?’”

Offer hope, encouragement, and targeted support.

Once the abused has told you what they need, you can move forward appropriately. If they need a ride to a shelter, for example, you may want to offer your time and your car. If they just need a safe space to cry and vent, you can offer your ear. However, you should also encourage them to get external help.

“If someone you know has asked you for help dealing with or escaping an abusive partner, [you should] encourage them to reach out to The Hotline via phone or chat, if it’s safe, and then, you can call or chat with us too,” the National Domestic Violence Hotline writes. “Our advocates can help you make a safety plan that’s customized to your friend or family member’s situation, and help you find articles and examples of safety planning to share with your loved one as well.”

Educate yourself: i.e., know the warning signs.

Whether your friend gets help or not is beyond your control. You cannot force them to leave their relationship and you do not know what hidden dangers they may face. In fact, experts say that leaving an abusive partner puts women in particular in potentially life-threatening danger. But regardless of their decision, you should familiarize yourself with the warning signs of domestic violence, which include but are not limited to:

Physical Signs

  • Black eyes
  • Busted lips
  • Red or purple marks on the neck
  • Sprained wrists
  • Bruises on the torso or arms

Emotional Signs

  • Low self-esteem
  • Overly apologetic 
  • Anxious
  • Fearful
  • Symptoms of depression

Behavioral Signs

  • Becoming withdrawn or distant
  • Canceling appointments or meetings
  • Chronic lateness
  • Excessive privacy concerns
  • Isolating themselves from friends and family
  • Using and abusing various substances
  • Changes in sleeping or eating patterns

If you or someone you know is the victim of domestic violence, understand there is both help and hope. Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).