Finding out that a friend or family member is being abused can be a frightening and painful experience. It can be difficult to know what to do or say in order to help them as much as possible, while also grappling with this abrupt change in reality.
It’s normal to feel overwhelmed, unsure, or even helpless in this situation and experiencing these emotions doesn’t mean that you were a poor choice for your loved one to confide in. If anything, feeling this way shows just how much you care.
If you become the confidant of a domestic violence victim, follow these do’s and don’ts to help give them the tools they need to stay safe and eventually leave their abuser.
Do believe them
The most important thing you can do when talking with someone who is experiencing domestic violence is to believe what they are saying. Victims and survivors often keep their stories to themselves because they worry that they won’t be believed or taken seriously.
Questioning their experiences or asking them victim-blaming questions that could appear to validate the abuser’s actions can cause a victim to feel uncomfortable sharing the remainder of their story. It may cause you to appear as an unsafe person to talk to and, as a result, they may stop confiding in you or looking to you for help altogether.
Don’t force them to reveal more than they’re comfortable
Domestic violence is a sensitive subject and revealing that someone is experiencing abuse places that person in a vulnerable position. Not only has the abuser already taken away much of the victim’s control over his or her own life, but in order to seek help, they must also reveal this personal and intimate information.
If it seems like your loved one is keeping details from you, don’t try to pry them out. It’s okay to ask general questions, like, “is there anything else you want me to know?” but demanding more information than they are willing to give can re-victimize the individual by, yet again, taking away their ability to make decisions for themselves.
Trust the victim and believe that, when they are ready, they will tell you what they want you to know.
Do support them and their decisions
Since a victim has been powerless for so long, it is important that you validate and support their decisions. Remind them that simply coming to you for help shows just how strong they are.
As you talk with your loved one about their experiences and what their options are for the future, remind them that all of the decisions are in their hands. A victim of domestic violence is the expert on their own situation and they know the decisions that are the best for them. Whether that means they are going to return home to an abusive partner or they want you to accompany them to court to file a protective order, it’s your job to support their choices.
Remember that sometimes what seems to be the obvious “safe” choice from your point of view might not be the decision they make. On average, a victim of domestic violence will leave their abuser seven times before they stay away for good and leaving the abuser is the most dangerous time for a victim. Keeping these statistics in mind can help remind you that leaving an abuser for good isn’t a straight and narrow path and acting outside of the victim’s wishes can escalate the situation and place them in even more danger.
Don’t insist they reach out for help
It can seem like a logical solution to have your friend or family member reach out to local domestic violence agencies for help. These organizations are usually confidential and don’t require people seeking their services to take any immediate or legal action. However, it is already a huge step for your loved one to reveal the abuse to you. They might not be ready to tell a complete stranger.
The best you can do is give the victim information on the organization and let them know the services that are available. You can even offer to go with them if and when they decide they are ready for that step.
Do help them create a safety plan
A safety plan is a personalized plan that a victim can use in order to stay safe in a dangerous situation. It can include thinking of potentially hazardous rooms to avoid if the abuser becomes violent (like the bathroom, kitchen, or garage), knowing where important paperwork and IDs are located, identifying people they can go to for help, or figuring out how to remove children and pets from the home if a situation becomes violent.
Take some time to create a safety plan with your loved one and feel free to offer yourself and your home as a potential safe location where they can stay if they ever need help.
Don’t try to rescue them
When we hear that someone we care about is in danger, we can automatically want to jump into superhero mode, call the police, and sweep our loved one out of their dangerous situation. It seems logical, but this is one of the worst things you can do. You’re not there to save anyone, your job is to act as a support system to help the victim in whatever capacity they require. One day, that might mean calling the police and having the abuser arrested for everything they have done, but today, you might be a sympathetic ear and shoulder to lean on. Both of these roles are equally important.