As a friend, family member or co-worker of someone who is being abused, there are many things you can do to prepare yourself to offer supportive and empowering assistance. Some of the ideas below were adapted from the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence’s Friends, Family, Co-Workers and Bystanders page. You can check out their website for additional tips.
What You Can Do for Yourself
- Learn about all forms of domestic violence, including emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and more. You can read our website’s Learn about Abuse section to learn about different forms of abuse and specific tactics that an abuser may use to gain power and control over a victim. Look at our Am I Being Abused? page for signs of abuse that may be less obvious - even the victim may not recognize some of these actions as “abuse.” Talk to a domestic violence advocate at a local organization near you to see if they have workshops on domestic violence or support groups for victims and their loved ones. Research what other services are available in your area for victims and their loved ones on our Places that Help page. Read about the laws that can protect a victim of abuse in our Know the Laws section.
- Let go of expectations that you may have that there is a “quick fix” to domestic violence or that you absolutely know what is best for the victim. Understand that domestic violence is based in a pattern of power and control that often begins way before others notice that the abuse is happening. It can take a lot of time, planning, patience, support, and help from professionals to remove oneself safely from an abusive relationship.
- Be prepared to challenge any attitudes and beliefs that you may have about victims of domestic violence. Being a victim of abuse doesn’t mean that the person is any less intelligent, less strong, or less able than someone who is not a victim. Domestic violence can happen to anyone, regardless of their race, socio-economic class, education level, gender, sexuality, etc. Abusers often seem charming and friendly at first, both to victims and to outsiders. Often, the abuse builds slowly and the abuser methodically tears down the victim’s self-esteem, isolates him/her from family and friends, and makes it so the victim often feels trapped in the relationship by his/her partner’s use of violence and/or power and control. The better you are able to recognize and build on the courage, resourcefulness and decision-making abilities of victims of abuse, the better able you will be to help them.
What You Can Do for a Victim of Abuse
- Begin a conversation when it’s safe to do so. Think about talking to your friend, family member or co-worker in a neutral, private location. Speaking to a victim in his/her home could put the victim at risk if the abuser comes home unexpectedly or if the abuser has planted any recording devices in the home. Raise your concerns about things that you have seen or noticed in a calm, non-judgmental manner.
- Believe him/her. If the victim reveals abuse to you, believe him/her and let him/her know that you do. If you know his/her partner and you can’t envision this person committing the acts of abuse that s/he describes, remember that abusers often act differently in public than they do in private. If the victim denies that s/he is being abused, let him/her know that you are still concerned and that you will be there any time s/he wants to talk more about it.
- Listen to what s/he tells you. Really listen to him/her and ask any follow up questions that you may have in a non-accusatory way. Avoid making judgments and giving advice on what s/he “should” do. Ask him/her what you can do to help. Tell him/her that s/he is not alone and that there are organizations and people that can help.
- Build on his/her strengths. Based on what s/he tells you and on what you have seen, point out the ways in which s/he has developed ways to cope, solved problems, and showed courage and determination. One side effect of domestic violence is that abusers often strip victims of their self-esteem and self-worth. S/he may have been told repeatedly that s/he “can’t do anything right” or is “worthless” or “useless.” Even if the things s/he has tried have not been completely successful, help him/her to recognize his/her efforts and build on his/her strengths – and emphasize that it is important not to give up.
- Validate his/her feelings. It is common for someone who is abused by an intimate partner to have conflicting feelings towards the abuser - love and fear, guilt and anger, hope and sadness, wanting to stay and wanting to leave. It can be especially complex when the abuser is the parent of the victim’s child. Let him/her know that these feelings are normal. If they have children together, validate any feelings s/he may have of “wanting to keep the family together” but also mention that domestic violence undoubtedly affects children. Often victims may convince themselves that if the children don’t “see” the abuse, it isn’t affecting them. However, even young children can sense abuse and be affected by it.
- Avoid victim-blaming. Tell your loved one that the abuse is not his/her fault, no matter what. Abusers will often tell victims that they have done something to “deserve it” or that the victim’s actions have “caused” the abuser to act abusively. Other times, the abuser may blame his/her actions on being intoxicated or may say that s/he acted in that way out of love or due to cultural norms. Tell your loved one that the abuse is his/her partner’s problem and responsibility and that there is never any excuse for abuse. But don’t “bad-mouth” the abusive partner – this may make the victim feel like s/he has to defend the abuser.
- Take it seriously. If you are concerned about your loved one’s safety, express your concern without judgment. For example, saying something like, “Your situation sounds dangerous and I’m concerned about your safety” can be better than a judgmental statement such as “How could you let yourself get into this situation? Why have you been allowing this abuse?”
- Offer help and information. Ask him/her what you can do to help. Offer specific forms of help that you feel comfortable offering – and that would not compromise your own safety. For example, you may not feel safe having the victim stay in your home but you may be able to offer him/her gas money if s/he wants to drive to a shelter in another state. Offer information that you think would be helpful. WomensLaw.org has listings of domestic violence shelters, legal and non-legal organizations that offer free help to victims, and plain-language explanations of legal protections available in each state. You or your loved one can also reach out to WomensLaw directly through our Email Hotline to ask specific questions.
- Encourage him/her to make a “safety plan.” Leaving an abusive relationship can increase the risk to the victim of serious injury or even death. You can learn about other times of increased risk on our Danger Assessment page. The key to safety planning is taking a problem, looking at all of the available options, evaluating the risks and benefits of different options, and figuring out ways to reduce the risks. You can read about Safety Planning on WomensLaw.org and victim advocates can assist your loved one in creating a safety plan. If it is not possible or not safe for him/her to go to a domestic violence organization, s/he can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) any time, day or night, and get help making a safety plan over the phone.
- Support and respect his/her decisions. Remember that there are risks with every decision a victim of abuse makes. Leaving an abuser immediately may not be the safest option in every situation. Try to respect his/her decisions (whatever they may be) and still leave the door open to be there for support and help in the future. Even if you don’t agree with the victim’s decisions, going against a victim’s wishes can drive the victim away from you and can even endanger him/her. For example, reporting the abuse to the police if s/he asks you not to can put the victim in greater danger if the police show up to his/her home unexpectedly and the abuser thinks s/he called the police or that s/he told others of the abuse. Informing other family members, friends, or co-workers about the situation against the victim’s wishes can make the victim lose trust in you and may stop him/her from reaching out for help in the future.
- Continue to provide support later. If the victim does decide to leave an abusive relationship, don’t assume that s/he is now completely safe and happy. Leaving an abusive relationship can be challenging and your loved one may still need time to get over the loss of the relationship and to adjust to the changes in his/her life. Let him/her know that you are still there for support and that s/he can come to you if the abuser tries to continue the abuse. Safety planning is still important once a victim has left.
- Connect the victim to resources if s/he is ready. If the victim of abuse you are supporting is your co-worker, you can support him/her by finding out your workplace’s domestic violence policy (without mentioning the victim’s name). Many human resources departments may offer assistance to victims of domestic violence but not everyone will want to inform an employer that they are being abused. Making sure that s/he has all of the information and resources necessary so that s/he can make an informed decision about whether or not to tell the employer can be helpful to your co-worker. You may even find out the name of the appropriate human resources representative that your co-worker should speak to when s/he is ready. You can also check out our Workplace Protections page to learn about any laws that protect victims in the workplace in your state. Also, if you are the employer of a victim, you may want to see if your state has a workplace restraining order, which can be filed by an employer to protect all employees from an abuser. Even if the victim who you are helping is not a co-worker, the information on WomensLaw.org about laws that can protect a victim of abuse in the workplace can be included in the list of local resources and information that you can have available if and when s/he is ready.