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Supporting Someone in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship: Do’s and Don’ts

Supporting Someone in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship Do’s and Don’ts

Emotionally abusive relationships often affect more than the people directly involved. If you suspect that a family member or friend is in an unhealthy relationship, most likely your first response is to want to do something – anything – to help. It’s natural for that urge to get even stronger when that person tells you that they are experiencing emotional abuse.

What is Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse involves nonphysical behavior that belittles another person. Emotional abuse can include insults, put downs, verbal threats or other tactics that make someone feel threatened, inferior, ashamed or degraded. You can learn about the five signs of emotional abuse here.

Since emotional abuse is isolating, complicated and disorienting, it can be difficult to figure out how to support a friend or family member experiencing emotional abuse. Below are tips on how to support someone in an emotionally abusive relationship:

DO Listen

Give the person experiencing emotional abuse space to share their story. It may be difficult, but do not jump in with advice, your personal thoughts or emotions. When listening to a story that’s difficult to hear, check in to make sure you’re actively listening by paraphrasing or repeating what you’ve heard.

DON’T Shame, Judge, or Critique

Remember, emotional abuse is complicated and confusing. It’s natural to have a lot of questions but be aware of your tone and phrasing. The person sharing with you is experiencing a lot in their relationship and most likely already feels a mix of emotions, including guilt and shame. Try not to add onto that.

DO Believe Someone if They Tell You They’re Experiencing Emotional Abuse

Abusers are often very skilled at creating a façade: it may be hard to believe that they are capable of abuse. This doubt is a tool used to exercise control.

Believing someone when they tell you they were abused not only supports them but can also serve to loosen the control exercised over them by the person who is hurting them.

DON’T Make Excuses for the Abuser

Abusive behavior in relationships is typically motivated by a desire for power and control. Yet the specific circumstances of the abuser can vary widely. Whatever the situation, there’s no excuse for abuse. When your friend or family member is sharing their experience with you, it is not the right time to contemplate and try to understand “why” someone is abusive.

DO Share and be Honest About Your Concerns

It’s okay to voice concerns you may have, but be sure to take a non-judgmental position. Communicate that you are coming from a place of compassion. Try starting by normalizing the experience using a phrase such as, “I think anyone who experienced what you have been through could feel that way”. Use “I” statements to express your concern, such as, “I feel: (emotion) when: (scenario/behavior) because: (reason).” This example could sound like: “I feel worried when I hear about what you’ve been through because I don’t think this behavior is okay.”

DON’T Make it All About You

If a friend or family member is sharing details of their experience with emotional abuse, it’s normal to have a lot of strong emotions. You may be scared or confused. You may be upset, hurt or feel betrayed like they kept an important secret from you.

It’s okay for you to feel whatever you are feeling. Try and be aware of the impact your reaction may have on the person who is opening up to you. Share your concerns and keep in mind this person is coming to you for support, not the other way around. Try not to put them in a position where they feel they have to justify their actions or choices.

DO Research Resources

Knowledge is power. Collaborate with the person experiencing emotional abuse to figure out what kind of support they might need or want. You might want to check out this post about the five signs of emotional abuse and even share it. Offer to do the leg work of making phone calls, scheduling appointments, or arranging transportation. If you’re stuck, try calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233; they can connect you to resources in your area. If you live in New York, visit our Hotlines page or call our 24-hour Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-621-HOPE(4673). For in-person, ongoing assistance, contact one of our Community Programs.

DON’T Pressure or Force your Opinions or Views

Pressuring or forcing someone who is in an emotionally abusive relationship to leave or take action may end up pushing them away. It might feel like you’re helping them, but it can end up further isolating them. While you can offer resources and be there to listen and validate, know that you can’t force change. Help by supporting the person who is experiencing emotional abuse to make choices that are right for them, not you.

To learn more about emotional abuse, click here to read the five signs of emotional abuse. To learn more about Safe Horizon programs that may help, you can visit our Community Programs page, Hotlines page, or learn the facts about domestic violence.

  • Jennifer Koza

    Jennifer Koza, MSW, is a research and program development analyst at Safe Horizon. She conducts quality assurance and evaluation across all our programs. Jennifer was previously a research staff associate at Workplace Center at Columbia School of Social Work and advisory board member at Museum of Motherhood.