By Anthea Levi
October 11, 2017
If a friend was in an abusive relationship, you would figure it out so she could get help, right? Don’t be so sure.
That’s because domestic abuse—also known as intimate partner abuse—isn’t as obvious as you’d think. Though it’s characterized by physical violence and the threat of violence, it also includes emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and stalking. While signs of physical assault can be evident, these other behaviors are likely to go under the radar.
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so we’ve asked experts to tell us how to recognize that what might seem like a toxic or difficult relationship a friend is in is something more serious—and then help her find safety before the abuse escalates.
Recognize the Signs
If she’s bombarded by texts and calls from her boo when they’re apart, tune in. “I’ve met with survivors who receive multiple calls and texts from their partner just while they’re sitting in my office,” says Jimmy Meagher, director of the Domestic Violence and Empowerment Initiative at Safe Horizon. If she has to repeatedly check in with her partner, that could be a tip-off that her significant other is tracking her behavior in an unhealthy way.
Broach the Subject
“If you suspect a friend or family member is being abused, talk to them at a safe time and place, away from their partner or anybody else who could overhear and potentially compromise their safety,” advises Meagher. Arrange to meet up for coffee after work, for example, or plan an evening jog or fro-yo run that’s just the two of you.
When you bring up your concerns, use “I” statements instead of sentences filled with “you,” which will make her less likely to feel blamed or attacked and then react defensively. For example, “I notice Sam has been calling and texting you all night and I’m concerned about that. Is everything okay?” You’re not accusing her partner of anything; just voicing your observations.
It’s natural to want to immediately step in if you think a loved one might be involved with an abuser. But telling your friend how to handle the situation or asserting that you’re going to call authorities won’t necessarily help. “Survivors are the experts in their own safety,” says Meagher. “They know their abusers best and they know what has worked to keep them safe in the past and what hasn’t.”
Listen and Don’t Judge
If they do share that they have experienced abuse, validate what they are saying and how they are feeling. Avoid “you need tos,” “you have tos,” and “you shoulds.” This language can actually make victims feel even more disempowered. Plus, you could come off as judgy—behavior no one responds well to.
“I would voice concern in a non-judgemental way and normalize their experience by saying something like, ‘I think anybody who has experience X would feel similar to how you’re feeling right now,’” suggests Meagher. Remind her that you are there for her and willing to do whatever she wants you to do to help her get out of the relationship or find safety.