Most domestic violence victims feel very alone and confused as a result of the abuse. Victims often feel they have nowhere to turn – they may worry no one will believe them, they may blame themselves for the abuse, and they may fear their abuser will hurt them, their children, or their pets if they reveal the abuse to anyone outside their home.
If you conclude that your relative, friend, neighbor, or co-worker probably is emotionally or physically abused, and that you want to help, keep in mind two fundamental principles. First, give yourself and the woman you care about some time to make changes. And second, remember that there is no single correct way to help. The important thing is that you try.
The hardest part of talking to an abused woman is getting started. Because a controlling partner lays all the blame on her, a woman is likely to hear any questions about her actions or her background or her personal life as accusations. Such questions will silence her.
Create enough privacy and enough time for her to talk at length if she feels like it.
Then, it is often most helpful to say the obvious: ‘You seem so unhappy. Do you want to talk about it? I’d like to listen and I’ll keep it between us.’ Even if she rejects the offer, your observation about her unhappiness supports her by affirming some of her feelings. And you’ve left the door open for a confidential conversation in the future.
If she wants to talk but can’t get started, any of the following questions might help. Notice that these questions do NOT imply that you are psychoanalyzing her, looking for explanations of her behavior, challenging her, or passing judgment. Instead, they invite the woman to talk about what the controlling partner does and what she feels about it.
- What’s it like at home for you?
- What happens when you and your partner disagree or argue?
- How does your partner handle things when he doesn’t get his way? What does he do?
- Are you ever scared of him? Does he threaten you?
- Does he ever prevent you from doing things you want to do?
- Do you have to account to him for your time?
- Is he jealous, hard to please, irritable, demanding, and critical?
- Does he put you down, call you names, yell at you, and punish you in any way?
- Does he ever push you around or hit you?
- Does he ever make you have sex? Does he ever make you do sexual things you don’t like?
You can help a woman feel safe by assuring her that you’ll keep her story confidential-and doing so. When she tells you her story, listen attentively. Don’t interrupt. And don’t let your facial expression or body language convey doubt or judgment of what she’s saying.When she finishes talking, ask, ‘How can I help?’ Let her know that you care and that there are people and agencies that want to assist her. She may not know (and it is important to tell her) that thousands of other women experience such abuse and that, over the last fifteen years, special shelters, services, and laws have been created to help them. Make clear that her partner had a problem, and that she cannot fix it, no matter how much she wants or how hard she tries.
And remember, if she refuses to talk to you today or says ‘no’ to your offer of additional help, she has her reasons. Express your concern for her anyway. Tell her that emotional abuse and physical abuse are wrong and she deserves better. Assure her that you will stand by, ready to talk or help, if she asks. Then give her time.
Why Would a Victim Be Reluctant or Hesitant?
- Fear of threats, harassment and retaliation by the defendant.
- Victim is afraid that the defendant will be imprisoned and she has no other means of financial support.
- Victim and defendant have reconciled and the defendant has promised that he will never assault her again.
- Guilt on the part of the victim for causing the defendant’s arrest.
- The victim may not understand the criminal process and mistrusts the system. Many victims are concerned
that they might be on trial.
What to do When a Victim Confides in You
When a victim talks to you about their problems with a controlling partner, your reaction is vitally important. Here are some recommendations:
- Believe her. She will not lie about abuse. Many controllers are so charming and gracious to outsiders that what you see of his behavior may deceive you. Even if the incidents she describes seem incredible, listen to her story and respect the way she tells it. Because abuse is so painful to experience, she may recall details slowly and in disjointed fragments. The pieces may not seem to fit together or make much sense. Remember that the violence itself is arbitrary and irrational. So no matter what she tells you believe her and let her know that you do.
- Acknowledge and support her for talking to you. She has taken a risk: her partner could hurt her or you could reject her. Let her know you appreciate what she has done.
- Let her know that you consider her feelings reasonable and normal. It is common for her to feel frightened, confused, angry, sad, guilty, numb, and hopeless.
- Let her lead the conversation. You can ask questions like ‘How can I help you?’ but don’t expect her to have answers the first time she talks. She needs you to be a good listener. And if she asks you to do anything within reason, do it.
- If she asks you to do something you can’t or don’t want to do, say so. Talk it over with her, and try to find both (a) another way of meeting the particular need she presented, and (b) another thing you can do to help. Be careful not to impose your ideas of help on her.
- Tell her you care about her and her safety. Take her fears seriously. Feel free to express your genuine feelings of concern with statements like ‘I think you are in danger.’ ‘I’m worried about your safety.’
- Don’t blame her for the abuse. Let her know that the abuse is not her fault. But remember that her feelings about her partner probably are confused and mixed. If you express too much anger at her partner, she may feel the need to defend him.
- Offer your help to find resources in the community for protection, advocacy or support — that is if you are actually prepared to follow through. (Don’t ever offer things you can’t deliver.) If she wants to go to an agency or battered women’s program, volunteer to go with her. If she is in immediate danger, call the police. Always encourage her to get more support and information. Give her newspaper articles, books and pamphlets produced by your local shelter for abused women.
- Respect her pace and be patient. No one decides to give up a relationship overnight. She may also face threats and escalating assaults. So help her make plans, but let her make the decisions. As you plan, seek the advice of experts about abuse in your local community.
- Remind her of her strengths, accomplishments, and positive attributes. Avoid treating her like a child or a helpless victim.
- Always support her when she acts on her own behalf.
- Remind yourself that many communities still don’t protect women’s rights. Don’t assume that police, courts, and public agencies will protect and help her. And don’t be surprised if she feels safer taking no action. Do not mistake her strategy of doing nothing for passivity or indifference. Instead, find out what help actually is available for her in your community and offer to take her side with agencies, family, and friends. Try to find her a legal advocate from a program for abused women.
- With permission of the woman you’re trying to help, work on expanding her circle of support. Find out if there is a support group for abused women at your local shelter or women’s center, and encourage her to join. With her permission, enlist other coworkers or friends to help with childcare or go along to court. (You can support one another in your efforts to help the woman in trouble.) The more supporters she has, the stronger she may become.
How Can I Help an Individual?
Educate Yourself - Learn about the dynamics of domestic violence and the safety issues involved in supporting an individual. For example, leaving an abusive relationship or obtaining an order of protection can be the most dangerous time for a victim and it is important to know how to support their safety and possibly the safety of their children. Also, learn about the resources in your area for support. Call your local shelter or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233).
Active Listening - Let the person know you care about their safety and you are there to listen. Sometimes just having someone to talk to about the situation is the most supportive action you can take. Validate their feelings. We are surrounded by a belief system that defines abuse within only the most violent context, so validating a victim’s experience can help deter the minimizing that, oftentimes, becomes a barrier to safety. Do not blame them for the abuse or staying in the relationship. Many times victims minimize the abuse and feel responsible for something they have no control over. Also, remember your co-worker, employee, friend or family member needs to make their own decisions about their situation and their safety.
Provide Support - Provide emotional support and any other types of support needed. Sometimes this may be encouragement that the abuse is not their fault, emphasizing their strengths and coping skills, provide transportation to an appointment, provide them with a safety plan, share information about domestic violence and the resources available. Let them know they are not alone and there are caring people available to help. Ask them how you can help or what they need.
Safety Planning - Every situation is different and the victim should always guide the safety plan. The decision to leave an abusive relationship is not an easy one or the safest option. Safety planning can be done while the person is in the abusive relationship, if they are planning to leave, or after they have left. Not all victims choose to leave and it is important to support their choice. They may feel this is their safest option for now. You can problem solve with them about who they can call in an emergency, how can they be safer, and how they have protected themselves in the past. Click here for safety options.
Intervention During a Violent Incident - Domestic violence can be very dangerous and may result in serious physical injury or death. If you know a violent incident is occurring call 911 or the local police immediately.