Helping to solve the tragedy of domestic violence
by the Domestic Violence Public Education Campaign
Escape from an abusive relationship can be a long and difficult road. Often, an offer of help from a friend, family member, or coworker can be just the kind of support an abused person needs to help her change her life. She may not take action immediately, but among women who have successfully ended abusive relationships, many point to a caring comment or offer of help as the basis for their eventual action.
All of us should know the warning signs of domestic violence. Frequent bruises or injuries are perhaps the most commonly recognized signs of physical abuse, but there are other signs you should be aware of:
If you suspect your friend, family member, or coworker is being abused, keep three principles in mind. First, remember there is no single correct way to help your friend; the important thing is that you try. Listening may be the most helpful thing you can do. Second, try to see the situation from her perspective. What may seem indecisive and crazy behavior by your standards may be reasonable and necessary to a person living with a controlling partner. And third, don't expect change overnight. You need to give her time to make changes.
- Your friend seems unusually quiet and withdrawn. She stops confiding in you.
- You feel uncomfortable around her husband, partner, or boyfriend because he criticizes her, tells her what to do, or makes her account for her time.
- You rarely see her alone because he is so "attentive" or demanding of her time.
- The children seem timid--or angelic--in his presence.
- She wears unusually heavy makeup or concealing clothes in warm weather.
- She wears hats, scarves, or sunglasses at inappropriate times.
- She isn't talking about her partner anymore.
An initial step in helping your friend could be to arrange for a private discussion with her and ask, "You seem so unhappy lately--do you want to talk about it? I'd like to listen, and I'll keep it between us." If she wants to talk but has trouble getting started, you might ask questions that focus on her partner's behavior and her feelings about it. "What's it like at home for you? What happens when you and your (husband/boyfriend) disagree? Are you scared of him? Does he threaten you?"
Don't be surprised, however, if your friend won't talk about the situation, brushes it off, or refuses your offer of help. You can let her know that emotional and physical abuse are wrong and that she deserves better. Offering to be available if she wants to talk or needs help can be a vital open door to which she may turn in the future.
If your friend is willing to talk with you, it is important that you listen attentively and not convey a sense of doubt or judgment about what she's saying. When she finishes talking, avoid giving advice and instead ask "how can I help?"
You can also support her by:
Finally, don't criticize her decisions, even if you feel she is making dangerous ones. Support her right to make her own choices, but also urge her to talk to someone who knows more about domestic violence.
- Explaining that her partner has a problem and she cannot fix it. Be careful to limit the anger you express about her partner. She may feel the need to defend him.
- Letting her know that many women are in the same situation and that special laws and services exist to help her. There are safe places she and her children can stay if they are in danger.
- Offering to help her find the services she needs, if you are able and willing to do so. You might also offer to baby-sit or drive her to appointments.
- Suggesting that she develop a plan in case she gets in a situation where she is concerned for her and her children's safety. For example, she might want to keep money on hand for a cab or bus, or memorize the telephone number of a friend or agency to call in an emergency.
- Avoiding tactics that will erode her self-esteem. You shouldn't tell her that you "would never put up with such treatment" or that it's her own fault if she chooses to stay.
- Avoiding any attempt to minimize the situation by saying "it's not really so bad" or "I'm sure it'll get better if you just talk to him."