How to Help a Friend

How to Help a Friend

How to Help a Friend Who is Being Abused

You might think that something as simple as talking to a friend about abuse couldn’t possibly make a difference. But it really does. Just knowing that someone cares enough to ask about the abuse can break through the wall of isolation that can exist around victims of relationship abuse. If you think a friend is being abused, talk to your friend about it. Listen. Let your friend know you care. You don’t have to be an expert. You just need to be there.

  • Validate. Accept what you hear and assure your friend that you believe their story. Many survivors fear they will not be believed. They may be afraid that their experience will be minimized as “not important” or made into a catastrophe. Let survivors state their views, feelings, beliefs, and opinions. Remind survivors that the abuse is not their fault.
  • Listen, without judging.  Because of  a victim blaming society, your friend may feel responsible, ashamed, inadequate and afraid you will judge. Don’t be upset if your friend doesn’t react the way you think you would. People who are being controlled by their partner’s behavior must consider many factors before coming to a conclusion about how to access safety. Let survivors make their own decisions and provide support throughout the process.
  • Empower. Allow survivors to direct their own course of action, no matter how much you think your idea would help them. Empower your friend/s to make their own decisions. Your friend has been stripped of power in the relationship, so it is important to validate feelings and encourage survivors to make their own choices.
  • Integrate survivors’ expertise and knowledge about their situation. Survivors know how their partner will react more than anyone else. Also do not intervene with the abuser unless you find out if it is safe for your friend to do so and your friend wants you to do that.
  • Information. Present survivors with resources and available options. Offer to review this website or other resources at your house or computer. Do not leave a brochure with your friend without talking about if that is safe in case the abuser finds it and retaliates. Respect your friend’s decision as to what to do. Here are some possible statements to use.
  • Safety. Physical safety is the first priority.  If you believe a friend is in danger, voice that concern.  Suggest that your friend develop a safety plan in case of emergency.
  • Privacy. Respect your friend’s right to confidentiality and assure survivors that you will keep the matter private. Explain that you may need to consult with resources to understand how to help her. If total anonymity is necessary, you and/or the survivor may get information and support without revealing your names.
  • Educate yourself. Know the facts about relationship abuse. Know that abusers tend to escalate their behavior over time. Abuse is always a choice and cannot be blamed on alcohol or drugs, financial pressure, depression, jealousy or any behavior of hers. Apologies and promises are a form of manipulation. See our FAQs. If you want to talk with someone yourself to get advice about a particular situation, contact a local domestic violence program/hotline.
  • Make sure your friend knows she is not alone. Millions of women of every age, race and religion experience relationship abuse. Eliminate isolation by letting her know that she can come talk to you when she feels lonely.

  Some forms of advice are not useful and even dangerous:

    • Don’t tell survivors what to do, when to leave or when not to leave.
    • Don’t say to go back to the situation and try a little harder to make the relationship work.
    • Don’t try to find quick solutions without thinking through potential retaliation.
    • Don’t suggest you try to talk to the abusive partner to straighten things out.
    • Don’t place yourself in danger by confronting the abuser.
    • Never recommend couples counseling in situations of emotional or physical abuse.  It is dangerous for the victim and will not lead to a resolution; encourage separate counseling for the individuals, if s/he wants counseling.

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Adapted from EWA, Canada and Family Violence Prevention Fund

How to Help a Friend Who is a Sexual Assault Survivor

When talking to a survivor of sexual assault, here are some key ideas to keep in mind:

  • Validation: Accept what you hear. Many survivors fear they will not be believed. They are afraid that their experience will be minimized as “not important” or made into a catastrophe. Let the survivor state her or his views, feelings, beliefs, and opinions. Do not be judgmental.
  • Empowerment: Allow survivors to direct their own course of action, no matter how much you think your idea would help them. An assault takes away the victim’s power and control over their self and situation; regaining that sense of control helps the survivor in the recovery process.
  • Information: Present survivors with resources and available options. Initially, the victim may be so overwhelmed that it is impossible for them to hear everything. Be patient and willing to repeat yourself. Respect the person’s decision as to what to do.
  • Privacy: Assure survivors that you will keep the matter private. Explain that you may need to consult with resources to understand how to help her. If total anonymity is necessary, you and/or the survivor may get information and support without revealing your names.
  • Listen: Let survivors disclose as much about the assault as they are comfortable with. Do not press for details, as this can feel intrusive and controlling.

In responding to the survivor use the same words she or he does in describing the event. If the survivor uses the word “rape,” then use it in reflective listening. If the survivor uses the expression “something bad happened,” stay with that. Be empathetic, non-judgmental, and help the survivor feel safe. Avoid labeling the experience for them. Remember, survivors may feel guilty and responsible. You can reassure them that no one deserves to be assaulted and it was not their fault. Be particularly sensitive if a survivor has special needs based on ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and/or disability.

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A Note on Terminology

Domestic violence/relationship abuse refers to intimate relationships, not child abuse. Because the vast majority of relationship abuse is committed by men against women in heterosexual relationships, this website sometimes contains the female gender pronoun when referring to the abused person. Domestic violence/relationship happens at the same rate in LGBTQQ relationships and all of the information on this site is relevant for male victims and for individuals in same-gender relationships. In addition, please see our resources on same-gender relationships. Our goal is to encourage helping professionals to be gender inclusive. This includes using gender-neutral language when working with individuals, while continuing to analyze gender as a construct that has implications on gender-based violence in both heterosexual and same-gender relationships.