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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.
How to Help Safely
Before reaching out to your friend, you should be aware that, in many situations, abusers have implemented extensive measures to keep track of survivor’s communications. It is possible that reaching out directly to a survivor and offering to help can lead to retaliation from the abuser. The following tips are applicable for all situations where you are interacting with a survivor virtually; they are especially salient and essential to keep in mind if the survivor is isolated with an abuser in a quarantine situation, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Assume, especially in a quarantine situation, that the abusive partner has installed recording and tracking devices on the survivor’s computer and phone.
- Assume that the abuser is reading all texts and that they are monitoring alternative modes of correspondence, such as social media, WhatsApp, etc.
- Assume that the abuser is in the room or on the call, or forcing the survivor to have the phone on speaker at all times.
- Do not assume that asking “are you alone?” and an answer of “yes” is indicative of the actual situation; you should be mindful that survivors may not be able to answer honestly if you ask them if they are alone.
- However, while the survivor’s efforts in reaching out for help may be discreet at first with the hand signal, they may want to verbalize their need for help even knowing that the abuser could find out. You still need to be mindful that there may be retaliation from the abuser and additional safety planning may be needed.
If you are not completely sure that the verbal or written communications you are having with a survivor are private, you must proceed with extreme caution.When you decide to reach out to your friend, it is important for you to be subtle about why you are contacting the survivor; you do not want to contribute to the abuser retaliating as a result of the survivor’s efforts to obtain help, and sometimes the answer to this problem is to think creatively before doing anything right away:
- You should use your own knowledge about your friend; consider asking her for help about something specific and relevant to her expertise, indicating that there is a reason for her to reach out to them.
- You should begin the conversation with something you know will be considered neutral.
- For example, if your friend enjoys cooking, you could reach out by saying “do you have time to talk about this recipe that I am trying?” If you both go to the same school or your kids go to the same school, you could say “hey, did you get this answer for question 1?” or “I wanted to talk to you about how to handle school stuff for my kids.”
If you are aware that someone is in an abusive relationship, and you are able to have an interaction with the survivor that you know is private, such as an in-person conversation, you and your friend should plan ahead and create code words.
- For example, in future communications “banana bread” could mean “please call the first person on my safety plan list to come pick me up.”
If you are positive that the survivor is alone and that the abuser could not possibly be listening to a phone call or a physical meeting, you can ask direct, non-coded questions.
- “Do you want to work together to create a safety plan?”
- “Would you like me to call a shelter?”
- “Is there anyone that you would like me to contact on your behalf?”
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.
Educate yourself on best practices associated with handling relationship abuse and/or sexual assault. Realize that you may be harboring internalized judgments about survivors that are untrue. For example, many people (even friends of survivors) ask “Why doesn’t the victim leave? Why does the victim stay?” as if it is that simple. The reality is that the most dangerous time for a survivor/victim is when they leaves the abusive partner; 75% of relationship abuse related homicides occur upon separation and there is a 75% increase of violence upon separation for at least two years. Understand that rape culture and patriarchal values may have shaped some of the ways that you think about relationship abuse, and work to undo that. Learn more at our FAQs page.
Allow survivors to direct their own course of action, no matter how much you think your idea would help them. Support 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.
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.
If you cannot interact with the survivor in-person, utilizing virtual communications such as direct messaging apps, social media, or emails can be an effective way to provide resources and information. However, you must exercise caution when reaching out to the survivor with these channels. In many situations, abusers have implemented extensive measures to keep track of survivor’s communications. Consider alternative and indirect ways of transmitting helpful information. For example, if the survivor is on Facebook, you could regularly post relationship abuse resources and/or contact information for shelters on your account so that the survivor can see it without the abuser accusing them of seeking it out.
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 an emergency; again, when discussing this with your friend over virtual communications, operate with the expectation that the abuser is most likely monitoring the conversation. Ask your friend in what situation, if any, they would consider calling the police or having you call the police on their behalf. Keep in mind that many survivors, specifically Black womxn, may not want to call the police due to grounded fears of how they or their partner will be treated. Even if a survivor wants the violence the stop, they may still want to prevent the brutalization that is associated with how police act towards Black individuals. Acknowledge and respect that this may be the case. If you have not discussed this with the survivor, do not call 911 unless the survivor specifically asks you to. However, if you are in a situation where the survivor’s life is at stake and they are suffering from a possibly fatal assault, calling 911 is best practice due to the need for life-saving intervention.
Respect your friend’s right to confidentiality and assure survivors that you will keep the matter private. Explain that you would like to consult with resources to understand how to help them. You and/or the survivor may get information and support without revealing your names.
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 relationship abuse program/hotline. These tips from the National Network to End Domestic Violence can help you navigate how best to help your friend or loved one during COVID-19.
Make Sure Your Friend Knows They Are Not Alone
Millions of people of every age, race and religion experience relationship abuse. Eliminate isolation by letting them know that they can come talk to you when they feel 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 they want counseling.
When talking to a survivor of sexual assault, here are some key ideas to keep in mind:
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 their views, feelings, beliefs, and opinions. Do not be judgmental.
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.
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.
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.
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 survivors, use the same words they do 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.
Adapted from EWA, Canada and Family Violence Prevention Fund