Q: How can I help someone who is in an abusive relationship but cannot/will not leave?
[Disclaimer: My answers for this feature are based on a mixture of personal experience, training with a women’s DV shelter, state certification in the subjects of domestic and sexual violence, and substantial studies done of my own volition. My efforts are powered by a passion for advocacy. Featured guidance may not be exactly right for everyone, but I do hope it’s helpful for most. | Janna]
A: Before I can answer I have a question for you. Does she know she’s being abused? It might seem clear to you and others, but a pattern of gradually established conditioning and control means it’s “just life” for the victim. She may feel in her gut that things are off, or that she’s mistreated. It’s possible she’s even tried to tell her abuser that she expects to be treated better. But nothing has changed, over and over again. Not in a lasting, trustable way. Her beliefs are minimized and dismissed. She’s been brainwashed to believe she is at fault, the one in the wrong. To recognize or even use the term “abuse”? To understand what that means, and that it’s not her doing? That she’s not crazy? It’s not easy. So, there are two scenarios to approach with my answer(s), and with both, compassion and caution are of the utmost priority.
1. If she doesn’t know it’s abuse, you need to be careful with how you approach the subject. It’s pretty simple, and more effective than you might guess. Check in on her often. (But don’t hound her. Try once a week to start.) Ask how she’s doing. Ask if there’s anything you can do for her. If it ever seems like she’s hinting around, ask if there’s something she needs to talk about. Prove to her that you are a support system. At whatever point she is ready to face these truths, she’ll ask for the help you want to give. But don’t force yourself in. Don’t take charge and try to tell her what she needs to do, and how she’s going to “fix” this. Why? Because the whole of her experience with her abuser is based on lack of independence and autonomy, with no confidence in self, the ability to make decisions, or trust of her own judgment. She has long been told what to do. If you try to step in and spearhead this whole thing, it’s going to feel very much like someone else is STILL trying to control her life. This has to be in her own time, in her own way. But your support may very well help her open up to the truth.
2. If she’s been transparent enough that you know she understands she’s dealing with abuse—or if you’ve gotten through scenario 1 and find yourself here—ask what she needs help with. Again, do not try to take the lead. Show her you’re present and willing. Does she just need an objective ear as she figures things out? Can you help her find resources or an attorney? (If so, be sure it’s one who has experience with cases steeped in abuse and manipulation.) Does she need leads finding a new job or different housing? Is she trying to save money to fund her getaway or divorce? Suggest going with her to set up her own bank account, as moral support, or quietly try to raise funds for her cause. Do not ever suggest couples counseling. If it’s dangerous for her to try and leave, suggest a safety plan and help her research what to do, as well as who can help with the escape. Offer to hold her important documents and/or funds, so her abuser can’t stumble upon them at home. All of this, too, has to be in her own time, in her own way. The only exception is if her safety is in question and drastic measures must be taken on her behalf. Try to trust that you’ll know if that’s necessary.
If you still need more guidance, find a local women’s DV shelter who may be able to make suggestions over the phone. Hit The Goog and do a good old-fashioned search, or go to the library and look in the self-help section.
Just make sure you lead with compassion and caution. She’s really lucky to have you.
Submit your questions about abuse by PM on Facebook/Breaking the Silence for Women — nothing is off limits — and stay tuned for our Friday Feature: Your Abuse Questions Answered.
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[A note about the pattern of female pronouns: All of this applies to any gender, and any relationship dynamic, but since this page and website are devoted to women, all content keeps that in mind.]