One of the reasons I always tell people not to be sorry, when they find out I have been in an abusive relationship, is because in the end, I am grateful for everything that has come of it. I believe God guided me through this nightmare so that I could serve a purpose in life, and that purpose is to help be a guiding for others in this situation. As a result of sharing my own experiences, it has led others to reach out and seek advice and guidance--sometimes for themselves, and sometimes to figure out how to be a supportive friend or family member. In fact, I get a number of folks reaching out to seek out resources and advice on how to help a friend or family member in an abusive relationship. So, I thought I would share some helpful tips and advice in case you're feeling overwhelmed, helpless, and/or frustrated.
Watching a loved one be in an unhealthy relationship is never easy. You've probably had the urge to yell something like, "JUST LEAVE ALREADY!!!" Or maybe you want to lock him/her/they up in a room so s/he/they cannot go back to her/his/their abuser. I get it. I've been on both sides. So, remember the following:
Start the Conversation
If you suspect your friend may be in an abusive relationship, don't be afraid to start the conversation. You don't want to interrogate your friend, but you can ask them how they're feeling. If you see their partner behaving in an abusive way, try asking them how that made them feel. Helping your friend identify abusive behavior may help them realize it as well.
Don't Give Up, Leave An Open Line of Communication
Many times when people come to me for advice on how to support a friend in an abusive relationship, they are feeling helpless and frustrated, because no matter how often they try to get their friend to "see the truth," and leave, their friend either won't or keeps going back. It's difficult, because it's a delicate situation. You don't want your friend to isolate her/him/themselves because they don't want to hear the truth from you, but you also don't want to do nothing while you pray for that person's safety. Nothing will change unless the person in the abusive relationship decides to leave. No matter what though, don't give up. Even if you have to set some boundaries, or allow for some space, make sure that person knows you are there for her/him/them, because you never know when you may be someone's only open line of communication. This is true even if you are not close with the person, because sometimes we turn to the most unexpected person for help or support.
Create a Safety Plan With Your Friend
Your friend may or may not know whether s/he/they wants to leave the relationship yet, but let them know you are there for them and come up with a safety plan together. When I was in an abusive relationship, my aunt didn't know it, and I didn't know it then either, but she did always tell me that if I ever needed a break from the relationship or just some space, that I could always stay at her place. It wasn't a safety plan "per say," but it was an out. Safety plans are important, because the most dangerous time for a person leaving an abusive relationship, is when they are leaving.
Know and Use Available Resources
There are so many resources out there designed to help you in these situations. On our Resources page, you will find some that can help you directly or provide further resources. Break the Cycle and Love is Respect are directed at teens and young adults. Break the Cycle not only serves young people, but also helps adults support young people. Some resources like Futures Without Violence also offer advice on supporting colleagues in abusive relationships. There are hotlines and online chats you can utilize as well. And remember to look up local shelters and organizations that may be able to guide you on specifics to your locale. There may be family centers, or sources for free legal advice as well. When I was in law school I did one or two semesters at the Family Law and Children's Rights Center, where we helped families in need of staying safe, and applying for restraining orders. Knowing these resources isn't only helpful to you, but you can share them with your friend as well.
Here are some useful helplines:
Teen Dating Abuse Helpline: 1-866-331-9474
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
Trevor Lifeline (for LGBTQ* youth): 1-866-488-7386
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
National Runaway Safeline: 1-800-786-2929
National Domestic Violence Hotline - 1-800-799-7233
National Hotline for Crime Victims: 1-855-484-2846
National Street Harassment Hotline: 1-855-897-5910
If Children Are Involved, Call Child Protective Services (CPS)
I take a firm stance on calling CPS, because even if children are not directly abused, abuse affects them and we should all think of the welfare of our children. People always fear having their children taken away, and sometimes people stay in unhealthy relationships "for the children." But staying in an abusive relationship is never good for a child. They can learn the abusive behavior, develop aggression, and face the after effects of trauma long after exposure to abuse. So if one parent is not willing to take their children out of the situation, then unfortunately this may be the best solution, and hopefully the child or children have supportive family or friends with whom they can stay. Teachers, doctors, and other mandatory reporters must call CPS when they suspect abuse, so why shouldn't you?
When it comes to abuse, none of us are alone, because it affects all of us. Intimate partner violence affects 1 in 3 women, 1 in 4 men, and 1 in 3 teens. It is a public health epidemic. The only way we are going to change our culture is to in fact break the cycle of abuse. If you have further questions, feel free to check out the resources mentioned above, or send us a note.
Be love. Be brave. Be excellent to each other.