You may see your friend crying, hear your friend’s partner make demeaning comments towards them, or notice they seem anxious around or afraid of their partner. Or your friend may open up to you on their own.
Knowing or suspecting that someone you care about is in an abusive relationship can be a deeply conflicting experience. You know it’s taking a toll on their mental and possibly physical health — and you want to help — but you may not feel equipped. You want to swoop in and “rescue” your friend, and yet you know you have to respect their right to make their own choices.
Despite these difficulties, it is possible to support a friend who is in an abusive situation — and often, a good friend’s support makes all the difference. Offering real support means putting our friend’s needs before our own desire to play the hero. It also means learning about the complex psychological effects of abuse.
We can understand the complexities of abuse by answering one common question: If this relationship is hurting my friend so much, why don’t they just leave?
So Why Is it So Hard to Leave?
Don’t forget that even if your friend’s relationship is abusive, it’s still a relationship: It’s complicated, and human. There are many reasons someone may stay with an abusive partner, and there is a lot you can do as a friend to offer nonjudgemental material and mental health support.
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Here are a few commons reasons why victims of abuse stay in the relationship, along with ways you can help:
1. Material Dependency
If your friend lives with their partner, has a shared bank account, has children with them, relies on their partner’s income, or relies on their partner’s care (for example, if your friend has a disability and their partner is their primary care person), leaving can be extremely challenging.
How to Help
Ask your friend what they need. A place to stay, a ride to work, a buddy for a visit to the doctor? If they have children, offer to provide free childcare while they make plans for their health and safety. If they struggle to pay for groceries without their partner, offer to cook them a couple meals. Help connect your friend to free or low-cost brick-and-mortar or online therapy options like Talkspace, if they’re open to seeking therapy, and gently encourage them to go.
2. Shame or Embarrassment
It’s likely hard for your friend to confront the reality that someone they love has hurt them so badly, and your friend may feel that experiencing abuse means they are weak. But abuse has nothing to do with personal strength or weakness, it’s about the choice of the abuser to cause harm. And asking for help is brave, not shameful.
How to Help
Let your friend know that you are there to support them — without judgement, without conditions, and without shame. Use supporting, rather than blaming language. Not, “How is a smart girl like you with such a jerk?” but “I see that this relationship is causing you a lot of pain, and I’m here to support you.”
3. Fear of Outing
If your friend is queer or trans, undocumented, or the relationship is illicit in some way, your friend may fear that asking for help means their gender, sexuality, immigration status or relationship choices will be “outed.” Abusive partners can use “outing” as a threat to make a victim stay.
How to Help
Educate yourself about the struggles faced by queer, trans, or immigrant survivors of violence, and don’t make assumptions about your friend’s relationship or shame them for their choice of partner. Reassure your friend that no matter who they choose as a partner, they deserve to be safe and happy, and that you will not out them to family or friends without their consent.
4. Social Isolation
Abusive partners will often isolate their victims from their friends, family, and community. This results in the victim being even more dependent on the abusive partner.
How to Help
You can help your friend rebuild relationships and community support networks they may have lost during the relationship. Invite them out for lunch with old friends, to a party, a spa day, or to play a favorite game. Is there anything your friend loved to do before their relationship that they’ve stopped doing now (playing the trombone, Scrabble)? Invite them to do it together.
5. Hope That the Abusive Partner Will Change
Abuse often occurs in a cycle: after an incident of violence, the abuser may apologize profusely and become sweet and loving. It’s normal for a victim to have hope for the future and to believe that the abuser can change. However, the reality is that if abuse happens it’s likely to continue and intensify without a serious intervention, like sustained therapy for the abuser.
How to Help
Ask your friend if they want help making a safety plan. Pass along the National Domestic Violence Hotline number, and let them know they can always call you if they need help or support.
It’s difficult to talk about, but abusive relationships are still relationships: they may have moments of intimacy, passion, and love. While you can see how harmful the relationship is for your friend, your friend may feel genuine love for their partner. That doesn’t mean what is happening is right; it does mean that what is happening is human.
How to Help
It may not make sense to you, but don’t denigrate your friend’s feelings. We don’t always choose who we fall in love with, but we can choose who we stay with. You can help your friend feel empowered to make that choice by reminding them that they deserve to be treated with respect all the time. And whenever your friend does leave, be there for them — on top of the abuse, your friend is also going through a breakup, and they’ll likely be feeling a lot of difficult emotions.
7. Feeling Like They Deserve the Abuse
When people have low self-esteem, sometimes they feel like they deserve to be a victim of abuse. They may even rely on the mistreatment to maintain a negative self-image. People who struggle with mental illness are especially likely to engage in this type of thinking.
How to Help
Try to convince your friend they have the right to be in a happy, healthy relationship. If their self-esteem flourishes, they might no longer feel like they deserve to be hurt and put down. A therapist can also help them reevaluate self-worth.
8. Fear of Change
Sometimes people are terrified of change to the point where they will remain in a painful situation rather than bravely seeking something new. There is a significant amount of psychological research that illustrates this cognitive pattern and shows how it applies to abusive relationships.
How to Help
Again, helping your friend connect with a mental health professional can be invaluable. Therapists are trained to assist people in changing irrationally negative beliefs that are holding them back.
It will take time and patience, but your friend can leave.
Leaving an abusive relationship is a process, not necessarily a single, dramatic decision. A victim may try to leave on average seven or eight times before it finally sticks.
Leaving an abusive relationship is like preparing for a smooth landing to a turbulent flight. You can offer to help your friend put tools in place to make their landing safer. You can offer them a parachute, give them a radio to check in with ground control, and scan the ground to suggest a nice, soft landing spot. You can’t land your friend’s plane for them — ultimately, they’re the pilot — but you can help set up the support so that when your friend is ready, they can safely reach solid ground.
*If your friend is in immanent physical danger, call the police. You can find The National Domestic Violence Hotline’s very helpful guide on when to call 911 here.