Supporting a loved one who’s experiencing abuse
Watching a loved one go through abuse is a really difficult thing. It can be hard to know how best to support them. Experiencing abuse is a form of trauma and has a deep emotional impact on the sufferer. Trauma responses can range in each survivor, so it’s important that we are gentle and sensitive in our approach, and adjust our actions based on the specific needs of each individual. This post will focus on some key things to remember when talking to a loved one about their experience of abuse, and the practical things we can do to help.
Broach the subject but avoid being overly critical:
If you’re concerned about the safety or wellbeing of a loved one and suspect they may be suffering abuse, don’t be afraid to broach the subject and check in with them. However avoid being too accusatory in your approach and try not to overly criticise the perpetrator. Even though you may hold strong opinions about the situation, expressing these may alienate your loved one or make them feel ashamed. Whilst you may be able to recognise the perpetrator as an abuser, your loved one may still love this person and may not yet recognise their behaviour as abuse. Therefore they may get defensive and may stop confiding in you about the abuse if they feel that they, or their partner, are being judged. Try phrases like “I’m concerned about your safety” or “I’m worried about you because…” These express your concern in neutral terms and give your loved one a space to talk about their abuse, centring their emotions and not your own. It may take a while for them to open up about their abuse. Be patient and don’t push them to go into more detail if they aren’t comfortable.
Listen, believe and validate:
One of the most important things you can do to support a loved one who is experiencing abuse is to ensure that they feel heard and believed. Often perpetrators will invalidate the feelings of their victims and make them feel as if no one would believe them if they were to report their abuse. This feeling is compounded by reports of a justice system that places the burden of proof on survivors, interrogating them rather than believing them. Acknowledge that your loved one is in a difficult and scary situation and that they have shown great strength in confiding in you. Use affirmations like “I believe you”. Practise active listening by paying attention, showing interest and avoiding interrupting your loved one to ensure they feel fully heard and supported. Reassure them that they have done the right thing in telling you and that the abuse they’re suffering is not their fault. Assure your loved one that they are not responsible for the perpetrator’s behaviour and that no one deserves to be abused or made to feel unsafe.
Be patient and don’t judge:
Most of us have a natural knee-jerk reaction to want to save our loved one from harm and abuse. However, we must resist the urge to save. It is important to remember that the process of reporting abuse and leaving a perpetrator is done by the victim in their own time and on their own terms. Don’t insist that your loved one leave the relationship or put pressure on them to do so. It’s essential to remain mindful that leaving is often the most dangerous time for victims of abuse and can carry serious risk of harm. It’s also important to remember that leaving the relationship could mean the loss of income if the victim is financially dependent on the perpetrator or it could mean leaving children, family or support networks and starting a completely new life elsewhere. If they are insecure as a result of their abuse, they may also fear losing their partner. Ultimately, this is an incredibly scary and confusing time, so don’t judge them if they aren’t ready to leave. Be patient and stay by your loved one’s side. Make sure they know that you will be there to support them when they are ready to leave and in the meantime, focus on rebuilding their confidence and giving them a sense of support, friendship and love.
Some practical things you can do to help:
- Help them to develop a safe exit plan.
- Research the local support agencies and helplines available.
- Offer to sit with them whilst they make calls to emergency services, support agencies or helplines.
- Offer to sit with them when they report abuse or accompany them to any doctor’s appointments if they have suffered physical abuse or assault and need an examination.
- Offer to keep an emergency bag full of essential items for them or any children if they need to leave quickly.
- Offer to keep a copy of important documents such as passports or a spare set of keys in case of emergencies.
- Encourage them to participate in activities with friends and family outside of the abusive relationship, and accompany them to these activities if they want you to.
- Make them aware of the Silent Solution System which can help them get a response from the police in an emergency if they are hiding from the perpetrator and it is unsafe to speak. Instruct them to dial 999, listen to questions from the 999 operator, respond by coughing or tapping the handset if they can or pressing in the number 55 if prompted. This informs the 999 call operator that it is a genuine emergency and they will be immediately transferred to their local police department.
Look after your own mental health:
Whilst your primary concern at this time is your loved one, it’s also important to look after yourself and your own wellbeing. Watching someone so close to you suffer abuse can have an impact on your mental health. The situation may even trigger trauma responses if you yourself are a survivor of abuse. Ensure you are practising self-care and setting any boundaries you need to. Also, remain aware of your own personal safety and don’t contact the perpetrator directly. Doing so may put yourself in a vulnerable position if the perpetrator sees you as a threat to the relationship.
Author: Beth Gilson, CWA Volunteer Blogger