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How to Help Someone in an Abusive Relationship

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Two young women sitting on a couch. One is leaning forward crying, the other is trying to comfort her.
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You may want to know how to help and support someone you love who’s in an abusive relationship. Here are several ways that can enable you to be there for them.

I’ve noticed over the years that every time I speak on abuse, someone always asks me this question: “How do I help someone who I think is in an abusive relationship?”

Time and time again, I’ve seen that it’s typically not the victims who are standing in line to talk to me after I speak — it’s their loved ones. A brokenhearted mom. A dad who hasn’t seen his daughter in months. Or a sister who has tried multiple times to find help for the victim.

In many cases, their loved one has pulled away — a little or completely. And they’re dealing with negative emotions because of that. Many of them know that they need to deal with their painful emotions if they want to maintain a relationship with their loved one.

They desperately want to know what they can do to help, love, support and encourage someone they love who is in an abusive relationship, but they don’t know where to start.

Here are several ways that can help you learn how to help someone in an abusive relationship.

Listen well and take them seriously

First and foremost, take seriously what the victim shares with you and do not dismiss what they’re saying just because it may sound hard to believe. This may seem like a given, but it’s absolutely critical.

Victims are often afraid to speak up for fear of being dismissed or concern that the truth will be viewed as a lie. Also, in many instances, victims have coped up to this point by minimizing their pain and plight. So if a loved one comes to you and tells you that they’ve experienced (or are experiencing) any type of abuse, listen intently and don’t discount their story — encourage them to speak the whole truth.

When your loved one shares vulnerable information with you, they’ve chosen to trust you with something terrifying and risky. Do not violate that trust. Listen first before doing anything else. Be an emotionally safe person with whom they can share.

Let them finish telling their story. Don’t hurry this part. Eventually you will want to shift the focus and seek to discover and validate the facts. Support the victim in taking whatever steps are necessary to get — and stay — away from the danger. They’ll need clarity in figuring out what to do and what not to do going forward.

Talk to a Counselor

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If the victim is a minor or if you find out a minor is around physical or sexual abuse, none of this applies. Instead, call Child Protective Services — which you can do anonymously, even without telling the victim. In many cases, not telling the victim is best, as they may warn the abuser or act in a way that could put them in a dangerous situation with their abuser. Make sure that proper authorities are notified.

Assuming the victim is an adult, here are a few do’s and don’ts to help you respond correctly:

Do

  • Listen.
  • Validate their openness and encourage them to continue to share the whole truth.
  • Support them.
  • Tell them you’re there to help them.
  • Let them know that what’s happening or has happened isn’t OK.
  • Pray for them.
  • Tell them you love them.

Don’t

  • Tell them you always hated their abuser.
  • Tell them “I told you so.”
  • Ask them how they could let the abuse happen.
  • Begin with a mindset of doubt that closes them off to you.
  • Become angry.
  • Accuse or blame them.
  • Tell them what their next steps, emotions or long-term decisions should be.
  • Tell them to leave the abuser immediately.
  • Tell them you plan to call the cops.
  • Tell them you’re going to confront the abuser.

Though it may be difficult, the best time for you to process the situation is after the victim is in a safer and healthier place. You have every right to be hurt, angry and sad for them. You have every right to set boundaries — and you should. But the initial conversation with the victim is not the time to do so. Instead, focus on connecting with the heart and emotions of your loved one.

How you respond to the victim will set the tone for their decision to come to you again to share their experience. Telling them what to do, making threats or reacting in an angry way feels similar to what they experience with their abuser. Do your best to listen and show extensive amounts of love and grace.

Everything else can come after that, preferably after you’ve talked with a professional counselor or the hotline.

It’s critical that you don’t do anything that would place you or your loved one in danger. Calling the police if you don’t have physical evidence, confronting the abuser directly or reacting impulsively could lead to the abuser hurting someone. There may be a time when that’s appropriate, but first process with a professional and receive help to determine what your next action should be. Safety should be the first priority.

If you’ve already had a conversation with the victim and it didn’t end the way you’d hoped, don’t worry — it’s not too late. The rest of these tips can still help you support and encourage your loved one.

Have grace

If your loved one has hurt you or your family during this process, remember that they need your grace and forgiveness. They aren’t receiving that from their abuser, and you can be a refuge of safety for them.

I hope and pray that you get to have the conversations that I’ve had with my family —the ones where I’ve apologized for the many ways I’ve hurt them — and we were able to heal over time together.

But those conversations would have never happened if my parents hadn’t shown me they were a safe place to run — free of abuse and judgment — when I needed it most.

Hearing about abuse is a highly emotional and painful experience to process, so make sure you have grace for yourself, too.

Be kind and honest

Demonstrating kindness and honesty is a way you can show your loved one that you’re different from their abuser. 

Here are some do’s and don’ts:

Do

  • Speak truth into their life and their sense of identity.
  • Point out abuse gently when you see it or hear about it.
  • Provide the victim with examples of what love and health should look like.
  • Encourage your loved one to receive help and support and to take the next step.
  • Be clear and kind about your boundaries so they don’t seem like a punishment.
  • Be patient.

Don’t

  • Become angry.
  • Demand that the victim take an action — even if it’s the right action to take. It needs to be their decision.
  • Blame them for their abuser’s behavior.
  • Give them advice on how to confront abuse (unless a professional has given you the OK to do so).
  • Enable the abuse in any way.

Most of all, pray a great deal. This is a long road for many people, so don’t become discouraged if it takes them a long time to take a step forward.

Act with wisdom

Processing the situation is important, but I would encourage you to carefully use wisdom when communicating with the victim and finding help for them.

Talk about your loved one’s circumstances with a professional and perhaps your spouse, but don’t share the details with everyone you know. Doing so could put your loved one in a dangerous situation if the abuser were to find out that people knew what was happening.

You should also be cautious to use wisdom when giving any advice. Abuse victims need to hear and follow a different approach than people in generally healthy and flexible relationships do. Make sure the advice you give is appropriate and does not inadvertently set them up for manipulation or further harm from their abuser. Be aware that long-term abusers may use “harm or charm” to further manipulate their way out of confrontation if they suspect that a light is about to be shined on their behavioral patterns. Avoid anything that could enable the abuse or put the victim in harm’s way emotionally or physically. Proceed with caution by first reviewing your response with a domestic violence professional.

You can also use prudence by receiving help from a professional counselor for yourself during this process.

Remind them of truth

I will never forget the day my dad gave me my list of truths. It was a whole column of positive attributes he saw in me and believed were true. A few statements he wrote were that I was full of joy, I saw hurting people and invited them in, and my smile and laugh could light up any room.

More than 10 years later, the list is still in my wallet, and I carry it with me everywhere I go.

When I was in an abusive relationship, I wasn’t hearing anything positive about who I was from my abuser — I was believing every lie he told me. When my dad gave me that list of truths, I didn’t believe a word that was on it. But I read it every day for months.

While it took a long time for the lies to lose their hold on me, that list reminded me of two important things: Someone thought I was valuable, and I had a safe place to run back to anytime I needed.

Knowing that changed everything for me. Eventually I did return to safety, and I’ve seen God heal and restore truth and life where every lie was spoken.

Consider writing a simple list of truths for your loved one. Think of positive character traits they possess and add Scripture verses. It will give them a list to refer to and may remind them that they have a safe place to run when things become dark.

Respect their boundaries

If your loved one asks you not to bring up a specific topic again, don’t.

If your loved one asks you not to call or text, don’t.

If your loved one asks you not to come by the house, don’t — at least not without talking to a professional first.

Two things about boundaries are really important to remember:

  • The abuser doesn’t respect your loved one’s boundaries, so if you do, even when it’s difficult to do, your loved one will see that you’re a safe person to trust. 
  • If your loved one is telling you not to contact them, it could be for their own safety that they’re making this request. If the abuser would normally become angry every time you call, you may be keeping your loved one safe by not contacting them.

There are two exceptions:

  • When you and a professional agree that violating the victim’s boundary is the best and safest decision.
  • When you learn that children are involved in an unsafe situation. In this case, you would need to call Child Protective Services as mentioned above.

Do your homework

There’s a great amount of information to learn about abuse. And there are resources that can help you. Though realizing what your loved one is facing may be difficult, the more you know, the more you can help. So commit to becoming a student. Read, listen and study.

Knowledge combined with a domestic abuse counselor or support group can be very powerful to discern when it’s time to speak up — and when it’s time to be silent. Or even when it may be time to follow certain boundaries.

Your loved one needs you. Your prayers and support matter. And what you’re feeling matters, too. This is a time to make a call for help for yourself. And, if you haven’t before, it may be time to take new actions to support your loved one in a healthy manner.

You aren’t alone. And I’m praying that you and your loved one are able to heal and celebrate what God has done together on the other side of this soon.

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