by Rev. Dr. Christy Gunter Sim Hailey
Since graduating with a doctorate focused on domestic violence and healing, the question I am most frequently asked is “How can I help my friend or family member who I know is being hurt?” This is followed by some variation of “They won’t leave,” and the questioner indicates a feeling they need to step in and prevent a certain death.
When Christian Feminism Today asked me to write an article about what to do when a friend or loved one is in an abusive situation, I knew exactly what to say. I have texted, emailed, Facebook messaged, answered on the phone, and communicated this answer so many times that I often wonder if I appear to be on autopilot in my response. But this question is so important and it needs to be answered well.
Therefore, to adequately answer these imperative questions and concerns, I offer the following ideas to help friends and loved ones think about how to really help someone involved in a violent situation.
First and Foremost: Believe
Statistically, the chance that someone is lying about being abused is fairly small. It does happen, but it is quite rare for the following reasons.
First, it feels embarrassing and humiliating to admit you are being violated. People don’t want others to think they are weak. Although it is not true that victims are “weak,” victims often think others will view them this way.
Second, it’s incredibly unlikely a person would leave their home, clothes, and possessions—everything familiar and comfortable—to live in a domestic violence shelter for a lie. It does happen, but it is a very rare occurrence.
Third, people who are being violated do not want to admit they are being abused. Many victims are compelled to turn a blind eye to their own abuse, creating alternative interpretations and explanations for what is happening. If someone is talking about being abused, listen and believe them!
Just because a person seems to be very dramatic does not in any way indicate they are lying about being abused. It is simply not very likely that attempts to gain attention would extend to confessions of being violated or losing one’s power and control.
Disbelieving friends, family members, church-goers, and trusted advisors do great damage. I call this “secondary trauma.” Sometimes, secondary trauma can prove more wounding to the victim than the incident of violence itself.
When a person is abused (especially for a long time), they begin to view themselves differently. The tactics of an abuser, aimed at gaining power and control, almost always include minimizing all the good the victim has to offer.
This is where you can help! Offer them reminders of what they do well. Celebrate their successes. Tell stories about their important victories or experiences you’ve had together in which you saw them being great. Each time you observe them doing something amazing, be sure to tell them.
Do anything you can to validate them.
If a victim makes an error in judgment (which is bound to happen), refrain from offering too much critique. The most helpful thing said to me when I made poor choices was, “Well, that probably wasn’t the best idea, huh?” I knew the person was right and appreciated that she refrained from rubbing it in my face. Having the response phrased as a question allowed me, technically, to have the ability to disagree with her. But that was the end of the conversation and it was never brought it up again. I not only appreciated her compassionate response, I changed my behavior.
Put Aside the White Horse and the Shining Armor
This is probably the most important message I give people, and it is certainly the one nobody wants to hear.
We all want to be the knight in shining armor who saves the damsel in distress! It feels so empowering. But the truth is, you cannot save a victim. You can empower them with the tools to save themselves.
Did you really comprehend that last sentence? You will not be the one to save the victim from violence, but you can be the person who offers the tools they can use to save themselves.
The violent situation is not about you. Keep this thought in the forefront of your mind.
Whatever you do, try not to give orders or tell the victim what to do. If you demand they leave (or mandate anything), you are no better than the other person trying to control them, their abuser. It is important that your response to the abusive situation be one of compassion and companionship, not control and domination.
Your goal is to help the victim access the tools needed to save themselves and find the strength they need to leave and survive.
Look up the numbers for the domestic violence shelters and other help in the area. When the victim needs them, you’ll have them available. Casually mention you are willing to help develop a safety plan if needed.
The point is that the victim must come to you, must make the choices, and (ultimately) get the victory in the end after they have removed themselves from the violence and started over.
Just as important to understand is that if you know for a fact the victim is in absolute and immediate danger of being killed, has been kidnapped, or the abuser has a weapon, call the police. A situation like that is not the time for you to be a passive person present on the sidelines, standing by to provide empowerment.
On average it will take a victim seven times to leave for good. I call the first six times “practice” for the real thing. The victim is testing the waters, seeing if they can stand alone, checking on who is there to help them, and visualizing a future alone. Anything worth doing takes practice, right? The same is true for survival after violence. So patiently wait until the victim is ready to leave one final time.
Be the Cornerstone
When a victim of domestic violence finally decides to leave an abusive situation, it is incredibly dangerous. In fact, statistically, these are the moments the abuser is most likely to kill the victim. So be the cornerstone when the building, the victim’s life, collapses.
How do you do this?
Verbally reinforce that you will be there when the crap hits the fan. Remind the victim you are present and you care. Text and call just to say hello. Offer to watch the kids. Heck, buy cigarettes if they smoke. Empower. Be active. Make your continual presence known. Even if you get frustrated, or the victim makes you mad, try to stick it out.
Don’t make judgmental statements. I promise you, there are thousands upon thousands of reasons a victim wants to stay and not leave, ranging from “My church doesn’t allow it” to “I will die if I leave” to “I can fix this.” You cannot imagine why someone stays unless you are living it yourself. So don’t judge; simply listen and be present. If they want to stay, it’s their choice. The point is to let the victim have control, for once. It’s the only way they will believe in themselves enough to leave.
Do Not Accept Responsibility for the Abuser’s Violent Actions
I understand it is very hard to do all these things. You know it might be a life or death situation, and you feel the pressure to act at the right times. But remember, you are not the predator in this situation, and you cannot take responsibility for the victim’s suffering.
You are modeling, for the victim, the refusal to accept responsibility for the abuser’s actions. Even after leaving, it could take years for the victim to believe the abuse was not their fault.
If someone is being abused, they feel responsible for the abuse. Why this logical inconsistency? Because if everything is the victim’s own fault, they have the power to change it. I would advise you not to take that sense of power away, but, instead, to model what it is like to not accept responsibility for what the abuser is doing. Make sure your words don’t indicate that you are accepting responsibility when the abuser hurts the victim, by saying anything like, “I should have intervened.” If you refuse to take responsibility for the abuser’s actions, maybe the victim can learn to do the same.
You are not to blame for the victim’s suffering. The victim is not at fault for what the abuser does to them. Only the perpetrator can take responsibility for their actions.
Key Points to Remember
1) Believe confessions of abuse, whether you want to believe such terrible things or not.
2) Validate the worth, dignity, and potential of the victim.
3) Don’t think you can save the victim; equip them with the tools to save themselves.
4) Patiently wait as the victim learns the actions of survival. Leaving takes practice and will happen when the victim is ready.
5) Be a constant, stable presence in the victim’s life.
6) Model that the abuser’s violent behavior is no one else’s responsibility or fault.
I hope this information will provide some welcome guidance next time you find yourself scared to death for a friend or family member who is caught in the cycle of a violent relationship.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Read more here.