When you think your best friend is in an abusive relationship, bringing it up to them can be difficult. You don’t want to jump to conclusions, and it’s important to know you may risk losing your friend if they’re reluctant to talk about it. This doesn't mean you shouldn't say anything. As a friend, this can be a very sad and painful thing to witness, especially when you care about someone and are worried for their well-being. So, here are some common signs to look out for if you suspect your friend is in an abusive relationship…and how to talk to them about it.
This is a common sign of an abusive relationship. Before getting in the relationship, your friend used to paint, sing, volunteer and do everything they were passionate about. Now, they don't do anything anymore. “If she doesn’t seem thrilled or clear about why she's giving them up, there may be some emotionally abusive manipulation happening at home,” explains Annie Wright, a licensed psychotherapist.
This has less to do with their desire and preference to be with their partner and more to do with your friend’s fear of their partner’s reaction to making plans without them. “Usually, it doesn't look like the typical courtesy of needing to check a partner's calendar — it looks like heightened anxiety when thinking about how the partner might respond if not checked in with about the plans first,” explains Wright.
Relationships should build people up, not bring them down. “There may also be an escalation in her own negative self-talk that doesn't seem to correlate with any major change in her life (weight gain, job loss, etc.),” says Wright. “This could be a clue that she's being negatively impacted by emotionally abusive messages she's getting at home.”
And be sure to use "I" statements in order to minimize defensiveness, says Bianca L. Rodriguez, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “For example, 'Debra, I want you to know how much I care about you and value our friendship. There's been something on my mind that I've been wanting to talk with you about. I feel really worried about your safety when I see X raise his/her voice at you.'”
It's very likely they will minimize their S.O.'s behavior. After all, one must be in denial if they are participating in an abusive relationship. “Don't attempt to convince your friend of anything as this will lead to a power struggle. Instead, inquire if she ever feels afraid of her partner, express your earnest concern for her safety and recommend that she seek professional help,” says Rodriguez. Ask, “Do you get scared that X is going to hurt or yell at you if you come home late?”
Usually, people who are being emotionally abused are too scared or ashamed to talk about it and won't proactively bring it up, says Wright. “It can be helpful to let your friend gently know that if anything at all is going on for her, you want to be a confidential person she can share with.” Reiterating to your friend that you’re there for them may be all you need to say to have them open up.
If your friend doesn't seem to be open to talking with you about what's going on, it may be a good idea to bring up the possibility of talking with a therapist. “You can let her know about any positive experiences you've had working with one (if you have) and/or share stories of people you know who had positive experiences,” says Wright. “Planting the seed of your friend seeking out professional help to cope with what's going on at home can be a great support if gently suggested and not insisted upon.”
When people are being emotionally abused and are starting to internalize that abuse. Once you notice a drop in their self-esteem, their vitality, their joy, and their overall good opinion of themselves, do what friends are supposed to do for each other. “Heap lots of love, praise and positive feedback on her. She probably really needs to hear this,” says Wright.
“Abusive relationships are very insidious. Often the person is afraid of what their partner will do if they speak up or try to leave. They likely have also been manipulated to the point of no longer trusting themselves,” says Rodriguez. You can’t be her only main source of support, so continue to suggest your friend get professional therapeutic or legal support if necessary. You’ll be saving her self-worth and possibly her life.
If you or anyone you know may be experiencing emotional or physical abuse, please don't hesitate to contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).
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