Confronting a friend when you suspect domestic violence — read this first
In the past year, there have been game-changing conversations about domestic abuse and violence against women.
The Ray Rice episode was splayed all over our news feeds and sparked important conversations from survivors to the world about why they stayed with abusive partners. There was the viral hashtag #Yesallwomen which inspired women to speak up about their experience with misogyny and violence to prove just how common it is.
Katy Perry shared her spotlight at the Grammys with domestic violence survivor Brooke Axtell who verbally narrated what is a demeaning and scary reality for too many women. And so many celebrities spoke up about their histories with domestic violence in order to encourage other women that they too can get out. Even someone within our SheKnows family shared her experience to help other women understand that domestic violence shouldn't have to define any woman.
While we saw so many important conversations in the media, what about the conversation you have with someone you suspect, or even know, is suffering in silence from an abusive relationship? Just like you can't force a man to stop hitting a woman, you can't force the woman to leave. But there are things you can do to try. Four survivors helped answer important questions from experience about how you can help and what you should never do.
1. When is the right time to say something?
Sofie, who was in an abusive relationship for 10 years, says, "As soon as you notice a change. It's far easier to stop it at the beginning." Margaret, who nearly lost her vision from her violent relationship, agrees. "It is important to broach the subject immediately after having proof or even strong suspicion that a friend is in an abusive situation.
Margaret pointed out the three cycles of domestic violence (tension, violence, remorse) according to domesticviolence.org saying, "A person is probably more receptive to discussing their situation if they are in the tension stage or immediately after a violent incident before the abuser has time to switch gears into the honeymoon stage."
2. How do you bring it up?
Sofie and Margaret agree there are two different approaches that depend on how close you are to this person.
- If it's a new or casual friendship: Mention that you have noticed a change and ask if everything is OK. Tell them you can't help but sense something is wrong, explain you care about them and offer to be there if they ever need to talk privately. Assure them whatever they have to say is confidential. If you see a bruise, ask how it happened.
- If it's an old, established relationship: Point out something specific you've noticed their spouse or partner do, or a specific way you have seen their spouse publicly put them down or disrespect them. Margaret suggests being direct if a subtle approach doesn't work and ask if anyone in their life has ever been abusive toward them.
3. What should you absolutely never say or do?
Jamie, who was attacked to the point of blackout by the father of her children, and Edith, whose husband was arrested after he hit her and threatened to kill himself if she didn't do it first, explain that you need to know how far you're willing to go to help before you bring it up. You might think you're willing to help but know that if they take you up on it, it's no light commitment. Don't make promises you can't keep. Margaret point outs that even though you might be tempted to house your friend, this is a huge no-no since the abuser likely knows where you live as the victim's friend. This is what safe houses like Laura's House are for.
Jamie and Edith also explain you need to know the exact safe house they go to because that house will likely only give them "safe phones" so their abusive partner cannot track them through GPS. You should know how you can safely communicate with them once they get to a safe place.
Sofie points out that, though you may despise them for what they are doing, you should never put their partner down. "That always put me on the defense immediately and then I didn't feel like I could share."
Most importantly, Margaret says, "Never tell a person who is experiencing domestic violence that they are stupid for putting up with their situation," explaining further that that is the exact fear that prevents women from talking to anyone about their situation and therefore causes them to suffer in silence.
And don't threaten your relationship or propose an ultimatum as a way to force them to get out.
4. What if your attempts don't get through to them?
Jamie and Edith point out, "Something to keep in mind is that by approaching your loved one and expressing your concerns, you are planting a seed that may take time to take root. Your loved one may not respond right away to your concerns but will know that they can access the information or support if and when they are ready."
It helps to continue evolving and maintaining your friendship with them. As much as you want to, you cannot simply rescue or intervene. As Jamie and Edith explain, "Making the decision to implement significant changes in one’s life and the lives of their children in a split second with no graduated effect is one of the hardest things a person can do. What they leave behind, what they risk in taking this action, the unknown of the future, is overwhelming for anyone to consider. In some cases, survivors fear losing their entire support network."
For Sofie, her turning point came when she started to take control by filling out divorce paperwork slowly over time. She felt good about taking baby steps and it helped her when she wasn't able to stay mad. For Margaret, her friends resorted to begging and crying to help her.
No one situation is the same but if you're going to help, be clear about exactly how you can help. Ensure privacy and don't create a space of judgment between you and your friend. Build their trust and ensure them there are safe places they can go, like Laura's House, which sheltered and saved Sofie, Margaret, Jamie and Edith. They are living proof there is a way out for your friend.
For more resources and emergency hotlines, please visit Laura's House online.