You may notice a family member acting more withdrawn than usual or being absent from family functions. There may be visible signs like bruising, or a sore voice and bloodshot eyes that don’t seem like a cold. Perhaps in an everyday conversation, a coworker says something which raises a couple red flags for you. Maybe you’ve been supporting a friend through domestic violence for a while and don’t know where to go for support.
There are a variety of ways that you might learn that someone you know is experiencing domestic violence. You might feel helpless, angry, scared, or alone with a problem of this magnitude. So what can you do to support your friend, family member, or coworker who is experiencing domestic violence?
One of the most powerful things that you can do for a survivor is to tell them that you believe them. The survivor might have been told that no one will believe them, that the abuse is all in their head, that they deserve to be treated this way, or that they are “crazy”. Remember that it takes a lot of courage for survivors to confide in someone. Domestic violence is stigmatized and a large part of domestic violence is focused on instilling the survivor with fear. The abuser may have made threats of harm to anyone the survivor contacts, may stalk and surveil the survivor, or made the survivor fear for their own safety. The survivor also may not view what they are experiencing as domestic violence and either downplay what they are experiencing, or resist seeking help. You may know the abuser and they may be a friend or well-regarded in the community, which can make you feel conflicted. In any case, believing the survivor is essential.
Listen to Them
Practice active listening: listening based on acceptance, understanding, and empathy. Give the survivor your full attention and refrain from trying to just “fix” the problems. Let the survivor tell you what they’d like you to hear at their own pace and don’t just try to fill silences. Try to empathize with them and try to be nonjudgmental. Ask questions for clarification to ensure that you understand, but don’t bombard the survivor with questions. Most of all, just try to be yourself.
Let Them Make the Decisions
Survivors of domestic violence have been systematically disempowered. They have had their decision-making taken away and it can be empowering to regain agency over their own decisions. It’s hard to step back, especially if you think a survivor is making a “wrong” decision. Also, remember that the survivor knows their own situation best. They know what has worked in the past and what hasn’t, and they know what options may put them at risk. It’s okay to offer suggestions and resources, and to safety plan together. However, if a survivor says no to something, listen to them.
Don’t Expect Them to Leave Right Away
A lot of times, the first response to hearing about domestic violence is “why didn’t they just leave”. On a surface level it seems to make sense: if this person is treating you like this, why not just go? However, the most dangerous time for a survivor is after leaving an abuser. It is important for a survivor to create a safety plan and weigh the risks of staying versus leaving. If the survivor is ready to leave, then that is great, but it is okay if they aren’t at that stage yet. Your support will hopefully keep them on the path moving toward safety.
Abusers often complicate things. If abuse doesn’t occur every day, the times between the abuse may give a survivor hope that circumstances will change. Abusers are not usually abusive from the start and may have even seemed “too good to be true”. The Cycle of Domestic Violence usually starts with things feeling a little off or an overt abusive instance which is quickly apologized for, often with lavish gifts. The cycle then repeats over time with the abuse escalating and the apologies diminishing. The way that abuse is entangled with love can make it hard to reconcile the person the survivor loves with their current situation. Survivors leave an abusive situation an average of 7 times before leaving for good. A survivor leaving and then returning is not unusual.
Be Flexible and Understanding
Sometimes someone will confide something concerning about their relationship only to later take it back. This likely doesn’t mean that the abuse simply stopped or that they were lying—it may mean that they feel uncomfortable or aren’t ready to share. Try to be understanding and know that they may ask for help again in the future. Survivors also may be unable to make social commitments or need extra support. Being flexible with plans and understanding of the survivor’s situation are essential as that survivor’s supports. In the workplace, this could include being understanding if someone seems unfocused and has trouble meeting deadlines, or is frequently calling out sick. For more on recognizing domestic violence in the workplace and how to help coworkers, check out these articles by Domestic Shelters: https://www.domesticshelters.org/articles/workplace-and-employment/warning-signs-at-work, https://www.domesticshelters.org/articles/workplace-and-employment/on-the-clock-how-to-protect-yourself-at-work.
Take Care of Your Mental Health
You are a person who matters too. Domestic violence is never easy to “fix” and it can be heartbreaking to hear the depth of trauma which a survivor lives with. Compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma is the second-hand trauma from helping others in stressful circumstances. It’s wonderful that you are supporting your friend, acquaintance, or loved one, but remember your own mental health. It does not make you a bad person to recognize that you need to take care of yourself to be strong enough to help others. Try to make time for activities that you enjoy and which make you feel rejuvenated. Potential talk to a therapist about how you’re feeling. It’s also okay to put up boundaries where you need to. Perhaps you are okay with stockpiling supplies for a friend but you can’t offer them a place to stay for longer than a couple nights. Maybe you can talk to a loved one until bedtime but cannot stay up all night.
Safety Plan With Them
Is there a way for the survivor to safely leave the situation? Are there any family or friends they can stay with? Would a Relief from Abuse Order (RFA) be helpful? Should they call the police? All of these are good questions to consider. Safety planning is exactly what it sounds like: planning strategies to try and keep the survivor as safe as possible. Again, it is important to let the survivor tell you what they think the best course of action would be. If a survivor isn’t ready to leave, they can devise ways to try keep themselves safe. As a support person, you might be able to call the police, offer rides, help with gas money, take care of pets, or stash a bag filled with clothes and important documents at your house in case the survivor needs to flee. Safeline can work with survivors to develop personalized safety plans.
Check In Regularly
If you haven’t heard from the survivor in a while, try to check in with them. One tactic of domestic violence is to isolate the victim from any support systems, including you. Abusers often brainwash their victims with lies that no one else cares about them. Reaching out can make a difference, but be mindful. Abusers may punish their victims if they learn of outside communication. As part of your safety plan, it can be helpful to arrange a code phrase to ask how a survivor is doing, particularly if the survivor’s communications are being monitored.
Show You Can Be Trusted
If you would like to support survivors, show that you can be trusted if someone confides in you. Educate yourself about domestic violence and share your awareness with others. Talk about how domestic violence goes beyond physical abuse to encompass tactics like sexual assault, economic control, verbal abuse, isolation, and manipulation. Don’t make jokes about domestic violence. Support survivors in public spaces. Spread education and awareness to help educate people about the different facets of domestic violence. Ensure that your workplace has a policy about domestic violence and talk about ways to support survivors. Perhaps coordinate with Safeline for a training or presentation in your workplace, local schools and libraries, or other community organizations. Share educational materials and put up posters. Show that if someone chooses to share their story with you, that you will listen and take them seriously.
Safeline is here to support survivors in whatever way that we can. From offering emotional support and safety planning, to supporting through the court process and offering referrals to local resources, we are able to offer a diverse array of services. Just call our confidential and free 24/7 hotline number at 1-800-639-7233. Either you, as a support person, or the survivor can give us a call even just to talk. If they’re ready, we always want to talk to the survivor about their unique situation.
There are many different ways to support the survivors in your life. If you are reading this article, then you are already on the right path. If something that you heard worries you but you aren’t sure if it constitutes domestic violence: call us at Safeline to speak to a confidential advocate (1-800-639-7233).