DOs and DON’Ts: How to Help a Friend Who’s in an Abusive Relationship
I did a long interview with Katie Ray-Jones of the National Domestic Violence Hotline for my column on Chris Brown and Rihanna. Here is more of her expert advice about how to help a friend who’s in a violent relationship.
DON’T badmouth the abuser. Often times the survivor is not ready to leave, not sure what to do, confused, so the worst thing that someone can do is badmouth the abuser, because she’s probably going to go back home to him. The average survivor leaves 7 times befores he leaves for good. If you badmouth that person, she may feel like she can’t come back to talk to you. DO focus on behavior: Say, “I’m concerned he isn’t letting you go out and see your friends and family. I’m concerned he’s not giving you a lot of independence.” Focus on behavior instead of saying he’s horrible or that he’s an asshole.
DON’T make ultimatums: Don’t say things like, “If you don’t leave him, I won’t be here to help you again. I’m tired of hearing you complain about him. You either leave or I’m not going to help you.” When you’re doing that, that’s very similar language she’s hearing from her abuser. DO let her make the decision. You can ask how you can help her through that process. It will be really hard. There are gonna be times you want to throw your hands up and walk away. But that’s the worst thing you can do for her.
DON’T call the police. Sometimes clearly if someone’s in a life or death situation you’ll make that call. But having the police go out to the home and talk to the abuser will tip him off that she’s been talking to someone, and it will escalate the abuse. It’s very common for an abuser to say, “If you call the police I will kill you.” That is a very real threat when an abuser says that. Unless you feel like it’s an imminent danger situation, don’t call the police. DO talk it through with her first about what the best decision is. She knows him the best.
DON’T judge her. Use empowerment statements like “You’re showing such courage.” Praise her for having the strength to get through the situation. But DO trust your gut. If she’s telling you one thing and you’re seeeing signs of something else, you tell her, “I love you and I’m here for you.” If you begin to see blatant signs, I encourage people to talk about that, too. It’s ok to be wrong. If she says, “Absolutely not” and becomes frustrated, you can say, “I’m just so worried about you and I want you to know i’m here for you.”
And finally, a note on whether it’s possible for abusers to change:
Do I believe people can change? I wouldn’t do this work if I thought it wasn’t possible. I’ve facilitated perpetrator groups before, and if someone is really committed to changing, they can do it. But they have to really be committed to changing. Most of the time when I’ve seen change happen it’s been the abuser seeking help on their own, not being court-ordered. I can usually tell if someone is committed to change based on the language they use. One person comes to mind: He had been in treatment. He had been saying all the right things. It was his last class, and he said, “I’ve learned a lot about power and control, but all I did was push her.” He didn’t just push her. He punched her in the face and knocked three teeth out. I saw the police report. He’s going to be a repeat offender.
If he can accept responsibility, not put any blame on her, and say, “I need help,” I believe he can change.