Article written by Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria (Australia)
It can be really worrying when someone you care about is being hurt or abused by their partner. This guide will help in supporting female and male victims of abuse. Throughout the guide we refer to the victim as ‘she’ for simplicity and because the majority of victims are women. However, we encourage supporters of men who are being abused to use this guide.
IS WHAT YOU DO IMPORTANT?
Your help can make a great difference to someone who is abused. Your response to her situation is really important. If she feels supported and encouraged, she may feel stronger and more able to make decisions. If she feels judged or criticized, she could be afraid to tell anyone else about the abuse again. Abuse in relationships is quite common, and is mainly committed by men against women. Much of this abuse is witnessed by children. Some women are abusive in relationships. Women in lesbian relationships, and men in gay relationships can also be abusive to their partners.
“My best friend really helped me. She never judged me or made me feel like it was my fault. She helped me think about what to do, looked after my kids to give me a break, and was there when I needed her. It can’t have been easy on her. But her support made a big difference.” —Ana
HOW CAN I RECOGNIZE ABUSE?
You might be unsure if what your friend or relative is experiencing is ‘abuse’. Maybe you just have some sense that something is ‘wrong’ in her relationship. Sometimes there may be signs that indicate that there is abuse. But often there will be nothing obvious.
SIGNS THAT SOMEONE IS BEING ABUSED
· She seems afraid of her partner or is always very anxious to please him or her.
· She has stopped seeing her friends or family, or cuts phone conversations short when her partner is in the room.
· Her partner often criticizes her or humiliates her in front of other people.
· She says her partner pressures or forces her to do sexual things.
· Her partner often orders her about or makes all the decisions (for example, her partner controls all the money, tells her who she can see and what she can do).
· She often talks about her partner’s ‘jealousy’, ‘bad temper’ or ‘possessiveness’.
· She has become anxious or depressed, has lost her confidence, or is unusually quiet.
· She has physical injuries (bruises, broken bones, sprains, cuts etc.). She may give unlikely explanations for physical injuries.
· Her children seem afraid of her partner, have behavior problems, or are very withdrawn or anxious.
· She is reluctant to leave her children with her partner.
· After she has left the relationship, her partner is constantly calling her, harassing her, following her, coming to her house or waiting outside.
SHOULD I GET INVOLVED?
Many people worry that they will be ‘interfering’ if they get involved, or that it is a ‘private matter’. But it is equally worrying if someone is being abused and you say nothing. Your support can make a difference. You might risk some embarrassment if you approach her and she rejects your support or tells you your suspicions are wrong. But if you approach her sensitively, without being critical, most people will appreciate an expression of concern for their well-being, even if they are not ready to talk about their situation. It is unlikely you will make things ‘worse’ by expressing concern.
“My family knew I was being abused and that I felt trapped, but they didn’t say anything about it until I finally left. It would have helped if they had said that his behavior wasn’t ok, because I thought it was normal. If they had said that I was a good person and that they were there if I needed them, it would have made getting out a lot easier.” —Ellie
HOW SHOULD I APPROACH HER?
Approach your friend or relative in a sensitive way, letting her know your own concerns. Tell her you’re worried about her, then explain why. For example
I’m worried about you because I’ve noticed you seem really unhappy lately.
Don’t be surprised if she seems defensive or rejects your support. She might be scared of worrying you if she tells you about the abuse. She may not be ready to admit to being abused, or may feel ashamed and afraid of talking about it. She might have difficulty trusting anyone after being abused. If the victim is a man, he may feel particularly embarrassed about speaking about the abuse as he may be seen as ‘weak’ or ‘unmanly’.
“My family knew I was being abused and that I felt trapped, but they didn’t say anything about it until I finally left. It would have helped if they had said that his behavior wasn’t ok, because I thought it was normal.
WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP HER?
The most important thing you can do is to listen without judging, respect her decisions, and help her to find ways to become stronger and safer.
“You don’t have to fully understand to be of assistance. All you have to do is give your time and love without being judgmental.” —Jane
· Listen to what she has to say.
· Believe what she tells you. It will have taken a lot for her to talk to you. People are much more likely to cover up or downplay the abuse, rather than to make it up or exaggerate. You might find it hard to imagine someone you know could behave abusively. But the person who is abusive will probably show you a very different side to the side the victim sees.
· Take the abuse seriously. Abuse can be damaging both physically and emotionally. Don’t underestimate the danger she may be in.
· Help her to recognize the abuse and understand how it may be affecting her or her children.
· Tell her you think she has been brave in being able to talk about the abuse, and in being able to keep going despite the abuse.
· Help to build her confidence in herself.
· Help her to understand that the abuse is not her fault and that no-one deserves to be abused, no matter what they do. Let her know you think that the way her partner is treating her is wrong. For example, ‘No-one, not even your husband, has the right to mistreat you’
· Help her to protect herself. You could say ‘I’m afraid of what he could do to you or the children ‘or ‘I’m worried that it will get worse’ . Talk to her about how she thinks she could protect herself. See the section ‘Helping to increase her safety’ (see below).
· Help her to think about what she can do and see how you can help her to achieve it.
· Offer practical assistance like minding the children for a while, cooking a meal for her, offering a safe place to stay, transport or to accompany her to court, etc.
· Respect her right to make her own decisions, even if you don’t agree with them. Respect her cultural or religious values and beliefs.
· Maintain some level of regular contact with her. Having an opportunity to talk regularly to a supportive friend or relative can be very important.
· Find out about Restraining Orders and other legal options available and pass this information on to her if she wants it.
· Tell her about the services available. Remind her that if she calls a service, she can just get support and information, they won’t pressure her to leave if she doesn’t want to.
· Keep supporting her after she has left the relationship. The period of separation could be a dangerous time for her, as the abuse may increase. She may need practical support and encouragement to help her establish a new life and recover from the abuse. She could also seek counselling or join a support group.
“What would really have helped is to have a relative or friend to mind the kids for a while. I just needed the time to think and work out my feelings without the kids being around all the time.” —Soraya
QUESTIONS YOU COULD ASK AND THINGS YOU COULD SAY
These are just some ideas. It is important that you only say what you believe, and use your own words.
The way he treats you is wrong.
What can I do to help you?
How do you think his behavior has affected you?
How do you think his behavior is affecting your children?
I’m worried about what he could do to you or the children.
What do you think you should do?
What are you afraid of if you leave?
What are you afraid of if you stay?
WHAT NOT TO DO …
When talking to someone who is being abused, some things may not help, or may stop her from wanting to confide in you fully.
Here are some of the things victims of abuse say did not help:
· Don’t blame her for the abuse or ask questions like ‘what did you do for him to treat you like that?’ or ‘why do you put up with it?’, or ‘how can you still be in love with him?’ These questions suggest that it is somehow her fault.
· Don’t keep trying to work out the ‘reasons’ for the abuse. Concentrate on supporting the person who is being abused.
· Don’t be critical if she says she still loves her partner, or if she leaves but then returns to the relationship. Leaving an abusive partner takes time, and your support is really important.
· Don’t criticize her partner. Criticize the abusive behavior and let her know that no-one has the right to abuse her (for example, say ‘your partner shouldn’t treat you like that’). Criticism of her partner is only likely to make her want to defend him or her.
· Don’t give advice, or tell her what you would do. This will only reduce her confidence to make her own decisions. Listen to her and give her information, not advice.
· Don’t pressure her to leave or try to make decisions on her behalf. Focus on listening and supporting her to make her own decisions. She knows her own situation best.
HELPING TO INCREASE HER SAFETY
Whether she is staying in the relationship or has separated, it is important to think about how she can be protected from further abuse.
· Help her to plan where she and her children could go in an emergency, or if she decides to leave. If she needs to stay at a secret location, tell her about safe accommodation services (shelters).
· Agree on a code word or signal that she can use to let you know she needs help.
· Help her to prepare an excuse so she can leave quickly if she feels threatened.
· Find out about how the police can protect her. Talk to her about laws that can protect her, such as a court order that can protect her from further abuse or from the abuser coming near her. It is a criminal offence if the abuser disobeys the conditions of the Court Order.
· Help her to prepare an ‘escape bag’ of her belongings, and hide it in a safe place. If she leaves, she will need money, keys, clothes, bank cards, driver’s license, social security documents, property deeds, medication, birth certificates, passport and any other important documents for herself and her children.
· If she decides to stay, she may need other ways to protect herself and the children from further violence. She could ring a service for safety ideas and legal information.
· You could offer to give evidence as a witness, if she wants to take out a Court Order or to take other legal action. If you feel able to offer this, take notes if you observe abuse, noting times, dates, and what you observed.
WHAT CAN I DO IF I WITNESS OR OVERHEAR PHYSICAL VIOLENCE OR THREATS?
If you believe there is immediate physical danger and that she and her children are about to be harmed, call 911 immediately.
If you do have the opportunity to talk to her at another time, ask about whether or not she would like you to call the police. She may fear that calling the police may make things worse for her. Many people are afraid of involving the police, especially those from non-English speaking backgrounds or indigenous communities who may have had bad past experiences. You could call a domestic violence service to find out about how you could help in this situation.
But remember, when you think there is immediate physical danger, call 911.
HOW CAN I RESPOND TO HER ABUSIVE PARTNER?
Be careful. Don’t place yourself in a position where the person who is being abusive could harm or manipulate you. Don’t try to intervene directly if you witness a person being assaulted – call the police instead.
If the person who is being abusive is your friend or relative, you may feel caught in the middle.
It is important to understand that if you approach the person who is abusive, he or she may:
· tell you to ‘mind your own business’
· deny the abuse, or say ‘how can you think I could do something like that?’
· make it seem like it’s ‘not that bad’, or that it only happened once
· make it seem like it’s the other person’s fault, or that it’s her behavior that’s the problem, not theirs
· say that they couldn’t help themselves, they were drunk, just ‘snapped’, or ‘lost control’.
None of these responses mean that he or she is not abusive. It is common for a person who is being abusive to deny or minimize the abuse. Probably the only way you will be able to ‘verify’ that a person is abusive is if their partner tells you that they are, or if you witness the abuse. Even someone who appears to be ‘respectable’ and ‘normal’ can be abusive in the privacy of their own home.
It is possible that the person who is abusive may admit the abuse was their fault, but say they don’t know how to stop their behavior. If the person who is abusive is male, he can be encouraged to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 800-799-7233 for anonymous and confidential advice on how he may go about ending his use of violence. If the abusive person is female, she can call the same hotline or contact her local community health service.
If you observe abuse and you feel safe or able to, talk about the behavior you have observed. For example, ‘You are both my friends, but I think the way you criticize and intimidate her is wrong’. But if you only know about the abuse because the victim has talked to you about it, check with her first before saying anything to her partner. Her partner could become more abusive to her if he or she thinks she has told someone.
A man speaking to another man, or a woman speaking to another woman about their abusive behavior can be a helpful way of approaching this issue. Don’t focus on trying to understand why the person is abusive, or on trying to work out how to change him or her. Don’t get involved in excusing the abuse. Focus on what the person who is abusive is going to do about it, and encourage them to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline.