4 Steps to Help Survivors of Relationship Violence
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One in three.
That’s how likely a woman or a man is to experience domestic violence in her or his lifetime (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). It happens frequently, and it’s happening to people you know.
Domestic, or intimate relationship, violence is a pattern of behavior used by one partner to gain and maintain control over the other. Abusers don’t find their sense of identity in Christ. They work to maintain their “god-like” sense of self by controlling those closest to them.
Most who live in an abusive relationship don’t see the warning signs that an outsider might notice. Survivors believe the lies the abusers tell: that they are imagining things, that no one will believe them if they reach out, that this is what God-pleasing “submission” looks like. They may not realize they are in an abusive relationship until they no longer feel safe, or that they are able to leave.
Being able to push past the discomfort and reach out can save lives.
Survivors need love and support, and to feel physically and emotionally safe before change can begin. This safety extends to their spiritual well-being. Abusers convince survivors that they are worthless, and that God doesn’t love them. They need to be encouraged by the truth of God’s love—that He died to redeem them because of that love.
As witnesses, recognizing abuse or knowing how to help a survivor is challenging; it makes us uncomfortable. But being able to push past the discomfort and reach out can save lives.
Both men and women can be survivors of domestic abuse. You can help survivors by listening, believing their story, and creating a plan with them to keep them safe.
Helping a survivor of intimate relationship violence is a challenging but rewarding experience. God gives incredible strength and resiliency to His people, and He often works through the hearts of friends and family, like you, to bring healing to survivors. This healing process takes time, but helping someone find their strength in God is worth the effort.
1. Build trust
If you suspect that someone you know is suffering, building a trusting relationship with the survivor is necessary before moving any further. Even if the person is your best friend there still needs to be a level of trust established before they will talk about the abuse. You can build trust by frequently checking in with them and asking simple questions like, “Is everything okay?” or “I noticed a bruise on your forearm; how did that happen?” Most survivors will brush off these questions at first. This is okay—don’t push for more information. Just let them know that you’re available if they ever want to talk.
2. Believe their story
Abuse is traumatic, and many survivors suffer symptoms closely related to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Trauma affects how people react to situations and process information. Survivors experiencing this distress will make seemingly irrational decisions because their brain is working under immense anxiety and fear.
If someone is brave enough to come to you and share their story, listen to them and believe them. The way you respond the very first time someone talks about their abuse will determine if they will trust you and tell you more. This can be challenging, especially if the person coming to you is someone like your brother’s wife or the spouse of one of your closest friends. To the best of your ability, withhold judgment and excuses so that the survivor can share their story and so you can help them get the care they need.
3. Thank the survivor
When a survivor first shares their story about being in an abusive relationship, most listeners don’t know how to initially respond. One way you can start is by thanking the person for sharing their story with you. The survivor has given you a very special gift, one that they wouldn’t just give to anyone. As with all gifts, a thank you is needed.
4. Ask the question
Ask how you can help the survivor and then do what they ask. Be prepared for this next step to be challenging. Most survivors will want to reconcile with their abuser. This is normal, even if the abuse was severe. In fact, survivors return to an abusive partner an average of seven times. This doesn’t have to make sense to you, but it makes sense to the survivor, and they are the ones who know what is best for them.
If the person you are helping decides to return, your focus turns to the safety of this individual. If they want your help returning to the abuser, help them; but also plan with them to find ways to stay safe in the future.
This is difficult, especially when you help someone multiple times. Resist the urge to say, “I’ve helped my friend too many times, and they always go back. I’m done helping.” They need you to stick with them and be a support system that will help them once they are finally able to leave for good.
- Do encourage the survivor to go to a pastor or another Christian counselor for spiritual help. Offer to attend the meeting with them if they are hesitant about this step. The abuser often convinces the survivor they are so unlovable even God couldn’t love them. Survivors need spiritual guidance and to hear that God loves them for lasting healing to begin.
- Don’t try and fix everything. Instead of giving solutions, take time to brainstorm with the survivor different ways to approach what is happening. Help them weigh the pros and cons to each proposed idea. This will also help you better understand the situation.
- Don’t call law enforcement. Often people think that calling the police is the best idea. Never do this without the survivor’s permission. This is a short-term solution at best and often results in increased abuse once the abuser is out of jail. An exception to this is in cases when you believe a homicide is probable.
- Do remain a safe person whom the survivor can trust.
The signs of abuse are many and varied, and recognizing them is the first step toward helping a survivor. One quick and easy tool to use is the HITS (hurt, insult, threaten, scream) score. Rate the following questions on a scale of 1 to 5:
How often does your partner physically hurt you?
How often does your partner insult or talk down to you?
How often does your partner threaten you with physical harm?
How often does your partner scream or curse at you?
A score of 10 or more indicates an abusive relationship. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.799.7233 or reach out to Kingdom Workers at email@example.com for help.
Michelle Markgraf, community expert on survivor advocacy and safety, helped launch the Empowering Survivors of Relationship Violence program at Kingdom Workers. She previously worked as a volunteer advocate and later as the Executive Director of a rape and domestic abuse crisis center.
Artwork by Caitlin Voigt
This article ran in our Spring 2020 Update newsletter under the title "Caring for Our Neighbors."