What to do if you think your friend is in an abusive relationship
How to help survivors of domestic violence
Knowing how to help a survivor of domestic violence or intimate relationship violence can seem like an overwhelming challenge. Several questions can flood your mind when you are presented with the opportunity to help someone who confides in you that they are surviving abuse.
What if I ask the wrong questions?
What if I say the wrong thing?
What should I do to help?
What if I am not the right person for the job?
Will they still be my friend if I start asking questions?
Helping a survivor work toward healing 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. It’s a healing process that takes time but helping someone find their strength in God is worth the effort.
By following the steps outlined below, you can help a survivor find the healing and care that they need.
Step 1: Build trust
If you think your friend or a family member is in an abusive relationship, having a trusting relationship with them is necessary before moving any further. Even if the person is someone you have known or years, 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 ok?” or “I noticed a bruise on your forearm. How did that happen?” Just be aware that most survivors will brush off these questions at first.
This is ok—don’t push for more information. Let them know that you’re available if they ever want to talk.
Step 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 what may seem to be 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 a 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.
Step 3: Thank them
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.
Step 4: Ask how you can help
Asking how you can help the survivor and then doing what they ask is the next step. 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, it is common for survivors of intimate relationship violence to return to their partner 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 best how they feel.
If and when the survivor returns to their abuser, your job is to keep them safe to the best of your abilities. If they want your help to return to the abuser you may help them, but also plan ways with them 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.
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.