Helping Friends and Family
Millions of people are physically abused by spouses, co-habitating or intimate partners each year. Chances are, someone you know—your mother/father, sister/brother, friend, co-worker or neighbor—is a victim of domestic violence. Perhaps you feel your friend’s problem will “work itself out.” Not so. The violence won’t end until action is taken to stop it. All intimate relationships have problems, and sometimes it’s difficult for others to decide when its appropriate to intervene. How have you reacted to these possible signs that your friend is abused and needs help?
- Have you accepted their explanations for visible injuries, such as black eyes, bruises, or broken bones?
- Do you tend not to press them further about frequent “accidents” that cause them to miss work?
- Does their partner exert an unusual amount of control over their activities? Are you reluctant to discuss their partner’s control over family finances, the way they dress, and their contact with friends and family?
- If their partner ridicules them publicly, do you ignore the partner’s behavior or join the laughter at their expense? Why aren’t you willing to stand up to them? Do you sense the volatile nature of their comments?
- Have you noticed changes in their or their children/s behavior? Do they appear frightened or exhausted?
I shouldn’t get involved in a private family matter. Domestic violence—also called spousal abuse, battering, woman abuse, and wife beating—is not just a family problem. It is a crime with serious repercussions for your friend, their children, and the entire community.
The violence can’t really be that serious. Domestic violence includes threats, pushing, punching, slapping, choking, sexual assault, and assault with weapons. It is rarely a one-time occurrence and usually escalates in frequency and severity. Any act of domestic violence is something to take seriously. Wife beating results in more injury that requires medical treatment than rape, auto accidents, and muggings combined.
Battering can be deadly: 30% of women murdered in the U.S. are killed by husbands or boyfriends.
They must be doing something to provoke their partner’s violence. A victim of battering is never to blame for another person’s choice to use violence against them. Problems exist in any relationship, but the use of violence to resolve them is never acceptable.
If its so bad, why don’t they just leave? For most of us, a decision to end a relationship is not easy. A battered person’s emotional ties to their partner may be strong, supporting their hope that the violence will end. They may be financially dependent and in leaving they will likely face severe economic hardship. They may not know available resources and social and justice systems may have been unhelpful to them in the past. Religious, cultural or family pressures may make them think it’s their duty to keep their marriage or relationship together. When they have tried to leave in the past, the partner may have used violence to stop them.
Doesn’t the victim care about what’s happening to their children? Your friend is probably doing their best to protect their children from violence. They may feel that the abuse is only directed at them and does not yet realize its effects on the children. They may believe their children need a father/mother, or lacks the resources to support them on their own. The children may beg them to stay, not wanting to leave their home or friends. The victim may fear that they could lose custody of their children.
I know them, I don’t think they can hurt anyone. Many abusers are not violent in other relationships and can be charming in social situations, yet be extremely violent in the privacy of the home.
They must be sick. Battering is a learned behavior, not a mental illness. An abuser’s experience as a child and the message they get from society can tell them that violence is an easy way to get power and control over their partner’s behavior. People who batter-choose this behavior and viewing them as “sick” wrongly excuses them from taking responsibility for it.
How can they still care for someone who abuses them? Chances are, the abuser is not always abusive. Their relationship probably involves good times, bad times and in-between times. They may actually show remorse for their violence, promising that they will change. Your friend understandably hopes for such changes.
If they wanted my help, they’d ask for it. Your friend may not feel comfortable confiding in you, feeling that you may not understand their situation. Talk to them about battering in a general way. Tell them you’re concerned about people who get abused and that you do not blame battered people for violence.
What Can You Do?
Lend a listening ear. Tell your friend that you care and are willing to listen. Don’t force the issue, but allow them to confide in you at their own pace. Never blame them for what’s happening or underestimate your friends fear of potential danger. Focus on supporting them in making their own decisions.
Guide them to community services. Gather information about domestic violence programs in your area. These programs offer safety, advocacy, support, legal information and other needed services. If they ask for advice on what they should do, share the information you’ve gathered with them privately. Let them know they are not alone and that people are available to help. Encourage them to seek the assistance of battered women’s advocates (they serve male victims as well). Assure them that they will keep information about them confidential. Many battered people first seek the advice of marriage counselors, psychiatrists or members of the clergy. Not all such professionals, however are fully aware of the special circumstances of abused people. If the first person they contact is not helpful, encourage them to look elsewhere.
Focus on their strengths. Battered people live with emotional as well as physical abuse. The abuser probably continually tells your friend that they are a bad person, and a bad partner. Your friend may believe that they can’t do anything right and that there really is something wrong with them. Give them emotional support to believe they are a good person. Help them examine their strengths and skills. Emphasize that they deserve a life that is free from violence.
Help them make a safety plan. Your friend may decide to remain in a violent relationship or return to the abuser after a temporary separation. Let them know that you are afraid for them and their children and help them consider how lethal the violence may be. Help your friend make a safety plan for themselves and their children by thinking about steps they can take if their partner becomes abusive again. Make a list of people to call in an emergency. Suggest they hide a suitcase of clothing, money, social security cards, bank books, birth certificates, and school records for possible future emergencies in a safe place, even if that is at your house or another friend or family member’s house.
Help find a safe place. Help your friend contact the local battered women’s program. They can help examine options and find a safe place to go. Not all communities have a safe shelter and sometimes they’re full, so she may need to rely on family or friends for temporary housing. Be careful if you offer safety in your home. A battered person frequently faces the most danger when they try to flee and you could face threats and harm from the abuser.