FRIENDS, FAMILY, CO-WORKERS AND BYSTANDERS
How You Can Help if Someone Is Being Abused
Many people who are abused by an intimate partner either don’t know who to turn to or have had bad experiences when they’ve reached out for help. Your willingness to help can be important to a victim in their safety planning efforts. But while being willing and well-meaning is good, being ready to offer the kind of help that’s needed, while keeping yourself safe, is even better.
Possible Signs of Domestic Violence
The effects of domestic violence can show up in many different ways. Being aware of these effects will not only help you better understand the experience, but will help you better identify someone who is being abused.
Visible signs of physical injury include:
- bruises, cuts, burns, human bite marks, and broken bones;
- injuries during pregnancy, miscarriage, or premature births; and
- many injuries in different stages of healing.
Someone who is being abused might try to hide injuries that can be seen from others. One sign of this might be someone who suddenly starts wearing long-sleeve shirts or turtlenecks in the summer or scarves (to hide strangulation marks) or sunglasses indoors, when they never did before.
Illnesses that may be related to being abused include:
- stress-related illnesses like headaches, backaches, constant pain, gastrointestinal disorders, trouble sleeping, eating disorders, and being tired all the time;
- anxiety-related conditions like heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, and “panic attacks;” and
- depression, thinking about or attempting suicide, and alcohol or other drug problems.
In the workplace, the effects of domestic violence can be seen as:
- not being able to concentrate or focus at work, missing work or getting to work late a lot, or asking for a lot of time off;
- on-the-job harassment by the abuser, either in person or over the phone; and
- poor employment history or losing jobs.
Behavior changes you may notice that could be a sign of abuse include:
- getting nervous, quiet, or “jumpy” when they are around their partner;
- suddenly not being able to do things with you; and
- needing to “check in” with their partner a lot, or constantly getting calls, e-mails, or text messages from their partner.
How Can You Know for Sure?
Let them know that you’re concerned about their safety and that you’re willing to help.
The only way to know for sure if someone you know is being abused is to ASK. You should always have this conversation in private. A common myth about people who are abused is that they don’t want to talk about what is happening to them. It is true that some people do try to hide the abuse, but they often do so because they are afraid of being embarrassed, their partner finding out, being blamed, not being believed, or being pressured to do something they’re not ready or able to do.
Keep it simple. If there are specific things you have noticed that you are worried about, you might say something like, "I noticed 'x, y and z' and I’m worried about you. Is there anything I can do to help?" Or, "It seems like you’re stressed out and unhappy. If you want to talk about it now or some other time, I’ll keep it between us."
People are sometimes afraid to approach someone about their concerns because they feel that it is "none of their business,"or that their offer of help will be unwelcome. But the idea that "what happens behind closed doors" is off limits is something that has contributed to the problem of domestic violence. Even if the person is not ready to talk about it when you first approach, they might come to you later now that they know you care. Let them know that you’re concerned about their safety and that you’re willing to help.
If you ask, be prepared to respond supportively
There are many things you can do to prepare yourself to offer supportive and empowering assistance.
Learn about domestic violence – Read this guide, talk to an advocate at your local domestic violence program. Read books, or visit websites to learn more about domestic violence. Watch "Finding Safety and Support: The Video" at www.youtube.com/NYSdomesticviolence/videos. Know what services are available.
Initiate a conversation in private and when you have enough time to talk at length, but only if they want to.
Let go of any expectations you have that there is a "quick fix" to domestic violence or to the obstacles a victim of abuse faces. Understand that not doing anything may very well be the safest thing they can do at any given time.
Challenge and change any false attitudes and beliefs that you may have about domestic violence. Victims aren’t abused because there is something wrong with them. Rather, those who get trapped in these relationships are there because of their abusive partners’ use of violence and control. It is important for you to recognize the courage, resourcefulness and decision-making abilities of victims.
What You Can Do
Believe them and let them know that you do. If you know their partner, it may be hard to believe that they are capable of abuse, but remember that abusers typically act differently in public than they do in private.
Listen to what they tell you. Really listen to them and ask questions to make sure you understand what they are saying. Avoid making judgments and giving advice. They will let you know what they need.
Build on their strengths. Based on what the victim tells you and on what you have seen, point out the ways in which they have developed ways to cope, solved problems, and showed courage and determination. Even if the things the victim has tried have not been completely successful, help them to build on these strengths.
Validate feelings. It is common for victims to have conflicting feelings – love and fear, guilt and anger, hope and sadness. Let them know that these feelings are normal.
Avoid victim-blaming. Tell the victim that the abuse is not their fault. Tell them that the abuse is their partner’s problem and responsibility, but don’t “bad-mouth” the abuser.
Take it seriously. If you are concerned about their safety, tell them you are concerned without judgment by simply saying, "Your situation sounds dangerous and I’m concerned about your safety."
Offer help. Offer specific forms of help and information, such as providing child care, driving them to appointments, or assisting with pets. If they ask you to do something you’re willing and able to do, do it. If you can’t or don’t want to, say so and help them find other ways to have that need met. Then look for other ways that you can help.
Be a partner in their safety planning efforts. The key to safety planning is taking a problem, looking at all of the available options, evaluating the risks and benefits of different options, and figuring out ways to reduce the risks. Offer ideas, resources and information.
Support and respect their decisions. Remember that there are risks with every decision a victim makes. If you really want to be helpful, be patient and respect their decisions, even if you don’t agree with them.
DOs and DON’TS
Listen and validate
Wait for them to come to you
Judge or blame