When a friend goes through something difficult, one of the worst feelings you can have is the feeling of helplessness. And if you have a friend who’s a victim of domestic violence, it may be overwhelming and difficult to know how help provide them with the help they need.
But domestic violence is sadly far too common—according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), one in three women have been victims of some type of physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime—and understanding how to help victims can be crucial. If you know someone in a violent relationship, you can help, and here’s how.
First and foremost, you need to respect your friend and make sure she knows you’re there for her—even if she resists help, or doesn’t show signs of leaving the relationship, says Dr. María Garay-Serratos, CEO of Sojourner Center, one of the nation’s largest domestic violence shelters that serves close to 9,000 victims each year in its crisis shelter and transitional living facilities. “The fact is that most women do not want to leave their abusers for many reasons,” Dr. Garay says. “They want help for [their abusers]…There can be financial issues, issues with children, health and legal issues, social status, and, importantly, they may not be ready to leave. There may be beliefs, false and perceived, that keep them in the relationship.”
It’s important to recognize that, without being in your friend’s position, you won’t be able to fully understand what she is going through—so be supportive and helpful, without being judgmental. “…Domestic violence evokes deep emotions and feelings and opinions,” Dr. Garay says. “We can’t impose our values and thoughts on those in domestic violent relationships. We need to be with them where they are at.”
Regina Tate, a Licensed Professional Counselor who specializes in anger and domestic violence and provides online therapy through Talkspace, reinforces that notion. “When a friend is not ready to accept help, it is best to just let [her] know that you respect [her] choice and let [her] know that you will be there for [her] to help when [she needs] it,” she says. “Giving [her] ultimatums or rejecting [her] will keep [her] in the relationship longer. [She needs] to know that people will support [her] when [she is] ready.”
That doesn’t mean, though, that there’s nothing you can do to help. Tate and Dr. Garay suggest you take the following steps to help your friend:
- Brainstorm a safety plan. “This generally involves some ideas about what to do and who to call if they decide to leave,” Tate says. She notes that the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence (NCDSV) offers a helpful safety plan with examples of questions to ask and get answered.
- Offer an empathetic ear.
- Be available.
- Be present by meeting and checking in with your friend often. “Even if [she is] pulling away and isolating, which is normal, try to make a regular connection so she feels supported enough to reach out,” Tate says.
- Provide resources (think: help centers, shelters, phone numbers, counselors, and more).
- Assess, with the friend, the lethality of the abuser.
Even with all of the resources out there, victims of domestic violence may be afraid to leave their abusers because of potential consequences for their own safety. Though it’s important for you to be there with your friend, and take the steps Dr. Garay suggested, it’s also important to seek the help of experts. “Consult with the local domestic violence hotline or provider, or the national domestic violence hotlines,” she said. (One such hotline is The National Domestic Violence Hotline, which you can reach via live chat on the website, or by calling 1-800-799-7233.) “They are easily and readily available. They will help your friend develop a safety plan and help her execute it.”
You and your friend can get legal help, as well, through local court advocates who can help navigate the legal process in addition to providing counseling, housing referrals, and safety planning. Google “domestic violence court advocates” in your area to find more information.
Helping your friend seek out and connect with experts, advocates, and resources can be important and effective. Though you may be angry, or feel like you need to do more, it’s also important to follow the right steps, and not do anything rash or unsafe.
Here’s what not to do in attempts to help a friend who is in a violent relationship, according to Dr. Garay and Tate:
- Confront the abuser.
- Get your friend out of the home without a safety plan.
- Get law enforcement involved without consent or take matters into your own hands. “If you witness the abuse first hand, then notify authorities,” Tate says.
- Involve others. You may not understand the abuser’s circle of influence.
- Bad-mouth the abuser to your friend. “This will create tension in the friendship,” Tate says.
- Give ultimatums to your friendship.
- Overpower your friend, “even if you have all the answers,” Tate says.
Once your friend is out of a violent relationship, she still may face demons and issues as a result. In their experience, both Dr. Garay and Tate have seen many women who have been victims of more than one violent relationship. “Much of this stems from core beliefs about their worthiness as a person and the relationship values they have learned about in their [lives],” Tate says.
To help ensure your friend doesn’t fall back into the same relationship, or a different violent relationship, make sure to offer her continued support. Make it known you’re there for her, even when there’s no immediate danger. “You can help [her] to recognize if there have been patterns in many of [her] relationships,” Tate says. And connect her with support groups and other resources that can continue to help her.
Ultimately, your loyal and unwavering friendship is one of the greatest things you can offer. “Show compassion, love, [and] understanding, and be curious as to what [she] is thinking and feeling,” Tate says. “Being a genuine friend that is consistent is better than being overbearing. [She is] already in a controlling relationship with [her] partner; that is not what [she needs] in a friend.”