What should you do if your friend is in an abusive relationship? First, think about notions and phrases that do not help at all, as well as the attitudes that can make things worse.
About a year ago, one of my best friends got out of a toxic relationship. At first sight the relationship didn't seem to be toxic at all. They had been together for a couple of years and got along very well. We used to go out to bars, having plenty of fun and interesting conversations. Everything was fine, until it wasn’t. The events that led to the breakup, the ones that made it absolutely clear that the relationship was toxic, happened suddenly. After it ended, we reevaluated the whole thing. While doing so, we realized that the signs were there, and they were abundant. Small things like passive-aggressive comments that subtly insulted her, aggressions that were dismissed as “just a joke,” and bigger things that she kept to herself. Why didn’t we notice? Only in retrospect it was perfectly clear, which only intensified our frustration and impotence. Fortunately, things got better for her, but we’re still stunned by our blindness and inability to help her.
How do you do notice that your smart, funny, wonderful friend is being slowly diminished by an abusive relationship? And what should you do if you don’t really see it but your friend tells you about it? First, you should think about notions and phrases that do not help at all, as well as the attitudes that can make things worse.
“Aren’t you exaggerating?”
Do I need to explain why this question is harmful? Consider this: your friend might be embarrassed about what’s happening in their relationship, so they decide to tell you just a small part of the issue. Questions like “What did you do?” and “Did you provoke your partner?” might sound reasonable when you’re trying to understand the context of an incident, but they indirectly blame your friend. Always keep in mind that when it comes to abuse, it’s never the victim’s fault.
“Don’t you realize that they're abusing you?”
Abuse doesn’t always look like abuse. A lot of abusive behavior looks “normal” if you consider the idealization of jealousy and possessiveness as something that naturally happens when someone “loves you too much.” Your friend might be at a point where they're starting to feel the discomfort of abuse, but they're denying it or haven't fully realized it yet. Abuse starts subtly, and it can become apparent for people outside of the relationship before it does for the person that’s directly involved. Just telling them that they're being abused can shock or offend them, which can end up pushing them away.
“I hate your partner”
Remember that your friend might be deeply in love with their abuser. Dismissing the real love they feel can do more harm than good. If you insult their partner, they might think it’s just because you don’t really know them. Be more specific and focus on the partner's actions instead of their personality.
“Just leave them!”
It’s never that simple. If you think it would be easy to leave, you’re minimizing their struggle. Don’t lecture your friend. Instead, ask them about their experience. Don’t act like you know everything and don’t tell them what to do. Just listen, observe, and point out the facts instead of your interpretation of the events. Instead of wanting to take control of their situation, you should make it easier for them to reach a decision by themselves.
“If you don’t stop this, I will!”
I understand that this situation can be frustrating and infuriating. But it’s not a good idea to intervene so directly. Your friend might not be ready to leave him on her own terms, and if you go after him she might stop confiding in you in the future.
“They're good. Give them a chance!”
If you’re friends with both of them and it’s hard for you to believe their partner is an abuser, consider the fact that a person can change their behavior in private and public spaces. Even if you’ve never noticed anything suspicious about them, you have to remember that a person can be perfectly nice to you and perfectly horrible to someone else. Believe your friend.
“I’m done with this!”
The last thing you need to do is to act the way their partner do: shaming your friend and making them feel guilty or dumb. Don’t give up on them. Don’t make threats about not being their friend anymore. Be helpful in specific ways, like letting them stay over at your place if they need to. Remember that sometimes they're financially dependent on their abuser, so you should offer them practical things like a bed to sleep in, clothes, money, or a ride.
You don’t have to be an expert to help your close friend, and you need to take care of yourself as well. Remember that these situations affect you too. Go to therapy and learn more about the way in which abuse works, for your friend and for yourself.
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