What to say
Remember that you cannot resolve the situation yourself. You are not in the relationship and hence, cannot control what happens. This can be frustrating and can make you feel like you are not doing anything to help. Try to remember that just listening and supporting your friend is one of the most important things you can do to make them feel stronger.
Let them know they are not alone! Although it is clearly not acceptable that this is happening, there are many people who have experienced similar situations and have made it through.
Do not put your friend down. Remember that abuse against women cuts across socio-economic and political groups. We are all exposed to it.
Remember that each case is unique, even if there are similar patterns of abuse in many abusive relationships. There are no universal answers or ways out of violent and abusive relationships. Respect each individual case for what it is. Don’t compare your friend’s situation with a different one that might trivialise their incident or make them feel as if they weren’t taken seriously.
Make it clear you believe them. Never doubt that your friend is telling you the truth or they may not be able to confide in you. Remember that it is a huge step to tell someone that your partner is violent or abusive. You must trust your friend so they can trust you.
Be careful not to sound judgemental when expressing your opinion. For example, do not say “I would never have expected that you would let something like this happen to you!”
Do not assume that the violence and abuse is mutual. This assumption is made particularly often for same-sex relationships because it is sometimes believed that a closer similarity in physical strength will mean that mutual abuse is more likely. This is, of courses, incorrect logic. Be aware of any subconscious assumptions you make so that you are able to catch yourself out. Believe what your friend tells you and do not assume to know better. People who are suffering abuse at the hands of a partner tend to blame and belittle themselves. If you express doubts, then you are not helping them.
Remember you cannot get your friend out of this situation alone. The person who is in the abusive relationship must be free to leave in their own way and time. You may become frustrated if they stay in the relationship. Even if they keep putting themselves in that situation, do not blame them and do not try to force a quick solution. Respect your friend and the time they need. Do not try to solve the situation yourself, only your friend can choose to do that. The most important thing is remaining open and available to talk to.
Do not blame yourself if your friend stays in the relationship. It is difficult to leave an abusive relationship and it may take a lot of time. Continue to support them and provide a safe space where they can speak to you in confidence. Providing trust and support is essential to help them have some relief and eventually break free.
Try to focus the discussion on how your friend feels. Often people who experience abuse at the hands of a partner are blamed for the situation and their feelings can be dismissed. Help them explore their feelings and understand that they are not wrong or at fault.
Help them to clarify and interpret what has happened. Get your friend to speak to you about the times when their partner was violent or abusive. Ask them to speak about when they were controlling or coercive. Help them separate fact from feeling. Too often, the words ‘love’ and ‘passion’ are used to justify any kind of behaviour.
Ask your friend how you can help them. Your friend might know what they need your help with. Don’t make assumptions about their needs, ask first.
Try to help them explore the imbalance of power that characterises abusive relationships. Does your friend often make compromises to please their partner? Is their partner condescending? Is your friend changing their behaviour to please their partner? Are they avoiding friends in order to make their partner feel better? Help them understand and realise that they will never be able to make their abusive partner happy but instead will end up abandoning their own identity. Biderman’s Chart of Coercion is an example of a useful tool to identify abuse. It can also be particularly difficult for people who identify as LGBTQIA+ to identify abuse within their relationships because abuse in these relationships often do not follow the narrative we so often hear about abuse. The Supernova Project outlines what abuse can look like within LGBTQIA+ relationships, which can be a useful tool to identify abuse
Do not legitimise the violence and abuse. Although you should be careful not to scare them, you should recognise and name violence and abuse for what they are. No emotion can ever justify violence or abuse.
Make it clear that substance dependency is not an excuse. The use and abuse of drugs, alcohol and pharmaceuticals is not an excuse for violence or abuse in any situation.
Nothing is an excuse for violent behaviour! Even though it might explain the behaviour somehow, the abuser’s traumatic past or challenging circumstances are never a justification for abuse and violence.
Highlight your friend’s strengths and the possibilities open to them. Often people who suffer violence and abuse feel powerless and overwhelmed by the situation. Outside help can make them feel less alone and realise that they are far from being useless, even if their abuser might have made them feel this way. Help them understand that they can take back control of the situation and that they can determine their own life’s path. If they feel nervous that they do not have enough evidence of the abuse itself to convince family and/or authorities, you can go through our ‘How to build your own domestic violence case without a lawyer’ which provides tips and templates on how to collect and display evidence.
If you think it could help, take them to a women’s refuge or drop-in centre or the house of someone where they feel safe.
Help your friend find alternative accommodation, particularly if they need to get away from their partner or if you think that they are in immediate danger.
If you think it could help, and you feel comfortable doing so, speak to your friend about your own experiences of violent or abusive relationships. It could help them feel less inadequate and embarrassed. Gender-based and same-sex violence are a collective problem. Recognising them, sharing stories and supporting each other are essential in the fight against them.