5 Ways to Help a Loved One Escape Domestic Violence

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October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month - and as it draws to a close, I’m encouraged by all the information sharing that’s taking place. From #ThisIsDV to #PutANailInIt, more and more light is being shed on a topic that has been shrouded in secrecy for so long.

Still, the realities are grave and appalling. Domestic violence affects 4.7 million women in the United States every year. Worldwide, 70% of women will experience physical and/or sexual assault by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Over two-thirds of the female population. This is absolutely not okay.

Keeping in mind that, statistically speaking, someone close to you either has, is, or will be a victim of domestic abuse, do you know what to do in order to help? Every situation is different and unique, but here are five tips that may help your loved one free herself from emotional and physical violence.

Note: I realize that not all domestic violence is perpetrated against women, and that men can also be victims. However, since women make up a whopping 85% of victims, the harsh reality is that women are indeed much more likely to encounter these kinds of situations than men are. Because of this, I have written the article using the feminine pronoun when describing the victim.

Additionally, I am not a domestic violence expert or a mental health professional. The items listed below are derived from my own experience as a survivor of intimate partner violence, as well as the experiences of those close to me.

1. Listen.

It is often excruciatingly difficult for a domestic violence victim to talk about what is happening in her personal life. Since many abused women still harbor feelings of love for their abusive partners, the sense of guilt at coming forward to a third party can be overwhelming. She may feel like a traitor toward her partner, or may fear retaliation if he ever finds out she disclosed private information. It can take literally years for a victim to decide she’s ready to tell someone what’s going on.

Many abusers attempt to isolate their victims, lessening the chance that they’ll ever be in a position to talk about the abuse that’s taking place. This is because violent partners know that confiding in someone about a pattern of abuse is the first step to freeing oneself from it. The more they are able to isolate and alienate the victim, the less of a connection she’ll have with the outside world - and, therefore, less of a chance to reach out for help. If, however, she has even one person in her life who she knows is willing to listen, her chances of getting to safety greatly improve.

If someone you know confesses that she is being abused, listen and take her seriously. The very fact that she’s confiding in you is a huge step forward and should be treated as such.

If you suspect someone in your life is a victim of domestic violence but she hasn’t said anything to you about it, it’s okay to voice your concern. She may deny that anything is going on, so don’t push it - just let her know you’re willing to listen if she ever wants to talk about anything.

2. Be available & be patient.

From a victim’s standpoint, the process of extricating oneself from an abusive situation is emotionally overwhelming and can take weeks, months, or even years. It is not uncommon for a victim of domestic violence to confess to a friend or family member that she’s in an abusive situation, only to vehemently deny the allegations the very next day out of fear or guilt. Breaking free is a process; in most cases, it won’t happen overnight.

A word of warning: being in the position of confidant in this situation requires an extraordinary amount of patience. If the victim decides she’s not ready to leave yet, you will most likely disagree with her decision; yet she needs your continued support in order to free herself eventually. I went through this with a friend whose partner was manipulative and emotionally abusive - even having experienced intimate partner violence myself and knowing firsthand how hard it is to leave, I still found myself nearly shaking with frustration as she continued to vacillate between acknowledging that she had to end the relationship and continuing to make excuses for her partner.

To us, the solution seems obvious. But to the person experiencing abuse, nothing is obvious, nor is it simple. Leaving is just one painful choice in a reality of painful choices - and a victim is much more likely to follow through with leaving eventually, no matter how long it takes, if she knows she has a support system on the other side. Letting her know you are available without judgment (more on this later) if she ever needs to talk through her feelings will go a long way toward getting her into a safer situation.

It is my opinion that professional counseling is the best route, but many victims don’t see this as an option, due to lack of financial resources or fear of their partner finding out. This is why being available is so important. You don’t have to be an expert in domestic violence; you just have to make sure she knows you’re available if she ever needs you.

To us, the solution seems obvious. But to the person experiencing abuse, nothing is obvious, nor is it simple. Leaving is just one painful choice in a reality of painful choices - and a victim is much more likely to follow through with leaving eventually, no matter how long it takes, if she knows she has a support system on the other side.

3. Point out her good qualities.

In my experience, and the experience of my friends and loved ones who have been in similar situations, one of the methods abusers use to keep their victims close is to whittle away at the victim’s self-esteem, sometimes even making them believe they don’t deserve to be treated with respect. This is just one facet of a complex method of emotional manipulation called gaslighting, and it’s particularly dangerous because the lower the victim’s self-worth falls, the less likely she is to seek help.

If the victim is with a man who regularly criticizes her appearance or monitors her weight, throw out a casual, “You look gorgeous” the next time you see her. If her abuser has drilled it into her head that she’s weak or ineffective, slip into conversation a reminder of her past achievements or an affirmation of her strength.

It might seem silly, but this kind of positive reinforcement can actually make a monumental difference to a victim of abuse. Anything that can offset the things her abuser tells her on a regular basis can help her break through the belief that she is the problem.

I experienced this when I was in the midst of my abusive relationship. My ex would tell me all the time that I was a “buzzkill” - that I was no fun to be around and that I could dampen the collective mood in a room just by walking into it. I believed him for a long time, until one of my coworkers began telling me, on a regular basis, how fun I was and what a great sense of humor I had. She and I would laugh together at work all the time, and those little affirmations, however trivial they seemed, were worth their weight in gold. When my ex would start in on me, I would shut him out and listen instead to my coworker’s words in my head - they allowed me to start questioning the validity of many of his claims against me, via the introduction of a second opinion.

Anything that can offset the things her abuser tells her on a regular basis can help her break through the belief that she is the problem.

The bottom line is, the little compliments you pay her here and there can, in some cases, get her to begin questioning the damaging things he says about her - “Could it be that I actually am intelligent, even though he says I’m not smart enough?” Questioning a partner’s behavior, as opposed to just accepting everything he says as truth, is a very effective way for the victim to begin chipping away at the surface to reveal the abuse she may have been denying to herself. And helping her build her self esteem can steer her toward the realization that she is a good person who deserves to be treated well and empower her to leave a destructive relationship.

4. Don’t judge her, and don’t tell her what to do unless she asks for your opinion.

One of the main reasons I didn’t want to tell anyone about the abusive situation I was in was the fear that people would judge me for it. I believed that if I confided in someone, then didn’t immediately leave my relationship, I’d look like a complete idiot. I knew what people would say if I told them: “Just leave.” And the truth is, I knew I had to leave. I just wasn’t ready - and I didn’t think anybody would understand that. So I kept my mouth shut and endured years of emotional and physical abuse . . . alone.

In order for a victim to seek help, it is vitally important for her to know she will not be judged or lectured for staying in the relationship. In order to be a lifeline for her, you need to understand that even if she knows she needs to leave, it may take time - and you cannot, under any circumstances, say or do anything that will make her feel weak, spineless or stupid for not leaving. She needs to be built up, not brought down.

If she asks for your opinion on what she should do, it’s okay to tell her that you think leaving is the best course of action - but don’t preach it to her if she’s not looking for advice. Because many domestic violence victims aren’t necessarily looking for advice - they just need a safe space to deal with their feelings while they emotionally prepare themselves to get out.

In order for a victim to seek help, it is vitally important for her to know she will not be judged or lectured for staying in the relationship.

Above all, let her know that you care about her well-being, but that you understand that she’s in a difficult place, and that you will be there for her no matter what she chooses to do.

5. Offer resources if at all possible.

Perhaps you know someone who is trying to leave a violent situation but does not have the resources to do so. Is there any way you can help? If you are in a position to lend her money, it’s okay to put this offer on the table, even if she doesn’t accept it. If she needs a safe place to stay, can you let her sleep on your couch for a few nights? Or maybe she has a limited window of time in which to pack when he’s not at home. If this is the case, offer to help; it will get done twice as quickly.

Additionally, there are many resources online that offer support and encouragement to victims of abuse, such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (www.ncadv.org) and the National Network to End Domestic Violence (www.nnedv.org). Sites such as these offer tips for safely leaving an abusive situation, as well as statistics and in-depth information about the cyclical nature of abuse. This can be very helpful to a victim who’s on the fence about whether or not to leave, or needs help figuring out how to do so.

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More information about domestic violence is readily available than ever before - but we are not there yet. By responding in constructive and supportive ways to victims of abuse, we can help more people free themselves from the cycle and create independent and empowering lives for themselves.