Many individuals involved with controlling partners need and use the help of an outsider to leave the relationship. Yet most of these outsiders never know how much they help. The problem is the lag between the time a victim receives helpful information or support and the time they feel ready to act on it.
If you conclude that your relative, friend, neighbor, or co-worker probably is emotionally or physically abused, and that you want to help, keep in mind two fundamental principles. First, give yourself and that person you care about some time to make changes. And second, remember that there is no single correct way to help. The important thing is that you try.
The hardest part of talking to an abused loved one is getting started. Because a controlling partner lays all the blame on the victim, they are likely to hear any questions about their actions, background, or personal life as accusations. Such questions will silence them.
Create enough privacy and enough time for them to talk at length if they feel like it. Then, it is often most helpful to say the obvious: 'You seem so unhappy. Do you want to talk about it? I'd like to listen and I'll keep it between us.' Even if they reject the offer, your observation about their unhappiness supports them by affirming some of their feelings. And you've left the door open for a confidential conversation in the future. If they want to talk but can't get started, any of the following questions might help. Notice that these questions do NOT imply that you are psychoanalyzing, looking for explanations of behavior, challenging, or passing judgment. Instead, they invite the individual to talk about what the controlling partner does and what they feel about it.
- What's it like at home for you?
- What happens when you and your partner disagree or argue?
- How does your partner handle things when they do not get their way? What does he/she do?
- Are you ever scared of your partner? Does your partner threaten you?
- Does your partner ever prevent you from doing things you want to do?
- Does your partner ever follow you?
- Do you have to account to your partner for your time?
- Is your partner jealous, hard to please, irritable, demanding, and critical?
- Does your partner put you down, call you names, yell at you, and punish you in any way?
- Does your partner ever push you around or hit you?
- Does your partner ever make you have sex? Does your partner ever make you do sexual things you don't like?
You can help a victim feel safe by assuring them that you'll keep their story confidential-and doing so. When they tell you their story, listen attentively. Don't interrupt. And don't let your facial expression or body language convey doubt or judgment of what is being said. When they finish talking, ask, 'How can I help?' Let them know that you care and that there are people and agencies that want to assist her. They may not know (and it is important to tell them) that thousands of others experience such abuse and that, over the last [several] years, special shelters, services, and laws have been created to help them. Make clear that the partner has a problem, and that they cannot fix it, no matter how much they want or how hard they try. And remember, if they refuse to talk to you today or says 'no' to your offer of additional help, they have their reasons. Express your concern anyway. Tell them that emotional abuse and physical abuse are wrong and they deserve better. Assure them that you will stand by, ready to talk or help, if they ask. Then give them time.
Suggestions from 'When Love Goes Wrong' by Ann Jones and Susan Schecter, 1992 Harper Collins,
Chapter 13 'For Family, Friends and Helpers'
- Show concern – but don’t be confrontational. Say “I’m worried about you and I want to help,” rather than “I know you’re getting beat up and you have to break up with the jerk.” People who are being abused are often scared, embarrassed, and unsure about who they can trust. Even if they deny the abuse at first, be patient. Gentle reminders that you are concerned are more likely to make them feel comfortable confiding in you than forceful confrontations, which might alienate or scare them off.
- Offer help but do not insist on taking control. Remember, control is the primary problem in domestic violence, and controlling the victim is exactly what the abuser has been trying to do. The goal is for them to take back control, not to transfer control from the abuser to you. As much as you may believe you know the right thing for them to do, the decision to leave must be their own. They are the expert on their own life.
- Don’t ask blaming questions. Don’t ask things like, “why haven’t you left him?” or “what did you do to get him so angry?”
- Don’t put down the abuser. Talk about the abusive behavior being unacceptable, but don’t “trash” a person’s partner if you want that person to trust you. Whatever you might think of the abuser, remember that they probably still love this person and sees many positive qualities in them.
- Let them know that you will be supportive whether they stay with their abuser or not. Chances are that the abuser has already begun to isolate the abused person from friends and family.
- When a person breaks up with her/his abuser, don’t get too invested in the idea that the relationship is over. It’s common for abuse survivors to leave and go back a number of times before ending the relationship for good. You don’t want your friend to be afraid to tell you if they reconcile with the abuser.
- Get help yourself. Call a domestic violence hotline, like Denton County Friends of the Family 1-800-530-4518 for guidance. By talking to an expert about the specifics of the situation, you’ll be able to gain better understanding of what you can do that will be most helpful.
What to do if a loved one discloses abuse to you:
When a woman talks to you about her problems with a controlling partner, your reaction is vitally important. Here are some recommendations:
- Believe her. She will not lie about abuse. Many controllers are so charming and gracious to outsiders that what you see of his behavior may deceive you. Even if the incidents she describes seem incredible, listen to her story and respect the way she tells it. Because abuse is so painful to experience, she may recall details slowly and in disjointed fragments. The pieces may not seem to fit together or make much sense. Remember that the violence itself is arbitrary and irrational. So no matter what she tells you believe her and let her know that you do.
- Acknowledge and support her for talking to you. She has taken a risk: her partner could hurt her or you could reject her. Let her know you appreciate what she has done.
- Let her know that you consider her feelings reasonable and normal. It is common for her to feel frightened, confused, angry, sad, guilty, numb, and hopeless.
- Let her lead the conversation. You can ask questions like 'How can I help you?' but don't expect her to have answers the first time she talks. She needs you to be a good listener. And if she asks you to do anything within reason, do it.
- If she asks you to do something you can't or don't want to do, say so. Talk it over with her, and try to find both (a) another way of meeting the particular need she presented, and (b) another thing you can do to help. Be careful not to impose your ideas of help on her.
- Tell her you care about her and her safety. Take her fears seriously. Feel free to express your genuine feelings of concern with statements like 'I think you are in danger.' 'I'm worried about your safety.'
- Don't blame her for the abuse. Let her know that the abuse is not her fault. But remember that her feelings about her partner probably are confused and mixed. If you express too much anger at her partner, she may feel the need to defend him.
- Offer your help to find resources in the community for protection, advocacy or support -- that is if you are actually prepared to follow through. (Don't ever offer things you can't deliver.) If she wants to go to an agency or battered women's program, volunteer to go with her. If she is in immediate danger, call the police. Always encourage her to get more support and information. Give her newspaper articles, books and pamphlets produced by your local shelter for abused women.
- Respect her pace and be patient. No one decides to give up a relationship overnight. She may also face threats and escalating assaults. So help her make plans, but let her make the decisions. As you plan, seek the advice of experts about abuse in your local community.
- Remind her of her strengths, accomplishments, and positive attributes. Avoid treating her like a child or a helpless victim.
- Always support her when she acts on her own behalf.
- Remind yourself that many communities still don't protect women's rights. Don't assume that police, courts, and public agencies will protect and help her. And don't be surprised if she feels safer taking no action. Do not mistake her strategy of doing nothing for passivity or indifference. Instead, find out what help actually is available for her in your community and offer to take her side with agencies, family, and friends. Try to find her a legal advocate from a program for abused women.
- With permission of the woman you're trying to help, work on expanding her circle of support. Find out if there is a support group for abused women at your local shelter or women's center, and encourage her to join. With her permission, enlist other coworkers or friends to help with childcare or go along to court. (You can support one another in your efforts to help the woman in trouble.) The more supporters she has, the stronger she may become.
Suggestions from 'When Love Goes Wrong', by Ann Jones and Susan Schechter,
1992 Harper Collins, Chapter 13 'For Family, Friends and Helpers'