How You Can Help
Through helping your loved one find safety, and by offering practical support and encouragement, friends and family can play a vital role in decreasing the isolation of abuse.
If you suspect that someone you know is being abused, say it out loud! Deciding to get involved is not easy – you may doubt your instincts and observations, or you may think it’s none of your business or hope someone else will get involved instead of you. Perhaps you feel that their problem will “work itself out”. Not so, domestic violence doesn‘t usually end unless action is taken to stop it and you may be someone that can help. Of course, it can be hard to know what to do.
People are often reluctant to discuss something so intimate as they’re afraid of intruding and/or being wrong about their suspicions or approach. Domestic and family violence is not just a private problem – it is a crime with serious repercussions for your loved one, any children or pets involved and the community as a whole.
For most of us, the decision to end a relationship is not easy and leaving a violent relationship is even harder. The person being abused will most likely have emotional ties to their abuser and despite the abuse, they may love that person and be living with hope that the violence will end. They may also be financially dependent on their abuser, have children and/or pets together that they are afraid of losing, or believe they are deserving of abuse due to ongoing manipulation and psychological abuse. All of these are major hurdles that your friend/family/community member may have to face when trying to leave a violent relationship.
The Warning Signs
Understanding the warning signs can help you identify an abusive relationship. You may even notice them before your friend or loved one does.
If You Suspect Your Friend or Family Member Is a Victim
The person may:
- Seem intimidated or anxious around their partner/family member or when this person contacts them
- Seem withdrawn in general or reluctant to speak about their relationship
- Be overly anxious to please their partner/family member
- Mention that their partner/family member follows them or that they constantly ring or text them wanting to know where they are, what they are doing and who they are with; or you may notice that they’re getting constant texts and calls from that person
- Be regularly criticised or verbally put down by their partner/family member
- Say their partner/family member questions their sexuality and/or their gender
- Say their partner is jealous or possessive, and accuses them of having affairs with other people
- Repeatedly have bruises or other injuries with explanations that don’t seem to fit the injury
- Increasingly stop seeing or speaking with you, as well as other friends and family members or their mob
- Seem nervous to spend money or seem like they don’t have access to money or that their partner makes them account for every dollar they spend.
- Have children who seem frightened or too well behaved in the partner’s presence
- Make excuses for their partner or family member’s abusive behaviour
How you can help:
- Be patient – It’s hard for others to tell you things they’re ashamed of, and very few people will tell you the whole story straight away. Reassure them that you’re there for them whenever they’re ready to talk.
- Point out the things you’ve noticed that make you worried – sometimes the person being abused isn’t aware of how widespread the abuse is and this can alert them to it.
- Listen to them without judging.
- Let them make their own decisions – they don’t need to be controlled by you as well.
- Be willing to contact the police if you think that safety is a serious issue.
- Offer them a safe place to stay.
- Help them write a safety plan – you can use our Safety Planning Tool with them.
- Reassure them that you’re trustworthy and whatever they say will be kept confidential.
- Don’t tell the abuser that you spoke to them about their relationship at all.
- Find appropriate support services and offer to take them there or call with them.
- Remember that people may stay in a relationship with someone who abuses them for reasons that are not known to you. Try not to judge them or expect them to act how you would like them to behave.
If You Suspect Your Friend or Family Member Is Abusing Someone They Love
The person may:
- Easily get jealous of their partner for no good reason
- Call or message their partner/family member excessively wanting to know where they are, what they are doing and who they are with
- Get defensive when their relationship is spoken about or questioned
- Question their partner/family member’s gender/sexuality
- Tell you that their partner/family member is “crazy”, overreacts and is easily hurt
- Put their partner/family member down, insult or humiliate them
- Tell their partner/family member what to do, how to act, what to say and/or what to wear
Some points to help:
- You can start by saying: “I feel uncomfortable when I see/hear you say X. It’s not OK.” You can also try appealing to their empathy with stuff like, “How do you think they (their partner) are feeling right now?”
- Make sure you tell them that this is your observation and not anything that their partner said or did, as the last thing you want is to increase the abuse for the victim. Definitely don’t tell the abuser that the victim has said anything or is acting strange, as this could just lead to them getting even more blame.
- If you see them doing or saying something abusive, interrupt and tell them it’s not okay to do what they are doing. Depending on the situation, you can also pull them aside shortly after and say it then one-on-one.
- Be aware that abusers will minimise, justify or deny the use of violence, and blame the victim and/or other external stressors, such as work or their childhood. If they’re regretful or embarrassed, they may already realise their behaviour isn’t right, and you can start talking about getting some help.
- Be wary that violence, abuse and intimidation may be their default way of getting what they want or expressing what they really feel (e.g., embarrassed or ashamed).
- Let them know that there are no excuses for being abusive.
What You Can Do
Timing is important. Bring up the subject as soon as possible, but do it at a time and place when it is safe, they are calm and you can speak privately.
If you can’t talk straight away, ask if you can catch up later, just the two of you. When someone is in an abusive relationship there may be feelings of shame, confusion and denial. As such, they may get defensive, angry, go silent or change the topic and tell you that you’re wrong and everything is fine.
If your friend is the one who is being abused, they may make up excuses for their partner’s behaviour, minimise the abuse or take responsibility for the abuse. Don’t be discouraged – if your gut is telling you something’s not right you may need to keep the conversation going until the truth starts to come out. It’s important to handle this situation carefully – be persistent, but don’t pressure them too much or interrogate them. They may just need take some time and come back to you at another date to talk when they’re ready.
If your friend is the one using abuse, they may excuse or justify their behaviour, saying they are just stressed or it is just a part of their personality or culture. They may blame their partner and say they are not trustworthy or they don’t do anything right. Or they may turn it back on you and say you’re imagining things or it is none of your business. If you want some tips for what to say and how to take care of yourself read our friends and family toolkit here.
Our General Responses to Abusers
How can we encourage people who abuse their partner(s) to change whilst still holding them accountable for their abusive actions?
This information is not aimed at the victim/survivor of abuse and the ways in which that individual should or should not respond to the violence they have suffered. This information speaks directly to friends and communities who have witnessed intimate partner violence and the effects of the abuse, but were not directly involved.
A Therapeutic Approach to Change
The principles that inform an educational and therapeutic approach to working with perpetrators of abuse is that as human beings we are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive behavioural changes when people do things with us (collaboration), rather than to us (coercion) or for us (independent action).
Through this approach, people who abuse their partners are more likely to take meaningful responsibility for their actions and will have more of an opportunity to right their wrongs and redeem themselves vs being punished for their behaviour.
The Good/Bad Binary
Placing people in the binary category of either “good” or “bad” oversimplifies what is actually a very complex issue. No one person is all good or all bad, even though their actions in particular situations can be labelled “bad” or “wrong”. Isolating, shaming and condemning a person is ultimately reducing them down to one side of this binary and doesn’t take into account the full picture of a person and/or issue.
The predominant culture we live in demonises and oversimplifies abuse, possibly because to explore the complexities of abuse is to see it everywhere, including in ourselves.
Do No Further Harm
Shame and social stigma are powerful emotional forces that can actually prevent someone from holding themselves accountable for being abusive. There is a difference between guilt and shame:
- Guilt is feeling bad about something you’ve done
- Shame is feeling bad about who you are as a person
People who have been abusive should feel guilty for their specific acts of abuse. Publicly shaming and humiliating someone does not encourage them to grow and change, but rather it silences them and can have negative ripple-on effects. If we encourage and support an abuser to understand that they are fundamentally not evil, and teach them that they are a person who has done harmful things but is also capable of doing good, then we open up the possibility for change.
We always need to come back to considering the victim and the choices that victims of domestic and family violence (DFV) may make. For example, if a victim chooses to stay in or go back to a relationship with the person who abused them, that is their choice and it is important that we support that person and do not judge them. Victims of DFV often want to stay in the relationship and want the abuse to stop. If a community shames, punishes and exiles an abuser, then by extension their partner and/or family will also be at risk of carrying the same burden of shame and isolation.
Avoid Acting Hypocritically
Violence is clearly not confined to a select psychologically disturbed or deviant group of individuals; we all can, and at times do, act in ways that causes offence or harm to others. Therefore, to place ourselves in a position where we choose to punish, shame and exile someone for their actions is somewhat hypocritical.
As hard as it is, to avoid acting hypocritically, we need to start seeing an abuser not as someone who is wholly bad and incapable of change, but rather by seeing them as a human being who has caused harm but is capable of righting their wrongs.
Even though we are looking at the complexity of abusive behaviours and those who use abuse, remember that they still need to take responsibility for their actions and any pain this has caused, and this means they need to actively work towards making amends (not just saying sorry) by behaving better and respecting the person they hurt, even if that person is no longer in their life. Be clear that they need to consider this person’s ongoing needs of space and distance for example so that the person they hurt are not the ones that feel like they have to avoid events and gatherings.
Even whilst you choose to support your friend who acted abusively, make sure the person they hurt knows that you believe them and that they are cared for too.
How to Take Care of Yourself
You’ll be of better assistance when you are feeling good personally. Although it may be important to step in, you will only be of use if you take care of your own safety and wellbeing first.
Remember that you can’t force someone to change, you can only do your part. It may take days, weeks, months or years for an abusive relationship to end, if it ends at all. Try to be patient and understanding, and don’t take on feelings of responsibility for the outcome.
Remind yourself that it is not your fault if the abuse continues. People choose to be abusive, the abuser has chosen their actions and it is not your fault.
Speak to a professional. Try calling any of the services listed here. Alternatively, any professional counsellor can help.
Stay healthy and regularly do things that you enjoy – both are proven stress relievers!
And of course, stay safe! You do not want to fall victim to the abuser as well.