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Abusive Relationships Are Disturbingly Common. Here's How To Support A Loved One

Photo: Tracey J. Lee for NPR
Photo: Tracey J. Lee for NPR

Abusive relationships are disturbingly common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in three U.S. women has experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by a partner, and one in four men has. Chances are we all know someone who has, is or will experience this form of violence.

Here are some ways to help a friend or loved one.

Abuse is not just physical

Intimate partner violence (IPV), often called domestic violence, is not just physical. There are lots of forms of control, such as isolation, economic abuse, degradation, manipulation and gaslighting threats.

Rich Ham, a manager with the National Domestic Violence Hotline, says one caller explained how violated they felt this way: "That the broken bones, the bruises, all of the pain that came with the physical violence was not half as bad as the emotional scars that are left behind."

Don't judge

Psychologist Lisa Aronson Fontes, a senior lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, advises against criticizing your friend's partner. "The truth is, no one would get in a relationship with an abusive person if they were abusive all the time. So usually people who are terribly abusive can also be extremely loving, extremely generous, extremely helpful," she says.

Don't try and be a therapist, she says. Don't ask questions or pry for details, just be a friend and listen. The most powerful statement you can make is: I believe you.

Stay in touch

A text, phone call, or "Hey, would you like to go for a walk?" can be a simple but very powerful way to help. One of the main aspects of domestic violence is isolation, and so counteracting this is important.

Fontes says abusive relationships can shred a person's self-esteem. When someone constantly hears 'You're worthless, you can't do anything right,' having an affirming friend or loved one can be an antidote. She suggests, "'One thing I've always liked about you...' or 'I admire how you do X' or 'I love it when we do Y together.'"

Let the person keep their power

Supporting a friend in an abusive relationship can sometimes feel frustrating. They might make excuses for their partner or change their mind about what they want to do.

Rich Ham at the National Domestic Violence Hotline advises against making plans for your friend or trying to take over the situation, however much you want to help. "It's very important that we recognize that [abuse is] about power and control," Ham says. Trying to "save" your friend actually takes more power and control away from them, because you aren't letting them decide what to do. "That can be one of our biggest mistakes as helpers," he says.

Let them set the pace.

Ask: What do you need?

There are a lot of barriers to leaving a violent relationship: Threats. Worries about money. There may be children or pets involved. So ask your friend or loved one: What do you need?

Fontes says your friend can also work with a domestic violence advocate to create a safety plan, even if they don't plan to leave. It can help them think about answers to important questions: Do you have a code word to alert a friend you're in trouble? If you feel unsafe, where can you go? Do you have important phone numbers memorized?

Fontes stresses that while there are some safety plans available online, your friend should work on one with a domestic violence advocate. Don't mistake support groups for professional help, she advises.

Local domestic violence shelters can be a source of help for housing, child care, food, employment, counseling and legal aid, Ham says.

And he says when asking, "What do you need?" don't forget to include self-care, for your friend and yourself.

Don't underestimate the power of friendship

Perhaps the most important takeaway is the power of friendship. Lisa Fontes compares the feeling of an abusive situation to being carried away by a huge wave, with no control. She says a friend can be a lifeline.

"When a friend extends their hand and holds them and tries to pull them in, that may be the only safety that they have," says Fontes. "If a friend has your back, that is just worth the world."

The podcast version of this episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider.

We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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Life Kit