How Do I Help a Friend in an Abusive Relationship?
- Approach your friend: Sometimes we think that if people want or need help, they will approach us, but the dynamics of abusive relationships are very complicated and victims often don’t realize their relationships are abusive. Just letting your friend know you noticed the way they are being treated can validate the gravity of the situation and make them think about it from a new angle. An example of what you can say is: “I see the way your partner treats you and I’m worried about you.”
- Believe your friend: One reason victims and survivors do not speak out or ask for help is because they have either been disbelieved or blamed in the past, witnessed victims/ survivors being disbelieved or blamed and fear it will happen to them. Unfortunately we live in a victim-blaming society and believing our friends can potentially contribute to them seeking help.
- Listen non-judgmentally: If your friend feels comfortable to talk about what they are going through it is important to actively listen. Remember that this is about them- so try not to interrupt, judge them, ask “why” questions, or provide advice. Some key parts of healing are the two “V’s”: Ventilation and validation. Allow your friend to let it all out and then validate their experience with statements such as: “I would be scared too” or “Wow that sounds hurtful.”
- Do not buy into their denial: Most victims/ survivors of intimate partner violence will minimize the seriousness of the situation, deny the abuse, or blame themselves. They often do this because the abuser is. You can help to identify the abusive behavior and reiterate, “No one deserves to be treated that way.”
- Provide Support: Let them know that you are available to help when they need it and remind them how strong they are. Examples of supportive statements are, “I’m here for you” or “you are not alone”. In offering support it is also important to maintain appropriate boundaries and take care of yourself. Only offer to provide what you feel comfortable with such as rides, accepting late night phone calls, etc.
- Provide Options: Since dating/domestic violence is all about power and control it is important that you do not give advice, but instead offer options so that victim/survivors may take their power back. Options are going to vary based on the circumstances, but some examples would be:
- Talk to the Campus Advocate
- Identify safe support people
- Obtain a restraining order
- Call a DV hotline
- Go to a DV agency/shelter
- Get counseling
- File a police report
- Stay at a friend or family members house
- Safety Plan: Help your friend create a Safety Plan (download a sample: Safety Plan CSUSB.doc) for how to stay as safe as possible. You would want to consider if the options they choose in #6 could put them at greater risk or in harm’s way. Safety planning is not just for a victim/survivor that is leaving a relationship but also for folks who are staying with the abusive partner.
- What if I did everything on this list and my friend didn’t leave?: You are an amazing friend and you are doing all you can. Though it is difficult, you need to understand that only your friend can decide what they are going to do, and your role is to be there for them regardless of what they decide and to help them to be as safe as possible under the circumstances.
- I am sick of the back and forth. I already helped and I am done: Keep in mind that it takes an average of seven times of leaving before a victim/survivor leaves for good. While your friend’s health and safety is not your responsibility, remember that isolation is a key component to victim’s staying, so try to ensure they know who they can go to the next time they need help. A local DV agency is always a good resource for this.
- If my friend calls a DV agency or talks to the Campus Advocate will they call the police or notify Title IX?: No. The DV agency’s advocates as well as the Campus Advocate will empower the victim/survivor to make a police report or Title IX complaint only if they want to do so. The only time a report will be made without permission is under mandated reporting laws.
How do I Help a Loved One Who Has Been Sexually Assaulted?
When a survivor discloses that they have been sexually assaulted, the reactions of loved ones can have a major impact on their ability to cope and heal. However, you may find you are struggling so much with your own feelings that you cannot be helpful to the survivor. It is important to take care of yourself and recognize your own reactions.
You may be feeling…
- Shock: Like a survivor, you may be wondering how this could have happened. You may feel that your life is out of control. You may feel numb.
- Fear: You may fear for your own and the survivor’s safety. You may become fearful in situations that never worried you before. You may become overprotective of your loved one.
- Anger: You may become angry with the survivor and believe they caused the assault by putting themselves in a dangerous situation. You may feel angry with the rapist and want to get revenge.
- Sadness or Grief: You may feel sad about how the sexual assault has changed your and your loved one’s lives. You may feel like you and your loved one have lost something you can never get back.
- Guilt: You may find yourself feeling that if you had done something differently, the assault would not have happened. You may feel that the assault is somehow your fault because you were not able to protect the survivor.
Just as the survivor needs support while experiencing many different feelings, you also may want to talk to someone you trust about the feelings you have about the assault. You have the right to get support for yourself. The more you work through your own feelings, the more you will be able to help your loved one. The Campus advocate and rape crisis hotlines are available for friends and family members as well as survivors themselves.
Many people feel that they could have done something to prevent their loved one from being raped or sexually assaulted, or that the survivor should have done something differently. Remember that the only person responsible for the sexual assault is the perpetrator. Neither you nor your loved one is ever to blame for rape/sexual assault.
What you can do for the survivor:
- BELIEVE the survivor’s account of the assault, even if they never reported it, if no weapon was used, or they were dating the assailant. Tell them you are glad they survived, you are sorry that it happened, and that they didn’t deserve it.
- LISTEN when the survivor is ready to talk. You can’t make their pain go away, but by listening you show that they don’t have to experience the pain alone. Talking about the assault can help them get through the crisis. Be ready to listen without interrupting, and without trying to “fix it.”
- SUPPORT the survivor’s decision of what to do next – even if you don’t agree. During the assault, all of their control was taken away. It is important for them to make their own decision in order to regain a sense of control over their own life.
- RESPECT the survivor’s right to heal in their own time. It is ok for them to experience many confusing and conflicting feelings, and for the healing process to be slow. Be patient, even if you don’t understand why they feel the way they do.
- ENCOURAGE the survivor to get support and to reach out to others who understand. Encourage them to take care of themselves by getting medical, legal, and counseling support and information.
- REMEMBER You can’t erase the pain and no one expects you to have all the answers. Your job isn’t to make them “feel better” or “get over it”: your job is to listen, believe and support.
For Significant Others:
- Ask permission before touching or holding your partner. Take cues from your partner, and maintain open communication.
- Be patient. Changes in your sexual relationship are normal and usually temporary. Be sensitive and understanding to your partner.
- Don’t doubt your own adequacy or become angry if your partner is not as responsive as usual.
- Your partner needs to be given the chance to regain his or her sense of personal control. Do not demand or pressure your partner into sexual activity. Resuming sex “as usual” may not be the best way of moving the healing process forward.
- It is also important not to avoid any display of intimacy or affection. This may be interpreted by your partner that s/he is undesirable to you. There are many ways to express intimacy without being sexual.
- Do not rush sexual contact. Allow your partner to make his or her own decisions around initiating sexual contact. It is important that you allow your partner to decide a pace and intensity of sexual contact that feels most comfortable to him/her.
- Accept the fact that your partner’s renewal of sexual interest may occur at a slow pace. (It is also possible that your partner may become more sexual than before the assault. Continue to communicate about any shifts in your sexual relationship).
- Discuss the subject of sex in a non-sexual environment (i.e., not in bed).
*Information compiled by San Francisco Women Against Rape
Statements to avoid:
- “It’s better not to talk about it” or “Just forget about it.” Talking about the assault and remembering the feelings can speed up recovery if people are allowed to talk at their own pace. Not thinking about it will NOT make it go away.
- “I blame myself for not protecting you.” It is important for the survivor to hear and understand that the only person responsible for the crime is the perpetrator. Nothing that you or they did caused the assault.
- “I’ll kill the person(s) who did this to you.” Your anger, while justified, may be frightening to the survivor. They already had to deal with the anger of the perpetrator and may feel they have to try to calm down another person to avoid further violence. They also might feel that they continue to have no control over events in their life.
- “Why are you afraid of me? I didn’t do it.” Sexual assault often makes survivors startle easily and fear physical intimacy. Many things could trigger feelings of fear and helplessness.
- “Why didn’t you fight?” Freezing, submitting, and fighting are all natural responses to being attacked. Questioning about how they survived may imply they did something wrong or were to blame.
- “What’s the big deal?” Sexual assault has serious and lasting effects on survivors. Expect that your loved one will be affected in many ways by the sexual assault, no matter how long ago it happened.
Remember…let the survivor tell you what they need from you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.