National Victims and Survivors of Crime Week (May 15 – May 19) is meant to raise awareness about the issues facing victims and survivors of crime and the services, programs, and laws in place to help them and their families. To honor this week, we wanted to provide some information about how to help people you may know personally who have experienced violence. Richard is a member of YW Calgary’s team that collaborates in the Equally Safe program and was pleased to share some information and resources.
I’ve been a domestic violence service provider for over 10 years, and one thing that I’ve found is that when I talk to people about what I do for work, I get a lot of different reactions. One thing that’s been consistent throughout the years is being told that someone’s loved one is in an abusive relationship, and they just wish they knew how to help or what to say.
I’d like to lay out some specific things that you can do to help someone in an abusive relationship, but I think it’s important to first explain some of the dynamics of an abusive relationship. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, but domestic violence is often about power and control.
People in abusive relationships often have every aspect of their life controlled: who she can talk to, where she can go, even what she can spend money on or how she can practice her faith. To decide to leave the relationship, she needs to feel empowered to do so, and to once again be able to make her own choices about her life.
Therefore, telling her she needs to end the relationship and how to do it can have the opposite result of what you’re intending. This might even make her feel like you’re just the next person to try to control her life. In my work, I’ve even seen friends withdraw from the friendship after not getting the gracious response they were expecting from the victim of the abusive relationship.
If you’re going to have this difficult conversation with someone, here’s some guidance on how to start.
- Believe her. Affirm that it’s not her fault.
This may seem obvious, but it’s extremely important. One of the reasons many survivors stay in the relationship is because they’ve been told that they’re at fault for their treatment or they won’t be believed. Demonstrate you are interested in what she has to say about the situation; stay away from what you think she needs to do.
Tell her that it’s not her fault and that the abuse isn’t okay, avoid judgement -including judgement about the person committing the abuse as this may reinforce his messages about people trying to get between them.
- Open a space to talk about what is happening without pressure or judgement
It’s important to start by creating a safe space to talk. Remember, that this might be the first time she’s ever talked about this, which can be terrifying.
If you haven’t witnessed the abuse yourself but suspect something is going on, you can start the conversation by letting her know that you don’t want to pressure them to talk, but that if somebody treated them badly, you’re always there to talk about it.
If they do begin to talk with you about the situation, validate their feelings and ask open-ended questions. She may be doubtful that what’s happening is abuse.
She might also deny that anything’s wrong. This can be hard to accept, but don’t pressure her to talk, as this can feel judgemental and prevent further engagement. Instead, let her know that if she ever does want to talk about it, you’ll always be there to listen.
- Offer to help while following her lead and guidance
Remember, she knows her situation much better than you do, and your role is to offer the help she needs, not to tell her what she needs. Offer suggestions or to non-judgementally voiced concerns about her plan, but at the end of the day it’s her plan, not yours.
Establish that your main concern is her safety. Discuss when it’s safe to talk and if her partner goes through her phone. Develop a plan for how to end a call if it becomes unsafe to continue partway through.
Offer some ideas about how to help, a place to stay (if that’s a safe option for you), transportation, professional support, holding on to documents, etc. You can also offer to hold on to evidence, such as photos of injuries or screenshots of text messages.
- Stay with her and be patient
What seems black and white to you, might not to her. She likely still loves her partner and might be worried about other things like how separating could impact her children or financial stability.
She might not be ready to make any big changes, which is why it’s crucial that she knows you’ll support her no matter what she decides to do.
- Find local resources that provide support
Educate yourself on local supports that can provide specialized support for her, like YW Calgary, which offers ongoing professional support.
Many service providers have crisis lines which are open to anyone seeking advice about how to handle an abusive situation, including you. Don’t be afraid to call and explain your loved one’s situation and ask for some guidance.
If you currently know someone in an abusive relationship and would like to talk, call YW Calgary’s Crisis Line at 403-266-0707.
*Source: Stay With Them: Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence Share Insights on How Friends and Family Can Help, by The Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women and Children