Relationships & Divorce
Don’t Be a Bystander to Abuse
What to do if you know someone is being abused
I am a survivor of domestic violence and abuse.
I almost lost my life.
I know firsthand how hard it is to help a victim to leave.
The Signs of Abuse
While I thought I was hiding the reality of my own abuse, there were signs. The woman who rescued me saw my excuses and requests and confusions for what they were: red flags. If you are concerned about a friend or family member, ask yourself the following:
- Does her partner make decisions for her?
- Does her partner frequently criticize and/or publicly shame her?
- Does she worry that her partner will be jealous or suspicious?
- Does she frequently apologize for her partner’s behavior?
- Has she withdrawn from friends and family?
- Has she changed her clothing style, hair or makeup in order to please her partner?
- Has she quit her job or gotten fired for missing work?
- Has she stopped going to social activities?
- Does she appear frightened or seem threatened when her partner is angry?
If this all sounds familiar, remember that getting a victim to leave is not simply about encouragement. First, to believe you, a victim must believe in herself. Yet that ability has long been stripped away. It can take an average of seven times for a victim of domestic abuse to actually leave for good. As an advocate, as a friend, you cannot give up on her.
Second, a victim needs more than to hear what you are saying. She needs to really see that you support her. It’s crucial to understand that by helping her, you are asking her to change her reality. And even if it’s violent and dangerous, what’s happening in her house is the only reality she knows. That’s why taking her to a new situation — a situation that doesn’t appear clear to her — can be more frightening than the abuse.
What to do if you suspect abuse
The following is compiled from a variety of expert sources, from my own experiences as a victim, and from what I have learned helping others. Most importantly, I have learned to tread lightly.
Acknowledge that she is in a very difficult and scary situation.
Listen. Let her know that the abuse is not her fault. Reassure her that she is not alone and that you will help her get support. It may be difficult for her to talk about the abuse, but let her know that you are available to help whenever she needs it. What she needs most is someone who will believe her.
Encourage supportive environments.
Help the victim participate in outside-the-relationship activities. It’s an important first step in getting her out of the isolating environment her abuser has crafted, one that can help her find a way to talk to professionals who will one day provide help, guidance, and escape.
Help her develop a safety plan.
Find a local domestic violence agency that provides counseling and support groups. Offer to go with the victim. If she has to go to the police, court or lawyer’s office, offer to go with her. Let her know she is not alone. Whether she is choosing to stay, preparing to leave, or has already left, creating a safety plan can give her the confidence she needs to know it’s possible.
Respect the victim’s decisions.
There are many reasons why a victim stays in an abusive relationship. She may leave and return to the relationship many times. Do not criticize her decision to follow this pattern. Do not guilt her into leaving, and remember that you cannot “rescue” her.
Even if she ends the relationship, continue to be supportive.
Whether she returns or stays away, a victim needs support. If she has left, she will need time to mourn the loss of the relationship. Like the end of any relationship, the loss of an abusive relationship can be devastating. Even abused women had dreamed of a happy marriage, they had known about “in good times and in bad.” And they remembered the good.
The person who rescued me was the mother of my daughter’s best friend. She was the only person with whom I “socialized” — I would call on her to watch my daughter when I felt an incident coming. Let’s call her Angela. Angela started asking questions: How come you are always wearing long sleeves? Why are you always so secretive about your husband? And after a while, she asked the most important question: “You’re being hurt, aren’t you? Can I help you?”
The night I left my husband for good, I told Angela that I was in a bad situation that was getting worse. She listened. She made no comments about my decision to stay all those years or that night. She never asked me why I would stay with an abuser. I had disappeared, but she saw me.
I promised Angela that if she let my daughter spend the night at her house, I would sleep in my daughter’s room with a portable phone nearby (it was an era before cell phones) and call her if I needed her help. She was worried, but she didn’t push me.
I got home from work and found my husband already drunk. He’d been fired from his job months prior, so I was supporting the family financially and his anger had escalated.
I turned on the oven to heat dinner. While I had done nothing specific to provoke him (an abuser never needs anything to provoke — it’s all in his head), he grabbed me by the hair and threw me to the kitchen floor, kicking me as I tried to crawl away. He opened the lit oven, grabbed my arms and shoved them inside. I fell to the floor, screaming. He kicked me again, stormed into the bedroom and, soon after, passed out. The house grew dark as I lay there on the kitchen floor, waiting until I thought it was safe to move. When I heard him snoring, I crawled to the bathroom and put salve on my arms. I was exhausted from the evening and from the daily torture of my existence. I finally crept into the guest room and fell asleep on the floor.
A few hours later, I woke to pounding at the front door. It was a police officer. And, standing next to him was Angela. She had tried to call, she explained, but I hadn’t heard the phone. She had cared. She had listened and she had worried and she had cared. Suddenly, I cared too. It was my sign. I walked outside and into her waiting arms.
I never returned.
My abuser died on December 22, 1995. Until that day and for 15 years, I carried my protective order wherever I went and, despite moving hundreds of miles away, I never stopped looking over my shoulder. Then, when I saw his obituary, I knew I was finally safe. That was the day I removed the protective order from my purse. He couldn’t hurt me anymore.
Ultimately for me, it boiled down to the fact that Angela cared. She had simply cared.
And, now I care. I made a promise that if my life were spared, I would help others living with abusers.
Remember that you can go to the abuse hotline website to find a local support group and information about staying safe. (Safety alert note: A computer can be monitored and its history is impossible to completely clear, so calling or texting can be a better plan.) If you or a loved one are experiencing domestic violence and need assistance, call the hotline or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). You can also text 1-800-787-3224.