Supporting a friend through an abusive relationship is hard. Often your friend won’t recognize their partner as abusive, at least initially. Even if/when they do, they will likely struggle to leave the relationship or may decide that leaving isn’t the safest or best option for them. This can be extremely frustrating as a friend.
It’s scary to watch someone you love be mistreated, and the best ways to support them may be counterintuitive to you. Below we’ve compiled some common questions, with responses from both survivors and friends of survivors.
“I think my friend might be in an abusive relationship. How do I know for sure?”
Abuse isn’t always physical. It can be hard to figure out if your friend’s relationship is abusive. Know first that abusers are often very charming and skilled at masking their abuse. Often they can look particularly committed to their partners and it can be hard to recognize that “commitment” as something unhealthy or abusive. Recognize that anyone (regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, race, or class) can be an abuser, and that abuse can be emotional, psychological, sexual, physical, or financial in nature — or some combination of these. Healthy, unhealthy, and abusive relationships exist on a continuum and we all have different expectations in our relationships. That said, trust your gut: if something seems off in the relationship, it probably is.
Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of signs that your friend’s relationship may be abusive:
- Your friend becomes more withdrawn from your friendship, in favor of spending an inordinate or unhealthy amount of time with their partner. This can be hard to identify since many people in non-abusive relationships, particularly at the beginning, also neglect their friends to spend significant time with their partner. Trust your gut and look for other signs.
- When you are together, your friend seems to zone out a lot or be sad or withdrawn. They may cancel on your plans frequently or at the last minute.
- Your friend’s partner acts jealous or possessive. Sometimes this manifests as constantly wanting to know your friend’s whereabouts; reading their emails, text messages, or phone call log; or being overtly disparaging to anyone they think is interested in your friend.
- Your friend’s partner is controlling of them–they may seek to control, influence, or monitor what your friend wears, who s/he hangs out with, and where s/he goes.
- Your friend’s partner has trouble controlling their temper and has a habit of making belittling comments about others, including and especially your friend. Abusers often try to lower their victim’s self-esteem so that s/he will become dependent and submissive.
- Your friend’s partner publicly humiliates them.
- Your friend acts despondent or spacey in their partner’s presence.
- Your friend indicates that their partner is pressuring them to do things, sexual or otherwise. Your friend may not use the words “assault,” “rape,” “stalking,” “abuse,” or “harassment” to label their experience(s).
Finally, know that your friend and their abuser might often look genuinely happy together. In fact, people in abusive relationships are often happy together: victims talk about extreme highs and extreme lows in their relationship, of feeling very fulfilled 90% of the time, and despondent, scared, or sad 10% of the time. The abuse typically escalates over time; don’t wait to talk to your friend when it’s gotten “really bad.”
“My friend is in an abusive relationship. What should I do to support him/her/them?”
- First off, should you think something is off in the relationship, approach your friend with an intent to listen and support them in a neutral way. Let them know that you care about them and you’re there for them, that they can come to you anytime they need to talk, and that you’re someone they can safely confide in. Don’t make judgmental comments that will make your friend feel stupid or at fault.
- While still being honest about what you’re witnessing, try not to make accusatory or judgmental comments about your friend’s partner, as these can make your friend feel defensive of their partner or shut you out entirely. Using “I” statements can help you frame your concern and the conversation in a way that won’t come across as accusatory. For example, instead of saying, “Your boyfriend doesn’t treat you right,” say, “It makes me worried when he says X about you,” or “I love you and it makes me sad to see you sad these days.”
- In supporting your friend, don’t put your feelings before theirs. If you’re feeling frustrated or angry that your friend has stayed with (or returned to) their abuser, don’t take that out on your friend. Yours are natural and valid feelings to have; seek support from other friends or counselors to help you through this. Try not to make your friend feel like a burden, as this may push them to withdraw further from your friendship or their broader support network.
- Be physically present for your friend as much as you can. If your friend shows interest in going to counseling, calling a helpline, or some other way of getting help, offer to accompany them and help them follow through. Offer to attend events with them that they may otherwise go to with their abuser. Spend more time with your friend and bring other friends, too – watch a movie, go out to dinner, get ice cream, attend a concert, and do normal friend things. This may only be a temporary distraction, but it’s important for your friend to know s/he still has friends and perhaps to remember what a normal, healthy friendship looks like in contrast to an abusive relationship. They may ask you to help them stay away from (or keep them from returning to) their abuser – if they do, brainstorm with them ways to do this in a way that makes them feel supported and empowered, rather than monitored, scrutinized, or subject to control from yet another person in their life.
- Support your friend in whatever action they take. People survive abuse in different ways and only your friend will know what’s best for her/him/them at any given time. Be patient and understanding if/when they change their mind. Know that it usually takes victims at least seven times to successfully leave an abusive partner and some may choose, for any number of reasons, never to leave. It can be hard to watch this from the outside, and even harder to understand; here are some common reasons victims decide to stay in abusive relationships. Keep in mind that asking your friend why s/he has chosen to stay in the relationship can often come off as judgmental or victim-blaming.
- Do let your friend know that you believe, support, and love them, and that you believe they deserve better. It can be helpful to invite your friend to imagine if YOU were the one in an abusive relationship and THEY were trying to support you. Often we’re willing to put up with poor treatment that we would never put up with if it were directed at a friend or loved one.
- Do your research. Learn about abusive relationships, and about being a support system for a friend in an abusive relationship. Don’t be invasive in offering any knowledge that you may have gained. Give advice when your friend asks for it.
- Finally, never make your friend leaving their partner a condition for your friendship.The last thing you want is for your friend to think they have no one to turn to because then they will depend even more on their abuser. (Abusers try to isolate their victims, by making them feel like no one else cares about them, or that they care so much more about them than anyone else.)
“I’m having a hard time personally supporting my friend. Any advice on how to cope?”
Supporting a friend in an abusive relationship is hard. You can’t force your friend to see that they are in an abusive relationship or get them to leave their abuser. They will have to come to their own realization and this will take time. Sometimes your friend may know that their relationship is unhealthy, but may not be aware of the degree to which it is abusive. They may think the bad stuff isn’t so bad or that they can live with it, because the nice things their abuser does make up for it. Your friend might oscillate between telling you about the bad things and making excuses for their abuser, who apologizes and promises s/he will be better in the future. (This is called the “cycle of abuse” and it is a common feature of abusive relationships.) It’s a confusing time for your friend, but it may even be confusing (or frustrating, or scary) for you – your friend’s conviction that the relationship is actually okay may start to convince you too.
- Take care of yourself. Take a bubble bath, see a movie, spend time with other friends, cook dinner. Recognize your own personal limits and respect them.
- Don’t be hard on yourself. You may feel guilty for not noticing the signs sooner; don’t blame yourself. Abusers are often very charming and skilled at hiding their abuse, and our culture has normalized abusive relationships (think Twilight), so it’s easy to miss the signs, especially early on. You may at times feel helpless, confused, angry, or frustrated; know that these are all natural and valid feelings. Seek out support for yourself.
- Don’t deal with this on your own. While making sure to maintain your friend’s confidentiality, seek out someone to discuss the situation with – other friends, a trusted adult, or a counselor, for instance. If appropriate, work with mutual friends to devise plans together to support your friend.
- Don’t give up on your friend. This is likely one of the times in their life when your friend will need you most. Show your friend and yourself love, care, and patience as you both navigate the situation.
From survivors: “The one thing I wish my friends had known, or done differently…”
- I wish my mutual friends would have called him out on his abuse while he was still abusing me. My friends saw him scream at me in public and belittle me. They saw him treat me extremely poorly and never spoke up. If they had, it would have helped me leave him earlier than I did.
- I wish my friends had not said I was “silly” for being emotional when I reported my abuser.
- One of my friends gave me an ultimatum: “If you go back to your boyfriend, I won’t be friends with you anymore.” I was still so lost in the abusive relationship, so I chose my boyfriend and lost my friend as a result. I felt so ashamed, guilty, and isolated, like I had no one on the “outside” who cared about me anymore (like I didn’t deserve to have anyone on the “outside” care about me anymore) — and that drove me even further into the abusive relationship. I wish my friend hadn’t made my escaping the abuse a condition for his friendship and support.
- I wish my friends would have actively reached out to spend time with me. Having to reach out for help and company was often very hard, particularly when I most needed care. My abuser made me feel that no one loved or cared about me, in order to isolate me; my friends’ absence confirmed his words for me.
- Afterward, most of my close friends started to treat me like a stranger. They didn’t know what to do with me. Was it okay to invite me along to something “fun” when I was dealing with a trauma? Did I need to be the focus of attention all the time? Would it be dangerous to take me out clubbing, putting me in the path of alcohol and men? Or did they just need to keep trying to hook me up with every single guy they knew, so I could “get over it” and “move on?” I wasn’t necessarily the same person I’d been before the abuse, but being treated like I was this alien thing made of glass only made me more self-conscious, more depressed, more resentful of what had happened to me—and the people who kept reminding me of it. The friends who “got it” treated me the same as they’d always treated me, but didn’t hold it against me if and when I reacted differently. Those are the people who stayed my friends.
“I think one of my friends is an abuser, or is abusing another of my friends. What should I do?”
This is so hard. Recognizing that each situation is specific and complex, as a general rule always prioritize the needs and safety of the victim.
- Don’t be a passive bystander. My abuser’s friends (two of whom even belonged to our school’s feminist club) regularly heard him disparaging and yelling at me. Later, they said that they chose not to intervene because they didn’t want to “ruin their friend group’s dynamic.”
- If it is safe to do so, confront the friend who is being abusive. It may be hard to do, especially if you do not have any concrete evidence. Be firm and clear that what they are doing is wrong, that there is no excuse, and that you won’t tolerate it. Be a good listener. Devise a plan to hold your friend accountable for their words and actions, past and future.
- Support the person that has been abused, even if they are not your friend, by letting them know that you know what your friend has done is wrong and that you won’t tolerate it. Ask them how you can best support them.
Additional reading here:
This resource was compiled by Dana Bolger and Olivia Ortiz, with contributions from Landen Gambill, Tucker Reed, Jisoo Lee, and other survivors and their friends who wish to remain anonymous.