By Christine Murray, See the Triumph Co-Founder
When helping a loved one who’s in an abusive relationship, it’s important to know, honor, and protect your own limits--including your emotions, knowledge, and physical safety. In today’s post, I’ll explore each of these and suggest strategies for times when you reach your limits.
Taking Care of Your Emotions
Abusive relationships can be emotionally exhausting for everyone involved, including friends and family members who offer their help and support. First and foremost, knowing that someone you care about is being hurt can be very sad. You care for them, and so of course you want to see them happy and being treated with love. In addition to sadness, you may be scared for their safety. Maybe you’ve seen what their abusive partner has done to them in the past, and you’re afraid that it could be that bad--or worse--again.
Confusion can be another powerful emotion when you’re trying to help someone involved in an abusive relationship. Your confusion may stem from difficulty understanding how the abusive partner can be so hurtful, why your friend is staying in the relationship, or what your role in the situation should be. The situation can change on a daily--if not hourly--basis, and so you may find yourself questioning what is happening, even if you’re very close to the situation.
In light of all the emotions that can arise when helping a friend who is being abused, you should think not only about their emotional needs, but your needs as well. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help to manage your own emotions related to the situation. You can benefit from talking with a friend, family member, or even a professional counselor. Engage in other healthy coping strategies to help you manage the stress and emotions you may experiencing. For example, you may benefit from getting physical exercise, practicing yoga or meditation, journaling, or drawing upon your religious or spiritual beliefs to help you cope.
Many people who want to help a friend who’s being abused face a risk of burnout, as the process of ending an abusive relationship and getting safe can be long and tumultuous. Therefore, in order to best support your friend in the long-term, it’s important to make sure you’re also taking good care of yourself in the process.
Recognizing the Limits of Your Knowledge
Unless you’re professionally trained to help people who are being abused or you’ve had some other form of training or experiences to help you understand the dynamics of abuse, it’s likely that there are important pieces of information that you don’t yet know that would help you best to support your friend. And, honestly, you’re not alone! Even many professionals who work with victims every day encounter situations in which there are no clear answers as to what actions are best to take to help the person be safe. The truth is, when it comes to abusive relationships, there are very few easy decisions to make!
Rest assured--there is help available for you to know how to help your friend! You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233; TTY: 1-800-787-3224) or your local domestic violence program to ask for assistance in knowing what steps you can take to help your friend. Most likely, you’ll be able to receive confidential help and ask for advice without disclosing your friend’s name. You may or may not even tell your friend that you called, depending on the nature of the situation.
If you feel that your friend needs help beyond what you can offer, you can help them to locate services and resources in their local community. If you don’t already know which community resources are available, you can contact your state domestic violence coalition to ask for their assistance. If ever there is an immediate danger, call 9-1-1 or the local emergency hotline to connect with emergency responders.
In addition to all of the challenges that your friend is facing in the abusive relationship, navigating community service agencies can be overwhelming and frustrating. Therefore, one of the critical ways you can help them is by supporting them as they navigate these systems and learning about other resources available to promote their safety.
Maintaining Your Physical Safety
Violence in an abusive relationship can spill over to other people, so it’s important to take steps to promote your own safety if you’re helping a friend who’s involved in an abusive relationship. Ask your friend if they know if their abuser has ever made threats to hurt other people. In addition, ask if they know if their abuser has access to weapons, especially firearms. Be sure to consider your own safety when you consider ways to help your friend.
For example, your friend may need a place to stay after leaving the relationship. When deciding whether to do this, be sure to consider if this will be a safety risk for you and anyone else who lives in the house. Be especially cautious if the abuser has threatened to hurt you, if they’re stalking or following your friend, and/or if they have access to lethal weapons. If you think that housing your friend would pose too great a safety risk, then you can help them to locate other sources of safe shelter, such as a domestic violence shelter, a hotel room, or another friend or family member who lives somewhere unknown to the abuser. Use similar precautions for any other action that could potentially put you in harm’s way.
When safety threats are imminent, I urge you to report them to law enforcement, and please use extreme caution before involving yourself in any situation that may pose a risk to your own physical safety. Again, you can reach out for support to your local law enforcement agency and/or a local or national domestic violence hotline in order to think through how best to protect your own safety while helping your friend.
When helping a friend who is being abused, it’s important to know your limits and protect your own emotional and physical safety. When you reach your own limits, know where you can turn for additional help, information, and support. Remember the old adage: “You can’t help others until you help yourself.” You’ll be in the best position to help your friend if you come to the process from a calm, strong place. Self-care is a critical component of being able to help others.