By Christine Murray, See the Triumph Co-Founder
All this month, we’ve been focusing on how to help a friend who’s involved in an abusive relationship. At See the Triumph, our main goals are to challenge the stigma surrounding abuse and to develop resources to support survivors.
Because of our focus on survivors, our main aim for the month has been to address ways that people can support a friend or loved one who’s being abused. However, people also may not know what to do when a friend or loved one is the one who is perpetrating the abuse. So, today, we’re focusing on steps you can take if you know or suspect that a friend or someone else you know is being abusive toward their partner.
Every situation is unique, so just as advice for helping a friend who is being abused is impossible to generalize to everyone, the same holds true for addressing a friend who is perpetrating the abuse. Therefore, think carefully about the specific details of the situation, and you may benefit from speaking with professionals in your community--such as at your local domestic violence agency or law enforcement officials--before taking any action. As I emphasized in my posts on helping survivors, avoid taking any actions that could put yourself into harm’s way. Remember to care for your own safety at all times, as well as the safety of others.
Assuming the person trusts and respects your opinion, you have an opportunity to send some powerful messages that could encourage them to stop the abuse. Some of the important messages you can say and convey in other ways are as follows:
Message #1: “The abuse is wrong.”
Don’t laugh off the abuse or lead them to think that it’s okay that they’re using abusive behaviors. If you don’t feel comfortable saying anything to them, consider the possible impact of your silence. Be mindful that the person may think that, because you haven’t said anything, you think it’s okay or normal for them to treat their partner that way. Make sure, through both your words and your actions, that you make clear that you do not support the abuse in any way.
Message #2: “You are hurting your partner.”
It’s all too common for abuse perpetrators to try to minimize or deny the extent of the abuse. For example, they may say things like, “It was just a little slap across the face,” “I didn’t really hurt her/him,” or “They’re just too sensitive.” You can play a role in holding the person accountable for their actions by pointing out the actual impact of the abuse. If that “little slap” left a black eye, remind them of the severity and say that you think it was a bigger deal than they’re making it out to be. If they deny the impact of their abuse on their partner, point out other changes you’ve seen, such as if their partner has become more sad, withdrawn, or quiet recently, as well as if you’ve noticed other problems that the abuse is causing. If they claim that their partner is just being “too sensitive,” you can talk to them about how you think they’re responding in a normal, expected way to being abused.
Message #3: “There are other negative consequences of the abuse.”
I’ve heard it said that people abuse their partners because they can. This means that many people likely use abusive behaviors in their relationships because they get rewarded for it (e.g., by maintaining power and control over their partners) and often get away without any form of punishment. When the rewards outweigh the punishments, there is likely very little motivation for people to change their abusive behaviors. Therefore, it’s important to remind abusive partners of all the negative consequences they’ve already faced--and could face in the future--if their abusive behaviors continue.
Of course, one of the major negative consequences is the hurt they are causing to their partner. Realistically (and unfortunately), this may or may not be a motivator to get them to change their behaviors, so it can be helpful to discuss other possible consequences they may face. This may include any combination of the following: hurting any involved children, risking getting arrested and going to jail, risking their career if they face legal consequences, other financial consequences related to legal sanctions (e.g., legal fees and costs of attending a batterer intervention program), losing relationships with friends and family members, and the embarrassment, tarnished reputation, and loss of standing that may occur if other people find out about the abuse.
Message #4: “You are responsible for your own actions. You are also responsible for doing whatever you need to do to change them.”
We’ve heard so, so many times in our research that survivors of abuse were blamed for their abuse by their partners and others in their lives. Victim-blaming perpetuates the abuse by attributing the responsibility for changing it to the person with the least control over doing so. If you talk with someone who is abusing their partner, they may say something like, “Well, I wouldn’t do it if she didn’t…” or “He had it coming with the way he was acting.” Unless you think it would be unsafe for you to do so, I encourage you to challenge these statements and make clear that it’s not the fault of the victim. Regardless of what the other person may or may not be doing, each person only has control over their own behaviors. Remind them of their own responsibility for stopping their abusive behaviors and for taking the steps needed to make this change.
Message #5: “There are resources available to help you stop abusing your partner.”
In most areas in the United States, there are court-sanctioned batterer intervention programs that are designed to educate and support people to change their abusive behaviors in intimate relationships. In many cases, these programs are also open to clients who are voluntarily seeking help. If you don’t already know whether this program exists in your community, contact your state domestic violence coalition to find out what resources are available near you.
Other professionals--such as mental health professionals--may be able to provide support, although it’s important to find someone who is specially trained to address intimate partner violence. Keep in mind that, in general, couples therapy is not advised when there is violence present. So, if your friend suggests that they want their partner to go in for treatment with them, you can suggest that they seek an individual intervention first. They also may suggest that they’re being abusive because of a substance abuse problem or a mental health disorder. If you hear this, you can tell them that substance abuse or mental health symptoms are not an excuse for violence, and it’s important for them to seek specific treatment for each issue.
While it’s true that many people who are abusive in relationships are hesitant to seek help on their own (and therefore most clients in batterer intervention programs are often court-mandated to be there), there are resources available to help people change their abusive behaviors, and you can help your friend locate and access these services in their community.
Message #6: “If you do not stop abusing your partner, I will….”
Where will you draw the line? At some point, you may face a decision to take action to try to stop this person’s abusive behaviors, even if it could mean hurting your relationship with them. For example, you may witness a severe act of physical violence. Will you call the police to report it? Will you cut off your relationship with them and lend your support to their partner? Of course, any decision you make should take into account their partner’s safety, as well as the safety of any involved children and yourself.
Make no mistake: These decisions can be extremely complicated, especially depending on the nature of your relationship with them. Maybe they’re your best friend since childhood. Maybe they’re a coworker you work closely with. Maybe they’re your child or another close family member. You may or may not even know their partner very well. There can be an overwhelming desire to maintain the relationship or show support for the person you care about, even if they are doing really harmful abuse to their partner.
At some point, I encourage you to ask yourself, “If I’m not taking action against the abuse, am I actually helping to perpetuate it?” You may feel like you have limited options of ways to stop the abuse, support the survivor, and hold the perpetrator accountable. And, indeed, in many cases, these options are very limited. But, if you know someone who’s being abusive in their intimate relationship, I encourage you to take action. By taking a strong stand against the violence, you have the opportunity to send important messages to the person that the abuse is harmful, it is their responsibility, and they can choose to change it and get help to do so.