6 Ways To Support A Loved One Through Domestic Violence : Life Kit Intimate partner violence is widespread and traumatic. Here's how you can help a friend or loved one in an abusive relationship.
NPR logo

Abusive Relationships Are Disturbingly Common. Here's How To Support A Loved One

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/974786552/974913483" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Abusive Relationships Are Disturbingly Common. Here's How To Support A Loved One

Abusive Relationships Are Disturbingly Common. Here's How To Support A Loved One

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/974786552/974913483" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is NPR's LIFE KIT. And I'm Kavitha Cardoza. A quick heads up - this episode includes details about violence and abuse.


CARDOZA: This episode is about how to support a friend who's going through domestic abuse or intimate partner violence, as it's called, within romantic or intimate relationships. While domestic abuse can also happen within families or households, we'll be focusing on how to support a friend who's in an abusive intimate relationship. And before you say I don't know anyone like that, consider this - according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than one in three women and more than one in four men in the U.S. have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner. So chances are all of us know someone who has, is or will experience intimate partner violence.


CARDOZA: This abuse comes in many forms, emotional, physical, verbal, financial, sexual, digital. Now, maybe you have a feeling something is off in your friend's relationship. Maybe you know something is going on but you're thinking it's way too sensitive or it's none of my business or I can't really do anything about it. But Lisa Aronson Fontes, a senior lecturer at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, says you can be an enormous source of strength.

LISA ARONSON FONTES: These days, a lot of us live far from our families of origin. Or maybe we have issues with them. Friends have a special place in our lives. They're more apt to be in a similar age and really understand what we're going through. So friends become crucial sources of support and information and even safety sometimes for people who are going through a violent relationship.

CARDOZA: In this episode of LIFE KIT, we're going to look at practical ways to help a friend who might be experiencing abuse. Whether it's a friend or a family member - family can be friends - you can help.


CARDOZA: Lisa says the first thing to know is domestic abuse is not just about physical violence. There are many other forms of control.

FONTES: Isolation, economic abuse, degradation, manipulation and gaslighting, threats.

CARDOZA: Eventually, a person gets so worn down, they start shaping their behavior to avoid conflict with their partner. Lisa says there are all kinds of ways your friend might be doing this.

FONTES: So it might be not saying things that will be displeasing or making sure dinner is on the table on time or being sexually available or keeping the kids in line. I mean, there are 200 things it could be that they might do to avoid conflict with their partner because the conflict is so frightening.


CARDOZA: Your friend might not see anything because they're embarrassed. Also, Rich Ham, a manager with the National Domestic Violence Hotline, says the abusive partner can be charming and popular.

RICH HAM: You know, that abusive partner being very charming and hiding the things that they're doing make - you know, creates another barrier for that victim, because now this victim is thinking about, you know, how people will view them. You know, will their family be upset that they left this person that their family believes is just, you know, amazing and treats them so well? They're afraid of letting their family, their friends down. They're afraid of being the person who was experiencing abuse.

CARDOZA: Rich says, of the thousands of calls he's answered, one sticks out.

HAM: They expressed to me was that, you know, experiencing the abuse, the broken bones, the bruises, all of the pain that came with the physical violence was not half as bad as the emotional scars that are left behind.

CARDOZA: Just like this caller, your friend may feel very vulnerable and exposed because their trust was violated at an intimate level. It's really complicated. Maybe your friend doesn't even know what it is or doesn't know what to call it. But if they're open to talking to someone about their situation, they can call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 800-799-SAFE or chat them at thehotline.org.


CARDOZA: Takeaway 2 is don't judge. This can be so hard because you really do think the person abusing your friend is the worst. But Lisa says, bite your tongue and don't criticize.

FONTES: We think, if we can just convince that person about how awful their partner is, then they're going to take the action that we think is best. The truth is, no one would get in a relationship with an abusive person if they were abusive all the time. So usually, people who are terribly abusive can also be extremely loving, extremely generous, extremely helpful.

CARDOZA: A sort of Jekyll and Hyde personality. So if you try and point out how awful that person is, chances are your friend will cut you off because they feel you don't understand how wonderful their partner can be at times.

FONTES: And people feel, also, hurt. If you are criticizing their partner too sharply, it's implicitly criticizing them and their choice.

CARDOZA: Rich says don't judge also means don't judge your friend, because they will make decisions you don't agree with.

HAM: We know that a victim of intimate partner violence will leave and go back to that relationship seven times on average, seven to ten times. So that's a lot of leaving and a lot of going back.

CARDOZA: There are a lot of barriers to leaving, threats, worries about money. There may be children or pets involved. Lisa says, essentially, a person feels trapped.

FONTES: Sometimes they do things that they're ashamed of, they might be sexual things. People even sometimes engage in crime for their partner. They might drink too much or take more drugs than they'd like because - either to manage their feelings or because their partner pushes them to or because it's being presented as part of a lifestyle. So we don't need to know the details.

CARDOZA: She says, don't try and be a therapist. Stifle the urge to ask questions or talk about what you would do. Just be a friend and listen.

FONTES: I'm here. And if there's anything you want to share with me, I'm here to listen. And we should remember that they're probably just sharing the tip of the iceberg with us. There may be many, many more things going on.

CARDOZA: The most powerful statement you can make is I believe you.


CARDOZA: Rich says by creating a space where your friend feels comfortable and feels heard helps a lot.

HAM: The better relationship you have with someone, the more likely they're going to be to be willing to open up and share with you the things that they're feeling, the things that they're going through. And then we have a better opportunity to support them. The more that we know, the more that we can do as far as providing options and support.

CARDOZA: One of the main things you can do as a friend is super simple but very powerful and it's Takeaway 3, stay in touch - a text, phone call or, hey, would you like to go for a walk? One of the main aspects of this abuse is isolation. And so counteracting that is important. Just connecting with your friend and sharing a laugh can be healing. It's also important because Lisa says abusive relationships can shred a person's self-esteem. When you constantly hear you're worthless, you can't do anything right, being affirming can be an antidote.

FONTES: We want to counteract that loss of self-esteem. So we say things like, you know, one thing I've always liked about you, or I admire how you do X, or I love it when we do Y together. You're so enthusiastic. I really enjoy our time together.

CARDOZA: She says, often, in an abusive situation, a person forgets who they are. Remind them.

FONTES: It's also a good idea to reminisce about the times you had together. You know, remember when we - I don't know, whatever it is that you've done with that person. They can picture themselves again in that scene and remember, yes, I'm a courageous person. I'm a person who speaks my mind. I'm a person who has friends. And they may not have thought of themselves like that in a while.

CARDOZA: It's important to remember that supporting your friend can sometimes feel frustrating. They might make excuses for their partner or change their mind about what they want to do. Recognize that this is often how things play out. Rich says one of the things friends do when they're trying to help can be very unhelpful. They make plans for the person - well, this is what you should do, you can stay there, here's who you should meet - not a good idea.

HAM: It's very important when you are trying to help someone who's experiencing intimate partner violence that we recognize that abuse is all about power and control. And when we want to help someone, generally, our first reaction is to "save them," quote, unquote. When we do that, we are actually taking more power and control away from them. So yeah, that can be one of our biggest mistakes.

CARDOZA: So Takeaway 4 is let your friend keep their power. This can be hard because when you care about someone and you're really worried about them, you just want to step in. Don't. Instead, experts say, try and understand the person's situation and why it might be difficult for them to get out of that relationship. Let them set the pace. Lisa says there's a reason your friend isn't sure what to do or changes their mind.

FONTES: So somebody who is in a relationship when they're controlled by someone else often has trouble turning into what they want and what the best thing is to do and may be susceptible to other people's influence. It's really important to allow them the space to get back in touch with themselves and get back in touch with what it is they want, their own goals, their desires, their thoughts.

CARDOZA: She says one thing you can do is to encourage your friend to reflect on their situation.

FONTES: To think through different options, you know, maybe say, OK, let's look at it. If you do X, what will happen? If you do Y, what will happen? What about Z? Is there something else we're not thinking of? That's really helpful. But to order them or to think you know what's best is really problematic, especially because we, from the outside, can't assess any danger that our friend might be facing.

CARDOZA: Takeaway 5 is ask that all-important question. What do you need? Sometimes people are really clear about what they need. They may just want a friend to listen. They may need an excuse to get out of the house, someone to look after their pet a couple of hundred bucks.

FONTES: It can be helpful for people who are in abusive relationships to store things elsewhere. If they do want to get away, they might want to store their photographs. They might want to store their important documents, such as passports and so on, at a friend's house. And so I think just - if you feel like you can do that, just say to someone, I'm happy to do that for you.


CARDOZA: One thing experts say can be really helpful is to create a safety plan. Who are trusted people you can confide in? If you feel unsafe, where can you go? Do you have important phone numbers memorized? Lisa says your friend can make a safety plan even if they don't want to leave.

FONTES: Because a safety plan is not just for when you leave, it can be for when you stay. How can you stay safe while you're there? So for instance, if the violence happens mostly Saturday evenings when the partner comes home drunk, well, how can you make a plan for Saturday evenings?

CARDOZA: She says, sometimes, just working on a safety plan can help clarify things for your friend. In the process, sometimes they might say...

FONTES: You know what? It's really not safe for me to stay. I do need to make a decision to leave. The good thing about safety planning is that it's dynamic. And it can change. And the safety planning can include, for instance, socking some money away in a safe place, making sure all your important documents are safe or copied somewhere safe. If you have been assaulted violently and you have photographs of those assaults or text messages that are threatening, for instance, making sure those are copied and somewhere safe so that if at some later point in a month or a year or a few years you want to press charges, you have all that evidence.

CARDOZA: Safety planning is a way to help your friend keep their power. It's not you swooping in and telling them what to do. But Lisa stresses that while there are some safety plans available online and you might want to help, really, your friend should work on one with a domestic violence advocate because they understand the implications of different decisions best. Sometimes there are legal issues.


CARDOZA: Like, if your friend leaves their children, it could be considered abandonment. If your friend is ready to seek more professional help, an advocate is a great option because the conversations are confidential.

FONTES: That's another reason why it's a good idea to speak with a domestic violence advocate because they can tell you in your state and even in your local jurisdiction, what are the practices? Is it OK to record your partner without consent, for instance, if you want to record a conversation? What should you do about your children if you need to run for your life? All those issues are really best handled by somebody who knows the ropes.

CARDOZA: She says, there are some great support groups on social media. But don't mistake them for professional help.

FONTES: When people ask questions there about, you know, will I get in trouble if I do X? The answer is the other people on Facebook do not know the answer to that. The only people who know the answer to that are your local domestic violence advocates.

CARDOZA: As a domestic violence advocate, Rich has helped many people create safety plans. They're all different. Like, one of his client's brothers was being abused. So they came up with a code word.

HAM: If her brother were to text her that code word, you know, that can have a meaning to it. Does she call the police? Does she come to the house? Does that mean that, you know, he's on her way to her? Whatever they have an understanding of behind that code word is a really great safety plan to have with someone that you're trying to help in that situation.

CARDOZA: He also works with clients to research and include nearby shelters in their safety plans. You can find local options at www.domesticshelters.org. He says shelters aren't only for a place to stay.

HAM: They can help with child care, food services, employment and really help that victim to move on and start rebuilding their life away from their abusive partner.

CARDOZA: He says many shelters offer legal aid. So they can help with restraining orders or figuring out your options. They have counseling, group therapy. And generally, the services are going to be free or on a sliding scale, depending on your income. Rich says, when asking What do you need, don't forget to include self-care for your friend and you. Perhaps the most important takeaway to remember is No. 6 - don't underestimate the power of friendship. When I asked Lisa why a friend can be such a powerful supporter in a domestic violence situation, she pauses.

FONTES: That question is moving me to tears for some reason because I really do think that a friend is so important. A friend is a person who has known the person who's being victimized over time, can see changes.

CARDOZA: She says, for your friend, it can feel like being carried off by a huge wave. They have no control.

FONTES: When a friend extends their hand and holds them and tries to pull them in, that may be the only safety that they have.

CARDOZA: But Lisa says your friend needs you. She says all that love and trust that's built up over time matters.

FONTES: If a friend has your back, that is just worth the world. And so I would just encourage people who have friends who they're worried about to not give up, to stay in touch - even if they can't talk about the abuse at all, just to stay in touch and to keep showering the person with love and to know that that will be important.


CARDOZA: So let's recap. Abuse isn't just physical. There are lots of forms of control like isolation, economic abuse, manipulation, gaslighting and threats. Don't judge. Just be a friend and listen instead of asking questions and prying for details. The most powerful statement you can make is I believe you. Stay in touch. A phone call or a text message is a simple way to combat the isolation that often accompanies this kind of abuse.

Let your friend keep their power. It can be tempting to make plans for them or take over the situation because you care and want them to get help. But telling them where they should go and what they should do or who they should contact isn't a good idea. Let them set the peace. Ask your friend what they need. That could be someone to listen to or somewhere to stay. And if your friend is open to it, talking to a domestic violence advocate can help them create a safety plan. And finally, don't underestimate the power of friendship. Friends can be a lifeline, a source of strength and support.


CARDOZA: If you or someone you know is experiencing intimate partner violence, again, the national domestic hotline number is 800-799-SAFE. Or chat them at thehotline.org. For more episodes of LIFE KIT, go to npr.org/lifekit. We have episodes on all sorts of topics from how to start therapy to how to boost your credit score. If you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. Also, we want to hear your tips. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823. Or email us at lifekit@npr.org.

This episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. And Beth Donovan is our senior editor. Our digital editors are Beck Harlan and Clare Lombardo. I'm Kavitha Cardoza. Thanks for listening.


Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.