If Amber Heard Were Your Friend, Here's What You Could Say To Her

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Amber Heard has just come forward as a domestic violence survivor, filing a temporary restraining order against now-estranged husband Johnny Depp and alleging in court that he physically abused her throughout their 15-month marriage. The internet, of course, has leapt to take sides, with social media users declaring their support for either Heard or Depp. Let's step away, for a moment, from the rumors and the paparazzi photos and the nauseating hashtags, the #ImWithJohnny and the #TeamDepp, and consider what our response to Heard would be if we knew her, if we cared about her as a friend or family member.

As domestic abuse survivor and activist Leslie Morgan Steiner put it, "Abuse thrives only in silence" — and yet we don't know how to broach the subject of abuse with the very people in our lives we suspect are experiencing it. And we don't know how to respond when people we care about tell us that they have been abused.

So I turned to Rachel Goldsmith, a licensed clinical social worker and associate vice president of Safe Horizon's eight domestic violence shelters in New York City's five boroughs, to ask how we can better support loved ones whom we believe are in abusive relationships — or who tell us they are. If you think you don't know a survivor of sexual or domestic violence, you're wrong. The CDC reports that more than one in three women and one in four men in the U.S. has experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner at some point. And some 20 people are physically abused by an intimate partner every minute in this country.

"The chances of it being someone we know is really high," Goldsmith tells me, "so thinking about what you could say to a friend or a loved one is really important."

Read on for her advice on how to provide a survivor with sensitive, compassionate, and judgment-free support.

Abuse thrives only in silence

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What’s the best way to approach a friend or family member who you suspect is in an abusive relationship but who hasn’t told you so?
"At Safe Horizon, we take a client-centered approach, which means that we start from a place of wanting to understand that individual’s situation and what their concerns are, and let them be the expert on their situation. If you’re talking to a friend, you could use that same strategy of not coming in with your own agenda and your own ideas, but being open and listening. [One thing to say] could just be, 'I haven’t seen much of you lately; I’m concerned,' or 'It seems like there’s been a lot of stress around your relationship — how are you doing? I wanted to just check in and see how you are,' and keep it as an open-ended discussion.

"One of the things that we really want to avoid is victim-blaming, saying 'What’s wrong with you for being with this person?' or 'Why are you letting this person treat you that way?' That’s a way to get people to shut down rather than open up. [I recommend] coming from a place of care and concern, saying 'These are some of the things I’ve noticed recently in the relationship' — if you can use examples, it can be helpful."

You make a great point that victim-blaming manifests not only as suggesting that a survivor of abuse provoked the abuse, but suggesting that the survivor is at fault for staying with his or her abuser or for not somehow handling the situation "better."
"Exactly. It’s really important that we understand that domestic violence is a very complicated issue, and there’s a lot of different layers to it. What every person needs is different, so someone may need help with counseling, someone may need legal support, someone may need shelter, and it may not be just a quick decision. The other thing that’s really important that people remember is there are safety issues involved. Someone may need to plan before leaving the relationship so they can do it in a safe way, and just picking up and leaving may not be the safest thing they can do, so we don’t want someone to feel rushed into making a decision when it may not factor in their safety or the safety of their children."

Don't come in with your own agenda and ideas — be open and listen

If you approach someone about abuse and he or she brushes you off, what can you do?
"I like to let people know that there are resources available to them. One of the things that we have at Safe Horizon is a 24-hour hotline, and you can call and just talk to someone at any point. The number for that hotline is 1-800-621-HOPE, and that’s the New York City domestic violence hotline, and the reason I give that number is because people may want to reach out for support at midnight, or seven in the morning, or a time that’s kind of on their own terms — not necessarily when their friend is asking them questions.

"And the other thing is that you can talk to someone about your relationship and not necessarily have to make any changes. I think a lot of people think, If I reach out and I call Safe Horizon or I talk to someone about my relationship, that means I have to make a decision about what to do, and they may feel like, That means I have to leave, and that someone is going to tell them they have to leave or do something they don’t want to do, and that’s not the case at all. I really stress to people that you can talk to someone just to get more information... Our job is not to tell you what to do. Our job is to help be a support for you as you figure out what you want to do about your relationship — so if you can convey that message to your friend, that there’s people you can talk to, even if you just have questions... [They're] not people who are going to tell you what to do or what your next steps have to be. They’re going to be people who can help you explore what options are available to you."

How do you recommend someone respond when a survivor confides in him or her?
"I would first start by acknowledging what they said and say, 'Thank you for sharing this with me. Maybe it was difficult to tell me this, so I really appreciate you reaching out to me for support,' and say, 'I’d like to help you get connected to some people [with whom] you can talk more about this.' I think one of the tricky things that happens when it’s your friend or family member is you try to be both things for that person — you try to be the friend and the therapist, or the person who’s going to solve all their problems, and all you have to do is be their friend and let them know that you’re there to support them."

What does an unproductive response look like?
"It can be not productive to say, 'Oh, that’s terrible, nobody should treat you that way,' or it can also be not productive to say 'Oh, I’m going to go talk to your husband or your boyfriend'… That can actually pose a big safety risk, going to talk to that person about the relationship. A lot of times, domestic violence exists because of secrecy around it: It’s happening behind closed doors, and once that violence gets exposed, it can cause safety issues for that individual [who has experienced abuse]. I really want people not to try to take action in that relationship and try to intervene, because that may not be what’s safest for the survivor."

Our job is not to tell you what to do. Our job is to support you

What sort of language should you use and not use when discussing abuse with a survivor?
"People respond differently to different vocabulary. For some people, it can validate an experience to call something abuse, to call something assault. I think that the easiest way is to use the language that the person shared with you… Let’s say they say, 'My boyfriend and I really got into it last night.' Maybe you can ask a follow-up question: 'What does that look like, getting into it? Can you tell me more about that?' and then just get a sense more of what the actions were. At the end of the day, the label is less important than a person understanding their experience and deciding what they want to do with their understanding of it.

"We can call it 'assault,' we can call it 'domestic violence,' but all that matters is that the individual who experienced it can get the support they need around it. Using their words as much as possible can help, because also some people may hear you call something 'assault,' and the person may not be ready to acknowledge that’s what’s happened, and it may feel overwhelming to acknowledge that."

To sum up, what are the top priorities to keep in mind when supporting a survivor of abuse?
"Coming from a place of care and concern, not judgment, is the best way to start. Knowing that there are professionals to pick up the conversation — there are professionals your friend can talk to just to explore whatever their feelings are about the relationship or their experiences.

"And then realizing that what every survivor of abuse or assault needs is different. It’s not one-sided; this is about figuring out what every individual needs and then linking them to that kind of help.

"Also, we always have to focus on safety. We may or may not know what’s truly going on in a situation, so we always want to err on the side of caution when it comes to safety, and allow someone to explore their safety needs with a professional whenever possible."

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, you can call Safe Horizon's hotline at 1-800-621-HOPE or visit its website.
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The Bed Post is a series that explores what holds us back from sex and love with whom we want, when we want, where we want, and how we want — because we all deserve sex and love lives that are not only free of evils, but full of what is good. Follow me on Twitter at @hlmacmillen or email me at hayley.macmillen@refinery29 — I’d love to hear from you. Find all of The Bed Post right here.
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