In the United States, more than 10 million adults experience domestic violence annually, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and even more people may be at risk right now, with COVID-19 keeping people at home. Being friends with someone who's experiencing partner abuse can be terrifying — and frustrating, since it can be hard to know what you can do to help.
We turned to Angela Lee, director of loveisrespect, a project of the National Domestic Violence Hotline that aims to support young people in abusive relationships, for help. She notes that abuse can come in many different forms — physical, emotional, verbal — and that as such, no two abusive relationships look the same, and there are no blanket strategies that work in all situations. But she gave Refinery29 some general advice about how to be there for a friend who you suspect or know is experiencing domestic violence.
First, be aware of warning signs
Lee stresses that no abuse looks or presents exactly the same. But she points to some common red flags: if your friend seems to receive a constant stream of texts and calls from their partner; if their behavior or mood changes; if they seem on edge; if it's really hard to get in touch with them; if their partner seems to frequently blame them for arguments or situations.
Basically, if your friend is acting noticeably different in any way or you can just sense that something is up, that might mean it's time for you to start a conversation with them.
Create a safe space for them
If you suspect that a friend may be experiencing partner abuse, the biggest mistake you can make is not reaching out to them at all, Lee says. Exactly how you reach out, though, depends on your friend, and your relationship to them, she says. In general, you can start the conversation with a gentle question, like asking how things are going with the partner, what happens with their partner when situations escalate, or if they have any concerns. "You want to make sure to create a safe space where they can talk to you," Lee says. She points out that when someone is experiencing abuse, they may feel ashamed and afraid of being judged. So providing a comforting, affirming space should be one of your main goals.
During your talk, prioritize making them feel supported. "You have to make sure you're normalizing their feelings and reactions, but also calling it out," she explains. "If someone says, 'I'm so tired of them accusing me of cheating,' you can name that and say, 'That might be emotional or verbal abuse.'"
Make sure to ask them how you can help, Lee says. "It's okay to say that that they deserve to be treated with respect. But give them space to share their story without judgement."
Call in the experts
While there's no doubt you'd do everything you can for your friend in need, in this situation, it can be helpful — even life-saving — to ask an expert for support. "A lot of times, you're not sure if this is abuse," Lee says. "We hear that a lot. It's always important to reach out to experts to help you identify that." If you don't know where to start, you can reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline to help you figure out how you can best support your loved one.
This is also a helpful tip if your friend doesn't walk to talk to you about their relationship or gets defensive. (That's common, Lee says.) You don't have to force the issue, but try to tell them about resources they can reach out to if they need help, including the NDVH and Lee's organization, loveisrespect. "We're going to ask the right questions and we're going to come up with the next steps and safety plans together," she explains. "We want to make sure that the victim's emotional and physical safety is priority."
Center their safety
Helping your friend create a safety plan may very well be the most important thing you can do, besides the initial reach out, Lee says. “You have to understand and assess their safety because maybe they’ve been threatened,” she explains. You can hold onto copies of their important documents, for instance, in case they need to leave their house in a rush, or come up with some type of code words, Lee suggests. You can help them document instances of abuse.
You can also ask them how they’d like you to respond in moments of crisis: Should you call a family member? Are they comfortable with you calling law enforcement? "If they are open to it, encourage them to reach out to a trained advocate at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, where they can create a safety plan unique to their situation," says Lee.
Try to be patient
You may want to, but you can't force your friend to leave before they're ready. "The main thing I'd say don't do is try to force someone to do something that they don't want to do. You have to be careful about that. You want to empower the person to make the right decisions for themselves," Lee says. "You should not tell your friend what to do and you should not victim-blame. If they ask for you not to betray their trust, try to respect that."
Try to be supportive, patiently listen, and honor their decisions. "It's also important to emphasize that abuse is never their fault, and they deserve a healthy relationship," Lee says. "You have to continue to be supportive of them even if you disagree with their choices." And remember, the only thing you can do wrong in these situations is to abandon your friend — they need you, even if it's just you saying, "I'm here if you need me."
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support.