By Jae Lin
It is an incredible act of vulnerability for a person to open up about violence or abuse they are experiencing or have experienced in the past. Whether it’s a close friend, a family member, or a trusting community member, when someone reveals (either directly or indirectly) that they are experiencing a situation that may be abusive, violent, and/or dangerous, it creates an opportunity for vital support and care. However, it may also feel like you have been put into a delicate position, which is often true.
Supporting someone in an abusive relationship requires emotional labor, patience, and compassion. It’s not easy, and it often requires more than one person in the supportive position. Here are a handful of things to keep in mind while navigating conversations, dynamics, and vulnerability with someone experiencing an abusive relationship.
1) Focus on being a source of loving respect, kindness, and confidence for them. Don’t let abusers monopolize these things.
Often, the world that abusers would like to paint for their victims is that the abuser is the sole fountain of love and care. By positioning themselves as the only person who truly loves you, truly cares about you, truly believes in you, they aim to control all sources of support. As a caring connection to the person being abused, we have the opportunity to disrupt that monopoly. We may not be able to solve all their problems or fears, but just by being patient, kind, respectful, and loving towards them has a large impact. It can model what respect and kindness without tight conditions or violent repercussions looks like. It can also be a much-needed space of relative comfort and safety when the rest of their life might feel suffocating, exhausting, or painful.
2) Avoid ultimatums: “Break up with them, or I’ll stop talking to you” doesn’t get anywhere because the abuser’s ultimatums will almost always trump yours.
Patience can be a tough virtue, but one of the first things supportive connections outside of the abusive relationship need to understand is that this is likely not something that will be resolved overnight. It may take weeks, months, or even years—even after the friend or loved one is aware that the relationship is abusive. In some cases, someone may never leave an abusive relationship.
It can be hard not to lose patience or get frustrated about this. A common inclination is the temptation to withhold support in hopes of rushing along the break up—or even in hopes of punishing them for not providing the outcome you think would be appropriate.
More pressure or more ultimatums is the last thing that anyone needs during an abusive situation. Overwhelmingly, the abuser will likely have more at stake to threaten the partner with, so the ultimatums from those outside the relationship will almost always result in lost valuable support or even more repercussions towards the person experiencing abuse.
Abusers are trying to isolate their partner anyways, so losing friends is actually a win for them.
The frustration and burnout that supportive friends or loved ones may feel is real and understandable. Ideally, this is a community team effort. When feeling burnt out on emotional support, allow yourself to set boundaries and take the distance you need from the situation. Let others step in for a while when you need it, rather than risk losing your own temper (and issuing ultimatums).
3) You won’t be able to understand why they stay. Let that go.
What seems logical or realistic to you won’t translate when someone is living in a manipulated reality. Abuse doesn’t happen through logical errors but rather through emotional and psychological calculations. Thus, trying to analyze or argue the situation with logic is unproductive. Be compassionate towards them in trusting that the myriad of reasons that someone may stay in an abusive relationship may not all make sense to you right now, but they are real and deeply felt by that person regardless.
4) Safety Plan! If they’re open to it, talk to them about potential exit strategies, however hypothetical.
Think schedules, excuses, transportation, kids, belongings (movers?), money, housing, self defense, legal options (like restraining orders), etc. Keep this conversation going and evolving, as time goes on. Even if it just feels like daydreaming, speaking the possibility into existence is powerful in and of itself.
5) Even after they leave, they might go back to their abuser. You won’t be able to understand why. They still deserve support.
It’s frustrating. It’s confusing. It’s scary. It’s a reality for many people.
Focus on remaining compassionate, nonjudgmental, and supportive.
6) Don’t tie their situation with their character or intelligence
When someone is actively trying to trap you, it wouldn’t be your fault for getting trapped. Being a victim of an abusive situation is not a reflection of someone’s integrity or intelligence. It can and does happen to all types of people from all types of backgrounds, histories, dispositions, and personality.
7) Avoid focusing on the abuser. Antagonizing the abuser, yelling at them, or talking publicly about them often comes at the expense of the person experiencing the abuse.
While accountability for violent and traumatic behavior is important for the vitality and safety of a community, direct and individual attacks on the abuser often lead to more violence and repercussions for the partner of the abuser. For example, if a friend or family member of the person experiencing abuse gets into a shouting match (in person or online) with the abuser, the abuser will go home and, in turn, take it out on their partner or pressure them to cut off that friend or family member.
The safety of the person experiencing abuse should always be prioritized.
8) It might feel like there’s nothing you can do, but just by supporting them and sticking with them you are doing so much.
Abusers want their victims isolated, insecure, let down by their communities & families. We need to be everything these abusers want to erase: patient and unconditional care, tenderness and compassion, higher standards for love, grounding and unwavering support.
It’s so hard to see a loved one being hurt and abused for so long. It’s so hard to fear for your loved one’s life at the hands of the person closest to them. Don’t give up on them. Help them feel a gentler & unconditional love from you—to remember love doesn’t have to hurt.