For something that gets relatively little attention, domestic violence is surprisingly common, with estimates saying that one in every four women will experience it at some point in their lives. But where does that leave you as someone on the outside who desperately wants to help?
Because most people are so unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the topic, they’re often clueless about how to support those they care about. Here are some things to bear in mind when you suspect (or know!) that someone close to you is being abused.
Don’t judge or criticize
People often get frustrated with battered wives who leave their husbands… only to return later for another round of broken bones and black eyes. People are tempted to wonder out loud, “Why on earth does she keep going back?” But implying that a woman is to blame for not leaving only plays into a very complicated situation.
Women (or men, for that matter) who are abused often feel guilty and that they deserve it; they doubt themselves and are wracked with fear. If there has been emotional abuse as well, such a person may be isolated and have only shreds of confidence or self-worth left.
Simply suggesting they get the guts to leave also glosses over the fact that many abused partners are financially dependent or are staying for the sake of their children.
Instead, be open and patient, really listen and don’t judge what you hear. You may be incredulous and frustrated with the situation – but it’s nothing compared to what she’s been through.
Don’t dive in and be a hero
The temptation to pluck a vulnerable person out of a dangerous situation is strong for anyone with an ounce of compassion. But things are seldom so simple with domestic violence. In fact, an abused partner is in the most danger right around the time they decide to leave because their abusers might knuckle down on the control and threats.
Abused women seldom need another person telling them what to do.
Instead, contact a women's crisis center for advice, calmly appraise all possible solutions, and let the woman come to her own decisions. Try your best to secure a safe place should there be an emergency and give her real options for housing and her children, for instance. “Saving” someone only reinforces their vulnerability – instead, think of creative ways together to gradually loosen the abuser’s influence.
Know when to step away
This last point is the hardest. It’s natural for human beings to want to get involved when we see injustice, but it can be a bitter pill to swallow when we realize that some battles are just not ours to fight. The decision to leave and when to leave is not up to us.
In fact, some women may never leave.
What’s more, getting too involved directly can have awful consequences – for instance, an abuser who sees you as an outside threat may double the abuse or isolate his victim further, making it harder to leave. Rescuers with good intentions can even put themselves in danger.
Instead, keep a level head and be as helpful and supportive as you can. Offer options, opinions, support, advice, friendship and resources. Be accepting of whatever they choose …even if that choice is to stay with the abuser another day.