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Friends and family

If you think a friend or family member is experiencing domestic abuse, there are things you can do to help.

Friends and family often believe they should stay ‘neutral’ in a domestic abuse situation, but the abused person can see this as an indication that they are to blame for the abuse, while the abuser can see it as evidence that their actions are acceptable.

  • Don’t wait to be told about their situation; bring the subject up yourself when the abusive partner isn’t around.
  • Approach them about the abuse in a sensitive way, for example by saying,‘I’m worried about you because…’.
  • Let them know you are concerned about them and want to help.
  • Believe what they tell you.
  • Take the abuse seriously. Abuse can be damaging both physically and emotionally, and is very destructive to someone’s self-confidence.
  • The importance of helping break the silence and end the isolation should never be underestimated. Listen to what they say and let them show you how you can be supportive.
  • Try not to criticise their partner or the relationship, instead, focus on the abuse and their safety.
  • You need to support the abused person in whatever decision they are currently making about their relationship, while being clear that the abuse is wrong.

Supporting someone is a challenge. You don’t want to see them get hurt, but may have to watch them carry on with their partner when you think they should leave them, however it is important to remember three vital things.

  • You are not the person who has to live with the consequences of any decision. They make decisions that are in their best interests.
  • Leaving is an extremely difficult decision to make, involving both emotional and practical considerations. Most abused people are in the position of making this decision when the abuser is promising to change and begging them to stay.
  • Often, leaving a violent partner only signifies the end of the relationship - not the end of the violence.

These messages will help, if you can get them across when talking about their situation.

  • Domestic abuse is totally unacceptable. Everyone has the right to live their life free of violence, abuse, intimidation and fear.
  • Domestic abuse is very common.
  • Domestic abuse is very dangerous.
  • Domestic abuse is about power and control. Abusive, violent and sexually abusive behaviour is wide-ranging.
  • Domestic abuse is intentional and instrumental behaviour. It is about scaring someone into doing something that they do not want to do, or scaring them out of doing something that they do want to do.
  • The abuser is 100 per cent responsible for their abuse. Alcohol, culture or unemployment are not excuses. Their abuse is their problem.
  • It is not your fault. No-one deserves to be abused, regardless of what he or she says or does.
  • You cannot change them. They are the only person who can stop their violence.
  • You don’t have to put up with it. Everyone has the right to safety and respect, to put themselves and their children first.

On a practical level you could:

  • Agree a code word or action that they can use to signal that they are in danger and cannot access help themselves.
  • Offer to keep copies of important documents and other items for them. If they have to leave in a hurry, they don’t have to waste time collecting important belongings.
  • Together or on your own, find out information about local services and help.
  • Offer any practical help you are able to give, such as the use of your telephone or address for information or messages, keeping spare sets of keys, overnight bags, and important documents for emergencies.
  • Offer help to protect them. For example, you could offer to be around when the abuser is there, give them lifts home or take phone messages from the abuser, encourage them to talk to a counsellor, or talk to a counsellor yourself about what you could do to support him/her.
  • Encourage and help to develop a safety plan. Agree with their concerns for their safety as well as that of the children. Offer your assistance in developing a plan that may even include you. Help by looking ahead to a plan of action should the abuser become violent again. Suggest an ‘escape bag’ somewhere which could include an extra set of car keys, ID documents, birth certificates, insurance cards, in case they are needed.
  • Encourage the victim to break the isolation. One of the most effective ‘tools’ for abusers is the victim’s isolation from family, friends, co-workers or any type of support system. Help find an agency offering counselling and support groups.
  • Encourage them to take threats seriously. Express your concern for the victim's safety and never minimise threats made by the abuser. Remember, that an abused person is in the most danger when they decide to leave. Respect their judgment as to the right time to leave. The time must be right and safe.
  • Evaluate how they cope. Faced with violence and abuse, many people develop ways of coping that are themselves destructive. The last thing they will need is another reason to be hard on themself, so encouragement will be required.
  • Let them know that Coercive or Controlling Behaviour in an intimate or family relationship is actually a crime. They may not be ready to call police but talk to them about their options and keep records of what they disclose to you. It may be that if/when they are able to deal with the problems, they will need your notes.
  • Talk to them about the options offered by Clare's Law (Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme). This allows them (or you) to contact police to see if the police would have any concerns for them based on what they may know about any past behaviour.

What not to do 

Don't blame the victim or ask judgmental questions such as, ‘What did you do to make them treat you like that?’ or ‘Why don’t you just break up with him/her?’

Don't focus on trying to work out the abuser’s reasons for the abuse. Concentrate on supporting the victim and discussing what they can do to protect themself.

Don't be impatient or critical of the victim if they are confused about what to do or if they say that they still love the abuser. It’s difficult for anyone to break up a relationship, and especially hard if they are being abused.

Don’t try to maintain a friendship with both the victim and the abuser. This part is hard but if you try to support both parties, you’re not going to be much help to either. They need to be able to talk to someone who believes them, who will not pressure them to ‘see it from the other person’s point of view’, and who would never encourage them to get back together with the abuser. 

Suggestions of questions to ask

  • What can I do to help?
  • How has his/her behaviour made you feel?
  • How is it affecting you?
  • How have you been coping with the abuse?
  • What can you do to make yourself safer?
  • What are you afraid of if you leave?
  • What are you afraid of if you stay?
  • Do you know when an incident is going to happen? Is there a pattern?
  • What’s your worst-case scenario for yourself/your children?
  • What are your worst fears for yourself/your children?
  • What do you already do to protect yourself/your children?
  • Which of the things you do to protect yourself/your children work in practice, and which don’t?
  • What personal strengths do you have that help you to deal with this situation?
  • What external resources are there to help you cope (support networks of friends and family, access to money, access to alternative accommodation and so on)? How can these be increased?
  • Can I help you find out about what other choices might be available?
  • Which options would be most realistic for you?
  • What do you see yourself as actually being able to do?

Most importantly, don’t give up on them. You might be their only lifeline. 

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