by Monesha, a Hotline advocate
“Why don’t they just leave already?”
This is a question we hear often from family members and friends of people who are experiencing domestic violence. It can be so frustrating and heartbreaking to see someone you care about remain in an abusive relationship, and many people want to immediately go and “rescue” their loved one or convince them to “just leave.” But unfortunately it is not that simple; doing this could be very dangerous or make the situation worse. In order to truly help a person in an abusive relationship, it’s important to try and understand what they are going through, why they might stay in the abusive relationship and how you can support and shift power back to them.
Victims of abuse are in a world of mental and emotional pain and confusion. Abusive people can be extremely romantic and persuasive in the beginning of a relationship. They will do and say anything to make the victim fall for them. Once the victim becomes attached or dependent, the abusive behavior becomes visible with words or through physical action. One tactic that abusive partners often use is to blame their partner for their abusive behavior. The victim begins to believe that it is their fault their partner has “changed” because “they used to be a great person” before the abuse. It’s so difficult to see that their partner, whom they love and care about, is actually manipulating them.
Logically, they may realize that they should leave, but there are many reasons why a victim might stay. Like any other relationship, there are feelings of love and emotional attachment. Because of an abusive partner’s manipulation, a victim may believe that the abuse is justified, that they “deserve” it. An abusive partner may make threats to harm the victim, themselves or others if the victim tries to leave. They may use physical force to maintain control, or they may cut off a victim’s resources. Gaslighting is a very common and effective tactic; abusive partners convince the victim that the bad times are not a big deal, that the victim is “crazy” or overreacting emotionally.
How Can I Help?
First and foremost, try to keep the lines of communication open with your loved one. Abusive partners will often try to isolate the victim from family and friends so they can have total power and control without any interference. An abusive partner might tell the victim that no one loves and cares for them like they do, and if the victim has no one to reach out to, they may believe the abusive partner is right.
Try not to speak negatively about the abusive partner. This may put the victim on the defense, because they have already been manipulated to believe that the abuse is their fault. Alternatively, they may feel embarrassed or ashamed that they “allowed” the abuse to happen. It can be very difficult to admit to friends and family that the person they once thought was wonderful is actually abusive. Let them know that the abuse is not their fault. Try to listen without judgment and tell them you’re concerned for their safety. By treating them with kindness and respect, you remind them that they are worthy of such treatment.
Lastly, avoid telling your loved one what they should do. It can be confusing and puts an enormous amount of pressure on the victim. They are already in a situation where someone is exerting power and control over them. Instead, you can help shift power back to them by trusting that they know their situation best, and letting them know you are there to provide help and support. Create a safety plan with them, and let them decide what will make them feel safest, whether that includes leaving the relationship or not. You might also consider sending short, positive texts or emails (if they have indicated it is safe to do so) to let the victim know you are there for them, such as, “Just wanted to say hi and know that I love you and I am always here for you.’’ These small gestures can be very encouraging and go a long way.
If your loved one is experiencing abuse, The Hotline can help. Whether you need support, information or assistance with creating a safety plan, call 1-800-799-7233 or chat here on our website from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. Central.