By Emily, a Hotline Advocate
Your son mentions he’s back with his partner, and you wonder whether he’s hiding fresh bruises under his clothes. Your co-worker decides to leave her husband, who makes her feels like she can’t do anything right, but the next day, she changes her mind – after all, he’s promised to change. Your best friend cancels your plans, over and over, and when you finally see them, they share that their boyfriend has been limiting their access to money.
Maybe you’ve had experiences like these, since in their lifetime, one in three women and one in four men have been physically abused by an intimate partner, with many of those also experiencing sexual violence. But abuse isn’t always physical – almost half of men and women experience emotionally abusive behavior from an intimate partner, and the vast majority of survivors experience economic abuse, too.
Statistics like these show us that relationship abuse is a startlingly common phenomenon, affecting people of all ages, races, nationalities, genders, sexualities, religions, and socioeconomic groups. It can definitely be overwhelming to consider the prevalence of intimate partner violence, and even harder to watch people you care about live through painful and even dangerous relationships. It is totally normal to feel helpless and to want do whatever you can to help that person be safe. One day, the idea may occur to you: an intervention! But how should you go about it? The answer is simpler than you might think: don’t.
What do you mean, intervening isn’t helpful?
One of the most challenging things in life is watching someone you care about be abused by someone who’s supposed to treat them with love and respect. If you find yourself in this role, it is natural to want to take initiative, involve law enforcement, present your loved one with ultimatums, or even forcibly remove them from the abusive situation. However, interventions such as these are typically not the best response for someone in an abusive relationship, as they are disempowering and may even put the survivor in greater danger.
Points to Consider
However inadvertently, interventions often communicate a few troubling things to a survivor: Let me tell you what’s good for you. I understand what you need better than you do. If you trusted me, you would listen and do what I say. What’s problematic about this is that these are similar to the kinds of things an abusive partner might be communicating, explicitly or implicitly, to the survivor. In other words, intervening communicates that you don’t see the survivor as autonomous, which can be incredibly disempowering. We know that when survivors feel supported, they are more likely to feel strong enough take steps to keep themselves safer. It’s also important to keep in mind that safety is not always black and white, and that interventions have a tendency to set up this false dichotomy for survivors, with no middle ground: they can either be safe outside the relationship, or in danger within it. This oversimplifies the process of leaving and overlooks major safety concerns:
- Leaving an abuser is the most dangerous time in a relationship, as the abuse tends to escalate as the abuser feels their power and control slipping away.
- Ending an abusive relationship does not usually mean the end of abuse. Emotionally abusive behaviors such as stalking and threats may even increase after a survivor leaves.
- Leaving safely requires careful preparation and planning. Simply leaving an abusive situation without considering both immediate and long-term safety and emotional support needs can actually put a survivor in more danger.
- Survivors know their situation best, and leaving may not be the safest or even most worthwhile choice for them. For example, abusers often threaten very real harm to family, friends, children, pets, property or even themselves if a survivor leaves. Many shelters cannot accommodate survivors’ adult dependents, stepchildren, teenage male children or pets, and a survivor may not be willing to leave their loved ones behind. There are countless other reasons a survivor may decide to stay with an abuser.
- Unfortunately, CPS, APS, counselors, law enforcement and the justice system don’t always provide the protection or services necessary to meet a survivor’s needs. Shelters often do not have enough space for all of the survivors who are seeking safety, and many survivors rely on their abusers for financial stability. Leaving may not be a sustainable long-term option for a survivor.
- Revisiting their situation again and again through criminal justice proceedings, custody hearings, regulatory agencies, employers, medical and mental health professionals, religious leaders, family, friends, or the media, can be incredibly traumatic for survivors.
- Asking for help can be fatiguing and time consuming, as it involves contacting many sources and retelling stories in order to meet just one of many needs that must be addressed. This can be even harder for survivors who don’t have the technology, privacy, or transportation to safely seek support.
- Abusers seek to isolate their partners from their support systems. Excessive pressure or criticism from family and friends can make survivors feel like they can’t turn to these loved ones when they do need support in the future, playing right into the abuser’s narrative.
Even though an intervention isn’t an effective way to be supportive, there are ways that you can be there for the survivors you care about:
- Understand the stages of change.
The healing process isn’t linear. While it’s understandable that you would want your loved one to make a dramatic change in their life overnight, remember, these kinds of decisions tend to happen over long periods of time.
- In pre-contemplation, your loved one has not yet begun considering what change could look like. They may feel like something is wrong, but haven’t admitted the problem or thought seriously about change.
- In contemplation, they consider what changes they could make to better prioritize their safety. Still, these steps are just a thought, and they are unlikely to make changes in the immediate future.
- In preparation, a survivor, of their own accord, actively begins planning to better stay safe.
- Action is the time period in which survivors make significant, life-affirming changes.
- In maintenance, a survivor continues to adapt to changing circumstances in order to preserve a safe, supportive, and empowering environment.
It’s alright for a survivor to be in any one of these stages of change. Moving through them can take weeks, months, or even years, and people don’t always move through them in a consecutive order. Forcing or pressuring someone who is in pre-contemplation to start safety planning will likely be ineffective, as they have not yet admitted to themselves that they are experiencing abuse. It’s also important to remember that it takes survivors an average of seven attempts at leaving an abusive relationship before leaving for good. It can be challenging for anyone to realize that one of the people they care for most is also hurting them the most.
- Be a friend.
This might sound redundant, but it’s true! You cared about your loved one before they got into this relationship, and you can remind them that there’s more to their life than the abuse they’re experiencing. Remind them what healthy relationships look like. Ask if you can help with their self-care and emotional safety. Sometimes it can be more helpful to talk about hobbies, work, children, other relationships, health and nutrition, media, and more – it reminds survivors of their identity outside of the relationship and can give them a break from the trauma they’re experiencing. Other times, it helps for survivors to tell their stories and re-tell them as a way to process their experiences. You can also think about going to them with a problem of your own to remind them that you trust and respect their judgment and perspective. Everyone is different, so think about what might work best to support your friend.
- When you do talk about the relationship, focus on behaviors.
Discussing an abusive partner’s behavior as immoral, unfair, illegal, or sinful can be difficult, since those are subjective concepts. Instead, it can be helpful to identify what kinds of behaviors are healthy, unhealthy, or abusive to draw a contrast for your loved one. For example, “Wow, I’m concerned to hear that your partner is pressuring you into unwanted sexual intimacy. In a healthy relationship, everyone feels safe saying no and knows that their boundaries will be respected.”
- Remember you’re a person, not a rescuer.
You already know that your loved one is struggling with power dynamics in their romantic relationship. Unequal power dynamics in friendships are disempowering, which is why it’s important to never take control of the survivor’s situation. No matter how it might seem from your perspective, your loved one is the expert on their own experience, and they understand the relationship best. You are not responsible for rescuing them from this relationship, nor are you capable of doing so. You’re doing the right thing when you support rather than rescue.
- Know your limits, and set appropriate boundaries.
Not everyone has the emotional capacity to support a survivor, and there’s no shame in that. Knowing our limits is an act of strength, because naming our vulnerabilities takes courage. Know the signs of vicarious trauma and observe your own emotions. Your loved one deserves support, and if you are at your upper limit, it’s okay to refer them to us or a local domestic violence program that could better assist them. Then, prioritize your emotional well-being and practice self-care to replenish your emotional resources.
Need more support?
Reach out to our advocates! We are here to support you and your loved one at any point along the way. Reach us 24/7/365 by phone at 1-800-799-7233 or by chat at www.thehotline.org.