Supporting Someone Who Keeps Returning to an Abusive Relationship
It can be so difficult to watch someone you care about deal with an abusive relationship. Even more difficult is watching that person leave and return to their partner, time and time again. You might feel frustrated, angry or you may even feel like giving up on your friend or family member. These are all totally normal and understandable feelings to have.
But it’s important to remember that domestic violence is extremely complex. Leaving an abusive relationship is never easy – and it isn’t always the safest option. In fact, survivors of abuse return to their abusive partners an average of seven times before they leave for good. That may sound unbelievable or unreasonable to a person who has never experienced abuse. But there are many reasons why a person might stay or return to their abusive partner. As frustrating as this may be, someone in a position to support a survivor can play a crucial role in empowering them to stay safe or even leave for good.
If you find yourself in this role, you might ask yourself: what can you do to make sure you are staying helpful and supportive?
- Educate Yourself
Understanding the dynamics of domestic violence is really important when supporting a person in an abusive relationship. A greater understanding of these dynamics may help you develop more empathy for your friend or family member who is experiencing these things in their relationship. Abuse is about power and control; part of maintaining that power and control requires the breaking down of a victim’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth. Gaslighting, a very common abusive tactic, can even make a person question their own thoughts or understanding of reality. Leaving the relationship may seem like an easy solution, but it’s important to recognize that leaving can be a very dangerous and challenging time for a victim. Many victims do not feel they have a choice; they are tied to their partners due to finances, children, housing, disability, fear or even love.
It’s also important to understand that abusive people are skilled manipulators. After violence or verbal attacks occur, there is often a “honeymoon” period; the abuser may apologize, promise it will never happen again or otherwise appear like a perfect partner for a time. However, this is an abusive tactic meant to keep the victim ensnared in the relationship, and can even make the victim question whether the abuse is really “that bad.” The victim may also believe that if they could just do everything right, their partner would stop the abuse and be that wonderful version of themselves all the time. An abusive partner knows that if they can keep their partner second guessing themselves, they will be less likely to feel empowered to take steps towards leaving. These are just a few of the complications that victims may face when considering ending an abusive relationship.
- Let Your Loved One Know That You’re Concerned
This can be a really difficult conversation to have, but you can start it by simply saying, “I’ve noticed that your partner says mean things to you/doesn’t let you go out as much/puts you down in front of other people/etc., and I’m concerned about that. Is there anything you want to talk about?” Your friend may not want to talk, or they might even defend their partner. They may be ashamed of getting back together with their partner, and they don’t want to admit that things aren’t okay. Try not to judge them, and instead remain open and supportive. Letting them know that you’re there for them and that they’re not alone can be a huge comfort.
- Listen and Support Their Decisions
People in abusive relationships often feel like they have little control over their lives. Their abusive partners have taken control, and they may be dependent on them in multiple ways. It can be tough to support a person’s decision to return to or stay with their abusive partner, but try to avoid telling your friend what they should do. In abusive relationships, an abusive partner is constantly taking away the other partner’s right to make their own choices and have their own thoughts or feelings. So, it can be really beneficial to model healthy behaviors for your friend or family member. Let them know you believe they are the best person to make the decision that feels right to them at that time. Let them know that you trust them to know what’s best for themselves. This will place power back in their hands! Keep in mind that if a person doesn’t leave on their own terms when they’re ready, they are more likely to return to their abusive partner.
- Encourage Small Steps and Help Them Find Options Specific to Their Needs
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to domestic violence. Many survivors feel overwhelmed by the idea of leaving for good or taking drastic measures (like calling the police), so try to help them identify small steps they can take to feel safer and more empowered and/or move toward leaving the relationship, if that is something they want to do. For example, you might encourage them to contact The Hotline or speak with a counselor. Point out that they can just talk to someone, and that they don’t have to make any big decisions right away. Encourage them to practice self-care in whatever ways work best for them. You could also help them create a safety plan that supports their needs in that moment, whatever their situation might be. A safety plan can include resources and options for getting help, even if they’re not ready to leave the relationship. Additionally, it can help to identify resources that are uniquely qualified to help, for example, if your friend is a teen or LGBTQ+.
- Practice Self-Care
Secondary trauma is real and very common. Supporting someone in an abusive relationship can take a mental and emotional toll on you. If you find yourself getting frustrated with your friend, that can be a really important time to take a step back and focus on your own self-care, so that your frustration doesn’t impact your ability to provide empowering support to them. Taking time for yourself can help you recharge so that you are emotionally equipped to support them for the long haul. We must be healthy on an individual level before we can effectively help others! Your own boundaries are important, too. You have the right to step away from a situation when you need to while letting your friend know that you still care. Remember that you cannot save or “fix” a person and, ultimately, it will be their choice to leave or not.