When Your Family Member is Abusing Their Partner
At The Hotline, we talk a lot about how to support someone you care about if they are being abused. But what if the person you care about is the one who is being abusive toward their partner? What if they’re a member of your own family?
This can be an incredibly difficult situation to deal with. You might love your family member, but you know that what they’re doing is harmful. You may not want to admit that it’s happening, or you may just feel like cutting them out of your life. These are all normal reactions. Relationships with family members can be complicated, and if someone is behaving abusively, that makes things even more complicated.
It’s important to remember that you have the power to be an active bystander. Ultimately, your family member is the only person who can choose to stop the abuse, but there are ways to support them.
Here are a few things you can do to encourage them to behave in healthier ways:
- Educate yourself on the dynamics of domestic violence and abuse.
Abuse is about power and control, and the signs are not always obvious. Learning the warning signs of abuse can help you help your family member identify their abusive and unhealthy behaviors. If you witness behaviors that you feel are unhealthy or abusive, try not to be silent about them. You might say things like, “I don’t think it’s healthy to talk to your partner that way,” or “If you care about someone, I think you should treat them with respect.”
- Avoid blaming the victim or excusing abusive behavior.
If you witness the abuse, or if your family member tells you about a time they behaved abusively, try not to place blame on their partner or make excuses for the abuse. For example, avoid saying things like, “Well, what did they do to make you act that way?” or “You couldn’t help it.” There is no excuse for abuse; it is a choice, and it’s one that no one has to make. Although you may care about your family member, it’s important to focus on identifying the abusive behaviors. Even if their partner stays in the relationship, that doesn’t mean they deserve to be abused. Remember, you’re not turning against your family member. You’re just trying to help them have a healthier relationship.
- Realize that you can’t make them change.
You can’t “save” or “fix” another person. It’s up to them to decide that they want to change. Acknowledging that their behavior is abusive is the first step, and change can be a long and difficult process. Encourage them to seek professional help or to reach out to a confidential, non-judgmental hotline. Remind them of the effects that their abusive behaviors are having on their partner and their family. And remember, your family member’s decision to be abusive is not a reflection on you.
- Practice self-care.
It can be very difficult knowing that someone you care about is an abusive partner. You might feel stressed or emotionally drained, and that’s totally normal. You have the right to take a step back from the situation when you need to and practice lots of self-care! By self-care, we mean doing things you enjoy or that help you feel calm and relaxed. Your own well-being is important, and you can’t put energy into supporting others if you aren’t taking care of yourself.
“Why Didn’t You Say Anything?”
With every public revealing of a public figure’s sexual harassment practices and abusive behavior, people across the country react with a combination of fear, anger, and sadness. With so many similar stories that involve influential people, it’s normal to wonder: how come so many people decided to stay silent in situations where there’s abuse?
As we hear thousands of voices clamoring for justice in favor of our favorite stars via web, television and printed media, we also hear a lot of judgment about the alleged victims’ actions—or lack thereof:
“Staying silent makes you an accomplice.”
“Staying silent perpetuates sexual abuse.”
“You need to speak out.”
“Why did you stay silent?”
“I would have said something.”
“That never would have happened to me.”
The truth is that speaking out against abuse is not always a readily available option for people experiencing relationship abuse or sexual assault. We hear it from the thousands of people who reach out to The Hotline for help every day. We know that abuse thrives in isolation and that it walks hand-in-hand with fear.
Fear muzzles the truth. It hides behind a veil of shame, and it rips you open from the inside out, making you feel like less of a person. We also know first-hand that fearing an abusive partner can be paralyzing, traumatizing, and have long-lasting effects on people’s psyche and body.
To understand violence, we need to accept that fear is a completely natural reaction to a threat, and therefore, it is OK to be afraid. What we can’t do, however, is point fingers at the victims and blame them for not speaking out sooner. We are not in their shoes, and we will never know exactly how they feel.
Here are some reasons why victims and survivors may feel afraid of talking about their experience with abuse:
- Fear of being judged or not being believed
Being a victim of abuse can leave victims feeling ashamed and less-than a person. It can also leave them feeling like no one will believe them because it’s somehow their fault or that they were asking for it. The truth is that regardless of how the abuse happened, abuse is never the victim’s fault and they were never asking for it. It’s worth repeating: it’s important to remember to provide a sympathetic ear free of judgment, validate the other’s person’s experience and just being present when victims of violence or sexual assault are ready to open up.
- Fear of retaliation and going nowhere in their careers
Abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of social status, gender, ethnicity,or background. Abuse is all about power and control, so it makes sense that a survivor would fear retaliation if the abuser held power over them. Our callers and chatters tell us how very real the fear of retaliation is as many of them fear being ostracized by their communities, outed if they are LGBTQ+ or afraid of losing their children, their jobs and their credibility and reputation amongst family and friends.
- Fear of feeling responsible for the abuse or that speaking up can lead to direct physical harm
- Sometimes there’s a huge level of shame associated with attacks like this, as many survivors may feel it was their fault or that speaking up against their abuser may be unsafe and lead to physical harm. Feeling responsible for not fighting back, for allowing the attack to happen or for not feeling strong enough is something that we hear from contacts that reach out to us. The thing is, however, that abuse has nothing to do with the victim! It’s about the abuser’s desire for power and control—as simple as that. No matter why it happens, abuse is not OK and it’s never justified. You are never too small to make a difference and you should not feel responsible for something that was never your fault in the first place.
To the many survivors out there, remember: you are not alone. We believe you, regardless of when and how you decide to speak your truth. We support you and are here for you whenever you feel like you want to talk—no matter when you decide to do so.
When A Survivor Asks You For Help
If someone you care about has been facing abuse from their partner and they ask for your help it can be overwhelming to figure out what to do, so we’ve compiled some tips to make your help, well…helpful!
Here are some tips to try:
- Don't assume, ask!
No matter how well you know a survivor, the only person who can tell you how they feel or what they need is them. Calling the police when your neighbor is being yelled at may put them in danger if that’s not something they’ve asked you to do. Survivors of intimate partner violence have already been dealing with their abusive partner disregarding their wants, needs and boundaries, so to help a survivor it’s vital that you respect their autonomy. The best way to do that is with one simple question–”How can I help?”
- Work smarter, not harder.
It may be useful to think of helping a friend who is facing or has just left an abusive relationship as you would think of helping someone who is grieving the death of someone they loved. Framing your help this way, especially around the house, can ensure you don’t displace something that has big memories or emotions attached to it. If your friend or family member asks you to pick up groceries, for example, a list will likely be inadequate; instead, take pictures of the labels of the brands and products your friend is used to—why? Because there’s comfort in consistency. Similarly, before picking up around the house or throwing anything away, check in with your friend.
- Safety first.
At The Hotline, we talk about safety for a good reason: every year more than 12 million people in the United States are abused by a current or former intimate partner. No matter what a survivor has asked you to do, the first thing you should talk about is how to create a safety plan. Basically, this means thinking through all of the possible outcomes of any given action the abuser may take and prepare yourself for how you could stay safe if they were to occur. From pregnancy and kids to pets and travel, and everything in between, safety planning is important for everyone who has been threatened by an abuser. Your loved one knows their abusive partner or ex-partner better than anyone, so they’re the best judge of what will keep them—and you—safe.
- Take care of yourself.
This last tip may feel counterintuitive because your loved one has asked you to help them, but we know dealing with abuse and its aftermath can be really difficult for people who love survivors too. It’s crucial that you listen to your own instincts and respect your body’s needs for food, water, movement, sleep and happiness. It’s OK to take a day, or even a week off, to recharge your emotional battery and focus your energy on things that relax you and bring you joy. Think about it like being on an airplane—you have to put your own oxygen mask on first before you can help anyone else!
If someone you know has asked you for help dealing with or escaping an abusive partner, first, encourage them to reach out to The Hotline via phone or chat, if it’s safe, and then, you can call or chat with us too. Our advocates can help you make a safety plan that’s customized to your friend or family member’s situation, and help you find articles and examples of safety planning to share with your loved one as well. We’re here 24/7/365 to help everyone affected by abuse.
Is Love Enough?
Love seems to be everywhere. In songs, movies, TV shows, books and magazines, we’re told that it’s the greatest thing in the world and that all you need is love. The media tells us that love is more than enough in relationships.
But the truth is, love isn’t always enough of a reason to stay in a relationship.
Don’t get us wrong: loving someone, or caring deeply for them, is a wonderful thing, but it’s a feeling that can also make a relationship complicated. We hear from many people who tell us about unhealthy behaviors or feeling unhappy in a relationship but say that they still love their partners. It’s very possible to have feelings of love for someone even if they are mistreating you.
It’s important to recognize that love is just one part of a whole. There are a few other crucial ingredients to having a solid, healthy relationship.
If you’re in a relationship and wondering if love is enough, try asking yourself these questions:
- Do you trust each other?
You can love someone, but if you don’t trust them – or they don’t trust you – then the relationship won’t be healthy. Trust is a building block of a healthy relationship, and without it, jealousy and insecurity can lead to unhealthy or even abusive behavior.
- Do you feel supported and comfortable talking to each other about anything, including difficult topics?
Being able to communicate openly with your partner about anything without feeling fearful of how they’ll respond is so important in a healthy relationship. Even if you bring up a difficult topic or disagree about something, that shouldn’t lead to screaming, name calling or any sort of physical confrontation. You deserve to feel safe talking to the person you love.
- Do you respect each other’s boundaries?
Setting boundaries helps ensure that everyone in a relationship feels comfortable with what’s happening, which is why a person’s boundaries should always be respected – even if you (or your partner) don’t like them. Disrespecting boundaries is a sign of abusive behavior, not love. Note: a healthy boundary protects and respects a person, and does not seek to control or harm another person.
- Do you have fun together?
Maybe it seems obvious, but we’re going to say it anyway: having fun together is a really important part of a healthy relationship! Even if you love your partner, frequently feeling unhappy or insecure in your relationship may be a sign that your relationship isn’t as healthy as it could be.
What it comes down to is that everyone deserves to be in a healthy, safe AND loving relationship. If you answered “no” to any of these questions, it might be time to reconsider whether the relationship is right for you, EVEN if you love your partner.
How an Abusive Partner’s “Good” Behavior is Part of the Act
“He’s really a great guy, though.”
“I know this isn’t okay, but she’s made me feel so special, and I just love her so much.”
“They were so loving and sweet. The good times are the best I’ve ever had.”
We often hear statements like this from people who contact us. Many struggle to understand why their partners, who were once incredibly kind and loving, now treat them in hurtful and abusive ways. It can be so confusing because the abuse isn’t constant. Most partners aren’t abusive all the time, so it makes sense to think they could go back to being that “kind and loving” person and stay there. In most of these relationships, though, when a partner acts nice, it’s really just that: an act. Thinking about their behavior in this way can be helpful by allowing you the space to prioritize your safety and well-being.
Abusive Partners: A Play in Four Acts
- Act I: Auditioning for the Role
How Abusive Partners Initiate Relationships
A common trait of many abusive partners is that they are really charming, especially at the beginning of a relationship and in the first stages of dating. You might begin to feel like they understand you better than any other partners before and can treat you better because of it. Under these conditions, it would be hard for anyone not to become really attached and develop strong feelings of love unlike anything they’ve felt in the past. We also hear from a lot of survivors of abuse that their relationship moved faster than they were comfortable with in the beginning because their abusive partner “swept them off their feet.” There are two sides to this coin, though. Being treated in new ways can be a really great thing, but it also means not knowing what to expect or how to respond to new behavior. Abusive and controlling partners will slowly start to choose unhealthy and then abusive behaviors. It becomes difficult to identify whether what’s happening is healthy, and it’s easier to excuse this behavior since you’re focused on how different and great things had been until now.
- Act II: Putting on the Show
How Abusive Partners Maintain the Control They’ve Taken
Just as their initial charm was a part of their act, so are the times when they return to that good behavior. When the unhealthy or abusive behavior begins to escalate, you may have a gut instinct that something isn’t right, even if it’s hard to figure out why. But, it can be tough to trust that instinct, especially after seeing all that great behavior in the beginning of the relationship. Abusive partners acknowledge this instinct, and that’s one reason why abusive relationships usually don’t start out with abuse. The escalation tends to happen over time after they have shown you their charming act.
However, that doesn’t mean the escalation of abusive behavior is predictable. As we’ve said before, the phrase “cycle of abuse” isn’t entirely accurate because it implies patterns and levels that can be measured or predicted. You might want to know how bad is “too bad” and where you should draw the line, but that’s not a question anyone else can answer for you. Since abusive behavior is a choice, it happens when that person chooses it, which isn’t something you can predict. The loving, kind, sweet act they put on for you is a primary tactic they use to maintain the control they’ve taken. Moving back and forth between the good and bad behavior is an intentional manipulation tactic that plays upon your desire for them to return to the good behavior. You may find yourself questioning your own actions, especially if they blame you for their abusive behaviors because clearly, they can choose to behave lovingly. But it’s important to recognize that their minimizing and excuses for the behavior are part of the abuse, too. If they were abusive all the time, you might be more likely to leave or seek help sooner, since you wouldn’t be reminded of how it used to be.
- Act III: The Audience Response
What Others Say About the Abuser
Another aspect of the abuser’s performance that makes it really difficult to see things clearly is that their partners are usually, though not always, the only ones who get to see both of the parts they play. People with controlling, unhealthy and abusive attitudes know their behavior is not okay. That’s why they don’t show it to most of the people in their lives or treat others with the same level of abuse. This can add to a victim’s confusion. When everyone else is saying how great they are and admiring their charming behavior, it might validate the hope that the good behavior is the “real” person. It can be incredibly hard to trust your instincts if you think you’re the only person worried that something isn’t right, or like you’re the one causing the abuse.
An additional complication is the fact that gaslighting is one of the most common and effective abuse tactics. With this tactic, an abuser actively tries to make their victim question reality or if what they believe is actually true. If you’re constantly questioning your reality or your partner’s behavior, one helpful thing to do is to keep a journal (if it’s safe for you to do so, and you’re able to keep it in a place your abusive partner does not have access to).
With all of these layers, it’s understandable that someone would focus on the good and ignore the bad. However, no one should ever have to experience hurtful or abusive behavior for any reason. Everyone deserves respect and equality in their relationship at all times.
- Act IV: Performance Review
Evaluating and Reframing the Good Behavior
Thinking about a partner’s “good behavior” in this way can be helpful for those still in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, as well as for those who question their decision after leaving. Constantly wondering which behaviors are the “real” person is absolutely normal and valid, no matter how hurtful a partner has been or for how long. People who choose to be abusive often have an underlying attitude of entitlement and privilege, which is something that is very difficult to change. Apologizing and temporarily acting “nice” again are not true indications of change. Real change takes time and a tremendous amount of effort and commitment.
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.
Is Your Loved One in an Abusive Relationship?
“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 at 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 A Loved One?
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 as 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.
“Can I Save Them?”
“If I stay, I can save him.”
“If she loves me, she’ll change.”
“I need to save them from that relationship!”
Here at The Hotline, we know there are many reasons why someone might stay in an abusive relationship. One common reason is wanting to help the abusive partner change, or believing you are the only one who can change them. Sometimes, family or friends may also feel this way towards a victim of abuse: like they’re the only people who can help. While it’s normal to want to help someone you love, there is no way to ‘save’ or ‘fix’ another person. Ultimately, all we can control are our own actions and attitudes. So, while we can offer our support, it is up to the individual to take the next step in the situation.
Staying To Save Your Abusive Partner
You might hope that by staying in the relationship, you can potentially “save” your abusive partner or stop them from being abusive. We often hear from people attempting to save their abusive partners in a number of ways, like:
- Trying to find batterer intervention programs for their abusive partners
- Giving their abusive partner an ultimatum
- Suggestion or going to couple’s counseling
- Telling the abusive partner they have to go to therapy
These reactions are natural, since not only is abuse a traumatic experience, it’s also difficult to see someone we love act in ways that are harmful or unhealthy. However, it’s important to recognize that none of these tactics will ultimately stop the abuse. Change is possible in an abusive partner, but in order to truly change, that person has to acknowledge their behaviors are harmful, commit to stopping, seek treatment and support and put in the actual effort to change. You may encourage your partner to go to a batterer intervention program or to individual therapy (we don’t recommend couples counseling in abusive relationships), but unless they are already in the place to make a change in their behaviors, the abuse most likely will not stop. In fact, some abusive partners may even promise to change or seek therapy in order to manipulate their partner into staying in the relationship.
It is admirable to want to help another person, but we can’t control another person’s actions or decisions; an abusive partner must come to the realization that their behaviors are unhealthy/abusive and decide to change on their own. Even if they do begin to take steps toward change, keep in mind that does not mean you are obligated to stay to support them through the process. You have the right to move on with your life and take time to care for yourself.
Wanting to Save Someone from an Abusive Relationship
If someone you know and care about is in an abusive relationship, you might want to do whatever you can in your power to save them. We often hear from people attempting to help their loved ones by doing things like:
- Calling the police
- Giving their loved one an ultimatum to leave the relationship
- Not allowing the abusive partner in their home
- Criticizing the abusive partner’s character
These are common responses to have, and it’s great to offer your support to a loved one affected by abuse. However, it’s important to remember that leaving an abusive relationship can be very difficult and even dangerous. Your friend or family member knows what is safest for them and may not be ready to leave. Rather than trying to “save” them, consider how you might empower them to make their own decisions about how to proceed. You can offer support in a number of ways:
- Providing a nonjudgmental space that allows your friend to open up to you if they feel comfortable doing so
- Develop a safety plan with them
- Create opportunities to engage in self-care activities with your friend without pressuring them to talk about their relationship
- Be there for them regardless of whether they get out of the relationship or not, or whether they go back
- Respect the decisions that they make, and continue to care for them
Even if your friend does decide to leave the relationship, there is a chance they might return to their partner. It is common for a person in an abusive relationship to leave and return multiple times before they leave for good. This might make you feel frustrated, and that’s okay, but by establishing a caring and supportive relationship with your friend, they may feel more comfortable reaching out for help when they are ready to receive it.
When caring for someone in an abusive relationship, it’s also important that you continue to care for yourself. Finding an outlet where you can process some of your feelings of frustration or fear can be really helpful, whether that’s talking to a counselor or friend, or doing a relaxing activity.
If you are struggling with these issues or know someone who is, you can always get in touch with a Hotline advocate for help and support. We’re here for you 24/7/365.
“Why Do I Love My Abuser?”
We hear from many people who are in abusive relationships, and even those who have left relationships, but say that they love their abusive partner. They wonder, “Why do I love someone who has hurt me so much?” It can feel strange, confusing and even wrong to love someone who has chosen to be abusive.
While these feelings can be difficult to understand, they aren’t strange and they aren’t wrong. Love isn’t something that just disappears overnight. It’s a connection and emotional attachment that you create with another person. Love comes with a lot of investment of time, energy and trust. It’s not easy to just let go of a life you’ve built with someone, whether they’re abusive toward you or not.
If you’re struggling with feelings of love for an abusive partner, it could be for a number of reasons:
- You Remember the “Good Times”
Abuse typically doesn’t happen right away in a relationship, and it tends to escalate over time as an abusive partner becomes more controlling. You may remember the beginning of the relationship when your partner was charming and thoughtful. You may see good qualities in your partner; they might be a great parent or contribute to their community. It’s not shameful to love someone for who they could be, or for the person they led you to believe they were.
After hurtful or destructive behavior reaches a peak, there may be periods of “calm” in your relationship when your partner makes apologies and promises that the abuse will never happen again. During calmer periods, it might seem like your partner is back to being their “old self” – the wonderful person they were at the beginning of the relationship. You might feel that if you could just do or say the “right” things, the person you fell in love with would stay and the abuse would end. But, there is nothing you could do or say to prevent the abuse, because the abuse is not your fault. It has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the choices your partner makes. Those periods of calm are often a tactic that an abusive partner uses to further confuse and control their partner.
- Your Partner Has Experienced Their Own Trauma
Abusive partners are human beings who are complex, like everyone else. They may be dealing with their own traumas, past or present. As their partner, you care about them, and maybe you hoped you could help or “fix” them. But whether they’re dealing with a mental illness, addiction or an abusive childhood, there is NO excuse for them to abuse their partner in the present. Abuse is always a choice and is never okay. The truth is, even though you love your partner, you can’t “fix” another person. It’s up to them to get help addressing their own trauma and their abusive behavior.
- Love Can Be a Survival Technique
For many victims, feelings of love for an abusive partner can also be a survival technique. It is very difficult for a non-abusive person to understand how someone they love, and who claims to love them, could harm or mistreat them. To cope, they detach from their pain or terror by subconsciously beginning to see things from the abusive partner’s view. This process can intensify when an abusive partner uses gaslighting techniques to control or manipulate their partner. The victim begins to agree with the abuser, and certain aspects of the victim’s own personality and perspective fade over time. By doing this, the victim learns how to “appease” the abusive partner, which may temporarily keep them from being hurt. The need to survive may be compounded if a victim depends on their abusive partner financially, physically or in some other way.
You might want to believe your partner when they say that things will change and get better because you love them, and they say they love you. It’s okay to feel that love and want to believe your partner. But it’s important to consider your own safety and that what your partner is giving you isn’t actually love. Love is something that is safe, supportive, trusting and respectful. Abuse is not any of these things; it’s about power and control. It IS possible to love someone and, at the same time, realize that they aren’t a safe or healthy person to be around. You deserve to be safe, respected and truly loved at all times.
50 Obstacles to Leaving
“It would take me yet another year of planning, forgiving, calling, reaching for help, before I could leave.” —Sarah Buel
Leaving is not easy. On average, it takes a victim seven times to leave before staying away for good. Exiting the relationship is most unsafe time for a victim. As the abuser senses that they’re losing power, they will often act in dangerous ways to regain control over their victim.
We know victim’s frustrations with feeling like the abuse is somehow their fault. If only they’d leave, right? Wrong. We know better. In fact, we’re taking a closer look at 50 reasons why it may be near impossible to leave. To answer the often-asked question “Why don’t you just leave?” we’ve adapted Sarah M. Buel’s “Fifty Obstacles to Leaving, a.k.a., Why Abuse Victims Stay” — 50 different reasons that she has encountered throughout her 20+ years of work in the domestic violence field.
50 Obstacles to Leaving
The victim doesn’t have an enthusiastic supporter on their side so may feel discouraged or hopeless.
The batterer is wealthy, famous, powerful in the community, etc., and can afford to hire private counselor and pressure decision-makers.
- Believes Threats
The victim believes the batterer’s threats to kill them and the children if they attempt to leave.
- Children’s Best Interest
The victim believes it is in the children’s best interest to have both parents in the home, especially if the abuser doesn’t physically abuse the children.
- Children’s Pressure
The children put pressure (independently or by the abuser’s influence) on the abused parent to stay with their partner.
- Culture and Race
Because of differences in race or culture, the victim worries about being treated unequally by the justice system if they come forward, or believes stereotypes about acceptable actions in their own culture.
The victim is in denial about the danger, instead believing that if they could be better partners, the abuse would stop.
Victims who are disabled or physically challenged face obstacles in gaining access to court and social services, and may be isolated from basic info about resources.
Elderly victims may hold traditional beliefs about marriage and believe they must stay, or are dependent on the batterer for care even in the face of physical abuse.
- Emotional Attachment
The victim believes the abuser’s excuses to justify the violence, blaming job stress or substance abuse for example.
- Family Pressure
Family members exert pressure if they believe there’s no excuse for leaving a marriage or if they’re in denial about the abuse.
- Fear of Retaliation
The batterer has shown willingness to carry out threats and the victim fears harm to themselves or the children if they leave.
- Fear of Losing Child Custody
The batterer has used the threat of obtaining custody to exact agreements to their liking.
- Financial Abuse
Financial abuse can take many different forms depending on the couple’s socio-economic status — ex. If victims have been forced to sign false tax returns or take part in other unlawful financial transactions.
- Financial Despair
The victim realizes that they cannot provide for themselves or their children without the batterer’s assistance.
The victim feels gratitude toward the batterer because the batterer has helped support and raise their children from a previous relationship, or take care of them if they have health, medical or other problems.
Batterers have convinced victims that the violence is happening because it’s their fault.
Homeless abuse victims face increased danger, as they must find ways of meeting basic survival needs of shelter, food, and clothing while attempting to elude their batterers.
- Hope for the Violence to Cease
This hope is typically fueled by the batterer’s promises of change, pleas from the children, or family’s advice to save the relationship.
The victim has been cut off from family, friends and colleagues and lacks a support system or people to stay with.
- Keeping the Family Together
Victims believe it is in their children’s best interest to have their father or a male role model in the family.
- Illiterate Victims
Illiterate victims may be forced to rely on the literate batterer for everyday survival.
- Incarcerated or Newly Released Abuse Victims
Such victims often don’t have support systems to assist them with re-entry to the community. Parole officers may require that they return home if that appears to be a stable environment.
- Law Enforcement Officer
If the perpetrator is a law enforcement officer, the victim may fear that other officers will refuse to assist or believe them if they come forward.
- LGBTQ+ Victims
Victims may feel silenced if disclosing their sexual orientation (to qualify for a protective order) could result in losing their job, family, and home.
- Low Self-Esteem
Victims may believe they deserve no better than the abuse they receive.
Since many batterers are initially charming, victims fall in love and may have difficulty altering their feelings with the first sign of a problem.
Mediation can put the victim in the dangerous position of incurring the batterer’s wrath for disclosing the extent of the violence.
- Medical Problems
The victim must stay with the batterer to obtain medical services, especially if they share insurance.
- Mentally Ill Victims
Victims face negative societal stereotypes in addition to the batterer’s taunts that the victim is crazy and nobody will believe anything that they say.
- Mentally or Developmentally Challenged Victims
These victims are particularly vulnerable to the batterer’s manipulation and are likely to be dependent on the batterer for basic survival.
If the victim or the perpetrator is in the military, an effective intervention is largely dependent on the commander’s response. Many commanders believe that it is more important to salvage the soldier’s military career than to ensure the victim’s safety.
- No Place to Go
Victims can’t find affordable housing or there is no shelter space.
- No Job Skills
Victims without job skills usually have no choice but to work for employers paying minimum wage, with few, if any, medical and other benefits.
- No Knowledge of Options
Victims without knowledge of the options and resources logically assume that none exist.
- Past Criminal Record
Victims with a past criminal record are often still on probation or parole, making them vulnerable to the batterer’s threats to comply with all of their demands or be sent back to prison.
- Previously Abused Victims
Sometimes previously abused victims believe the batterer’s accusation, “See, this is what you drive your partners to do to you!”
- Prior Negative Court Experiences
Victims don’t believe that they will be given the respect and safety considerations that they need in court.
- Promises of Change
The batterer’s promises of change may be easy to believe because they sound sincere. Victims are socialized to be forgiving.
- Religious Beliefs
Beliefs may lead victims to think they have to tolerate the abuse to show their adherence to the faith.
- Rural Victims
Victims may be isolated and simply unable to access services due to lack of transportation, or the needed programs are distant and unable to provide outreach.
- Safer to Stay
Assessing that it is safer to stay may be accurate when the victim can keep an eye on the batterer, sensing when the batterer is about to become violent and, to the extent possible, taking action to protect themselves and their children.
Students in high school or college may fear that untrained administrators will deny their requests for help. If the perpetrator is also a student, the victim often does not want them to be expelled from school.
- Shame and Embarrassment
The victim doesn’t want to disclose the abuse or may deny that any problem exists.
- Substance Abuse or Alcohol
Either the victim or offender’s substance abuse may inhibit seeking help, often for fear that the children will be removed.
Teens are at greater risk for abuse in their relationships than any other age group. Peer pressure, immaturity, no knowledge of resources, and low self-esteem all factor into the decision to stay.
A lack of transportation condemns victims to a choice between welfare and returning to their abusers.
- Unaware that Abuse is a Criminal Offense
This can occur often if family, friends and community professionals minimize the crimes.
- Undocumented Victims
Victims facing complex immigration problems if they leave are often forced to stay with the batterers who may control their INS status.
Every person’s situation is unique, and you may be unable to leave a situation for a complex combination of different reasons. If you’re contemplating leaving an abusive relationship or struggling in one that you cannot leave, consider contacting The Hotline to speak confidentially with an advocate, and take a look at our resources on leaving safely.
*Sarah M. Buel is Clinical Professor, University of Texas School of Law (UTSL). She was founder and co-director, UTSL Domestic Violence Clinic; co-founder and consultant, National Training Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence; and a former domestic violence, child abuse, and juvenile prosecutor and advocate. She graduated cum laude from Harvard Extension School and Harvard Law School.
Helpers: So You Want to Stage an Intervention…
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.
What if my abusive partner apologizes?
It’s one of the first words we learn, and we continue to use it throughout our lives to express grievance or pain. We teach children to say “sorry” (or an equivalent term in their native language) from an early age. When they do something offensive, impolite or unacceptable, they are taught that they can simply say “sorry” to make the situation okay again. The opportunities to practice and enhance the skill of using the word “sorry” since early life development are ongoing, reinforcing the instinct to apologize.
Another thing children learn from a young age, whether explicitly or implicitly, is about concepts of power and equality. Abuse is a learned behavior, and we often see children modeling social dynamics of those they see around them while growing up. If a child grows up in an environment where someone is asserting dominance, that child may grasp the idea that dominance is normal, including what it takes to become the dominant person and how it may feel to be dominated. This means the child may themselves begin to desire or seek power and control over others, which can lead to unhealthy or abusive behaviors later in life. On the opposite side, the child may also develop empathy toward those being victimized, or even feel that it is normal not to have power and control over their own decisions, which may set them up to be more tolerant of abuse in the future.
It’s important to remember that experiencing or witnessing abuse as a child does not cause someone to be abusive or victimized as an adult, or excuse any abusive behavior. Abuse is a choice — anyone can choose to abuse or not abuse.
When “Sorry” Isn’t Enough
Research has demonstrated that saying “sorry” doesn’t work well when the actions taken to apologize do not match those used to develop or enhance trust between those parties. Human relationships are founded on trust, a trait built up through authenticity, empathy, and logic. According to initial scientific studies, the human brain derives a sense of reward as trust is being earned and as the individual becomes more trustworthy. Therefore, acting with honesty (words matching actions) when apologizing can strengthen trust in a relationship.
What does this mean? A real apology doesn’t end at saying “sorry”—it’s also essential to rebuild any trust that has been broken in order to truly mend the relationship.
Often in abusive relationships, we see abusive partners apologizing with little to no willingness to make changes towards nurturing a healthy relationship, or behaving differently in the future. We may see them using “sorry” as a child might, just wanting to say the magic word to make the situation okay again, without facing the consequences of their choices. We sometimes even hear abusers using apologies as a way to further manipulate their partners or avoid truly taking responsibility for their actions, “I’m sorry I hurt you, but you shouldn’t have gotten me so angry.” While this may sound like an apology, it places the blame back on the victim for the abuser’s choice to hurt them. Research and outcomes of a variety of partnerships in a variety of contexts, including intimate partnerships, have shown that self-centering approaches such as this will not drive collaboration, a core success factor in partnerships. Only when an abusive partner takes accountability for their actions and begins steps to prevent the behavior in the future (Battering Intervention, counseling, etc.) can they really begin to make amends.
Additionally, frequent use of “sorry” may reduce the effectiveness of an apology, and it can undermine trust the recipient is placing in the person apologizing. At The Hotline, we often see survivors whose self confidence and ability to trust have been diminished as the result of someone exercising power and control over them. They may not feel they have the option refuse to accept an apology, or to tell their partner that “sorry” simply isn’t enough for the pain they have caused. Apologies may stop being meaningful to them when they hear “sorry” so often, yet the abuse does not stop, and they may begin to lose hope that things will ever change. If you are experiencing abuse, you always have the right to refuse an apology. You always deserve to feel safe, happy and respected in your relationship, regardless of how forgiving you’ve been in the past.
If any of these themes sound familiar to you, our advocates are here 24/7 to talk to about it. Call us at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or chat at thehotline.org.