Your best friend tells you she’s scared of her partner. You notice bruises on your colleague’s arm. Your sister’s husband is always criticising her. What do you say? Should you do something? What if you get it wrong and make things worse?
You’re probably reading this hoping you never find yourself in one of these situations, but most of us will already know someone experiencing domestic abuse. In the UK and France, for example, for every four women, one will experience domestic abuse during their lifetime. This is something that can happen to anyone – of any age and from any background.
Research shows that if a woman is experiencing abuse, she is most likely to turn to someone she knows –- her friends, family members, neighbours and colleagues. Occasionally, women experiencing domestic abuse tell their doctor or other professional, but usually, it is only the people around them who suspect that something is wrong.
It can be hard to know what to say when someone tells you they are experiencing abuse. Indeed, it is often common for women to not be believed, or even blamed for the situation – along with being asked “why don’t you just leave?”. A question that underestimates both the complexity of domestic abuse situations and the increased risk of serious harm when trying to leave.
What to say
A common concern is feeling like you don’t know enough to respond well, but simply listening can help someone to break the silence around their situation.
“Domestic abuse” and “domestic violence” are labels that many people struggle to identify with because they feel these terms don’t represent their experiences – particularly the control and coercion, and the psychological, emotional, sexual and financial abuse they have experienced.
So start conversations gently, conveying your concern. Ask about things you have noticed in the person’s behaviour you suspect is experiencing abuse, or the person behaving abusively. Something like: “We haven’t seen much of you recently. Is everything OK?” or “I’ve noticed you seem a bit down. Has anyone upset you?” or even “I’m worried about you. I saw the way he looked at you, and you seem scared.”
How you then respond to any disclosure really matters. It can be hard not to be critical or blaming, or to offer strong opinions about the relationship or the person behaving abusively, but these responses tend to close conversations down.
Instead, try to listen with a supportive attitude and an open mind. The important things to convey are that you believe the person, they are not to blame for the abuse, that you are concerned and worried about them and that you want to help.
Deciding to end an abusive relationship can be extremely difficult and may take time to work out how to do this safely. Professionals who work with people in abusive relationships can provide expert support to create safety plans to reduce the risk of harm when leaving the relationship. There are also tips you can share with the person experiencing abuse:
• Pack an emergency bag to hide in a safe place in case they need to leave quickly, including items like passports, birth certificates, keys to their home or car, money, medications, some clothes and a few of their children’s toys.
• Work out a plan for leaving, including who to call, where to go and how to get there. A plan is important because it is difficult to think about these things quickly.
• Agree on a code word so they can signal to you if they are in danger and need urgent help.
You can also offer lots of different types of practical support, such as contacting support organisations and helplines on the person’s behalf or letting them use your phone or computer to do so. Offering to go with the person to appointments can be really helpful. And it may be that you can also offer to let the person stay in your home for a short time or to provide childcare so they have time to think, plan and receive support.
What not to do
As well as not blaming the person experiencing abuse and not being directly critical of the person being abusive, it is important not to pressure the person being abused – they need to make their own decisions in their own time.
You may need to be patient because helping someone in an abusive relationship can be a gradual process. It is also important to make sure you do nothing that might provoke the person who is being abusive – and to ensure you look after yourself in the process.
If you are experiencing abuse in a relationship, or are concerned about someone who is, contact: UK: National Domestic Abuse Helpline 0808 2000247 or Women’s Aid France: Stop Violence helpline 3919 and website.