Throughout my career, including just yesterday, I have received calls from friends and family who are concerned that someone they love is experiencing abuse. These calls often start with the sentence, “I’m looking for some advice…” and I can hear in their voices how deeply worried they are, and how much they hope that I can provide an answer for them. As I do with each of these calls, I wish this blog could provide those answers. There is no formula, no perfect sentence that someone can say to save someone they care about. What I can do is help to shed some light on what your loved one may be experiencing and through that understanding, help to think about what kinds of ways we can support them.
I think it can help to understand the definition of abuse. Abuse is a pattern of behavior that one person uses to gain and maintain power and control over someone else. For someone being abused, their partner – the person they love – has systematically, quietly, and often under the guise of romance, taken control away from them.
As the parent, the friend, the loved one, when we learn about the abuse, we also feel that control has been taken away from us. This is trauma – the profound and meaningful loss of control over our experience. Our instinct is to protect and take control back. It is hard for us to stand in the shoes of the survivor and realize that if we try to control the situation – even if we think we are making it better – we are further taking control away from them.
Years ago, a school counselor asked me to talk to a father who had recently become concerned about his daughter’s relationship. His solution was to take control. He forbid his daughter from seeing her boyfriend ever again. He took away her laptop, her cell phone. He grounded her indefinitely – she had to come straight home from school and he made her sleep on the floor of her parents’ bedroom. He was certain that he had fixed the problem, I was certain that she was still seeing him. After talking to her, I learned I was right. She would sneak out of school to see him; she would crawl out the kitchen window after her parents fell asleep. And now, she was in even more danger. She and her boyfriend would only go to secluded places so they wouldn’t be found and she didn’t have her cell phone with her to call for help if she needed it.
I can completely understand why this father did what he did. Our job as parents is to protect our children, and that’s what he thought he was doing. To not do that – to not try to pull our child or loved one out of harm’s way – it goes against our basic instincts. It makes us feel powerless, helpless and afraid. I won’t pretend it is easy to keep supporting and listening and not jump into action. It doesn’t feel like enough.
Our job as a friend or family member is to create a space for someone where they feel safe enough to share and where they feel in control of their decisions. If we can lead by example that this is what love looks like, it can plant a seed that can grow into change. It may not grow as fast as we would like, and that can be painful and scary. It’s why it is so important to know that support is available not just to victims but to their friends and family. I’m always so glad to get calls from friends and family, not because I can give them a perfect answer, but because it can be an opportunity to offer them support.
The person on the other end of the phone call may be starting our conversation asking for advice; I always pause and ask first how they are doing. We often minimize the impact this experience is having on us because we are so concerned for the person who is being abused. But in order for us to really be there for them, we need a safe space where we can vent, and be angry, and say everything we want to fix and change about the situation.
When we are face to face with the person we love who is being controlled and abused in their relationship, our job is not to fix and it is not to take over. Our job is to listen. To validate – to remind them of how strong and brave they are by telling us. To let them know that we are concerned but that we do not judge them and will be there for them no matter what they decide. If we do try to control it, if we tell them how awful their abuser is, we risk losing their trust and we risk pushing them closer to the person who is hurting them. One of the most important things we can do is to keep the line of communication open. They may not be ready to end their relationship – they may never end the relationship. If they know that there are people they can turn to for support and be heard and believed, then they are more likely to reach out when they are hurting or in danger. And each time they feel heard and validated, you offer another example of what healthy love looks like in action.
It’s also okay (and even helpful) to admit when we’ve made mistakes. A lot of times I hear from folks after they have given their loved one an ultimatum such as, “If you stay in this relationship, we can’t be friends anymore.” Later, that friend may realize that while they were trying to help the survivor, they may have further isolated them and/or made them feel guilty and ashamed for staying in the relationship, making it less likely that the survivor will turn to them for support in the future. Admitting to a friend or family member that something we said or did in the past may have had a negative impact on them can go a long way. Abusers rarely take responsibility for their actions – even if they do apologize, they often find ways to shift the blame on to the survivor for the abuse. When friends and family can acknowledge that while they may have had the best of intentions, their words and actions had a detrimental effect and that they will try in the future to be more supportive, this can be an important contrast to what the loved ones are experiencing in their romantic relationship.
None of this is easy, and we will all make mistakes. It is scary and painful to see someone you love in a relationship that is controlling and hurtful. REACH is here to help. Whether it’s through phone conversations, or attending our “What to Do/What to Say” trainings we are here to support you as you support your loved one.