“Did you see that?” my friend blurted out as soon as the car door clicked shut. Just as quickly, her husband nodded with affirmation. “Should we say anything?” she asked, shaken by what they had seen, yet unsure how to process what they just witnessed.
The two were close college friends of mine who vowed to stay in touch after graduation. I was thrilled to spend a beautiful afternoon in Inner Harbor, Baltimore reconnecting with them, together with my husband and our young daughter.
With our mini reunion over, I didn’t know what they had seen- because I wasn’t aware that what they witnessed had even happened. In the midst of our fun, they noticed that my excitement quickly vanished each time my then-husband put his hand on my arm. Chatting away over lunch, with a simple touch, my bubbly conversation became silent.
It was but one subtle sign of a very toxic relationship, one that would end several years later with me and my two children running for our lives. What could my friends have done? What could they have said? Would anything have changed? It may have given me a first place to turn when I began to see the abuse for myself. Perhaps their words could have helped strengthened me when my denial first began to crack. What would you do?
Because abuse isolates while instilling paralyzing fear, breaking free from an abusive relationship can be extremely difficult. Reassurance and affirmation from friends can foster the strength and courage critically needed.
What can you do? Learn the three things that could save a friends life:
- Learn the signs of abusive relationships.
- Don’t get fooled by common misconceptions of abuse.
- Learn what you can do to help.
1. Signs that your friend might be in an abusive relationship:
- Does she change when her partner is around?
- Does her personality seem different when her partner is around? (She goes from bubbly to quiet, withdrawn, anxious, or much more conservative.)
- Does she cancel plans at the last minute or regularly make excuses not to spend time with you?
- Has she changed her appearance, wearing less makeup, dressing more conservatively than she used to?
- Does her partner constantly call or text her when she’s out with you?
- Does she seem to need to check in with him frequently?
- Has she changed how she uses social media, or has given him access to her accounts?
- Has she made changes to her social media account such as deleting friends or removing old pictures?
- Has she had unexplained bruises?
- Has she stopped spending time with many friends, even those who were once close, without a reasonable explanation?
- Does she apologize or make excuses for his actions or behavior?
- Does she seem less confident or more withdrawn?
2. A few common misconceptions:
- But he seems so nice. Abusers are often master manipulators with incredible charm, charisma, and generosity. But, behind closed doors, his behavior can completely change. Such Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality changes are common with abusers.
- If it’s that bad, wouldn’t she just leave? Leaving isn’t a simple effort. 75% of deaths from domestic violence occur after she has left. Encourage her by reaffirming her strengths so that she will find the strength to face the challenge of leaving.
- I don’t think he’s actually hit her. Is emotional abuse that serious? Yes, it is. Domestic violence escalates over time. Emotional abuse can not only leave deep emotional scars, but it can also lead to physical violence over time.
- She’s gone back to him so I don’t need to help? I mean she’s made her choice, right? It takes the average woman eight attempts at leaving before she stays away. Emotional and financial ties can run deep. She may have doubts that she can make it on her own, or that anyone else would ever love her, or that the abuse was that bad. The psychological put-downs damage her self-esteem and denial clouds judgment of abuse. Don’t withdraw your friendship just because she’s returned. Your friendship will be even more important to her long term success.
- But my friend is a guy. Guys can’t be abuse, can they? One in Seven men will experience abuse in a relationship. Everything listed here, applies to men and women. If you suspect a male friend is in an abusive relationship, your support is equally needed!
3. What can you do to help?
- Find a safe time and place you can talk to your friend. Let her know you are worried about her safety. You may need to talk several times before she is willing to open up to you.
- Do not judge her.
- Be a consistent friend, even if she often cancels your plans.
- Reinforce her strengths. An abused person’s self esteem suffers from constantly being torn down. By reinforcing her strengths, she can gain courage to face the situation.
- Do not tell her when or how to leave. You can not rescue your friend; rather she needs to decide when and how to get the help she needs. You can help by providing her with a list of local or national resources.
- Don’t berate the abuser to your friend. She likely loves him, even though he’s abusive. If you judge him, you will likely alienate her and she will be less likely to reach out to you for help. Instead, listen and allow her to express her feelings.
- Encourage her to spend time with friends and family. Isolation in abusive relationships is strong. Encourage her to reform connections and expand her sense of community.
- Encourage her to speak to a professional resource such as a domestic violence advocate at a local agency or the National Domestic Violence hotline, a counselor, or the police.
- Help her make a safety plan. The plan should include someplace to go should she need to leave quickly. An example of what should be included in a safety plan can be found at: http://www.ncadv.org/protectyourself/SafetyPlan.php.
- Encourage her to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline and give her the number as well as the link to their website. (1-800-799-7233 or thehotline.org)
- Share this post with your friends and relatives. You never know who’ll witness abuse and wonder “Did you see that? Should we say anything?”
As for my story, we’ll never know how my path my have changed if my friends had spoken up. But I can tell you that I have broken free and am no longer in my abusive marriage. There’s so much more to my story that well, it’s a book. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s A Search for Purple Cows – a true story of hope.
Now it’s your turn to speak up…Is there something new you’ve learned or one particular point you want to be sure to remember? I’d love to hear from you!
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