DV Awareness Month: What you can do to help

As the final segment of my DV awareness month series, I wanted to talk a little bit about what YOU can do to help someone who is in an abusive relationship.

I think the first and most important thing you can do is not be judgmental.

Unconditional positive regard is one of the first things I was taught in graduate school, and it has become the tool that I use most often. Don’t judge the victim. Don’t judge her choices. Don’t judge the abuser. Provide unconditional support by listening and reaffirming her feelings and validating her experiences. Don’t underestimate the power of listening.

It takes an average of eight times before a woman leaves an abusive relationship for good. So if a friend comes to you at attempt number two and then eventually takes him back and is met with judgement, it’s unlikely she will turn to you next time. It makes complete sense for you to feel upset if you spent time and effort into helping a friend and then she goes back into the same situation. Which is why unconditional positive regards is a skill; it’s not something that always comes naturally, it’s something that has to be developed and worked on.

I often speak to women who are still in their abusive relationships or end up going back. I know that it can be hard to speak with someone about the violence she is experiencing, and then let her walk back into it year after year. But I also know that it takes time for women to actually leave the relationship, and now so do you.

In Psychology there is a model called the Stages of Change: Pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance.

You might have a friend in the contemplation stage, where she is thinking about leaving and exploring her options and beginning to speak about the abuse to those she trust. She might not be ready for the preparation or action stage, it takes time to get there.

Be the person they want to come to when they are finally at the action stage. You become that person by listening and providing unconditional positive regard. Don’t judge them if they go back to the relationship. Don’t judge them for not leaving sooner.

The second most important thing that I think a person can do to help a friend is educate them on DV.

I often speak to women who tell me “it’s not that bad” or “I don’t think he is really abusing me”. When I talk to them more and hear examples of the behavior their partner is exhibiting, I am often surprised at how violent and abusive it actually is because they downplayed it so much. He may not be hitting her, but he is throwing things, threatening to hurt her and the children, trapping her in the room and yelling at her, refusing to give her access to money, etc. ALL of that is abuse. But because of the slow and gradual build up of behavior, victims often don’t notice the escalation or categorize it as abuse. Especially verbal and psychological abuse, which is much harder to identify then a broke nose or a bloody lip.

Education needs to be carefully balance with support. There is a way to educate someone without telling them that they are in an abusive relationship and that they need to leave. The most likely response to that is for the victim to jump to the defense of her partner and downplay the abuse.

For example, you can provide reading material, along with a supportive email letting them know that you are there to listen when they want to talk. You can suggest a support group and provide resources, then let them take the time to read them over and decide on their own if they want to seek counseling or group therapy.  Education should always be coupled with support and never with judgement. 

Finally, you can also offer assistance. Concrete assistance is always welcome; a place to stay, financial assistance, a job, etc. A general “I’m here if you need me” is wonderful, but you can always step it up with something specific like a place to stay or an offer to use your car while they seek employment, etc.

I find it best to let the woman decide on her own what kind of assistance she needs, rather than pushing my own plan that I feel will best help her. At the end of the day, she is the only one living her life, and she knows best what she needs.

You can’t force someone to leave an abusive relationships, and you can’t burden yourself and take responsibility for their choices. The best thing you can do is be there to support them when they are ready to leave. 

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