If you have a friend who's in an emotionally abusive relationship and now wants to leave, you may be tempted to run around with sparklers and a party hat. But as wonderful as this news is, there's a question that arises when your friend decides to take this wonderful step forward: how can you help? Emotional abuse doesn't leave bruises, but it's still dangerous, damaging and horribly traumatic. According to Martha Brockenbrough of Women's Health, emotional abuse "can range from verbal abuse—yelling, blaming, shaming, and name-calling—to isolation, intimidation, and threats. It also commonly shows up as stonewalling and dismissing, behaviors that make victims feel alone and unimportant." And just because you can't see the scars of emotional abuse, doesn't mean that they're not present: it can leave survivors with post-traumatic stress disorder or other lasting mental health issues.
Your friend's desire to leave their abusive relationship should be encouraged; but leaving an emotionally abusive relationship is not simple, and figuring out how to best be a supportive friend at this time becomes complicated, as well.
As a friend in this situation, you will likely rapidly discover that, like the relationship itself, the break-up may be terrifying and brutally upsetting. If you're in this situation, I sympathize deeply, but I also applaud you for wanting to help your friend — your support is crucial. Fortunately, there are things that anybody with a loved one or friend in this position can do to help ease the situation, whether it's offer practical help, emotional support, or help them access professional advice. Here are seven ways you can offer support to your friend while they try to claw their way out.
1. Recognize That They May Not Listen To You
One of the most important things to understand when supporting your friend is that the break-up of an emotionally abusive relationship is not at all the same thing as the break-up of a relatively healthy one. Emotional abusers typically make sure that their partners are entrenched on a variety of levels, and make the process of breaking free stupendously hard. As "Today" relationship contributor Gail Saltz notes, emotional abusers use a wide variety of manipulative tactics to convince the survivor "that you cannot live without him, and because he has undermined your confidence and feelings of self-worth, you believe it."
So recognize that the break-up may be very long and drawn-out, and that the well-meaning advice you usually give to friends going through for break-ups ("just leave them/find somebody else/get out of this city for a while") will likely not apply. Many people in emotionally abusive relationships leave more than once, only to return due to their partner's manipulation.
This pattern of break and return may also mean that they "go back" on earlier promises to leave, and may ignore or not fully listen to suggestions that this was a dangerous idea. Your friend is caught in an exceptionally powerful hold, and that may be very frustrating for you as you watch their two-steps-forward-one-step-back journey towards freedom. Be aware of this.
2. Help Them Get Their Financial Ducks In A Row
One of the most important kinds of help that can be given to a person leaving an emotionally abusive situation is practical: getting them financially set up. Financial abuse can be a strong component of abusive situations; the Money Advice Centre outlines some of the most common abusive tactics, which include controlling access to funds, preventing employment or demanding accountability for every penny spent.
But even if there isn't an element of financial control in the abusive relationship, a monetary cushion is exceptionally helpful to pay for temporary accommodation, travel, legal costs and any other unexpected expenses. Whether you can help your friend open a separate bank account, keep emergency funds for them in your own account, maintain a cash box or consult a financial adviser with them, this is one of the best ways you can help.
3. Connect Them With Experts
Emotional support is a huge part of helping people extricate themselves from emotionally abusive relationships, as is practical help (the offer of a car to move their stuff, a place to store things, the provision of a spare phone or a counsellor), but you can't do this on your own. Let me repeat that: you can't do this on your own. Your friend is in a nasty situation and there are professionals who can give him or her the advice, counselling and other clinical support that they need.
You can offer a safe place for them to make those connections, whether it's via phone, email or in person. Local women's shelters, abuse hotlines and organizations are often easily located and contacted, since part of their entire MO is to be available to the public. The Women's Law Organization recommends a feature on the American Psychological Association's website that allows you to find local counsellors who specialize in emotional and violent abuse. (Take note that many domestic violence charities also have resources committed to emotional abuse, so don't automatically rule them out.) Go with them if they need you to; stay with them when they're on the phone; take notes. A good place to start is the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY 1-800-787-3224.
4. Help With A Safety Plan
The "safety plan" is actually a technical term. Love Is Respect, an organization which targets abuse in all its forms, explains that it's "a personalized, practical plan that can help you avoid dangerous situations and know the best way to react when you’re in danger." Helping a person in an emotionally abusive situation make a safety plan to get out is an exceptionally helpful thing to do.
You don't have to offer them your roof over their head, though you can, if you're comfortable with that. It's worth encouraging them to talk to professional organizations to get advice about where to go, and how to do it quickly and without fuss. The US Office Of Women's Health outlines vital items that should be taken if fleeing an emotionally or physically abusive situation, including identification, important documents, all medication, medical records, car permits, and personal items that are important to the abused person. One good thing you can definitely do: store items for them that are difficult to move around quickly, or highly sentimental.
5. Stay Quiet And Subtle
You may want to go HAM on the asshole who hurt your friend, which is completely understandable. But resist this temptation. Do not involve yourself with the other partner, and don't talk sh*t about them online or in public forums. Don't discuss the situation or your friend's position anywhere that their ex could find the information and use it to access your friend after he or she has left.
If your friend is choosing to tell people about their partner, that's their choice. You're not allowed to go yelling around the streets that their dude or girl is an absolute horror, much as you want to. Do the opposite: reassure your friend that whatever they say to you stays with you, and stick to that even if their partner demands to know what's going on. Lie if necessary. And never confront the abuser; keep yourself and your friend as safe as possible.
6. Reassure Them That You Believe Them
One of the most common elements of emotional abuse is the fostering of disbelief in the abused person's sanity. They are made to doubt their own versions of events, memories, feelings and deepest emotional reactions. The National Domestic Violence Hotline explains that this destabilization gives the abuser a lot of power and control, because their version is set up as the only one to be trusted or believed. They also instill false beliefs based on the idea of the abused person's psychological "instability" (Psychology Today names a few, like "nobody else will love you", and "nobody will believe you, you're crazy").
One of your key roles as a supportive person in their process of entanglement is to reassert to them that their feelings, memories and opinions are valid and true. If you believe them, say so, repeatedly.
7. Know What Emotional Abuse Is
This is a good time to educate yourself about what precisely is going on, how it might affect your friend, and what it may mean for your friendship down the line. The Counselling Directory, Psychology Today and Living Without Abuse are excellent resources to challenge any of your misconceptions, and give you a big picture about what living with that kind of abuse is really like. (It'll be hard reading, so take care of yourself.) I'd also highly encourage anybody in a supportive role to seek advice from professional organizations dealing with abuse, who will likely be able to give personally tailored advice on the situation; seek out an organization like WOMAN INC. Emotional abuse counts as very real abuse, and these people will be willing to help you and your friend.
And there's one very important thing to know about abusive relationships, emotional or otherwise: the risk to your friend is greatest when they choose to leave and immediately afterward. This is, statistically, a dangerous and fraught time, so reading up will give you the best resources to help your friend protect themself.
8. Let Them Know They Don't Need To Feel Guilty
The most important thing to say to a person in this position is "it's not your fault." Over and over again. They may not understand or believe you, but it is exceptionally important for them to hear it. Guilt is a constant presence in emotionally abusive relationships, used to outrageous lengths to control and cow the abused person; they are constantly told they're the cause of all the difficulty and "drove their partner to this." Guilt is a toxic emotion that can be extraordinarily powerful, but it's not real. Click To Empower, an organization for domestic and emotional abuse survivors, has a list of excellent ways to communicate this, including "You are not responsible for their behavior" and "No matter what you did, you do not deserve this."
9. Take Emotional Care Of Yourself
This is rough, guys. Ultimately you may feel as if you're not doing enough, or that you're exhausted, particularly if the situation becomes a volatile pattern of break-up, make-up, rinse, repeat. It's necessary for you to draw the line as to how much emotional effort you're able to make, and how involved (and, therefore, unsafe) you personally are prepared to feel. That's your choice and nobody else can make it for you. Find emotional support for yourself in this situation, as well, while trying as much as possible to respect the privacy boundaries established by your friend. Speak to specialists, find counsellors, and recognise that this is a burden with the potential to wreak real damage. Here, have a hug.
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