What To Do If Your Friend Is In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship, According To Experts
When you know your friend is in an emotionally abusive relationship, it can be pretty tough to figure out what you should do. Obviously you want to help, but you never know if what you're saying is the right thing or if it's somehow making things worse. For instance, sometimes people just like to vent with zero intention of actually leaving or confronting their partner. Saying something negative like, "Leave them. They suck," can actually backfire on you and put your friend on the defense.
According to psychotherapist, Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW signs of emotional abuse include being controlled, name calling, chronically trying to undermine your self-trust, isolating you from friends or family, putting you down, gaslighting (lying or misconstruing facts to make you think you’re crazy), needing to be right all the time, blaming you for things that he or she did, and purposely shaming you in private or in front of other people. So what should you do if your friend is in an emotionally abusive relationship?
"This is a tough one because it also depends on your relationship with this friend, such as how long you've known each other and the level of the friendship," Nicole Zangara, LCSW and author of Surviving Female Friendships: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, tells Bustle. "However, if you are concerned about your friend being in an emotionally abusive relationship, your first step would be to talk to them about these concerns."
While they might get defensive or angry at you, Zangara says, it's always worth a try. "At the end of the day, your friend may choose to stay with this person, but if you feel very strongly about the relationship, you should speak up."
Voicing your concerns is the obvious first step, but you want to find the best way to do it without crossing any boundaries. It is your friend's relationship and life, after all. And aside from just talking it out with your friend, what else can you do? Well, according to experts, here are some things you can do if you know your friend is in an emotionally abusive relationship:
1. Be Their Cheerleader
If you're going to help your friend, make sure it's genuine and thoughtful. Don't just tell your friend that they can do better. Remind them that they can do better by telling them how great of a friend they are, how awesome they are at something, or how kind they are to people around them.
"Emotional abuse is devastating to a person's self-worth," Adam Dodge, former divorce attorney and author of The Empowered Woman’s Guide to Divorce, tells Bustle. "They need friends who'll be a source of positivity and emotional support to offset what they're experiencing in their relationship."
Emotional abuse can bring your friend's self-confidence down. So try to lift them up and bring out many positive traits. "It will set an example of what life is like beyond the abuse and hopefully motivate them to get out," Dodge says.
2. Offer Up Unconditional Support
People who are in emotionally abusive relationships tend to get caught up in a cycle that's both draining and frustrating to friends and family. "Watching a friend repeatedly leave and then go back to a partner who is emotionally abusive, especially after you've spent hours consoling and supporting them, will take a toll and can damage friendships," Dodge says. "When they go back, that person will no doubt feel guilty about being a burden or wasting their friend's time. It is critical to let that person know that you will be there for them, no matter how many times they go back."
It's important to create a safe space of unconditional support for them. As sad is it is, Dodge says it's normal for a victim of abuse to return to the relationship. "The last thing you want is that person isolating themselves, which will only make it more difficult to survive the abuse and ultimately get out."
Don't cut them off completely. Back off when they don't want your help, and welcome them with open arms when they do.
3. Don't Criticize Their Partner Or The Relationship Directly
It's easy for an outsider to bash someone's partner for being a bad person — especially in this type of situation. But despite how you truly feel about it, psychotherapist Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW, tells Bustle that can backfire. "Too much probing and direct disapproval of the abusive dynamic would likely result in the friend/abuse victim severing ties," she says.
That's because emotional abusers are masters at fostering allegiance and dependency. "Directly criticizing that attachment may awaken deep seated panic and the victim may not be willing to see the truth of the relational dynamics and instead characterize the concerned friend as the threat," Heller says. They can, and possibly will, get super defensive on you. That, in turn, will make it harder for your friend to leave the situation and get the help they really need. It's important to know when to push and when to back off.
4. Set Boundaries For Yourself
If you know your friend is in an abusive relationship, it's really hard to just stand by and let it all go down. "Just because they're your friend, it doesn't mean you have to neglect yourself," Dr. Lisa Vallejos, Ph.D. licensed mental health professional, tells Bustle. "Be sure you take care of yourself which may include setting boundaries on how you interact with your friend."
Your relationship with your friend can quickly turn toxic and take a toll on your mental health if they start calling you and crying every night, but refuses to get help. As Vallejos says, it's totally OK to say, "I need to take care of myself, too."
5. Don't Make Assumptions
There are certain lines you shouldn't cross, no matter how good your intentions are. "Unfortunately, when friends are in abusive relationships, it's very hard to help them or get through until they are ready to exit," Vallejos says. It's their life, after all. For example, don't confront their partner directly and don't go to their parents or to mutual friends looking for possible solutions. It has to come from your friend directly.
"If a friend tells you explicitly that they are being abused, the best response is to say, 'How can I help you?' and find out what they need," Vallejos says. "Don't make assumptions that just because they see it as abusive, that they're ready to leave."
If you know your friend is going through any sort of emotional abuse in their relationship, it's important to do what you can to help. Sometimes that might mean listening to them when they need to talk, guiding them towards professional help, or even backing off when they tell you. At the end of the day, it's your friend's life and their decisions are their own. The best you can do is to be there when they need you.
Editor's Note: If you need help getting out of your relationship or figuring out what to do next, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233.