Self

How To Help A Friend In An Abusive Relationship, According To Someone Who's Been In One

Four practical ways you can offer your support.

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Trigger warning: This article contains references to domestic violence, as do many of its outbound links.

In September 2019, I finally realised my relationship had to change. My then-boyfriend had been abusing me for years but it had taken me a long time before I could to apply that word to it. I’m one of the lucky ones – I got out. And that was mainly thanks to the help of one particular friend I had made the year before.

This friend and I had found each other outside of the context of my abusive relationship – she knew little about my partner and therefore became my touchstone to normality. She and her boyfriend were the example of a healthy relationship I needed to see in order to start questioning my own. And, one day, something snapped in me.

He had hit me again, and I left to go and see my friend almost immediately, deceiving him so that he thought I had forgiven him once again and he’d let me go. Instead, I went to her house and broke down, opening up to someone for the first time. Within an hour she was driving me back home, where we proceeded to throw him out. I can’t thank her enough for being the person I needed at that moment, and to all of my friends for their support in the following months.

However, I know in the months after my abusive relationship came to light, many of my other friends felt helpless and didn't know what to do or how to support me.

It’s impossible to really understand what an abusive relationship is like unless you’ve been in one yourself. What can seem like an obvious solution to an outside observer can seem impossible to the person going through it. I’ve written about my experience previously and have received questions along the lines of “Why didn’t you leave him the first time it happened?” or “Why did you put it with it for so long?” All of which are, frankly, extremely unhelpful.

Those looking for advice on how to help a friend whom they think is in an abusive relationship should visit Refuge or Women’s Aid for official guidelines. The resources on these websites are so valuable, compiled by experts in this field. What you'll find below is advice that comes from a very personal place. I offer up my own thoughts about what I believe can be done to support a loved one based on what I went through.

1

Don’t Put Pressure On Them To Open Up

As soon as a friend even hints at ongoing domestic abuse, it can be tempting to encourage them to open up immediately. You might believe that as soon as they talk about it, they’ll begin to feel better, but this is not necessarily the case. Instead, you should let them know you are open to listening and recommend they speak to a specialist therapist or access a domestic abuse helpline. They’ll talk to someone when they’re ready.

2

Remind Them It’s Not Their Fault

The slow escalation I experienced from emotional and mental abuse to physical abuse meant that by the time my ex progressed to actual violence, I was already blaming myself for his outbursts. Even on the day my friend helped me kick him out, he said in front of us both, “But you do provoke me Bethany, don’t you? You set me off.” And I agreed with him – until my friend brought me back to reality. If your friend is in an abusive relationship, it's important to remind them that they are not responsible for their partner's behaviour.

3

Build Them Up & Remind Them They’re Loved

Being in an abusive relationship gave me extremely low self-esteem. I spent years thinking of myself as a bad person, being gaslit, and generally questioning my own behaviour. I don’t know if I would have escaped from my relationship when I did had I not made new friends: they built me up outside of the context of the relationship. They encouraged me to explore hobbies outside of it, socialise away from him, and generally put myself first – all without knowing what I was going through. If you’re worried about a friend who has said they're experiencing abuse, it can be hugely helpful to build them up and remind them they're loved so that they can see they deserve better.

4

Learn The Reasons Why People Go Back

You would think that kicking my ex out would have been the end of it, but I’m afraid not. Unfortunately, many people go back to their abusers. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, women will go back an average of seven times before leaving for good.

If they're like me, a person may return because their self-worth has been so ground down that they believe they cannot cope without their abuser, or that no one else will ever love them. I went back to my abuser in an effort to "make it work," and some of my friends were openly critical of this decision. While I can’t blame them for thinking as they did, their blatant disapproval made me feel more isolated than ever, and like he really was the only one I could rely on. Ultimately, the decision to not go back to my ex had to be my own, and other people’s unwillingness to discuss it with me only made it harder.

Had I had someone who understood the complexities involved in returning to an abusive partner, I think it would have made the path to getting out for good a lot easier. If you're finding it difficult to comprehend a loved one's decision to stay or go back to an abusive partner, it's important to try and educate yourself rather than asking them to educate you.

If you’re worried about someone, I urge you to use the resources available at Refuge and Women’s Aid. Those experiencing abuse themselves can reach Refuge's 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247 or speak to Women’s Aid via their live chat here or email on helpline@womensaid.org.uk.

Other services available in the UK include The Men’s Advice Line for male domestic abuse survivors on 0808 801 0327 (run by Respect); The Mix, which offers free information and support for under 25s in the UK, on 0808 808 4994; and The National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline, on 0800 999 5428 (run by Galop).