October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. If you are a friend, loved one, family member or coworker of someone who is experiencing domestic violence, thank you for taking the time to read this article. I cannot stress enough how important it is for you to continue reading.
Domestic, dating and intimate partner violence relationships are confusing, exhausting and scary types of unhealthy and toxic relationships.
The majority of my career has been centered on understanding, educating, intervening and preventing these types of relationships. Violence in intimate relationships is more common than most would like to admit and there is a high chance that you know someone who has experienced physical, emotional, psychological or sexual abuse from their intimate partner.
When working with survivors of domestic violence, safety planning was on the top of our agendas.
Safety planning is the act of thinking of ideas and strategies that can prevent or preserve the safety of a survivor before, during or after an abusive event with an intimate partner.
Within creating the safety plan, the topic of “safe people” would usually come up.
“Are their safe people in your life that can help you if you needed it?”
“Who could you call if you need to leave/escape quickly?”
“Do you have someone you can stay with until things are safer?
More often than not, survivors would answer these questions with a, “Not any more.”
There’s a reason for this. The nature of domestic violence is a series of controlling, manipulative and hurtful experiences from their intimate partner that frequently revolve around the isolation of the survivor. In many cases, the intimate partner choosing to be abusive isolates the survivor through manipulative and controlling tactics.
Isolation is a gradual, but effective tactic:
- It may start with the intimate partner convincing the survivor to “only spend time with me.” Or offering in a “loving” way, “You don’t need your friends for that, you have me now.”
- Next, the intimate partner would demean or degrade the survivor’s family and friends by saying, “They are just jealous of us. You know they don’t want to see you happy like I do.”
- The survivor could notice their car keys missing or their intimate partner would ‘borrow’ her car, phone or money without asking so your friend cannot leave the house.
- Their intimate partner might declare, “No, you do not need to see your mom today. We have plans.” Or threaten, “If you tell your friends about us, I will hurt you.”
This gradual removal of a survivor’s support system is an abusive tactic that is a key factor that prevents survivors from escaping the abuse.
Sometimes, you may feel like your friend is choosing not to available to you. What may really be happening is their intimate partner is deliberately eliminating ways for your friend to be connected to you.
This is where you, the survivor’s loved one, comes in. To help the survivor you know, here are 3 ways to safely be there for them:
Find ways to stay connected to your friend.
Because isolation is such a driving force in survivors experiencing domestic violence, it is important for you to find ways to keep in contact with them and for your survivor to get in contact with you.
Offer safety planning suggestions that include ways for them to contact you that are safe, like using code words, nick names and phrases that only you two would understand. Ask your survivor how you can help them and what you should do if you are not able to get in touch with them. Your friend may need your help in having a temporary place to stay, may need to keep an emergency bag at your place or may need your help with childcare.
An idea from one survivor and her friend included using her front door porch light as a way to communicate. The survivor shared with her friend, “if you see that my porch light is on after 12:00 pm, call the police. This is how I can tell you I’m not safe, but I can’t reach the phone.” Get creative and think outside of the box with how you all can stay in touch with each other.
Offer a listening ear.
As much as you may want to, be mindful of offering advice and get in touch with your ability to actively listen.
Survivors frequently shared with me that they received quite a lot of unsolicited advice from the people that cared about them and they would feel judged and shamed in the process. This would lead to survivors sharing less and less with their loved ones, increasing the risk of them being isolated. Though you may be coming from a sincere and caring place, giving advice may not be what your friend needs right now.
Instead, offer a listening ear and help your friend process what they are going through. Questions like these can help your friend think through their options:
What would you like to do?
What sounds like it would help the best right now?
What do you think works best for you?
How can I help?
Connect to a local domestic violence program.
Ask if your friend would be interested in speaking with a trained domestic violence advocate about their options too. (I want to thank all of the friends that I have spoken with over the years on the behalf of their survivors when I would take crisis calls!)
Offer to call a domestic violence program in your area together or help your friend find referrals to programs that are helpful to her. Typically, domestic violence programs offer 24/7 crisis line support, help with community referrals and safety planning. Some programs even offer temporary shelter or options for your friend to stay in a hotel.
Domestic violence advocates have received specific training to help survivors and in connecting your friend to a local program, you may be setting her up for success.
Creating a community that recognizes and intervenes when domestic violence occurs helps de-stigmatize survivors receiving help and creates a safer community for everyone. Though it is difficult to witness and confusing to understand, please know that you being there for your friend, being willing to listen and connecting to help are the best things you can do to help your friend be and feel safer.
To learn more about how to help a friend, check out loveisrespect.org.
How do you help a friend experiencing domestic violence?