Friends and Family
Help and advice for friends and family of people affected by domestic abuse and violence
It can be really worrying when you fear someone you know may be being hurt or abused by their partner, ex-partner or family member.
Your help can make a great difference to someone who is being abused.
If they feel supported and encouraged, they may feel stronger and more able to make decisions.
If they feel judged or criticised, they could be afraid to tell anyone else about the abuse.
Many people experience abuse in relationships, and this is often witnessed by children. Research shows that a particularly high level of abuse is committed by men against women. However, abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. Women can be abusive to male partners. Domestic abuse can also take place within same sex relationships and affects those who identify as LGB&T*.
How can I recognise abuse?
You might be unsure if what your friend or relative is experiencing is ‘abuse’. Maybe you just have some sense that something is ‘wrong’ in their relationship. Sometimes there may be signs but often there will be nothing obvious.
Signs that someone may be being abused
• They seem afraid of their partner or are always very anxious to please him or her. They’ve stopped seeing friends or family, or cut phone conversations short when the partner is in the room.
• Their partner often criticises or humiliates them in front of other people.
• They say their partner pressures or forces them to do sexual things.
• Their partner often orders them about or makes all the decisions (for example, controlling finances, telling them who they can see and what they can do).
• They often talk about their partner’s ‘jealousy’, ‘bad temper’ or ‘possessiveness’.
• They’ve become anxious or depressed, have lost confidence, or are unusually quiet.
• They have physical injuries (bruises, broken bones, sprains, cuts etc.). They may give unlikely explanations for physical injuries.
• Their children seem afraid of their partner, have behavioural problems, or are very withdrawn or anxious.
• They are reluctant to leave the children with their partner.
• After they’ve left the relationship, their partner is constantly calling, harassing them, following them, coming to the house or waiting outside.
Why not just leave?
It can be hard to understand why someone would stay in a relationship if they’re being treated badly. Leaving may appear to be a simple solution but it’s rarely the end of the story and can be a very hard thing to do.
Reasons why it may be hard to leave
Fear of the consequences. The person who is abusive may have threatened to harm them, their relatives, or the children, pets or property. They may threaten to commit suicide if they talk about leaving. Many victims find that the abuse continues or gets worse after they leave. A survivor is at greatest risk of death or serious injury at the point of leaving and up to two years after.
Love. Relationships are complex and no one is abusive all of the time.
Commitment. They have committed to the person and want it to work out. It may be the belief that marriage is forever, for ‘better or worse’.
Hope. Sometimes the abusive person might promise to change and that if circumstances change the abusive will stop.
Guilt. They think, and have been told, that the abuse is their fault and that if they just stop doing x or start doing y then the abuse will stop.
Children. They may feel it is best for the children to stay in a stable home with both parents and that uprooting them would be cruel. The partner may have threatened to take or harm the children.
Confidence. The person who is abusive will have deliberately tried to break down their partner’s confidence, and make them feel like they are stupid, hopeless, and responsible for the abuse. They may feel powerless and unable to make decisions.
Isolation. The person who is abusive may have tried to cut them off from contact with family or friends. They might be afraid of coping alone. If English is not their first language they might feel particularly isolated.
Peer Pressure. Pressure to stay from family, community or church. They might fear rejection from their community or family if they leave.
Money. They may not have access to money or anywhere to go to. If they have a disability they may rely on their abusive partner for assistance.
Risk. Leaving an abusive partner may sometimes be quite dangerous. The abuse may continue or increase after they leave. They can contact specialist services to talk about how to protect them self.
Should I get involved?
Many people worry about ‘interfering’, or believe that relationships are a ‘private matter’. But your support can make a difference. You might risk some embarrassment if you approach and your support is rejected. However, if you are sensitive, and not critical, many people will appreciate your care and concern, even if they aren’t ready to talk
How should I approach them?
Approach your friend or relative in a sensitive way, letting them know your own concerns.
Don’t be surprised if they seem defensive or reject your support. They might be scared of worrying you if they tell you what’s been happening. They might not be ready to admit to the abuse, or may feel ashamed and guilty about talking about it. They might have trust issues. If the survivor is a man he may feel that he’ll be seen as weak or ‘unmanly’.
Don’t push the person into talking if they are uncomfortable. Let them know that you’re there if they need to talk. Be patient, and keep an ear out for anything that indicates they are ready to talk.
What can I do to help?
The most important thing you can do is to listen without judging, respect their decisions, and help them to find ways to become stronger and safer.
Listen to what they have to say.
Believe them. It will have taken a lot for them to talk to you. People are much more likely to cover up or downplay the abuse, rather than to make it up or exaggerate. You might find it hard to imagine someone you know could behave abusively. But the person who is abusive will probably show you a very different side.
Take the abuse seriously. Abuse can be damaging both physically and emotionally. Don’t underestimate the danger they may be in.
Help them to recognise the abuse and understand how it may be affecting them or their children.
Recognise the strength it has taken to keep going despite the abuse.
Help them to understand that the abuse is not their fault and that no-one deserves to be abused, no matter what they do and that it isn’t their responsibility to make it stop. Let them know you think that the way they are being treated is wrong. For example, ‘No-one, not even your partner, has the right to mistreat you’
Criticise the behaviour, not the person. For example “texting you constantly is wrong and they should stop doing it”
Respect their decisions - even if you don’t agree with them. Respect their cultural or religious values and beliefs.
Maintain some level of regular contact. Having an opportunity to talk regularly to a supportive friend or relative can be very important.
Tell them about the services available. Let them know they can just get support and information, they won’t be pressured to leave. You could offer to go with them to any appointments. An easy access point could be the Domestic Abuse Surgery at Hove Town Hall on Wednesday Mornings.
Helping to increase safety
Whether staying in the relationship or separated, it is important to think about how they can be protected from further abuse.
• Help them plan where they and their children could go in an emergency, or if they decide to leave.
• Agree on a code word or signal that they can use to let you know they need help.
• Help them to prepare an excuse so they can leave quickly if they feel threatened.
• Help them find out how to stay safe online. A useful guide can be found here.
• Find out about how the police can protect them.
• Help them think about what they would need if they left – money, keys, ID etc. If it is safe, pack an emergency bag but always think about what would happen if the abuser found the bag or noticed things missing.
What can I do if I witness or overhear physical violence or threats?
If you believe there is immediate physical danger and that they and/or their children are about to be harmed, call the police on 999 immediately
Looking after yourself
Supporting someone who is being abused can be frustrating, frightening and stressful. You need to look after yourself and to get support too.
Should I respond to their abuser?
Don’t place yourself in a position where the person who is being abusive could harm or manipulate you.
Don’t try to intervene directly if you witness a person being assaulted – call the police instead.
If the person who is being abusive is your friend or relative, you may feel caught in the middle. It is important to understand that if you approach the person who is abusive, he or she may:
• tell you to ‘mind your own business’
• deny the abuse, or say ‘how can you think I could do something like that?’
• make it seem like it’s ‘not that bad’, or that it only happened once
• make it seem like it’s the other person’s fault, or that it’s their behaviour that’s the problem, not theirs
• say that they couldn’t help themselves, they were drunk, just ‘snapped’, or ‘lost control’.
None of these responses mean that they are not abusive. It is common for a person who is being abusive to deny or minimise the abuse. Even someone who appears to be ‘respectable’ and ‘normal’ can be abusive in the privacy of their own home.
It is possible that the person who is abusive may admit the abuse was their fault, but say they don’t know how to stop their behaviour. Encourage them to call RESPECT on 0808 802 4040. They can make a choice and get help to stop.
Domestic abuse and violence at work.
If a colleague or employee is experiencing violence at home, it doesn't just affect their personal life. Many victims of family violence need support at work as they may experience:
• their abuser stalking or attempting to contact them at work, making them feel unsafe
• loss of concentration, low self-esteem and anxiety which impacts on their work performance and general well-being
• disruption to their home life (being made homeless or having to move to a refuge for example) making it hard to physically get to work and maintain regular work hours
• Physical or mental injuries and/or disabilities as a result of the abuse
For help and advice in supporting a colleague affected by domestic abuse and violence call RISE.