Domestic violence – bottom left: naked female figure in fetal position. Top right: hand reaching towards her. Background: red and green gradient.
Illustration: Djanlissa Pringels
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How to Help a Friend in an Abusive Relationship

“Your first instinct might be to ask a lot of questions, but you have to be careful about that,” says social worker and counsellor Kirsten Regtop.
September 20, 2021, 8:00am

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

Domestic violence is one of the most common forms of abuse around the world. According to the UN, a third of women worldwide have at some time experienced violence at the hands of an intimate partner, with 18 percent of them doing so over the past 12 months. Domestic violence studies often overlook transgender people, but a 2015 report which analysed 42 previous studies concluded that they are more likely to experience domestic violence than the general population. 

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One of the main challenges when it comes to domestic violence is that the abuse – physical and psychological – happens behind closed doors. Because of the stigma surrounding abuse and the dynamics of abusive relationships, people experiencing domestic violence often have a hard time opening up to loved ones, let alone going to the authorities. That’s why so many cases go unreported. 

There’s every chance you know someone who is currently experiencing abuse at home, but it’s hard to know how to help them without making things worse. VICE spoke to Kirsten Regtop, a social worker and counsellor specialised in domestic violence. She broke the steps which you can take to be supportive and how they can make a big difference.

How to work out if your friend is in an abusive relationship

Every relationship is different. Sometimes, when you’re looking in from the outside, it is hard to tell it whether you feel uneasy about a friend’s relationship because you don’t fully understand it or because you’re correctly identifying red flags.

Regtop says that people often behave differently when they start experiencing abuse. Are they suddenly wearing different clothes or avoiding hanging out with you or other people they might have previously? Have they stopped replying to messages? Do they suddenly change the subject when you’re on the phone with them? All these could be signs your friend’s relationship is abusive, but Regtop thinks the most important thing is trusting your gut. 

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One thing she advises against is looking for physical evidence of violence – people can easily cover up bruises and scratches, plus relationships can be abusive without physical violence. “A police officer once told me about a woman whose partner used to threaten her dogs,” Regtop says. “That’s super intimidating, but it doesn’t give you bruises.”

She adds that our ideas of what constitutes domestic abuse are too narrow. “We have to leave behind this cliché of the timid woman with a black eye,” Regtop explains. “There are so many well-educated men and women who have top-level jobs and who still experience intimate partner violence.”

Accept that helping them won’t be easy

According to Regtop, most people experiencing intimate partner violence will stay with their abuser for years before leaving. In most cases, the person experiencing abuse will say they want to break things off after a dangerous episode, but change their mind soon after.

“They might think their partner is finally ready to get help, or they wonder if they’ve exaggerated the situation in their heads,” she says. “When you show up to help them break up the relationship, they’ve often already started to reconcile with their partner.”

This process can be very frustrating. The key is to stay patient and accept that it might take a while.

Put yourself in their shoes 

One of the first steps toward helping out a friend in this situation is to really try to understand their point of view and the dynamics of their relationship. Regtop says that many people experiencing intimate partner violence are very empathetic. Their partner will often take advantage of their sensitivity and make them believe they are actually responsible for the abuse. “They don’t think of themselves as a victim, but as the person who caused the violence,” she says.

If your friend thinks they are to blame, they’ll also believe the violence will stop once they adapt their behaviour according to what their partner is asking of them. Even though that might seem senseless to you, it’s perfectly normal from their point of view. It’s important not to judge them, but rather to take into account the complex power dynamics that are at play in their relationship.

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“These kinds of relationships often start on a very high note,” says Regtop. They’re usually very intense from the start – your friend has probably thrown themselves into it right away and become very emotionally invested. “Violent partners can take advantage of that in insidious and subtle ways.”

For instance, to exert more control over your friend’s life, their partner will try to isolate them from people who oppose the relationship. “They might say, ‘I love you so much, and if you love me back, you’ll stop hanging out with this group of friends’,” Regtop says. Your friend, who’s in love with and trusts their partner, will yield and adjust, losing sight of their boundaries. Eventually, isolated and unsure of what they really want, they’ll come to depend entirely on their partner.

This idea of dominance and subordination is actually central to abusive relationships. The abusive partner wants to stay in control and might lose it when his power is challenged. That’s actually the most important reason you can’t simply expect your friend to leave – it can be extremely dangerous. In the majority of fatal domestic violence cases, abusers kill their partners after they ended the relationship.

Stay friends no matter what

Isolation is one of the main tools abusive partners use to control their significant others. So just being there for your friend as more and more people are being cut out of their lives can be extremely important. Regtop says a good first step is to meet up with your friend outside their home. “Go for a walk,” she suggests. “Especially during the pandemic, it’s important to find a safe space to have a conversation.”

The term “safe space” is key here. “Your first instinct might be to ask a lot of questions, but you have to be careful with that,” Regtop says. Your friend has probably been conditioned to protect their partner and see challenges to their relationship as hostile. “As long as your friend believes that they are responsible for their partner’s controlling, dominating and manipulative behaviour, they will also feel guilty when their partner is painted in a bad light.” If they feel uncomfortable, they won’t tell you how they are feeling or what is actually going on in their life.

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It’s also important to leave your ego at the door. Making it about you by constantly repeating that you’re worried about them or that you feel you need to do something will only increase the pressure on them. As a friend, your job is to confront them with important information without making them feel even more responsible for the situation. For instance, if there is a child involved, Regtop says you shouldn’t say things like, “You have to leave your partner because of your child”, but rather, “Your partner has to stop behaving like this for the sake of your child”.

The goal is to maintain an open line of dialogue, to become the person your friend can confide their deepest, darkest feelings in. Once you’ve built some trust, Regtop suggests starting with a simple, “How are you really doing?”. If you feel they’re holding back, ask again. Regtop adds that it’s absolutely crucial for your friend to understand on their own that what’s happening to them is wrong. They need to do the talking – it can be extremely helpful and liberating to just say things out loud. You don’t even have to give them advice.

If your friend is not ready to talk, tell them you understand and you’ll be there when they are.

Be prepared for emergencies

Great, you’ve had a conversation. But what do you do if the situation escalates? Regtop says you should consult with your local domestic abuse hotline or organisation and ask for advice if you think your friend needs police intervention. “Most importantly, research the options available to them in advance. When your friend gets in touch with you, it’s useful to have everything ready.”

Many countries don’t have specific laws targeting emotional or psychological abuse, so the police might not be able to intervene – but you still can organise a safe place for them to stay while they get their bearings or put them in touch with an organisation that can help them.

Stay strong

There will be times along the way when you’ll want to give up or when you start feeling like nothing you do will work. But as Regtop says, “Don’t let your own doubts get in the way. Don’t be afraid of making the situation worse or getting involved in somebody else’s business.” 

While it can be hard to see your friend going back to a violent partner time and time again, you have to be kind and forgiving and remember that’s what most people in their position do. Even though it might seem like an uphill battle, leaving an abusive partner is easier for people when they can count on unconditional support. 

“When someone tells you they’re afraid and you take them seriously, they’re more likely to stick to their decision to break up the relationship,” Regtop says. In other words – when your friend realises they need help, it’s very important there’s someone there to listen.