“Why don’t you just leave the relationship?”
This is the question that victims of domestic violence most often hear.
The reality of domestic violence, also called Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), is far more complex than a victim’s decision to stay or leave an abusive relationship.
In fact, leaving the relationship is often one of the most dangerous and fear-inducing times for a victim of domestic abuse. The abusers’ threats of harm keep many victims trapped in an abusive relationship. Psychological abuse techniques like gaslighting can isolate the victim from their friends and family. As a result, the victim might doubt their ability to successfully leave their partner and live without their relationship.
According to research from the National Domestic Violence Hotline, it takes an average of 7 attempts for a survivor to leave their abuser and stay separated for good.
The abusive partner can manipulate the victim into believing that they are in the wrong or they are the “crazy” one. In the presence of friends and family, the abuser might go to great lengths to make their relationship look healthy. They may do this by impairing the victim’s ability to get support from their loved ones.
The abuser might also threaten to commit suicide, threaten to kill the victim or harm their children, loved ones, or pets if they decide to leave. The victim might not have their own source of income due to financial abuse. They also may not have access to alternate housing.
As loved ones, the better question to ask a victim of domestic violence is, “How can I help?”
We sat down with Kaitlin Corson, LMHC and Jordan Castonguay, LMHC to learn more about domestic violence. We also wanted to know how to effectively support a victim of domestic violence.
1. Educate Yourself on the Different Forms of Domestic Violence
Domestic Violence/Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is a pattern of behavior in any relationship where one partner gains and maintains power and control over an intimate partner.
People often think that domestic violence happens in a relationship involving a female victim and a male perpetrator. However, domestic violence does not discriminate. People of any race, age, gender, religion, cultural background, educational level, or socioeconomic status can be a victim or perpetrator of domestic violence.
The majority of domestic violence movements focus on heterosexual relationships. However, members of the LGBTQ+ community fall victim to domestic violence at equal or even higher rates compared to heterosexual counterparts.
Children are exposed to domestic violence every day in their homes, schools, and communities. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 15 children are exposed to domestic violence each year. 90% of these children are eyewitnesses to this violence.
Additionally, teen dating violence (TDV), is an adverse childhood experience that affects millions of young people in the United States.
Data from the Center for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2019 shows that among U.S. high school students who reported dating the 12 months before the survey:
- About 1 in 12 experienced physical dating violence
- About 1 in 12 experienced sexual dating violence
There are many different forms of domestic violence, including:
- Physical abuse: Any physically aggressive behavior, withholding of physical needs, indirect physically harmful behavior, or threats of physical abuse.
- Sexual abuse: Using sex in an exploititive manner or forcing sex on another person. Consent to sexual activity in the past does not indicate current consent. Sexual abuse can include physical and/or verbal behavior.
- Emotional abuse: Any behavior that exploits another’s vulnerability, insecurity, or character. Behaviors could include: degradation, humiliation, intimidation, brainwashing, manipulation, or control.
- Verbal abuse: Abusive language used to denigrate, embarrass, or threaten the victim of abuse. Examples can include: gaslighting, name-calling, threatening, constantly correcting, interrupting, belittling, and demeaning.
- Financial abuse: Controlling the victim through manipulation of economic resources. Examples can include: withholding funds or spending money for necessities on nonessential items, putting the victim on an allowance, causing the victim to lose a job/preventing the victim from taking a job.
- Technological abuse: Using technology to control and stalk the victim. Behaviors can include: monitoring the victims social media, tracking devices to victims location/phone calls/messages/emails, hacking into the victims personal accounts, or forcing the victim to share passwords.
- Abuse by Immigration Status: Abusive behaviors that may be used against immigrant victims: destroying the victim’s immigration papers, restricting the victim from learning English, threatening to have the victim deployed, threatening to hurt the victim’s home country and/or family.
- Elder abuse: Abuse and/or neglect of an older person by someone who has a relationship with them (spouse, child, sibling, other relative, close friend). The abuse occurs in the elder’s home, or in the family member or caregiver’s home. It can also occur in a residential facility by someone who has a legal and/or contractual obligation to provide care for the elder.
The abuser will use various methods of abuse to maintain power and control over another person’s thinking, opinions, emotions, physical body, and behavior. These methods can include:
- Physically hurting, injuring, or wounding
- Withholding funds
- Destroying documentation papers: SS, ID
- Extreme jealousy
- Tracking a victim’s location
- Monitoring a victim’s phone/social media activity
- Forcing a victim to have sex with other person (sex trafficking)
- Pursuing sexual activity when the victim is not conscious/does not give consent
- Physically harming the victim during sex
Understanding an abuser’s controlling behaviors can help you help your loved one.
2. Look for Warning Signs
Victims of domestic violence often attempt to cover up the abuse for a variety of reasons. Learning the warning signs can help you support them:
- Bruises on the arms/legs
- Sprained wrists
- Busted lips
- Black eyes
- Red or purple marks on the neck
- Low self-esteem
- Overly apologetic
- Symptoms of depression
- Anxious and hyper vigilant
- Substance abuse
- Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
- Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
- Talking about suicide
- Overly withdrawn/distant
- Isolating from friends/family
- Checking for the exit
- Excessive privacy about their relationship/personal life
- Canceling appointments/meetings at the last minute
Be honest about the warning signs that you see. Don’t be afraid to let your loved one know that you are concerned about their safety.
3. Maintain Regular Contact with Your Loved One
A domestic violence relationship is extremely isolating for the victim.
Remind your loved one that you’re available to talk or help whenever they may need it. Provide whatever helpful resources you can: transportation, child care, financial assistance, or anything else that could be beneficial to your loved one’s safety.
If you’ve decided to contact your friend because you’re concerned about their safety, be strategic in how to reach out.
Avoid making the abuser suspicious. You might choose to meet in a private one-on-one setting where the abuser will not be present. If you’re communicating over the phone, create a secret code word, or code phrases for the conversation.
Schedule aside plenty of time in case your loved one decides to open up about their situation.
4. Serve as a Non-Judgmental Listening Ear
It can be extremely difficult for a victim to talk openly about their relationship, let alone accept that they are experiencing domestic violence.
When the victim reaches out to you about their situation, acknowledge that they are taking a brave step forward. It is an important step towards healing and finding closure. Listen to your loved one and allow them to open up about the situation on their own terms and at their own pace.
Be an empowering voice for your loved one. Remind them that they are not alone, that the abuse is not their fault, and that you are there to help. Never use judgmental language around domestic violence. Never blame, judge, or criticize your loved one for what is happening to them in their relationship.
It can be difficult to hear your loved one talk about what they are experiencing. However, never pressure them into making a decision that they are not ready to make. Your loved one is the expert of their relationship, and is entitled to make their own decisions about their life.
Always validate your loved one’s feelings. Let them know that it’s natural to have conflicting thoughts and feelings about their partner and their relationship. Remind them, without judgment, that abuse and violence are not part of a healthy relationship.
5. Remind Your Loved One of Their Positive Attributes and Strengths
The pattern of psychological, emotional, and/or physical abuse can make a victim of domestic violence believe that they are weak, unworthy, or a bad person.
More than ever, your loved one needs positive reinforcement from outside of their relationship.
Give your loved one the emotional support they need to believe that they are a good person and worthy of an abuse-free life. Remind your loved one of their innate strengths and abilities. Focus on all the positive attributes that your loved one provides.
6. Engage Your Loved One in Activities Outside the Relationship
An abuser’s desire to maintain power over the victim can strip the victim of their independence, self-esteem, and happiness. To help heal these psychological wounds, encourage your loved one to take part in activities outside of their relationship.
Here are some great activities that you can do together:
- Enjoying meals together
- Playing or listening to music
- Watching a movie/TV show
- Taking a walk outside
- Doing yoga
If you’re going to include your loved one in an activity outside of their home, consult with them first. Discuss which forms of communication are least likely to be seen by the abuser.
7. Help Your Loved One Develop a Safety Plan
Effective safety planning is essential to getting out of a domestic violence situation.
Help your loved one create a safety plan to protect themselves if the violence escalates or if they decide to leave the situation.
- Decide on a safe place to go in case of emergency, or if they need to leave home
- Prepare an excuse to leave if they feel threatened
- Make a list of emergency contacts: domestic violence shelter, domestic violence hotline, trusted friends and family members
- Create code word/code phrases to alert family or friends if help is needed
- Help your loved one put together and hide an escape bag of cash, social security documents, documentation records, keys, a change of clothes, toiletries
If your loved one is concerned about leaving their children or pets behind, offer to take care of them.
8. Provide Information About Local Resources
Connect your loved one with The National Domestic Hotline. Call 800-799-7233 or text START to 88788 to chat.
Provide resources to your loved one about local domestic violence support groups and domestic violence shelters:
Assure your loved one that any information they share with domestic violence professionals will be kept strictly confidential.
9. When to Intervene
Domestic violence is a crime that can result in serious injury and even death.
If the danger is imminent and there is immediate concern, call the police right away.
10. Take Care of Yourself
Supporting a victim of domestic violence takes an immense amount of strength, compassion, and commitment. To help your loved one through the psychological and emotional impact of their situation, which may or may not become life-threatening, you need to take care of yourself.
- Never put yourself in danger
- Always meet in a safe and confidential setting
- Engage in activities that bring you joy
- Remind yourself of your strengths and value to the situation
- Set boundaries with your loved one and the situation
- Connect with a trained mental health professional for additional support
The road to recovery from domestic violence is not easy or short. The first time that a victim of domestic violence opens up to you about their situation is not likely to resolve the problem.
As loved ones and close friends, be patient throughout the process. Trust that you are doing the right thing by talking to them about their situation.
Accept that there are limitations in what you can do, but continue to hold space for your loved one and remind them that you are there for them.