How do you make a friend see they’re in an abusive relationship and help them leave?
It’s a big question and an even bigger topic, and I’m sure many will have all sorts of responses to it but let me sound out my thoughts to you.
I know I have my special radar on, listening out for clues and linking them together to get a bigger picture. I’ve worked for a domestic violence organisation in the community, in a refuge and on a help-line. I’ve delivered training, have written and read about this subject so much over the years. Do I consider myself to be someone who knows absolutely everything there is to know about domestic violence? Not at all. Nobody knows everything but I know a lot and so it’s natural for me to keep this in mind when I meet anyone.
I have to say it here, I love my friends. I love them so much and I want them to be happy. I also want them to live a life free of fear and abuse. Love doesn’t hurt. I don’t believe a person who claims to love you will hurt you or abuse or manipulate you.
I grew up with domestic violence, I knew that love and hurting someone physically wasn’t the same thing. So when I entered relationships later on and I wasn’t hit, I decided it must be love because there were no bruises. It was a naive assumption I made on my part, even when I knew about the different aspects of domestic violence, even when I delivered training or went on marches or wrote about it, I didn’t make the connection to anything I was experiencing at the time. Why? Oh, well I was never hit. Not a finger laid on me, really. So, my mind decided that it must be love.
Truth is, I didn’t know what love is.
Taking a break from my area of speciality and then coming back to it meant that I was looking at it from a new perspective. I remember sitting in an induction, feeling really put out because I had previously delivered the training I was on, until I started to connect to the words and the definitions, and I had no choice but to look at my situation with a new perspective. It could no longer be ignored or swept under the carpet. It was there in black and white on paper, in a room full of people discussing it and agreeing, it was there in front of me and I could relate on too many levels to turn a blind eye to it again.
I had to take action and act upon it, because me doing nothing wasn’t going to change anything and I realised that. I knew I had to love myself and ensure my happiness, and that meant removing myself from something that was slowly smothering me.
I have since spoken to friends who have said they could see what was happening, that it was clear to them but not clear to me. And this makes me wonder, why didn’t anyone say anything to me? Why didn’t they make me see what they were seeing?
But then that prompts me to ask a more important question: Would I have listened?
It’s unlikely I would have and so I understand when women choose to turn their backs on their friends who seemingly run back to abusive partners despite all the advice given to them. It’s not a case of them choosing the abuse over safety, but more the fact that they have to be at a point where they are ready to consider that they deserve to be treated better. How can you address an issue, a problem, when you don’t believe it exists? How can you change your mind when you don’t know you have the power to? It’s a hard one but ultimately we stick to our decisions when it’s been a voluntary process. No amount of nagging, arguing or falling out will make your friend leave an abusive relationship. If she isn’t ready, she isn’t ready and while that can be frustrating, the most important thing you can do is be there for her.
What she needs is someone to believe in her. What she needs is someone who will remind her of how great she is. What she needs is someone who will listen, wipe up her tears and make her smile on days she feels like she is worth nothing. She needs to be reminded of her true worth, that there is some good in this world, because only that will show her that the abusive behaviour isn’t the norm and isn’t to be accepted. And when she is ready, when she finally leaves on her terms, she needs someone who will support her along the way, not someone who will say “I told you so.”
How do you help a friend who is in an abusive relationship? Don’t walk away. Don’t close the door on her. Don’t burn down the bridge. Believe in her. Be there, with love, support, facts and help-line numbers. Be her light. Show her there is a way out. Give her hope. Love her and your love will lead the way.