Watching a loved one in pain is one of the most difficult things we do in life.
When this pain comes from an abusive relationship, it can be ongoing for a period of months (or years), which takes an even bigger toll on us.
Empathy causes us to enter experiences with people we care deeply for so that we feel the pain and want to fix it.
Across the board, we have an easier time solving the problems of another person than our own.
When your friend or loved one is experiencing pain from an abusive relationship, the urge to fix it will be incredibly intense. This might result in your own anger at the friend for not leaving the relationship, not filing for a restraining order, or not moving out, etc.
If you want to support and help in ways that are well-received, here are 4 ways to help a loved one in an abusive relationship.
1. Give them validation.
Validation is the ability to communicate to another person that their perceptions, feelings, and their opinions are valid and make sense on some level.
Validation requires you to find the truth from another person’s point of view.
This means that no matter how pointless, absurd, or irrational you deem their experiences, if you want to make them feel understood, it’s necessary for you to validate something about their position.
Validating is not the same as agreeing with them. You could say something like, “I can see that you were really hurt by that,” or, “It sounds like you had a difficult day and it has you feeling really depressed.”
If you agree with them, you can be more validating by saying, “I think it makes sense that you feel that way,” or, “Given your experience, I understand why his statement bothered you.”
Letting someone know that you hear them will aid in their ability to calm down and thus problem solve.
Make eye contact. Stop what you’re doing and put your phone down. Communicate to the other person that they are important enough that you can give them your undivided attention.
Pay attention to their body language and whether it’s congruent with what you’re saying. Think: Slumped teenager saying, “I’m fine.” Be authentic in your body language and non-verbal communication.
Be open to correction. If I think you have your head down because you’re disinterested in what I’m saying, I need to remain open to you correcting me and telling me you have a headache.
Communicate to them with your words that you think they make sense, either because of their history or because anyone would feel that way given their circumstances.
In unique situations, share the feeling with them — not one-upping them, not taking the focus off them — when they get really good or really bad news.
2. Ask them if they want help.
Instead of assuming that other people want your solutions thrown at them, please ask them first. You don’t get to know how many other people are telling them what to do.
They also might be internally beating themselves up and belittling themselves for not taking action, your suggestions could reinforce those internal messages and make them feel worse.
Your solutions might be effective. However, if they’re not in the right frame of mind, your solutions might come off as invalidating — they get the message that you think they’re stupid because they can’t figure it out as quickly as you can. Asking them if they want your help can quite literally sound like, “This seems like a really complex relationship, do you want to talk it out? Would you like my help problem solving it?”
3. Take care of yourself.
Being a caregiver of others — whether it’s as a friend, a caregiver of an elderly loved one, a hired helper, or a helper via your career — can be exhausting.
The reality is that if you deplete your internal resources, you will not be helpful to anyone else. We only have a certain amount of energy in any given day — and it’s crucial that you guard some of your energy for yourself.
Self-care looks different for every person. Generally speaking, it involves you taking care of your physical body, spiritual health, and spending some time with yourself engaging in hobbies that you enjoy.
If you don’t plan time for yourself, your own moods may plummet.
4. Keep inviting them.
A common experience for those in questionable relationships is that their friends and family will get “fed up” and give up on trying to help them.
People stop inviting them to hang out or attend events due to their frequent cancellations.
It’s also a common experience and report for the friend to feel grateful when they’re invited to something because it gives them a glimmer of hope, normalcy, and belonging, even if they cancel because their partner is controlling or they’re hiding their experience.
Continuing to invite the friend to spend time with you communicates to them that you’re not going anywhere and may give them the energy to separate from their abusive partner in time.
When you invite them, it’s important that you don’t judge or mock them.
Simply stating that you’re “wondering if they’d like to…” is sufficient and if your friend is ashamed about their situation, you might help by giving them an out and say, “I know you’ve been busy with work lately. Let me know if you’re able to come, I’d love to see you!”
Adding in judgmental statements about their relationship will not help anyone — they already know.
Support can be a lifesaver for someone in an abusive relationship.
To wrap it up, if you care for someone who is in an abusive relationship, keep being their friend.
Let them know that you are still there and that you will be there when they are ready to talk. Also, make sure to take care of yourself so that your anger doesn’t get the best of you!