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How to Help a Friend Who’s in an Abusive Relationship

helping friend in abusive relationship

Ever since she started dating that new guy your friend doesn’t quite seem herself, and you’ve noticed some of the signs of an unhealthy relationship. So now you’re wondering if she may be in an abusive relationship, and if so, what you can do to help her.

Abusive relationships are more common than we may like to think, particularly among college students. A survey by Love is Respect, a subset of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, found that 43% of college women report having ever experienced violent or abusive dating behaviors and that 52% of college women report knowing a friend who has experienced violent and abusive dating behaviors.

While not all abusive relationships involve violence, other forms of abuse and even unhealthy relationship patterns can sometimes lead to physical violence down the road. And while no one likes to think of the tragic outcomes, such as that of UVA student Yeardley Love, who was beaten to death by her boyfriend in 2010, these things can motivate us to take steps to help a friend.

However, maybe you feel unsure if the signs you’re seeing in their relationship are actually abuse. Or you may feel like it’s not your place to get involved or that you could damage the friendship because she might get upset with you. If you’re feeling this way, you’re not alone. The Love is Respect survey also found that 57% of college students said it is difficult to identify dating abuse, and 58% of students said they would not know how to help if they knew someone was a victim.

While these feelings are normal, it’s important to show your friend that you care about her and that you’re there for her. Starting a non-threatening, non-judgmental conversation with your friend about her relationship is a great way to do this. Your support in this way could make a huge difference for your friend. Here are three things you can give her during this conversation:

1. A Listening Ear

Start out the conversation by letting your friend know that you want to talk to her because you care about her and her wellbeing. Keep in mind that listening is the most important way you can help your friend. Avoid using the word “abusive,” as this may cause her to shut down. Instead, begin by asking her questions about specific behaviors you have observed in her relationship and how those things make her feel.

For example: “I noticed that your boyfriend seems pretty possessive of your phone, always wanting to know who you’re texting and talking with. How does that make you feel?” Asking questions about specific behaviors and getting your friend to clarify about how those things affect her may help her see that the abusive behavior is not normal. As she talks this through, make sure she understands that any abuse in the relationship is not normal and is absolutely not her fault. Help her to know her worth and that she deserves a healthy, loving, respectful relationship.

Also keep in mind that it may be difficult for her to talk about the abuse that is going on. Don’t push her. If she knows she can trust you to be a non-judgmental, supportive friend, she will likely come back to you to talk again.

2. Support, No Matter What She Decides

It may seem so obvious to you that the best way to fix the problem is for your friend to break up with her boyfriend. But you need to realize there are many reasons that people stay in these relationships, and it may not be as simple as it seems for her to break up with him.

If your friend comes to the realization that abuse is happening, she may decide to end the relationship but she may decide to stay. You have to offer her your support no matter what. Because ultimately, your friend has to be the one to decide that it’s time to get help. Whether she stays or ends it, she is going to need your support, so let her know you’re there for her.

3. A Safety Plan

Depending on the severity of the abuse your friend is facing, you should encourage her to create a safety plan. This is an action plan that is tailored to her specifically to help her think of ways to keep herself safe from the abuse, whether she decides to end the relationship or not. Check out this worksheet from Love is Respect to help her develop a safety plan:

Safety Plan Worksheet

Want More Information?

This Thursday, March 23, 2017, Team One Love @ Virginia Tech will host an Escalation Workshop from 6:30-8:00 p.m. in the Public Safety Building at 330 Sterrett Drive in Blacksburg to help students understand the warning signs of abuse, while also promoting healthy relationships.

For more information on helping out a friend in an abusive relationship, check out these links and resources:

How Valley Women’s Clinic Can Help

If you think there is a chance that your friend may be pregnant or may have been exposed to sexually transmitted infections, Valley Women’s Clinic can provide her with free and confidential pregnancy testing and/or STI testing. Valley Women’s Clinic is also a safe place for her to open up about an abusive relationship; all of our services are confidential. Request an appointment at our Blacksburg or Radford clinic. We can also offer her community referrals and other resources to aid her in an abusive relationship situation.

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