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How to Help a Friend Who is Being Abused

By Amalah

Dear, sweet, helpful Amalah –

I’m in dire need of urgent help. I hate to say this is a life-or-death situation, but it could be. And that’s why I’m scared. One of my best friends is in a horrible, troubling relationship. They are currently living together in a house they rent, and have been dating close to 2 years. He has never been what I would call a “stable” person – but he hides it well when in public (though I have seen hints at the cracks showing around me). But when they’re alone, he is a completely different person.

As I understood, his abuse had only been verbal – he would prey on her biggest insecurities, throw them in her face, and reduce her to tears. When it got bad enough, she would retreat to her sister’s house for a day or so, but would always end up going back. But I know that he has a history of past physical abuse, and she confessed to me this morning that hit he her. (I hate to say that I knew it was coming, but the patterns were all there.)

How do I help her see that going back to him (yet again) would be the worst thing possible? I know I can’t MAKE her do anything (she is a grown woman), but the last thing I want to do is see her end up in the hospital, or worse. I just want the best for my dear friend, and I don’t know what to do anymore… and I can’t talk to anyone else about it, for fear she’ll think I’ve betrayed her confidence and then not talk to ANYONE about it.

Please help!

Okay, breathe. This is a horrible situation, yes. I cannot even imagine. I know I would be full of wild scrambling thoughts about how to FIX IT and what I should say that would magically changing everything and make it all better. But unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. You can’t force someone to get help, or to leave someone else. You can’t even force her to talk about it, or tell you more. Domestic violence is complicated, ugly and frustrating.
The first thing to do IS to talk to someone. Not to report or tattle or betray her confidence, but to educate yourself. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. Like, right now. Get professional, confidential advice about what you should say to your friend, what resources you can offer, and generally how to navigate this minefield of a situation. Read this page from their website, if you haven’t already, on how to help a friend.

It was a tremendous first step for her to admit that the abuse has escalated. She may need some time before she discusses it again, particularly if this is part of a long-term pattern and cycle that she’s accepted as “normal.”
Let her know (gently) that this is not normal and that she deserves better — try to arrange face-to-face meetings and get her out of the house as much as possible.

Plan a girls’ weekend, convince her to join a yoga or improv or pottery class with you or SOMETHING, to ensure that she has activities and friends outside of the relationship to combat any isolation the situation is causing.
Do not even MENTION the topic over the phone or email, in case he’s monitoring that stuff. (Just…assume he is, honestly.)

Do not judge her for not immediately packing up and leaving, for attempting to defend him, or..if she DOES leave…for mourning the loss of even this hideous, messed-up relationship.

Listen, believe, support and offer any help she needs. Offer your house as her safe place, if you think her sister is not fully aware of the situation and may be encouraging her to go home and work stuff out.

And again, that number: The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. They can help you help her. Good luck, and next time you hug your friend, put the whole force of the Internet behind it, because we all want to hear about a happy ending SOON.


About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Angela

    December 21, 2009 at 11:14 am

    Great advice…the only part I would disagree with is this: “Offer your house as her safe place” If this is a violent person the last thing your reader should do is open her own home (and possibly family) to violent retaliation. As awful as it seems to have to consider, your reader needs to think of not only her friend’s safety, but her own. Another option might be to seek out domestic violence shelters in the area. Though this seems to not be an extreme case of physical beatings, it does fall under the scope of domestic violence, and finding a shelter or organization with local resources could be very beneficial.

  • caleal

    December 21, 2009 at 11:26 am

    One of the best things is to NOT badger her about it. It sucks, it sucks SO BADLY, but she’s going to leave when she is ready to leave, and not a moment sooner. And it’s possible that, by arguing for her to leave, and putting her in the position to argue why she should stay, she’ll convince herself to stay longer. People are weird like that.
    Know that when and if she does leave, it is the most dangerous time for her. She needs safety planning, maybe an order of protection, maybe even a stay in a shelter if her situation is bad enough (they tend to be hidden and pretty locked down, as opposed to a friend or sister’s house, where he has most likely been).
    Good luck. You’re an amazing friend for wanting to help her.

  • Danielle

    December 21, 2009 at 11:38 am

    Also, document, document, document! Especially if she ends up staying with him and the abuse continues. Keep a date book and jot down everytime she mentions a fight, or you see a bruise. It may be very helpful down the line for any legal issues

  • heels

    December 21, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    It can take a LOT of time to help someone extract themselves from this kind of a situation. The key there, though, is to HELP THEM EXTRACT THEMSELVES. A friend of mine, after 10 years of dealing with her sister being in an abusive relationship, finally helped her sister get out. All of those 10 years she let her sister know that she would be there in a second if she ever needed to get out, and just a few months ago it paid off when her sister called and asked her to come get her and the kids. She’s finally free, but she had to make the decision for herself. All my friend could do was be sure to be there and support her when it happened.

  • Liz

    December 21, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    send her to this website:
    I had a friend in a similar circumstance, and it wasn’t until she could personally self identify what everyone else was saying that she was able to start making changes.
    Might help, can’t hurt, right?

  • Margie

    December 21, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    I have heard that on average it takes eight times leaving before a woman can stay gone for good, so I love the idea of you having some regular connection with her so that, as long or as many times as it takes, she knows that you are still there supporting her. She knows the reality of her situation better than anyone (and how he cycles), so when to leave and how has to be her call, but she’s much better situated with friends and family to support her. Also, the two years after she leaves are the most dangerous, so be sure to take the leaving seriously and be careful. I hope she can get out soon.

  • Muirnait

    December 21, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    It doesn’t sound like there are any children involved at this point, so that’s something at least. To me, once there are, that changes the whole ball game…

  • College At Thirty

    December 21, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    Okay, I never comment on these things, but I need to comment on this one.
    My friend C started dating J last August. He was not abusive (yet) verbally or physically, but he was very isolating. More than that, he was planning their wedding and in all other ways just blowing through her boundaries one by one pretty much from the first date. He had kids and she said she didn’t want to meet them until they were both ready. She wasn’t ready, but he tried to bring them by anyway. He would tell her he loved her, and when she had an open, honest conversation about how she just wasn’t *there* yet, and even with that, on New Year’s, he told her he loved her, and said that he was confident she would be “there” soon.
    On New year’s, we had a dinner party at a mutual friend’s house, and I was just struck with how possessive J was of C. He would put his hands on her arms, stroke her, hold her like he was holding her down. She came over and sat on my lap as a joke, and he physically went ape. He never verbally did anything, but then she had to sit on his lap and be his after she posed with me for several pictures. It was really disturbing and strange, but how did I bring this up to my friend? And was I just being jealous? Maybe that she had him, or that he was sort of taking her from me? I was doubting myself, because what I was observing really sounds like nothing when described.
    Well, she called me a few nighs after the new year, and we talked. She told me about many of the boundaries that he was just tearing through, and I wanted to just yell at her that she was heading for trouble when she brought up some of the stuff that other friends had said about him.
    Now, normally I would have jumped on the “Hate on J” bandwagon, but something stopped me. This something was disdain for the girl who threw the dinner party. There were a lot of extenuating circumstances, but let’s just say that we wanted to have the party at a house with a bigger kitchen, but she threw a fit and insisted that it be at her house with her postage-stamp kitchen, and then had the audacity to claim that J hadn’t done his share of the work on dinner. This is despite the fact that he had not been given any duties (though he asked several times), and there was no room because of the postage stamp size of the kitchen (he did dishes after dinner, and set the table, etc).
    Suddenly, I was on J’s side about something. I was *defending* him against accusations because I was really pissed about the other thing, and OMG, suddenly everything I was saying had credence with C. She wanted to know my opinion about his boundary problem and his apparent possessiveness, and I was able to say very kindly that maybe they needed a “break” so that she could really try and see what she wanted from him. We hung up, and an hour later, she called me to say that she had broken up with him.
    TL; DR, I know, but really, I was starting to wonder what it would be like to lose a friend to this guy.
    Anyway, all that to say that you need to keep an open mind and take these crazy opportunities to do something you never thought you’d do, like defending this guy. Seriously, if I hadn’t been so pissed at the girl who just absolutely couldn’t cook without her calphalon dishes and sustainable wood floors, I never would have found that opening, and it might have been even longer before she broke up with him. I wonder what would have happened if one of our crew had tried being on his side earlier, maybe she wouldn’t have stayed with him for so long (four months seemed like an eternity with this guy).

  • Lauri

    December 22, 2009 at 7:00 am

    I am an advocate for Survivors of Domestic Violence and Amy gave excellent advice. The average victim has to leave 7 times before leaving for good. She has to do this in her time and has to want the change. All you can do is provide her resources, be there to listen and assist her.
    I would encourage her to document, take pictures, create a safety plan and when she is ready to leave- have her apply for a civil protection order.
    Keep up the good work of supporting your friend

  • Kelly

    December 22, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    I have a sister-in-law (husband’s sister) in a similar situation. I have had a difficult time interacting with her as her husband’s actions has directly affected every member of our family including my preschool age son. I want to support her, but I don’t know what to say when she begins talking about their new house or her pregnancy (separated for 6 months, pregnant within 3 weeks of being back together). I am not happy for her, I am deeply concerned. I feel very conflicted about how to continue our relationship if she chooses to stay with him.

  • Molly

    December 22, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    I also rarely comment here, but I wanted to step forward on this topic.
    It’s important to remember that this guy is removing her power of self-determination. She doesn’t get to make her own decisions. Every choice she makes, she has to base around him — will this make him angry? Will this please him?
    So the last thing you want to do is TELL HER WHAT TO DO. He’s already doing that. She needs to escape that. In order for her to trust herself, to regain the sense of self that she’s lost by being with him, she must make her own decisions.
    That can mean listening to her, providing her with community resources that she can take advantage of, helping her create her escape plan, providing monetary support, whatever. As long as the choice of what to do remains with her, you are still a vital support to her getting this cretin out of her life.
    When you empower her to make her own choices, she may not make the ones you’d want her to make. But that’s still better — painful though it is to watch — than you, blazing in with guns raised, telling her how to fix her life.

  • jodifur

    January 2, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    Late coming to the party, but the most dangerous time for a woman is when she leaves, not if she stays, so she really also should get a protective order or a restraining order the first time the abuse becomes physical, if it does. Advise her to visit her local courthouse for advice on how to do this.