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Spiro's HERO

A federally funded grant program at USM to addresses sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking on USM’s campus through prevention and education efforts.

Friends and Family Guide

How to help someone in an abusive relationship

Everyone deserves a healthy relationship.

Do you know someone who is being hurt? Or someone who is causing harm? Are you worried about what might be happening in a loved one’s relationship? You are not alone—we are here to help!

This guide will help you support someone who is struggling in their relationship—and to take care of yourself while you’re doing it. People are more likely to turn to their community (friends, family, YOU) than they are to professionals.

Survivors tell us that what matters most is having someone in their life who is there for them, without judgment, to bounce ideas off, get support, and lean on when things are tough. You can be that person. These tips and tools will help you get started.

What are we talking about when we talk about abuse?

Abuse is a pattern of behavior that one person uses to gain power and control over the other.

These behaviors can include:

  • isolation
  • emotional abuse
  • monitoring
  • controlling the finances
  • physical and sexual assault

The fundamental harm of abuse is a loss of autonomy. Autonomy means independence and freedom from external control. Everyone should be free to make their own choices in relationships. As friends and family who want to help, we can restore those choices that have been restricted or taken away by abuse.

How do I know if it is abuse or just a bad relationship?

In some ways, it doesn’t matter if it’s abuse or not—if someone is being hurt or controlled, they deserve better. We want everyone to be in a healthy relationship, and people may need support to get there. The strategies in this guide can help in either case.

But it is helpful to know if it is abusive for a couple of reasons:

  1. You might need some help to support the person from a local domestic violence or sexual assault program.
  2. You will need different strategies to address safety concerns.

People who are abusive to their partners believe that:

  • they have a right to control their partner,
  • their bad behavior is justified, and
  • their partner is to blame for all the problems in the relationship.

They also tend to manipulate others to further their control by:

  • Confusing people by saying that they are the victim. This makes it harder for their partner to get support and be believed.
  • Using systems to limit their partner’s options. For example, calling the police to get their partner arrested or getting CPS involved to question and undermine their partner’s parenting. This entangles survivors in those systems and ensures they cannot access them for help in the future.

We know this is complicated. You can talk with an advocate anytime (you don’t have to be the one in crisis) to sort out how to help someone who is in an abusive relationship. You can call, chat, or text the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or reach out to your local domestic violence or sexual assault program to get support.

What can I do to support someone experiencing abuse?

These three strategies show your willingness to show up and support someone.You don’t need to be an expert or have all the answers. Just being there and available is what people have told us helps most.

  • Ask a question
    • How's it going?
    • What is your biggest concern?
    • What are you most worried about?
    • What do you need or want?
    • What do you need from your community?
    • How can I help?
    • What is life like with [partner’s name]?
    • Is this relationship energizing or draining?
    • Do you get to do the things you like to do?
    • What happens if you disagree?
    • What does arguing look like in your relationship?
  • Listen up
    • I believe you.
    • I am so sorry this is happening to you.
    • You don't deserve this.
    • Thank you for sharing this with me.
    • It's not your fault.
  • Stay connected
    • Keep checking in with them.

For a printable, expanded copy of this guide go here.

Much of this information was taken from the Washington State Coalition Against Family Violence.