If you have a friend in an abusive relationship, you might feel scared, hopeless, and most of all, helpless. Whether the intimate partner violence in question is physical, emotional, economic, or falls into multiple categories, you may be at a complete loss as to what you can do.
The best ways to show up for your friend will depend on your relationship, the nature of the abuse, and what stage your friend is on in their journey. “There’s no cookie-cutter approach,” Arlene Vassell, vice president of Programs, Prevention, and Social Change at the National Domestic Violence Resource Center (NDVRC), tells SELF.
With that in mind, “most of the time, what you’re trying to do is build trust,” Vassell explains. “Your goal as a friend is to create a space where someone will open up to you and to support and empower them.” Here, domestic violence counselors and a survivor share what you can say to get closer to this goal, plus some sentiments to avoid.
Here are some statements to try:
1. “I am here for you no matter what you decide to do.”
This expresses your intention to be a reliable, nonjudgmental ally whose love and support aren’t contingent on your friend making certain choices. “Show yourself as a friend no matter whether they decide to leave or not,” Vassell says. It really is about showing, not just telling. “Continue to be supportive and stay connected and show up and invite them out,” Vassell says.
2. “How does it feel when your partner does XYZ?”
People in abusive relationships often have a hard time trusting their inner voice. Your friend’s abuser has likely conditioned them to devalue their gut instincts, Jeanne King, Ph.D., founding director of Partners In Prevention, a 501(c)3 that educates doctors and nurses on how to recognize and intervene when their patients are being abused, tells SELF. Instead of telling your friend what to do, like their abuser does, “guide them to hear their own inner voice,” King says. “You want to help them find what’s right for themselves.”
One way to do this is to ask thoughtful questions about your friend’s feelings, wants, and needs surrounding the relationship. Some questions you might ask, per the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) site Loveisrespect: What is it like when you two have an argument? How do you wish things were different between you two? When did you last feel truly safe and happy with this person?
Respond to what your friend says by affirming their feelings, King suggests. You can try something like, “That sounds really tough to deal with” or, “That must hurt you.” Keep in mind that your friend may not be ready to open up to you, and that’s OK. Putting the questions out there shows that you care enough to ask and could get your friend thinking.
Emily R., 39, was in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship for about six years. She wonders if it would have helped to have these types of conversations with her closest friends, she tells SELF. “I don’t blame them for not [asking these questions], obviously,” Emily says. “I wouldn’t have known what to say, either.”
3. “Thank you for sharing this with me. That must have been hard.”
If your friend has told you about abuse they’re experiencing—no matter who started the conversation and whether or not they’re asking for your help—do not take it lightly. “Disclosing is often one of the hardest things a survivor has to do,” Vassell explains. “They’ve decided they want to share their most personal, hurtful, painful experiences with you. It’s a huge step. As a friend, you need to recognize that.”
4. “You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.”
Sharing even a little bit can be hard. Reassure your friend that they only need to tell you however much feels comfortable. You can also take this opportunity to direct your friend to resources like the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1−800−799−7233), which is staffed by trained advocates 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. In addition to offering help in emergency situations, this type of resource might make your friend feel more at ease sharing. “It’s so important [for] your friend to have an outlet for them to talk freely,” Vassell explains.
5. “I’m concerned about your safety.”
“Once you start to see physical violence, the odds [of serious injury or death] go up,” King points out. “If it can happen once, it can happen again, and each time it can escalate in terms of the consequences.”
If there are clear signs that your friend is experiencing physical abuse (or they have told you about it), it’s generally OK to express calmly and matter-of-factly that you care about them, that what is going on is not normal, and that you believe they are at risk.
You can show this concern without being judgmental or demanding. Consider trying something along the lines of, “The way your partner is treating you appears to be hurting you. I care about you, and I’m worried that you’re in a dangerous situation,” Vassell says.
6. “Can we work on a safety plan, just in case?”
A safety plan is a practical tool that lists how someone in an abusive relationship will ensure their physical, emotional, and economic security in an emergency, according to the NDVH. “It’s a tool created before the crisis situation so that the person knows what to do when things get really bad,” Vassell explains.
Safety plans are tailored to the person and should account for various scenarios that could arise while they’re still in the relationship, while they’re planning to leave, and after they leave. A couple of basic questions a safety plan should answer: Who will your friend contact (and how) if they’re in danger? Where will they go when they leave? As the NDVH points out, these things might seem obvious, but they’re worth having a conversation about now because it can be difficult to think clearly in stressful situations.
Although your friend should be the one to lead the planning, you can offer to help. Ask your friend, “If things should escalate, what would you want me to do?” Vassell says. For example, is there an emergency code word they can text you if they’re in danger and can’t make a call? Can you hold on to some cash for them?
If your friend doesn’t want to involve you, you can still point them towards resources. They can call the NDVH, find local support through the National Network to End Domestic Violence, or read up online about safety planning under different circumstances (like during pregnancy or with children).
7. “Can I help you find an advocate or therapist?”
If your friend is in imminent danger, you may need to call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline ASAP for crisis intervention.
If your friend is not currently in need of emergency assistance, it may still be good to help them find a counselor, King says. There are therapists who specialize in this area and social workers at local domestic abuse shelters and agencies who are trained in this kind of counseling, too.
For Emily, about six months of counseling was what she needed to find her inner voice, make a decision, and carry out a plan to leave her abusive relationship.
Here are a few things you should never say:
1. “You have to leave.”
The unfortunate reality is that leaving is not always a practical or even safe decision, Vassell says.
There are many different reasons why people stay with their abusers. Some are emotional, like shame, a desire to keep their family together, religious beliefs, or love. “They [may] hope the abuse will stop or may think they can change [their partner],” Vassell says.
There are also practical reasons someone might feel compelled to stay, like financial dependence or health insurance, Vassell says. Another is a fear of violence, which is sadly valid. “Abuse is about power and control, and if [the abuser] feels like they’re losing control, the violence may escalate.”
Pushing your friend to leave before they’re ready can also isolate them. “They may think the only time you’re going to support them is when they decide to leave, so they may start to avoid you,” Vassell explains.
A number of friends told Emily she had to leave her partner, but she wasn’t ready at the time for several reasons. She was a new mom with no job and a drive to keep her family together. “It felt like [my friends] were missing the point,” she says. “I wasn’t in a place to just leave. It wasn’t realistic.”
2. “If I were you…”
This framing is often dismissive and judgmental of what is likely a more complex situation than you can understand, Vassell says, even if you are also a survivor of domestic abuse. “You can’t judge because you don’t know everything that’s going on,” King says.
Emily, for example, was embarrassed by her lack of economic independence. “I felt really stupid and was ashamed to tell people I had literally no way to support myself if I left,” she says. She was also dealing with depression and low self-esteem that made the idea of leaving seem infeasible.
3. “Your partner is such a jerk.”
Insulting (or even giving valid criticism of) your friend’s abuser won’t convince them to leave. It’s actually more likely to create distance between you two. “If this person decides to stay, they may decide that you’re not a person they want to talk to because they think you will judge them,” Vassell explains. This goes against the end goal of remaining a safe person for your friend to confide in down the line.
This was the case for Emily. “Being told what an asshole [my partner] was when I knew that deep down just made me feel too ashamed to keep confiding in [those friends],” she says. “I felt like they were mad at me for staying with him for so long and for going back to him a couple [of] times, so it was better to just stop telling them about it.”
You can’t choose what your friend does. But you can be there.
“Often we get into the mindset that we want to save the individual,” Vassell says. “It’s really hard to witness someone in an abusive situation and not be able to fix it.”
But the truth is that all you can do is provide loving support and resources, not control the outcome. “The decision to leave is really up to that friend when they’re ready to do it,” Vassell says. “They need to take that next step for themselves.”
Looking back now, Emily wishes she had gotten out sooner but also believes nobody could’ve made her. “It had to be my decision, and I had to be ready. It took a long time and it was really, really hard,” she says. “But I finally found the strength and did it.”
And take care of yourself, too.
Accepting the limits of your capacity to help a friend in this kind of situation is important for preserving your own mental health. “It’s really hard to witness someone in an abusive situation and not be able to fix it,” Vassell says—especially when that situation goes on for a long time, as is often the case. This can be emotionally draining (especially if you’re dealing with something like anxiety or depression) and potentially triggering (if you’ve dealt with abuse in your past, for instance).
If you feel like it’s all more than you are equipped to handle right now, it’s OK to lay down personal boundaries, King says. Try doing that in combination with the suggestion to see a counselor above. You can say something like, “I want to be here for you, but I don’t think I have the emotional resources or expert knowledge to give you the support you really need and deserve. Can I help you find someone that does?”
And, if you think it would be helpful, consider seeking out your own mental health professional or domestic abuse counselor who can help you navigate your situation and process your feelings. The loved ones of a person dealing with an abusive relationship need support, too.