Many people who are abused by their intimate partner either don't know who to turn to or have had bad experiences when they've reached out for help. Your willingness to help can be important to a victim in her safety planning efforts. But while being willing and well-meaning is good, being ready to offer the kind of help that's needed is even better.
The effects of domestic violence can show up in many different ways. Being aware of these effects will not only help you better understand the experience, but will help you better identify someone who is being abused.
Visible signs of physical injury include:
- bruises, cuts, burns, human bite marks, and broken bones;
- injuries during pregnancy, miscarriage, or premature births;
- delay in getting medical help for injuries; and
- many injuries in different stages of healing.
Someone who is being abused might try to hide injuries that can be seen from others. One sign of this might be someone who suddenly starts wearing long-sleeve shirts or turtlenecks in the summer or sunglasses indoors when they never did before.
Illnesses that may be related to being abused include:
- stress-related illnesses like headaches, backaches, constant pain, gastrointestinal disorders, trouble sleeping, eating disorders, and being tired all the time;
- anxiety-related conditions like heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, and "panic attacks;" and
- depression, thinking about or attempting suicide, and alcohol or other drug problems.
In the workplace, the effects of domestic violence can be seen as:
- not being able to concentrate or focus at work, missing work or getting to work late a lot, or asking for a lot of time off;
- on-the-job harassment by the abuser, either in person or over the phone; and
- poor employment history, or losing jobs.
Behavior changes you may notice that could be a sign of abuse include:
- someone getting nervous, quiet, or "jumpy" when they are around their partner;
- someone you used to spend a lot of time with is now never able to do things with you; and
- someone suddenly "checking in" with their partner a lot, or constantly getting calls, e-mails, or text messages from their partner when they are not together.
The only way to know for sure if someone you know is being abused is to ASK. You should always have this conversation in private. A common myth about people who are abused is that they don't want to talk about what is happening to them. It is true that some people do try to hide the abuse, but they often do so because they are afraid of being embarrassed, their partner finding out, being blamed, not being believed, or being pressured to do something they're not ready or able to do.
Keep it simple. If there are specific things you have noticed that you are worried about, you might say something like, "I noticed 'x, y and z' and I'm worried about you. Is there anything I can do to help?" Or, "It seems like you're stressed out and unhappy. If you want to talk about it now or some other time, I'll keep it between us." People are sometimes afraid to approach a woman about their concern for her safety because they feel that it is "none of their business," or that their offer of help will be unwelcome. But the idea that "what happens behind closed doors" is off limits is something that has contributed to the problem of domestic violence. Even if the person is not ready to talk about it when you first approach them, they might come to you later now that they know you care.
If you ask, be prepared to respond supportively
There are many things you can do to prepare yourself to offer supportive and empowering assistance.
- Learn about domestic violence - Read this guide, talk to a domestic violence advocate, read books, or visit websites to learn more about domestic violence. Know what services are available.
- Initiate a conversation in private and when you have enough time to talk at length, if she wants to.
- Let go of any expectations you have that there is a "quick fix" to domestic violence or to the obstacles an abused woman faces. Understand that not doing anything may very well be the safest thing she can do at any given time.
- Challenge and change any false attitudes and beliefs that you may have about women who are abused. Women who are abused aren't abused because there is something wrong with them. Rather, they are women who get trapped in relationships by their partners' use of violence and control. The better able you are to recognize and build on the courage, resourcefulness and decision-making abilities of women who are abused, the better able you will be to help them.
- Believe her - and let her know that you do. If you know her partner, remember that abusers most often act different in public than they do in private.
- Listen to what she tells you. Really listen to her and ask questions to make sure you understand what she is saying. Avoid making judgments and giving advice. You will most likely learn directly from her what it is she needs.
- Build on her strengths. Based on what she tells you and on what you have seen, point out the ways in which she has developed ways to cope, solved problems, and showed courage and determination. Even if the things she has tried have not been completely successful, help her to build on these strengths.
- Validate her feelings. It is common for women to have conflicting feelings - love and fear, guilt and anger, hope and sadness. Let her know that her feelings are normal.
- Avoid victim-blaming. Tell her that the abuse is not her fault. Tell her that the abuse is her partner's problem and his responsibility, but don't "bad-mouth" him.
- Take it seriously. If you are concerned about her safety, tell her you are concerned without judgment by simply saying, "Your situation sounds dangerous and I'm concerned about your safety."
- Offer help. Offer specific forms of help and information. If she asks you to do something you're willing and able to do, do it. If you can't or don't want to, say so and help her find other ways to have that need met. Then look for other ways that you can help.
- Be a partner in her safety planning efforts. The key to safety planning is taking a problem, looking at all of the available options, evaluating the risks and benefits of different options, and figuring out ways to reduce the risks. Offer ideas, resources and information.
- Support and respect her decisions. Remember that there are risks with every decision an abused woman makes. If you really want to be helpful, be patient and respect a woman's decisions, even if you don't agree with them.
DOs AND DON'Ts
Listen and validate.
Support her decisions.
Wait for her to come to you.
Judge or blame.
Place conditions on your support.