What should you do if someone discloses to you that they are the victim of domestic violence?
- Listen to the person
- Encourage them to seek professional help
- Do not approach the alleged perpetrator
- Do seek help yourself
- Do not pass on their story, apart from for the purpose of seeking your own help
- Do not attempt to help them ‘clarify’ or sure up the details of the alleged abuse
Listen to the person
As a professional I deal with a lot of distressed people, people who are leaving abusive relationships, people who have had a serious accident, or people who have lost a loved one. I see a lot of well meaning people who fail to do this simple thing. It may not feel like you are doing a lot but you are doing the most important thing. A victim of domestic violence has low or no self worth, they do not think they are believable, they do not think people love them, they do not think people care what they have to say.
Listen to the person, really listen, don't interrupt them, listen and be supportive of them.
After they have finished disclosing you can tell the person that you are their friend, that you are there for them, that you will support them, that you are happy to attend any appointments with professionals with them, that you are happy for them to call you if they need to talk to you about it again, and that you believe them.
Don't tell the person how they do feel, how you feel or how they should feel.
Don't tell the person what to do apart from encouraging them to seek further help (see below) or telling the person that you will support them if they decide to leave.
You can't do it for them
You cannot leave for the person. It is so important that you understand this.
You cannot make decisions for the person. You cannot stop loving the abuser or realise that the relationship is unhealthy for the person. Your friend must come to these decisions on their own. It takes a victim an average of seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship, you cannot do it for them and you don't want to risk making them feel like a failure for failing to leave or moving back in after leaving. Your friend has to do all these things for them self.
You have to support your friend, listen to your friend, encourage them that they have value and worth and that you will be there to support them if they need help.
While false accusations do happen, and this is part of the reason for not gossiping and not confronting the abuser, it is not your job to figure out whether the accusations are accurate. You can assume that if your friend would make up a lie like that, then they need help and professional support regardless of the cause of their anxiety, and below we will discuss directing them to professional services so your response is the same. It is not your job to get to the truth of the matter, leave that to Police or Family Courts.
Encourage your friend to seek help
Being a victim of domestic violence is very stressful, and they need professional help. Don't attempt to help the person yourself, your friend needs help from some or all of the following professionals:
- Police (if the abuse is physical)
- Their general practitioner, to refer them to other services
- A psychologist or psychiatrist
- A lawyer
- If they attend a church, their minister
- A housing referral service or a real estate agent
They also need support from a friend, but you should not also try to be any of the above as well as their friend. Solicitors generally prefer not to act for friends in domestic violence situations because they get caught being both and end up doing neither.
Alternatively there are a number of domestic violence advocacy services that they can contact, for instance https://www.whiteribbon.org.au/find-help/support-services/ that will direct them to professional help.
If they are leaving encourage them to speak with the Police or a lawyer promptly, leaving is often the most dangerous time in a relationship and they need advice about how to leave safely (or as safely as possible).
Offer to attend these appointments with them, if that will help, or offer to pick them up and drop them off and wait outside while they have their appointment. Some of my clients have had a friend sit with them for the first five or six appointments. The emotional and pastoral support that you are offering is important, just because you aren't trying to be a professional doesn't mean you can't be helpful, in fact you are the most helpful person because you are helping them to continue moving forward.
Do not approach the alleged perpetrator
This is the classic example of something that might feel like a good idea, but actually is detrimental to your friend. If your friend's allegations are indeed accurate and this person is actually controlling and/or dangerous then aggravating the abuser is not going to help your friend. Don't poke the bear.
You are not so convincing that the person will realise the error of their ways and decide to stop abusing your friend. Just like you can't make your friend decide to leave, you cannot make the abuser realise that they have done the wrong thing. If they do realise that they have done the wrong thing that is wonderful, but you are not the person to help them because you cannot help both the victim and the abuser.
There is nothing to be gained by confronting the perpetrator, and you may actually put your friend at risk of further abuse because the abuser feels embarrassed, or is angry that the victim 'dobbed'.
Furthermore, if your friend has left the home but this is one of their six (on average) failed attempts to leave, when they move back in the abuser will work to cause an argument or a rift between you and your friend. One of the things that abusers are good at is cutting off support networks for the victim. You may find that your friend is manipulated into believing that you are the problem, or believing that you have gossiped about them and embarrassed them, or believing that you think that the abuse is their fault.
Focus on helping and supporting your friend, that is the best thing you can do for them.
Do seek help yourself but do not otherwise pass on their story
Supporting someone through a stressful time is stressful. Supporting someone who is a victim of abuse, who may still be living with the abuser, or who may still be at risk of further harm is very stressful as you may feel like you are powerless to do anything.
It is important that you not confuse this with gossip. Keep the circle of people you seek help from as small as possible.
Firstly, anyone you gossip to may have a shallow understanding of domestic violence and may think that the answer is to 'make' your friend leave or 'make' the abuser stop.
Secondly, you have to understand that your friend is probably still embarrassed by what has happened to them. You think you are gossiping about the abuser, you are actually gossiping about your friend. If they want people to know they will tell them themselves.
Thirdly, if there are children of the relationship, the children will be embarrassed by the gossip. Children cannot tell the difference between an insult directed at their parent and an insult directed at them. In time, the children will need to learn the truth about their parents, but gossip and over hearing third parties talk about their parent is not the way to help them to realise this.
Do seek help though
You should however tell a support person what is happening and how you are feeling about it. Don't be embarrassed to get professional help. Professionals exist for a reason, just as a lawyer helps a person to purchase a house properly, a psychiatrist can help you to properly process and deal with stressful information.
If you have a spouse talk to them. If you have someone in your life who can help you in a pastoral sense, a sister, a minister, a bible study leader, then talk to them. Ask them to follow you up later and see how you are coping. If you become overwhelmed by the situation you cannot help your friend. Professionals who work with domestic violence victims have systems whereby they seek help and support, you should also seek help and support.
Do not attempt to clarify the details
When your friend is talking be very careful that you don't cloud or add to their recollection of events. Your friend is very emotional, making suggestive comments (so then he hit you? for instance) may cloud their recollection. Ask open ended questions, such as what happened next? Or I am sorry, I am listening but this is a lot to take in, can you repeat that?
You might encourage your friend to write down what happened either for the Police or for their lawyer but again, be very careful that you don't write it for them, and that you don't make leading statements that will confuse their memory. This will not help with any future court cases. Additionally, your friend will have a lot to deal with in the future emotionally, make sure that they are only dealing with what actually happened, not a mish mash of what happened and what other people said about what happened.
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