One of the hardest things about preventing domestic violence is penetrating the secrecy and fear surrounding the issue. Many victims never seek help, or tell anyone, because they are afraid of their attacker’s response. Abusers count on that, and usually act only when they can’t be seen — making their actions harder to provide without the victim’s assistance.
Unfortunately, support groups, shelter operators, law enforcement agencies and other concerned aid providers usually can’t just step in immediately. But by becoming aware of the signs and symptoms, family, friends and coworkers are in a better position to offer help, hope and a way out.
Where to begin?
Start by learning the signs of emotional and physical abuse:
- Do you see or hear about bruises, broken bones or other injuries?
- Do you see a pattern of absences from work, events or functions?
- Do you hear someone’s spouse or partner make cruel, belittling jokes at their expense?
- Is the spouse or partner always jealous, attentive and demanding?
- Does the spouse or partner intercept messages?
- Do you fear the spouse or partner?
- Does someone refer to their spouse or partner’s bad moods, anger or temper?
- Have there been suicide attempts by any family member?
- Does the potential abuser speak to his children abusively?
These are some, but by no means all, of the signs of abuse.
Some may be happening with no outward appearance, as abusers are very, very careful not to get caught. They also are very on guard to make sure no one is noticing their actions, so if a well-meaning friend or coworker is suddenly “nosing around,” that person could be endangering him- or herself as well. So subtlety is important.
Having a painful, but necessary, conversation
Helping a friend or family member who may be suffering abuse get help — and get away — starts with a conversation.
- The first step is contacting any local sexual and domestic violence centers or programs. It is essential to do this before approaching the person you think might be suffering abuse.
- Speak with a counselor or trained volunteer about your concerns, and ask what the best, safest next steps might be.
Once you feel comfortable approaching your friend or family member, you need to be prepared for the fact they may not wish to speak to you, and you must be OK with that. Express your concern, and let him or her know that you are there, and that his or her safety is your main focus.
If he or she is open to a conversation, follow these guidelines:
- Listen attentively, without interrupting.
Don’t let your facial expression or body language indicate judgment of any kind (folded arms, for example).
- Be certain to share that this is a private conversation.
Let the person know you won’t take any next steps without his or her approval.
- If he or she wants to talk about specific abuse, follow along.
If not, don’t push for information he or she isn’t ready to give.
- Make sure to say, often, that you believe what you’re hearing.
When abuse happens, speaking up is an incredibly brave act, so reinforce that you understand the risk he or she is taking.
After “going public,” even in this small way, your friend or family member is going to feel very vulnerable, and will be looking to you for next steps.
Knowledge empowers everyone
Help make plans, but let your friend or family member make the decisions. In other words, you can recommend a safe house, but they must decide on their own to go.
Most importantly, be sure you know the basics when it comes to domestic violence so that you’re not just a sympathetic ear, but also a knowledgeable friend. Get in touch with your local sexual and domestic violence educators and see what basic information they can provide. In addition to literature and online videos, they may also have free orientations for volunteers and interested community members.
Being there for someone who may have been abused and may be struggling to escape the situation is commendable. Having the knowledge of how to quickly and safely access help allows your compassion to become effective — and perhaps life-saving — advocacy.