Considering that 1 in 3 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, chances are that you have a friend or family member who’s in an abusive relationship right now. When your loved one shares that she is experiencing abuse, or you observe it firsthand, your first instinct may be to urge her to leave, but it isn’t as simple as that. Leaving an abusive relationship is a process that can take months or even years. For the victim, leaving puts her at an even greater risk of physical danger and even death. Only she can know if and when it’s safe to get out.
Here’s how you can provide help and support to your loved one that won’t place her in harm’s way as she navigates this complex situation:
Believe her. Abusers have very high standards for who they’ll allow into their lives. They want someone trustworthy who won’t lie to them, someone with a good and kind heart who will think the best of them, and someone patient and self-sacrificing enough to endure their mistreatment. A victim will often be confused and exhausted because of the emotional and mental abuse she’s suffered. Remember that these characteristics are symptoms of abuse, and should be treated as evidence that she’s telling the truth.
Don’t attempt to fix or rescue her. Though she is in an awful situation, know that she is strong and capable. She’s had no choice but to be; she wouldn’t have survived thus far otherwise. What she truly needs is someone to affirm her ability to advocate for herself and to walk alongside her as she emerges from the fog of denial. Rather than opine about what you think she should do, ask her what she thinks she should do. Only give suggestions if she asks for your input. Remember that she is bearing a heavier load than you can probably imagine; therefore, refuse to become impatient with her perceived level of progress. For every visible change you see, there is much more going on under the surface.
Don’t try to be her voice; instead, encourage her to resurrect her own. As advocates, we often focus on being “a voice for the voiceless” and we forget that God has actually given us each our own unique voice. Part of abuse is the silencing of one’s voice. Whether by intimidation or contempt, a woman has her voice forcibly silenced or she learns to bury it herself. Encourage her to speak up by being curious about her thoughts and feelings, and listening with interest and acceptance. Speak words of honor and validate her feelings, even if you don’t fully understand or agree with her perspective.
Foster a holistic and well-rounded relationship. Do not let the abuse or the abuser become the main focus of your friendship. He’s already stolen so much from her, don’t let him have you, too. Abusers take up most of the room in their relationships; thus your friend has learned to make herself small and live centered around him. Make space in your friendship for her personality and humanity to come alive. Your friend is a person to know, not a project to fix. A healthy friendship has layers. Ask her what music she’s been listening to or send funny memes back and forth. Keep a sense of sincere and light-hearted play, so she knows she has a place she can go to rest and be seen.
Refuse to be intimidated by her abuser, but follow her lead. Any abuser worth his salt is going to try to alienate your friend from people who care about her and who empower her. He’s not going to want to share her. Don’t let him bully you into giving up on your friend, but have grace with her, understanding that she may not be able to hang out as much or at the same times your other friends can. The safest times for her to reach out and connect might be while he is at work, or late at night after he has gone to sleep. Let her dictate the timing, and do your best to be a steady and faithful presence in her life. You can’t imagine what a priceless gift that is.
Speak truth over her in love. Call out her heart and remind her of her worth and strength. Tell her what you admire and respect about her. She has probably killed or buried parts of her identity in order to become “safe” for him, or from him. She needs to be reminded that those parts of her still exist and are valuable. You can be a voice of truth in her life to combat the lies she is hearing.
Model and practice healthy communication, differentiation, and self-care. Abuse teaches a woman that her needs and desires do not matter. She may find it difficult to even acknowledge that she has needs, or to discern what those needs are. You can help her find her way back to wholeness by modeling self-love. Speak your feelings and needs clearly and without guilt or shame, without placing demands on her. Over time, as you choose into healthy habits, you can become a beacon that shows her the way back to health. It’s important not to preach or lecture; simply living in truth is enough. She will notice the difference and be empowered by your life-giving practices.
Invest in her. Time, resources, and love: these are all well-spent on a survivor of abuse. Survivors are some of the sharpest, most resourceful, individuals you will encounter. Again, they have no choice but to be. Navigating life with an abuser requires delicacy and precision. This means that the longer she has been abused, the more new skills your friend has acquired; skills that will serve her well once she is free and healed. After being told she is unworthy in so many ways by her abuser, look for ways to remind her of the truth: she is worth investing in. Anything from a coffee shop gift card to financial assistance as she prepares to leave affirms her value in a powerful way. Be assured of this: she will prevail. God always hears the cries of the oppressed, and when she is ready, He will save her. It is your privilege and honor to be part of that process.