What to Say (And Not to Say) When Someone Confides in You About an Abusive Relationship by Julie Cantrell

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Domestic violence hotlines in America receive an average of more than 20,000 phone calls each day. Now, with COVID-19 adding extra stressors to family systems, many cities have reported an increase in domestic violence incidents for the month of March.

How to help a loved one who is being abused

Abuse crosses into all segments of society, with victims of every age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, religious affiliation, and socio-economic class. However, the abuse is more likely to turn deadly for female targets. In the U.S. alone, it’s estimated that at least 20 women each week are murdered by an intimate male partner.

Beyond the observable violence that shapes these statistics, Susannah Furr, a licensed clinical mental health counselor at Now Awake Now, who specializes in helping targets of narcissistic abuse, warns that not all abusive relationships have to turn physical to be deadly.

“Many times, a psychological abuser can warp someone’s reality to such an extreme that the target becomes suicidal or turns to substance abuse to cope with the pain,” Furr says, noting this can be especially concerning when the target is isolated (a situation that has become more common due to the stay-at-home orders recently enacted in many communities).

“Whether physical or emotional, abuse can be extremely dangerous,” Furr explains. “It’s important that we respond appropriately when someone reaches out to us for help.”

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

If we haven’t survived an abusive relationship, it can be difficult to know what to say when a friend or family member confides in us about such a serious matter. We’ve put together 10 things to say (and not to say) to help guide a loved one to safety.

(NOTE: This article explores the most common scenario, using an example of a male abuser and a female target, but it’s important to note that anyone can be abusive and anyone can become a target.)

If you suspect someone may be in an unhealthy relationship:

  1. Don’t say, “He seems like such a nice guy. I can’t believe he’d ever do anything like that.” Instead say, “What you’re telling me is concerning. Can you tell me more?” or, if you’ve noticed signs of trouble, let her know: “I have noticed the way he talks down to you, and I’ve never understood why he doesn’t want you to go to lunch with the girls.”
  2. Don’t say: “Nobody’s perfect. What’d you do to make him mad?” Instead say, “We all make mistakes, but there’s a big difference between hurting someone by accident versus intentionally causing someone to suffer. Does he treat anyone else this way or just you? Does he behave that way in front of other people or just behind closed doors? Has he ever damaged his own belongings or just yours?”
  3. Don’t say: “It takes two to argue.” Instead say, “It takes two to make a relationship work. What happens when you disagree? Does he threaten you? Has he hit, kicked, pushed, or choked you? Has he ever thrown anything at you, pulled your hair, threatened you with a weapon, or made you fear for your life? Has he ever road raged while you’re in the car with him? Has he ever hurt your pets or your children? Are you afraid of him?”
  4. Don’t say: “Why are you telling me this? What do you want me to do about it?” Instead say, “I may not know exactly how to help you, but we’ll figure it out together. Maybe we should call The Hotline and get some advice. Let’s use my phone, just to be safe.”
  5. Don’t say: “Love counts no wrongs. You need to forgive and forget.” Instead say, “Forgiveness is important, but right now you need to focus on safety. You can forgive someone and even love someone from afar, all while keeping yourself safe from abuse.”
  6. Don’t say: “God hates divorce.” Instead say, “I know it can be hard, especially in certain religious circles, to consider leaving your marriage. But your vows were broken when your husband chose to betray, abuse, and dishonor you. If he’s unwilling to work with you to save the marriage, then divorce is simply a legal way to acknowledge what he’s already done.”
  7. Don’t say: “The past is the past. Can’t you just let it go?” Instead say, “Have there been any other incidents when you were afraid of him? How often does this happen? Is there anything that seems to keep the peace, or do you feel like you’re always walking on eggshells?”
  8. Don’t say: “You should see a therapist.” Instead say, “I’ll do my best to help you work through this and together we can find the right resources to help us.”
  9. Don’t say: “It can’t be that bad? If it is, then why don’t you just leave?” Instead say, “It must be incredibly difficult to know what to do. I know you love your partner, and I know it’s your nature to forgive and to find the good. I also know family is everything to you, and the well-being of your children is your top priority. Let’s try to picture what it would look like if you were able to leave. Can we put a plan into place, just in case it ever gets that bad?”
  10. Don’t say: “Men will be men. He loves you deep down. He can’t help it. Everybody has a temper.” Instead say, “The truth is, there’s a big difference between unhealthy and healthy relationships, and we can’t make excuses for people’s abusive behaviors. Would you ever treat anyone the way he treats you? The world is full of healthy, mature, kindhearted men who would do anything to protect their families, not harm them. They communicate with words, not violence, and they’re secure enough to trust their partners, not control them. Let’s look at this chart that outlines the signs of domestic violence.”
Photo by Luis Galvez on Unsplash

You Can Make a Difference

In many cases, an abused target may not realize she’s in an unhealthy relationship, especially if it’s the only relationship she’s ever known.

“If she’s confiding in you, she may be trying to gauge whether or not she has reasons for real concern,” Furr says. “By compassionately asking the right questions, you can help her reason through to the truth of her situation. And by listening with an open heart, you can help her understand that no one deserves to be abused.”

Finally, tell her the abuse is not her fault and that you’ll help her through this long and painful journey. Then, stick with her. You may be the only one who does.

Need help for you or a loved one? In the U.S., call 1–800–799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline and find an interactive guide to safety planning here.

Julie Cantrell

New York Times & USA TODAY bestselling, award-winning author | ghostwriter | editor | book coach | explorer ●Hope●Healing●Happiness → www.juliecantrell.com

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Important Disclaimer

You understand and acknowledge: You should always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers With any questions or concerns.