Seven Ways to Support a Friend or Family Member Experiencing Domestic Violence

In the United States annually, there are more than 10 million cases of domestic violence reported to authorities.  However, many cases go unreported or un-addressed, placing women and men in physical and emotional duress and danger, per domestic violence statistics provided by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Just over 50 percent of cases are even reported to authorities.

If a family member or friend has been victimized by domestic violence, relatives and peers can play an important role by providing emotional support, encouragement, and resources to help the victim take control, and make a change that may save their lives. In this article, we will talk about the importance of intervention from family and friends to disrupt the escalating damage and harm inflicted within violent relationships.


Warning Signs of a Potential Domestic Abuse Assailant

There are many misconceptions about domestic violence, and one of them is that it only occurs in lower income homes and families. Affluent families can be more susceptible to being trapped within a marriage that involves domestic violence, as they are coerced by loss of lifestyle, social status, and financial security. From minimum wage workers to corporate executives, anyone can become a victim of domestic violence.

As a co-worker, family member, or friend, do you know the warning signs that may identify a potential abuser?  The behavior begins as subtle – and often missed – control tactics, which can include:

  • Domination of verbal conversations and heavy criticism.
  • Decision-making bias. The victim is not permitted to make plans, or express opinion about small things at first, which quickly escalates to having no power or say at all. The abuser rejects all input from the victim.
  • The abuser makes all decisions regarding when, how, and how often the couple has intercourse.
  • The abuser has a low respect for others including women, often engaging in misogynistic comments, negative dialogue about female independence, and does not apologize. An abuser is highly critical of women to teach the victim to doubt him or herself, strength, and intelligence and capabilities. The abuser also uses deliberate emotional degradation.
  • Mood is variable. One day, the abuser can be happy and fun, and the next time the couple meet, he or she can be angry, argumentative, and even violent. This is a coercive tactic to make the victim feel obligated to resign in terms of decision-making to appease the abuser.

Parents should educate teens about some of the warning signs that may hint at a risk of violence or psychological abuse. Teenagers and particularly college students are the highest growth population segment where domestic violence is a factor in injuries and death.


Generating Empathy for the Victim Who Remains

Education and research identify many deeply rooted psychological factors that make victims of domestic abuse feel that they have no other option than to remain in a relationship with their abusers. People who have never experienced the pain and fear of domestic violence have a hard time understanding why victims simply do not leave, but we’ve provided three rationales that explain why abused partners remain.

1. Threats and Consequences

Many research studies and surveys suggest that women do attempt to leave their abusive relationship and are thwarted by other factors. For instance, if the couple is married, the victim may not have any financial control or access to funds, savings or other financial means to establish a new place to live.   Often in violent relationships, control over money is managed by the abuser for this reason.  

Another reason why women sometimes leave and return to their abusive partner is because of threats to the spouse or to the children. The abuser may escalate other harassing behaviors, including stalking, to strike fear into the victim – who will return home – out of fear of more dire consequences like murder. Promises are made that things will "get better" but are not kept; the abuse returns shortly afterward and is often more severe because of the perceived act of defiance, where the victim briefly moved out.

2. Love and Bonding

Some victims remain in an abusive relationship because of love and the cycle of abuse versus forgiveness. Abusers who inflict emotional, verbal, or physical violence on their partners do so as a means of controlling them. They can also be very gentle, loving, and charming, particularly if they feel they are close to losing control over their partner.  The dichotomy of living in both heaven (when they are apologetic) and hell (when they are violent and abusive) confuses many partners into believing that the behavior will change. They see the good in their partner (albeit infrequently) and believe they can change them.

3. Custody Threats

If your spouse makes more money than you, and if you have a lower education or fewer resources available to you as a parent, you may be concerned that the abusive partner would stand a better chance of receiving full-custody of the children. This is often threatened in relationships in response to threats of divorce; parents are unwilling to risk the loss of custody to the abuser, and so they remain until children have reached the age of adulthood in many cases.

It is important to note that violence to other members of the family, including children and pets, are often used to manipulate a partner to remain within an abusive relationship. The victim remains in the home to protect those he or she loves, sacrificing personal safety and mental health.


What Should Friends and Family Do?

Despite warnings from social educators, counselors, and individuals who are close to the victim, leaving an abusive partner is difficult and may seem impossible, particularly if the abuse has been long-term. It is important to acknowledge that a victim of domestic violence may lack the confidence, financial resources, and support to make a change, end the relationship, and situate him or herself in a safe place.

Offer a haven to listen, without judgement, and be prepared to assist an abused victim to leave the abuser by providing shelter and accommodations for the transition. Friends and family can also assist by helping the victim seek legal action and by reporting the case to the authorities.

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