How to support a woman experiencing domestic violence

Woman with hand on friend's shoulderSupporting a friend or family member experiencing domestic violence can be very difficult, and if she hasn't said anything but you suspect abuse, not knowing what to do can be agonising.

Many women feel they can't reach out for help, or that they won't be believed. Being a good friend and knowing how to help can make all the difference - we asked Women's Aid for some advice on going about this.


Understanding domestic violence

The first thing you need to know to support a friend experiencing domestic violence is what it is. Domestic violence is a pattern of physical, psychological, sexual or financial violence that takes place within an intimate or family-type relationship.

It's a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour. Domestic violence often includes a range of behaviours, not all of which are inherently 'violent' – that's why sometimes people talk about 'domestic abuse': hiding someone's keys and then calling them stupid when they can’t find them might not be violent, but if it's repeated to humiliate and control someone then it's domestic violence.

Steps you can take

If you suspect a friend is experiencing domestic violence, but she hasn't confided in you, the situation can feel impossible. Especially if you don't not know exactly what's happening, or if you don't necessarily know her very well, you might feel nervous about 'getting involved'.

If you are ever concerned that anyone is in danger, including a woman's children, then we advise contacting the police. Be aware that she, through fear or love or shame, may not admit to what is happening when the police arrive, so the action that the police are able to take may be limited. But calling them could prevent serious violence.

If you suspect children are being exposed to the abuse you could consider contacting social services. They would be able to work with the woman to help her protect her children.

Of course, this is a very difficult thing to do as many women don't report domestic violence precisely because they fear social services getting involved, but ultimately a woman's safety, and that of her children, has to come first.

What to say

If possible, you could mention your concerns to your friend, and let her know you're worried about her. You could encourage her to seek some help, and let her know you're there for her.

If your friend feels able to confide in you about abuse, that's a positive sign. Try to keep the lines of communication open so that she doesn't become more isolated. This is often a danger because of the way abusers can work to cut a woman off from her support network.

She may be ashamed of what's happening and feel she's to blame. Her self-esteem will probably be very low. An abusive person will often tell the person they are hurting that it is their fault.

Remind her that domestic violence is always the responsibility of the abuser. There's nothing that your friend could do that would make it ok for him to hurt her. 

Steps she can take

If she wants to leave she could think about accessing emergency accommodation. There may be legal options she could pursue through the civil courts or the police.

A local domestic violence service will be able to help, whether she wants to leave or to stay in the relationship.

If she doesn't want to leave, or keeps returning to an abusive partner, it can be very frustrating. It is hard to watch someone you care about returning to a damaging situation. 

Be patient

Unfortunately, unless your friend chooses to remove herself from this situation you can't make her leave. She's only likely to leave and not return if the decision is her own and she doesn't feel that she's being pushed into it.

The abusive partner might not allow her to make any decisions, and she needs to make the decision to leave herself as the first step to living independently.

By making that decision for her, you would be denying her that vital first step towards independence. Being a friend and being there for her are the very best things you can do.

Remember you can't change the situation for her and must also look after yourself.

Try to understand why your friend might stay. She may still love him and believe he'll change. Often, the partner will keep promising they'll change to encourage their victims to come back, and they may seem or even feel sincere at the time.

Normally though, the abuse increases in frequency and severity over time. Although it's possible for abusive people to change their behaviour, it takes a lot of effort and full acknowledgement that the abuse is their responsibility.

Professional help is normally required for a person to realise why they are abusive and to address their own issues. You can discuss this with your friend, but you can't force her to realise it. It's normal for a woman to attempt to leave an abusive relationship several times before making the final break. 

Empower her

She might feel she couldn't cope on her own. If somebody is constantly telling you you're the problem, eventually you start to believe it. However she could probably cope a lot better than she thinks.

Let her know that if she wasn't being abused she would be able to gradually build up her self-confidence and would start to feel better about herself. Getting over that feeling of 'deserving' to be hurt and controlled can often take years even after the relationship has ended, so patience is vital. 

Hopefully through getting support, from you and specialist services, and thus realising she's not alone, she will begin to build confidence in herself and then will be more likely to be able to end the relationship.


Last updated: over 3 years ago