5 Tactful Ways to Respond to Domestic Violence Victims

Caring FriendVictims of domestic violence will sometimes display specific behaviors or attitudes that make loved ones unsure about how they can help. Please keep in mind that victims of domestic violence are very capable and strong. Their reactions to their experiences are normal, human reactions in the face of abuse and complex emotions, including issues with children, finances, and love and attachment to the abuser, among many other complexities that accompany this type of situation.

Below are five common reactions that victims of domestic violence may exhibit and how you can respond and help.

1. Denial

In this scenario, the victim is in denial that the abuse is happening. Even though his or her loved ones are noticing abusive behaviors, he/she pretends everything is great.

  • How to respond: Start by trying to talk to the individual one on one. Bring up specific examples of behaviors you have noticed that are concerning. Even if he or she brushes it off, reiterate that you are concerned and want him or her to know that you are here, without judgment. Reiterate that you are not judging the person or his/her choices, as feeling judged can be a huge barrier to getting help.

2. Defensiveness

In this scenario, the victim comes to the defense of the abuser and is not open to discussing the abuse or leaving the situation.

  • How to respond: Don’t escalate the situation by trying to argue. Be mindful of not saying negative things about the abuser, especially while the victim is feeling defensive, as this usually results in polarization of the victim toward becoming more defensive in favor of the abuser. Instead, listen and validate that he or she is feeling some strong emotion. Let him or her know that you want to do whatever you can to support him/her and that you respect that he/she is in charge of making decisions about his/her life. It is important that the victim feels empowered. Often, victims of domestic violence feel as though others view them as weak or stupid, which just increases the level of defensiveness. Approach the issue again when the person is less defensive.

3. Wishy-Washiness

This is a situation in which the person goes from one extreme to the other. The victim will ask for help and either leave the relationship or express a strong desire to leave. A short time later, he or she justifies the abuser’s behavior and returns to the relationship. This can be very frustrating for loved ones; sometimes, loved ones may feel like giving up on the person.

  • How to respond: Don’t give up! It is OK to have boundaries with the person and to share concerns about the situation, but giving up puts the person in a more dangerous situation. If he or she feels there is nowhere to go, the chances of him or her leaving in the future lessens greatly. It is not unusual for a victim of domestic violence to have to leave the relationship several times before he/she can leave for good. Loved ones should hang in there and get their own professional support to cope through this situation.

4. Withdrawal

It is not uncommon for victims of domestic violence to become completely withdrawn and hard for loved ones to access. This could partially be due to the abuser isolating the victim to gain more control over him/her and could be compounded by depression and negative self-views, which is common in victims of domestic violence.

  • How to respond: Try to reach out to the victim and be as persistent as is safe. It is important to remember that there are some situations that may increase abuse in a domestic violence situation. It is imperative to know the most ideal times to contact the victim and through which method (cell phone, email, in person, etc.). DO NOT say negative things about the abuser, as it is not uncommon for the abuser to be monitoring the correspondence the victim has with others. Just let the person know you are there for him or her and try to meet with the person in private in order to discuss safety planning and making future contact as safe as possible. See the below response for those who express a desire to leave but have a great deal of fear.

5. Fear

In this scenario, the victim expresses he or she wants to leave, but has fears about leaving. These fears are valid, and major barriers to leaving a violent relationship do exist. Common barriers are threats by the abuser of killing the victim and/or children if he or she leaves, harming pets or children, and financial concerns and constraints, to name only a few.

  • How to respond: It is tempting to try to tell the victim there is nothing to be afraid of, but this is invalidating. Instead, let the victim know that the concerns he or she has are reasonable and legitimate. A professional who works with domestic violence is often helpful to figure out the safety and legal issues that exist in these situations. Acknowledge that waiting to leave is sometimes safer than just leaving without a plan. Help the person to get in touch with an organization such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) to make a plan that will be safe and supported by outside agencies.

Of course, it is important to keep in mind that every situation and person is going to be different. It is not uncommon to see a combination of the above reactions. Keep in mind that these are complex situations that don’t always have simple solutions. If you suspect that someone you love is in an abusive relationship, connect with the National Domestic Violence Hotline, your local domestic violence coalition, or click here for additional suggestions and support.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • thea

    December 4th, 2014 at 11:18 AM

    I have a hard time not getting defensive when talking with someone whom I outright disagree with so it would still be hard even for me to not get this way working with those who have been victims and they are trying to explain what they have experienced. I am an adult and should know better but there are just those times when I feel like I have to defend what I believe to be right so I know that I would have to take a big hard lesson on learning not to do this if this was a portion of the population that I would need to work with.

  • maru

    December 4th, 2014 at 5:07 PM

    As an ex victim that has described me down to a T. Unfortunately it has left some deep emotional scars, the isolation and wishy washiness continues but through my own doing. I have had counselling but I definitely need more, lack of trust in other people has caused other relationships to breakdown.
    sure there is light at the end of the tunnel Im just not quite there yet.
    I think its a mixture of codependency and having a good heart (on my part), no one wants to break someone’s heart, but I don’t think he had one.
    He lacked empathy a big key in to realising he was damaged and not myself.

  • Jaynice

    December 5th, 2014 at 10:45 PM

    You have taken some really great steps already and i applaud that :)
    I want you to remember just HOW BRAVE you were, and know that that bravery is still in you, its always at your beck and call and you can use it to further yourself, any time you please.
    Personally, Trust became all For Myself, instead of looking outward “can i/should i trust this person”, i focused instead inwardly in Trusting Myself.
    That means i am my own best friend, “do i like this/feel okay ?” and if the answer is No, i do not try an talk myself out of it, i instead reaffirm by saying something like ” My intuition is never wrong, there is definately something better than this”.
    Its brave to follow our intuition, but its also Safer.

    Co-dependant, well, we all are, we do not live in a void. The trick is to find the Good ones to rely on, just like we don’t go to the shop that doesnt treat us well, we go to the one that gives us the best service, SAME with people xXx

    Take it easy, take your time, and be Good To You <3

  • Celie

    December 5th, 2014 at 3:48 AM

    I have a girlfriend who is in an abusive relationship and I have tried to talk to her about it for years and years but nothing will do, she loves this man and will not leave him. I am terribly afraid that if she does not find the strength to leave him them one day he is going to hurt her in a very bad way but she seems to know that but at the same time be willing to accept all of that just for the sake of being with him. Is there anything that I could possibly do to change her mind or are we all just in this together for the long haul?

  • Rudy

    December 5th, 2014 at 11:15 AM

    The very last thing that someone who is being abused needs to hear is more abuse from someone who supposedly cares about them.
    You can give them tough love without the pain.

  • jordyn

    December 6th, 2014 at 6:01 AM

    I find it very frustrating that there are women who will go back to their abuser over and over again knowing that he will do nothing but cause them more and more pain.

    Even though I have never been in that situation and have no room to judge it is still hard for me to rap my mind around how it could ever seem like it would be a good idea to stay with a person who causes this much hurt and fear in your life.

  • shanna

    December 6th, 2014 at 10:04 AM

    Just help them and be there when they need you. That is all many of the women and children in situations like this need. They need for someone to be there to listen to them, be a safe haven, and help them find the resources that may could help them eventually if and when they become ready to leave. This may not be the choice that you would make for yourself and that is fine, we all have our own lives to live. But that does not mean that you should dessert them just because you may not agree with their choice. It is their choice, their life, but they still need a friendly place to turn and you can be that for them.

  • Lydia

    December 8th, 2014 at 3:47 AM

    This can be a terribly frustrating demographic to work with, particularly when you see the imminent fear and danger that they live with but that they stubbornly refuse to see or either hold out hope that things will get better.

  • me

    February 13th, 2015 at 11:08 AM

    The first time I tried to leave..he caught me. What I went thru over the next month was so terrifying that I thot the safest way out was in a casket. But my daughter was in my belly…I was trapped and scared to dare another escape.

  • Anonymous

    February 15th, 2015 at 1:38 PM

    When you’re told you’re crazy and unstable and when in fact you’ve done absolutely nothing wrong and aren’t this person at all – others have gone along with this and bullied, ostracized and harassed you, you believe you are crazy and unstable, you begin to wonder what on earth is going on and lose trust in many people. The bullies fear of exposure themselves has them touching all the people you know in all areas of your life in the hopes they will also see you as a crazy, unstable person and never believe the bully. They interfere and cause problems to try to destroy your life. I felt like I was dealing with a bully from a school yard that hadn’t progressed in maturity. Fear is definitely something I experienced.
    Their need to isolate and leave you with nothing is another form of control another fear of their own that is they don’t get found out for the person they really are.
    It has made me work harder on myself and after having done my research and spoken to others that have also suffered similar, I realized I am stronger than I actually thought and have seen the weaknesses of these toxic individuals. Anyone that has to belittle someone to the point of making them feel like they are going crazy and have others join in the crazy making game to make themselves feel better is nothing more than a bully.

  • Juanita F.

    July 2nd, 2016 at 5:21 PM

    I want to know what to say to the abuser to let them know that their actions and words are not appropriate. That they aren’t hidden and others outside of the circumstances are observing what is going on.

  • Charlotte

    March 4th, 2021 at 11:54 AM

    Anastasia, all of your tips for responding and helping domestic violence victims were very smart. I like how you said that it is important to make sure the person feels that their feelings are validated. I would imagine that it would be very useful to find a service that offers help to people who have experienced specific types of violence.

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