Victims 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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