We humans

How you can support someone who is in an abusive relationship

May 12, 2022 /

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

Most of us are taught that other people’s relationships are not our business and that they are private and personal. So when you see one going very, very wrong, it can be incredibly difficult to know how to intervene. You might even feel like you shouldn’t.

However, we need to get better at this, says Katie Hood, relationship educator and CEO of the One Love Foundation. “The thing all of us have the most experience in is actually relationships,” says Hood. “We’ve just never been given a framework or instruction guide for how to manage them.”

Through her work with One Love, Hood seeks to educate young people about healthy (and unhealthy) relationships. But we adults still have a lot to learn, too.

“When you’re a friend on the outside looking in, what’s really clear to you is frequently not clear to the person who’s in the relationship,” says Hood. “If somebody punched you on the first date, it would be the last date. But because abusive behavior sneaks up on you — it starts out as adoration and excitement and being whisked off your feet and all these narratives we have culturally for what it means to fall in love — you go along with it.”

With 25 percent of women in the US experiencing intimate partner violence in their lifetime — and 10 percent of US men — the chances that this will, at some stage, happen to someone you know and care about are unfortunately high. Worldwide 27 percent of women experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime.

Yet even when this is clear to you, as someone outside the relationship, it can be difficult to know when and how to act. Here are some common red flags to look out for, which can help you to be more confident that you’re seeing something you need to intervene in.

We expect someone to disappear when they’re in the honeymoon phase of a relationship — but you should pay attention if this becomes prolonged or unusual.

Red flag #1: A friend becoming increasingly isolated from you or things they like to do

This is a first sign that’s really frequently missed, says Hood, because of how we normalize this aspect of relationships. We expect someone to disappear when they’re in the honeymoon phase. “We even joke about it: They have a boyfriend now, and they’ve forgotten all their friends,” says Hood.

But you should pay attention if this becomes prolonged or unusual, says Karen Mason, cofounder and director of community practice for British Columbia-based SOAR (Supporting Survivors of Abuse and Brain Injury through Research).

“If somebody you usually spend lots of time with is not available and is making excuses for not being available, or if they never show up for social activities they were always very excited and very keen to participate in before, that’s a red flag,” explains Mason.

Red flag #2: Unexplained injuries or pain that someone isn’t willing to talk about

While many abusers will take care to cause injuries that can’t easily be seen, or even ones that don’t leave a mark, you might notice your friend has had a sudden spate of “accidents” that seem out of character.

“Unexplained injuries, or bruising, or stories for injuries or bruising that just don’t seem to add up, and a desire to avoid discussing the cause, can be telltale signs,” says Mason.

Be on guard for frequent mentions that they shouldn’t do or wear certain things that will “upset” their partner. Or, if they seem to need permission to spend money.

Red flag #3: Emotional and financial abuse 

Sometimes this will take place out in the open — with an abuser belittling, controlling or otherwise treating their partner badly in front of family and friends. But your friend may try and compensate for this by apologizing or claiming they caused their partner to behave this way.

Conversely, they may seem like they’re taking behavior like this in their stride; you might even hear them tell you “I can handle this.” Hood thinks of this as the helper mindset, and it’s something she sees abusers prey on. “This is somebody who’s inclined to help and support others, and that’s part of how an abusive person takes them in; ‘I need you, I love you.’ These are the tools being used to tether this helper closer,” she says.

Whether your friend is overapologizing or overcompensating, try and be aware of behavior that’s not normal for them or doesn’t seem right to you — especially if it’s changed since their relationship started. Be on guard for frequent mentions, even in the form of jokes, that they shouldn’t do or wear certain things that will “upset” their partner. Or, if they seem to need permission to spend money.

It’s also important to remember, says Mason, that people in abusive relationships don’t always seem downtrodden, as we might expect. She describes disclosing that she’d once been in an abusive relationship to a colleague: “He said, ‘How is that even possible? You’re one of the most kick-ass women I know.’ As if those things are mutually exclusive.”

“This isn’t weakness,” agrees Hood. “They’re in a very complicated relationship.”

Keep in mind that much of their own agency and control has been taken away by their abuser, so your job in this situation is to restore that.

If these red flags have been popping up and you feel this is a situation you want to speak to your friend about, the next step is to find a way to get them alone. This has to be a one-to-one conversation, especially if you’re concerned that their partner may have access to their phone or other devices.

“Keep things light and simple and normal in the context of that person’s life,” advises Mason. “The last thing you want to do is put them at further risk of harm.”

There may be an activity or a work-related project you can meet with them to discuss. It needs to be something that would be very normal for you both to do together and that their partner wouldn’t have reason to attend.

How you open this conversation will be incredibly important. You need to go in with an entirely non-judgmental approach and be prepared to listen to and accept whatever you hear. Keep in mind that much of this person’s own agency and control has been taken away by their abuser, so your job in this situation is to restore that.

“You don’t have to like it,” says Mason. “But you must honor their choices, while making it clear that you care and this is about wanting the best for them and wanting to be sure they’re safe.”

Hood suggests this gentle opening: “The first thing I want you to know is that I love you and I want what’s good for you. I’m always on your team, no matter what. No questions asked. But I felt really uncomfortable the other day when I saw this happen …”

You can describe the incident you saw. Keep your account brief and focus on the behavior you witnessed, not on the partner themselves, as this may cause your friend to be defensive.

“There is love there,” says relationship educator Katie Hood. “It’s just a sick love.”

Or, you could point out you’ve noticed they’re not coming to social events anymore. Mason suggests questions like “I’m wondering what’s going on for you? It seems different than before,” or “How safe do you feel? What would you like me to know about what’s going on for you right now?”

“The key in all of this is to listen, and to ask open ended questions to come from a place of curiosity and care, as opposed to judgment, and be open and willing to hear what comes next,” says Mason.

You need to accept whatever response they provide. They may brush off your concern, or the floodgates may open. Take their lead and validate their feelings — including the fact that they love their partner.

“None of us wants to think this is the person we love,” says Mason. “There’s a reason we fall in love, and there is that cycle of abuse so they’re not a monster all the time. We can be like a flower desperate for the sun; when it’s good, it feels wonderful.”

“There is love there,” says Hood. “It’s just a sick love.”

After this first conversation, your main job is to keep the lines of communication open with your friend. You want to be someone they feel safe speaking to if things become dangerous, but it may take a long time for them to even acknowledge to themselves that they are experiencing abuse. You’ve planted that seed, and they may have some shame and stigma they need to work through before anything more can happen.

“The average person takes seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship,” says Hood. “So if you get frustrated when they don’t leave the first time, and you stop taking their calls, all you’re doing is empowering the abusive person to have more control over them.”

It’s OK — and actually very important — to take care of yourself during this process. It’s not easy to watch someone you care about being hurt, and it doesn’t get easier with time. Make sure you have someone to talk to, without disclosing anything that would make your friend unsafe.

Your friend might divulge unhappiness to you, and then try and roll it back later. This inconsistency can be really challenging, but it is a product of the relationship they’re in.

One of the most important things you need to accept is they may not leave their partner quickly — or at all. Your friend might even divulge a lot of details and unhappiness to you in a vulnerable moment, and then try and roll it back or make light of it later. This inconsistency can be really challenging and frustrating, but it is a product of the damaging relationship they’re in.

Mason recommends you keep reinforcing to them how much you care and that you’re always there, no matter what. “Leaving happens over time. There are these small daily acts of resistance that we might not even be aware of,” she says.

If you are concerned that your friend — or any children who may be living with them — are in physical danger, you may need to consider escalating your efforts. Find another trusted friend or relative of theirs to speak to. Do some planning for their safety, like finding out what domestic violence services are available in your area, and identifying a place your friend could stay if they needed to leave their home suddenly.

In the end, a person’s life is far more important than your relationship with them, says Mason, and if this means intervening against their will in a very threatening situation, you may have to do so.

It is always best to seek the guidance of a local domestic violence service or organization if you have these concerns; they are best equipped to offer the support needed.

“It is also important to realize,” says Mason, “ that as many as 92 percent of women [her organization works specifically with women] who’ve been in a physically abusive relationship will have suffered a brain injury of some kind, through a compressive blow to the head, face or neck. Women may not even know that they’ve been strangled into unconsciousness because they become unconscious, and then they forget — they don’t know what’s happened.”

These will feel like upsetting scenarios to consider, but Hood says the best way we can prepare ourselves is to commit to open and caring communication in all our friendships right now. By agreeing to flag concerns as they arise, especially in the context of romantic relationships, these conversations become easier to have.

“We’ve been taught forever that relationships are hard and we should have to work hard at them,” says Mason.

But knowing the difference between healthy compromise and being slowly diminished by a partner is a vital one — and it will often remain up to those of us on the outside to notice and to intervene.

Watch Katie Hood’s TED Talk here: