What to do as a bystander to best support them
It’s easy for someone who’s never been in a relationship with an abusive partner to say, “If anyone ever abused me, I’d leave and never look back.” It’s the logical response and one we all hope we would implement.
But when faced with the actual, real-life scenario of being in a relationship with an abusive partner, a partner we may genuinely love, on whom we depend financially or with whom we share a home or children, the decision to leave and never return is often easier said than done. Not only is it hard to live through such a scenario, it’s also difficult to be an outsider, watching a loved one go back even once to a person who abuses them.
So, what can we do when someone we know makes the decision to return to an abuser? Alexis Moore, author, domestic violence survivor and founder of Survivors in Action, a risk management consulting firm that helps domestic abuse survivors, says, for starters, the last thing a support person should do is pass judgment.
“Think about it: Does this person really want to be with an abusive partner?” Spoiler alert, the answer is no, says Moore. “There’s an underlying reason they return.” They may be financially dependent on the person and unable to find a job, or they may need a place to live. They could be a victim of stalking or psychological abuse and afraid for their safety if they don’t return. If you want to be truly supportive, says Moore, “First, find out what obstacles they may be facing, then encourage them to try to overcome them.”
Moore, who escaped from an abusive partner in 2004, says when she returned to her abuser, she faced harsh judgment from her closest friends. But, she understands why. “None of us want to enable homicide,” she says. She encourages support persons to think about what they say before they say it. “If you’re going to pass judgment, are you really trying to save that person’s life, or are you just trying to spout your mouth off?”
What survivors don’t need, says Moore, is someone else telling them what to do, since their abuser is already doing so. As a support person, “You need to be the encourager,” she says. “Ask, ‘Have you called an advocate?’ Or say, ‘Maybe I can accompany you to go report this to law enforcement.’ You don’t need to speak for them, just go with them.”
Her other suggestion is to look at what tools you have and how they can help a survivor. “If you have a business, are you willing to hire that friend?” On the other hand, know what tools you don’t have. “It’s not your place to tell them what to do if you haven’t been through it. You wouldn’t try to perform surgery if you weren’t a doctor, so don’t try to be a police officer.”
Finally, know that leaving is never an easy, or quick, process. “There’s so much going on, not only with their emotions, but with the realities they face when trying to leave their partner. Painting [leaving their partner] as a rose-colored picture—that as soon as they leave, their life is going to be better—just isn’t realistic. It has to be up to them to leave. They need to have a plan to remain safe from their abuser, and they may need your support and help.
More Resources: If you’re a friend or family member of someone going through abuse, these recommended books for support persons may be helpful to add to your reading list.