Many women who are being abused either don’t know who to turn to or have had bad experiences when they’ve reached out for help. Your willingness to help can be important to a victim in her safety planning efforts. But while being willing and well-intentioned is good, being prepared to offer the kind of help these women need is even better.
How can I know for sure if she’s being abused?
The only way to know for sure if someone you know is being abused is to ASK. One of the common myths about women who are being abused is that they don’t want to talk about their victimization. While many of these women do make efforts to hide the abuse, they often do so because they fear embarrassment, their partner finding out, being blamed, not being believed, or being pressured to do something they’re not ready or able to do. Directly asking a woman in private, without judgment, without pressure, and even without expectation that she will trust you enough to disclose, relieves her of the burden of coming forward on her own, and can tell her a lot about your concern, caring, and willingness to help.
Keep it simple. If there are specific observations that are the source of your concern, you might say something like, “I noticed ‘x, y and z’ and I’m concerned about you and wonder if there is something I can do to help.” Or, “It seems like you’re stressed out and unhappy. If you want to talk about it now or some other time, I’ll keep it between us.”
People are sometimes hesitant to approach a woman about their concern for her safety because they feel that it is “none of their business,” or that their offer of help will be unwelcome. But the notion that “what happens behind closed doors” is off limits is a notion that has contributed greatly to women’s isolation from help and support. Your risk of being rebuffed is relatively minor in comparison to the risk of contributing to her isolation.
If you ask, be prepared to respond supportively
There are many things you can do to prepare yourself to offer supportive and empowering assistance to a battered woman.
- Initiate a conversation in private and when you have enough time to talk with her at length, if she chooses to.
- Let go of any expectations you have that there is a “quick fix” to domestic violence or to the obstacles a woman faces. Understand that a woman’s “inaction” may very well be her best safety strategy at any given time.
- Challenge and change any inaccurate attitudes and beliefs that you may have about women who are being abused. Women aren’t abused because there’s something wrong with them. Rather, they are women who become trapped in relationships by their partners’ use of violence and coercion. The better able you are to recognize and build on the resilience, courage, resourcefulness and decision-making abilities of these women, the better able you will be to help them.
“Do’s of providing supportive and empowering help
- Believe her-and let her know that you do. If you know her partner, remember that abusers most often behave differently in public than they do in private.
- Listen to what she tells you. If you actively listen, ask clarifying questions, and avoid making judgments and giving advice, you will most likely learn directly from her what it is she needs.
- Build on her strengths. Based on the information she gives you and your own observations, actively identify the ways in which she has developed coping strategies, solved problems, and exhibited courage and determination, even if her efforts have not been completely successful. Help her to build on these strengths.
- Validate her feelings. It is common for women to have conflicting feelings-love and fear, guilt and anger, hope and sadness. Let her know that her feelings are normal and reasonable.
- Avoid victim-blaming. Tell her that the abuse is not her fault. Reinforce that the abuse is her partner’s problem and his responsibility, but refrain from “bad-mouthing” him.
- Take her fears seriously. If you are concerned about her safety, express your concern without judgment by simply saying, “Your situation sounds dangerous and I’m concerned about your safety.”
- Offer help. As appropriate, offer specific forms of help and information. If she asks you to do something you’re willing and able to do, do it. If you can’t or don’t want to, say so and help her identify other ways to have that need met. Then look for other ways that you can help.
- Be an active, creative partner in a woman’s safety planning effort. The key to safety planning is taking a problem, considering the full range of available options, evaluating the risks and benefits of different options, and identifying ways to reduce the risks. Offer ideas, resources and information.
- Support her decisions. Remember that there are risks attached to every decision an abused woman makes. If you truly want to be helpful, be patient and respectful of a woman’s decisions, even if you don’t agree with them.