Recognising friends who suffer domestic violence
People tend to hide signs of violence very meticulously. If you suspect that your friend is a victim of violence, but you are not sure, consider the following:
Possible signs of violence
If you know that a member of your family, a friend, an acquaintance, a colleague or a neighbour is subjected to violence, do not ignore the situation. Silence means acquiescing to the perpetrator’s actions and supporting violence.
Victims of domestic violence frequently feel ashamed of and responsible or guilty for what happened. This may keep them from reporting the act of violence or seeking help. Therefore, if the situation is serious and victims are not able to do it themselves for any reason at all, witnesses of violence and family members must help and report violence to the police themselves.
Be kind and attentive while talking to a relative or friend who is a victim of domestic violence. Do not condemn and judge the victims for their behaviour. There may be multiple reasons why they do not want or are not able to change the situation. Be patient and open. Do not urge the victims to act here and now, do not press them or be too intrusive, allow them to open up at their own pace, be an accepting and open listener.
Whatever the nature of the relationship between you and the victim, be the first to start talking about it. Break the silence and help the victim to open up.
1. Start talking about violence.
Even if you are not able to help solve the situation, listening and paying attention is very important. This may encourage the victim to break the silence and open up. You do not have to be an expert. You can encourage the victim to take action just by being there for them
2. Ask about the situation.
Listening in can empower and encourage a victim of violence.
“Is everything all right? What happened to you? I see that things are not going too well.”
3. Name specific behaviour.
“I see that your partner’s behaviour/words/actions hurt you, make you feel uncomfortable, etc. Would you like to talk about it? Can I help?”
“I have noticed bruising on your body. Is anyone hurting you?”
“You look tense, worried. Is everything ok at home?”
4. Show that you care.
“Your situation worries me.”
“You must have been very scared.”
In the case of sexual abuse do not ask about the details. Let the victim tell just as much as they want or are able to at the moment. Use the same language the victim used to describe the situation. If the victim of sexual abuse says: “something bad happened to me”, stick with this description. Do not impose your language or vocabulary. Be empathic, non-judgemental and help the victim of violence to feel safe.
5. Acknowledge and appreciate the decision to open up.
“I understand that you may find it very difficult to talk about this.”
“I greatly appreciate your willingness to tell me about the situation you are in.”
6. Show every support.
If a person confirms that they have been subjected to violence, be supportive. It may be that you are the first person to hear about it. Your reaction is very important. It may determine the victim’s next steps and actions.
7. Hear them out, reassure and comfort them.
8. Demonstrate trust in what is being told.
Most victims of violence are afraid to tell about their situation because they think nobody will believe them anyway. Say that you believe and have no doubts about their story. Let the victim name their feelings, evaluate the situation and tell their opinion.
9. Trust the victim’s judgement and intuition.
They are the best expert of their situation and can choose the best safety measures in the situation at hand.
10. Make it clear that violence is unacceptable
“Violence is absolutely unacceptable”
“You do not deserve to be treated like this”
“They have no right to do this; violence is not your fault, it is the fault of the perpetrator”.
11. Do not judge the victim’s actions or failure to act.
In the media and society at large, there is widespread practice to blame victims for the violence they suffered, to judge what they did or did not do to provoke the perpetrator. Therefore, the person you are talking to may feel shame and guilt for the actions of the perpetrator and be reluctant to talk about what had happened. It is very important that you support the victim and abstain from judging their actions or failure to act.
12. Point out that violence is not the victim’s fault.
Strengthen their awareness that the victim is not to blame for what happened and that in this situation feelings of anger and shame are normal. Avoid expressing the attitude that the victims themselves are to blame for the violence they suffered or that they can control the violence by changing their behaviour. It is always the perpetrator who decides when and against whom to use violence.
“Their behaviour is not acceptable”
“No one has the right to make you feel bad, hurt you, use force against you.”
Let the victim evaluate and control their feelings regardless of what you think is best or most needed in each situation. Empower your friend, colleague, family member, relative, neighbour to decide for themselves. Victims who suffer violence in the relationship systematically lose their power and self-esteem, therefore it is of utmost importance to build their trust in themselves and let them choose and decide what should be done in each specific case. Victims of violence are the best judges of the perpetrator’s possible reactions. Respect their decisions.
“I will support you whatever you decide”
14. Show support if the person decides to ask for help.
Relationships between the victim and the perpetrator always become very tense once abuse is reported and the decision is made to break free from the violent relationship. This is a long and tedious process marked by frequently changing opinions, fear, anxiety, returning to the perpetrator. Often the victim files a complaint or initiates legal proceedings only after having taken a firm decision. However, faced with the pressure from their family, society or the perpetrator, financial difficulties and other obstacles, a victim may start doubting their decision. Therefore, your support and assistance at this stage is especially important.
15. Offer concrete help.
You can help because, differently from the victim, you are able to judge the situation in a more objective and rational way. You can take measures in the name of or together with the victim of violence and provide useful information:
1. Do not ask:
“Why don’t you leave?”
“What could you do to avoid this situation?”
“Why have they beaten you?”
“Why do they resort to violence?”
“What have you done to anger them so?”
2. Do not engage with the perpetrator yourself.
This may jeopardise your own safety as well as worsen the situation of the victim. Trying to solve the situation or talking to the perpetrator is only possible if there is no danger to yourself or the victim, and the latter should also be informed about this.
3. Do not instruct the person on possible actions to be taken.
Avoid giving instructions on what to do, when to leave the perpetrator and when to stay. Do not insist on trying harder in the relationship or saving it at any cost.
4. Avoid giving a categorical judgement of the situation (black or white). Only the person who is experiencing the situation knows what should or should not be done. Help them to understand this by listening to and allowing them to open up.
5. Do not advise couples’ (relationship) counselling or couples’ therapy.
Do not advise seeking a couples’ (relationship) counselling in cases of physical and psychological violence. A couples’ counsellor can help when couples face relationship problems. This, however, does not work in domestic violence situations because violence is not a relationship problem but a crime. The responsibility is entirely with the perpetrator and is not shared by both parties. Advising couples’ therapy can be dangerous because: