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Concerned

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Helping a friend or relative in an abusive relationship
It may be necessary to revise the way you view an abused person.

For example, questions such as the following "re-victimize" the individual by assuming that she has control over the situation, and by minimizing the difficulty and complexity of her circumstances:

• Why do you take it?
• How can you put up with it?
• What did you do to make him so angry?
• Why don't you just leave?

The problem is perceived, and identified, as her behavior rather than the abuse. And guess who else is constantly telling her that she is the one with the problem?

Give her time and space to tell her story.
An abused woman may not volunteer information. Be patient and empathetic. Allow her to express her feelings. Help her to identify her strengths and resources.

Be non-judgmental.
Battered women live in an "invisible war zone" and inconsistent behavior is to be expected. Let her know that the abuse is not her fault, that she is not "crazy," and that you do not judge her or her decisions.

Make a referral.
If someone feels comfortable enough to confide in you, use the opportunity to refer her to her local domestic violence program. Domestic abuse is a complicated issue and requires special training and expertise to deal with it effectively. Suggesting she seek therapy or consult the clergy may be inappropriate. Her doing so may actually place her in danger. Let her know there are laws designed to protect her.

Don't take control away from her - she needs to make her own decisions in her own time.
Be prepared for a significant "lag-time" between an abused woman seeking help and her acting upon it. She is the only one qualified to judge when it is safe for her to act. It is very frustrating to realize that many women remain in abusive relationships when it appears that they could leave. Even more disheartening is the knowledge that many women return to their abusers an average of five times before they feel safe enough to make a final break. Remember - leaving is a process, not an event. Let her know that she can count on your support.

Don't tell her to "just leave".
Be supportive, get information for her, make referrals, help her develop a safety plan - but don't tell her to leave. She has heard that before, and if she doesn't leave the next time her partner is abusive, she may be uncomfortable turning to you again for support. Also, leaving may be the most dangerous thing she can do. A battered woman is at the greatest risk when she leaves, or attempts to leave. When a battered woman is killed by her abuser, it is usually after she has ended the relationship.

Be patient
It is patience, acceptance, a non-judgmental attitude and unqualified support, difficult though these may be, that will help your abused friend or relative start on the road to a safer life.

The process of recovering from a sexual assault or rape can take time. As a friend or loved one, your help during this process is essential. Survivors need a great deal of support and caring as they begin to address and survive a very frightening and violent experience.

Friends and family can help by: Listening and being available.
Survivors will need to talk about what happened and will probably express many feelings. Providing a safe environment in which to talk and also setting aside time for these conversations may be the most helpful thing that friends and family can do. You do not need to provide answers. Just listen. If you are not able or willing to listen, acknowledge that, then help the survivor in ways that you can. Remember that the recovery process may last for several months to years and that the need and desire to talk will vary depending on where the survivor happens to be in the recovery process. Survivors may also need encouragement from loved ones to seek the assistance of a trained professional who can help the survivor to express the often painful thoughts and feelings connected to the sexual assault or rape.

Believing and not judging.
Too often family and friends may fall into the trap of believing some of the rape myths -- particularly those that have to do with the victim somehow being responsible for the assault or rape. The job of family and friends is to support, to believe, and to be non-judgmental. Survivors will be dealing with their own sense of shame and guilt and should not be burdened by the ill-founded judgments of those people who are closest to them.

Offering a safe place to stay or even staying with the survivor.
This may seem like such a small thing, but feeling safe again may be very difficult for the survivor. Having family or friends close at hand can facilitate that sense of being safe and protected. It is important, however, not to be smothering. Allow survivors to determine where they want to stay and with whom.

Recognizing that recovery takes a long time.
It is important for significant people in the survivor's life to refrain from suggesting or even hinting that the survivor "should have gotten over it by now." This sort of nonsupport may further delay or interrupt the healing process. Friends and family can aid in the healing by acknowledging the feelings, by reminding the survivor that the feelings are a normal part of healing, and by emphasizing that these feelings will not last forever.

Respecting the decisions that the survivor makes.
Part of feeling in control includes making decisions and having those decisions be respected. Sometimes family and friends may not agree with the decisions that are being made; however, it is important that survivors be allowed to determine their own solutions to the sexual assault or rape.

Being gentle, sensitive, and respectful of the survivor's wishes for closeness or affection.
Do be gentle and sensitive. Survivors may want affection or they may not want to be close. If you are not sure what they want, ask before acting and recognize that what they want may change from time to time.

Dealing with your own feelings.
Typically family and friends have some fairly strong reactions when someone they care about has been assaulted or raped. They may feel anger, rage, guilt, confusion, blame, or numerous other strong emotions. Just as the actual survivor must express emotion, so too must friends and family. But rather than expressing this emotion to the survivor, the friend or family member should deal with these emotions with someone else. It is not fair to survivors to have to handle not only their own feelings but also those of the people they are turning to for support and assistance. In fact, this can only add to the feelings of guilt and remorse that survivors may already be feeling. In essence, it may only make healing more difficult (Hughes & Sandler, 1987)2

Understanding the impact of the trauma on sexual interactions with your partner.
Sexual Partners: A Special Relationship.

Since sexual assault violates an individual in a most personal way, the intimate partner of a survivor has a special place in the healing process and will especially need to use all of the ways to help:

• Listening, being available
• Believing, not judging
• Providing safety
• Respecting the survivor's decisions
• Allowing recovery time--as long as is needed
• Respecting in a sensitive manner the survivor's wishes for affection or sexual contact
• Addressing one's own feelings of anger, rage, guilt, sadness, confusion, or blame.

Used with permission from the Kansas State University Counseling Center web site http://www.k-state.edu/counseling/topics/relationships/rape.html

It is important to know that healing from sexual assault is possible. It takes tremendous strength and courage to reach out to others for help at such a difficult and traumatic time.

Many survivors have found help in healing through counseling and support groups. A DASI Confidential Sexual Violence Advocate can provide information and resources that a sexual assault survivor may find helpful. The services of the CSVA are free and confidential, and are available by calling 973-300-3609.