The Step By Step Guide To Supporting Survivors Of Abusive Relationships

The experience of surviving abuse in a relationship is in itself traumatic. Indeed, victims at any stage of an abusive relationship should be able to depend on others as they process complex emotions and navigate next steps.

Edith Mecha

Watching a friend go through an abusive relationship can be scary and challenging. Whether the abuse in question is physical, emotional, economic, sexual, or verbal, you may be at a complete loss on the best way to help them. Sometimes the first instinct may be to “save them” from the relationship but that may not go well!

There are many reasons why people stay in abusive situations. Some of the most common reasons are:

  1. Fear of retribution
  2. Lack of financial capacity or dependency or resources
  3. Concern for the children growing up without the other parent.
  4. Attachment and hope that the partner will reform.
  5. Shame
  6. The abuse feels normal
  7. Feeling responsible for their partner
  8. The value the sanctity of commitment
  9. Disability
  10. Cultural or religious reasons

From an outsider’s perspective it may look pretty simple. If someone is abusing you, physically, economically, verbally, or emotionally — you just leave! But far from it! Abusive relationships are like spider webs that trap the victim in a cycle of confusion, fear, love, hope, and despair. The complexity of these relationships is hard to belittle. Learning the reasons why women remain in abusive relationships is the starting point for helping them reclaim their lives and dignity.

Abusive Relationship

Abuse is usually about power and control. Understanding how these power and control operate in the context of abuse and how to shift power back to those affected by domestic violence are some of the powerful ways to support survivors in your life.

Here are some ways to support survivors.

Emotional Support

The experience of surviving abuse in a relationship is in itself traumatic. Indeed, victims at any stage of an abusive relationship should be able to depend on others as they process complex emotions and navigate next steps.

You can provide essential emotional support to survivors by:

Making enough time for them. If the person decides to disclose years of pent-up abuse, you will not want to end the conversation because you have another commitment.

If the person does decide to talk, listen to the story without being judgmental, offering advice, or suggesting solutions. There is a high probability that if you listen carefully, the person will tell you exactly what they need. Just give the person the full opportunity to talk. It is ok to ask clarifying questions but allow them to vent their feelings and fears. You may be the first person in which the victim has confided. Therefore, be an excellent listener. Sometimes all they need is someone just to listen. The best thing you can say to them is “I don’t even know what to say, but I do know I can listen.” And then do just that, listen for as long as it takes for them to feel heard. Listen as they replay things over and over again. Listen as they question everything and everyone around them.

Believe them. Domestic violence is more about control than anger, often the victim is the only one who sees the dark side of the perpetrator. Many times, others are shocked to learn that a person they know as polite and humble could commit violence.Therefore, it is important to believe the victim’s story and say so. A victim finally having someone who knows the truth about their struggles can bring a sense of hope and relief.

Here are some statements to use:

  • I believe you
  • This is not your fault
  • You don’t deserve this.
  • Validate the victim’s feelings.

Give them lots of hugs.

Photo by cottonbro on

Your loved one has been through hell and the healing and calming benefits of a hug is one of the kindest and gentlest things you can do for them. Plus, you can never have too many hugs!

Acknowledge that their situation is difficult, scary, and brave of them to regain control from.

Remembering that you cannot “save them,” and that sustainable decisions about their lives are up to them to make.

Not speaking poorly of the abusive partner.

Don’t make excuses for the abuser. Abuse is largely motivated by power and control. The specific circumstances of the abuser can vary widely. But whatever the situation, there’s no excuse for abuse. When a loved one shares their experience with you, it is not the right time to contemplate or try to understand “why” someone is abusive – even if your intentions are good. Trying to understand why they are being abused can make the person experiencing the abuse feel blamed, dismissed, unheard, and unsupported.

Help the victim create a safety plan that can be put into action if violence occurs again or if they decide to leave the situation. The exercise of making a safety plan can help them visualize which steps are needed and to prepare psychologically to do so.

Be sure to include some of this info in the plan:

  1. A safe place to go in an emergency, or if they decide to leave home
  2. A prepared excuse to leave if they feel threatened
  3. A code word to alert family or friends that help is needed
  4. An “escape bag” with cash, important documents (birth certificates, social security cards, etc.), keys, toiletries, and a change of clothes that can be easily accessed in a crisis situation
  5. A list of emergency contacts, including trusted family or friends, local shelters, and domestic abuse helplines

Continuing to be supportive of them if they do end the relationship and are understandably lonely, upset, or return to their abusive partner.

Accompany them to any service provider or legal setting for moral support.

Financial Support

Depending on the situation, a survivor may be financially dependent on an abusive partner or otherwise lacking access to material resources. One of the most immediate ways you can support someone experiencing relationship abuse is by helping them with their material needs.

Help them identify a support network to assist with physical needs like housing, food, healthcare, and mobility as applicable.

Encourage them to talk to people and networks that can provide financial support and guidance, like women rights organizations, banks and insurance companies.

Although your natural impulse may be to “save” your loved one from the abuse, the sad truth is that the person needs to make the ultimate decision to leave the relationship and ask for help. Understanding this reality will help ensure that you support them no matter their decision and continue to provide them with a loving and safe friendship.

Click here to get a free simplified step by step guide to help survivors of abuse.


Edith Mecha

Edith is a creative writer, social science researcher, speaker and a civic change advocate.

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