The First Thing to Do…
The single most important thing you can do to help someone in an abusive relationship, is listen.
What Makes a Relationship Abusive?
Although this page is written from the standpoint of “a relationship” being a romantic partnership, an abusive relationship could be with anyone: a family member (including a grown-up child), a work colleague, a professional (e.g. healthcare/support workers), a “friend”, or a neighbour. Anyone in a position to influence the victim.
Abuse begins when the victim is controlled (i.e. feels unable to do/think/feel/say what they really want) through the use of bullying/intimidation (being scared), bad parenting (using the children as means of control), isolation (being kept away from friends/family/work), mind games, degradation (sexual-related abuse), lording it (being treated like a slave), lying, guilt-tripping (using guilt to control), and/or other tactics. Often an abuser will seem to favour one or several of these tactics, but it’s likely all will be used during the Cycle of Abuse.
Be Mindful of Your Opinions
Please be very wary of offering your own opinion, either directly or indirectly, e.g. “I wouldn’t put up with that!” or “Everyone’s marriage goes through bad patches” or “Do you really want to turn your back on your mother/child/job?” People in abusive relationships are often bombarded with a huge amount of conflicting advice from friends and relatives: “You should stay for the sake of the children.” “You should have more respect for yourself.” “You’re just being selfish.” “Why don’t you just leave?” All this comes on top of the massive amount of conflict being generated by the abuser’s manipulation. It is all very, very, confusing. So, please try not to add to that.
Validate Their Feelings
What they need most from you is validation of their feelings. When they talk non-stop about some awful thing their partner has done, they might well be looking for your validation of how awful it is, to back up how they feel about it – bear in mind the abuser will be denying it ever happened, or saying they’re over-reacting, or blaming them for it. Do your best to judge how well they are recognising the abuse for what it is, and try to gently steer them towards acknowledging that what’s going on is not okay.
Gently Feed in Information
Try to casually/gently feed useful information into the conversation and encourage them to seek help, e.g. “that sounds a bit abusive…” or “There’s been a lot in the news about people feeling bullied in their relationships recently. Have you seen [insert name of website or news article].” That way, you’re sowing the seed in their minds, then stepping back for them to follow it up if they want to. It is very important to know that many abused people don’t realise they’re in abusive relationships (abusers work hard at normalising abusive behaviour), and/or have an extremely hard time acknowledging the fact. If you try to force that acknowledgement, you might push them further into denial.
Why Don’t They Just Leave?!
There is a very good reason why people don’t just leave abusive relationships: they’re scared. Even if they don’t admit it. They’re scared of what the abuser might do, to them or to the children, or how it might impact on other family members. They’re scared of losing everything that’s familiar (even if it’s awful): marriage, home, friends, financial security, children, and/or mental health. Unless they, or their children are in immediate danger, it is much better to let people find solutions for the situation in their own time; there is a lot of emotional processing to do when leaving a relationship, particularly for autistic people who already struggle with change. If there is a threat (real or perceived) of the abuser harming anyone (leaving is the most dangerous time), it’s vital to seek advice from one of the abuse-related organisations. They will help with planning and practicalities, and help with finding a refuge if necessary. See Where to Get Help (UK).
Give Them Time
Sure, you might be bored and/or fed up with hearing about how awful their life is, but please, let them talk, and give them time to make their own minds up about what to do. This might take weeks, months, or years. If you try to push them into leaving before they are ready, they are much more likely to go back later, and will be even more vulnerable than before. In addition, they might not feel they can ask your advice again, and cut themselves off from a potentially valuable source of support (i.e. you). Ending an abusive relationship needs to be done with care and planning, preferably with the help and advice from a relevant organisation. See: Where to Get Help (UK). Do not try to challenge the abuser yourself – s/he won’t listen to you, and you might well make the situation worse for the victim.
If you are worried about the safety (physical or psychological) of any children involved, do not be afraid to call social services. You are not ratting on your friend or family member by asking for help they might not feel able to ask for themselves (or might be too scared to ask for – many abusers check phone/internet records). In fact, abused people become so good at hiding what’s going on, any admission that the children are, or could be, in danger is likely to be a deliberate cry for help. And contrary to popular myth, social workers do not swoop down and snatch the kids away; they will work with the family to ensure the children are safe from harm. They provide an incredibly valuable source of information, advice, and support.
Help Them Get Help
Discourage them from making impulsive decisions – these rarely work out well in the long term – and instead encourage them to seek advice from one of the many abuse-related organisations – see: Where to Get Help (UK).