Although it may sound simple, if you’re trying to figure out how to help someone in an abusive relationship, just ask them what they need. By asking them what types of help and support they can use from you, you are empowering them to make their own decisions and take control of this one aspect of their life. However, once you decide to reach out and ask them what they need, it is important to be prepared: their answer may surprise you, and it may not be the kind of help that you think they need.
For example, you may think they need help leaving the relationship, whereas the help they ask for is for you to babysit their child while they go to a job interview. We encourage you to trust their judgment to know what kind of help they need in any given moment. You may not understand how the job interview is connected to their safety, but perhaps they’re seeking that job so that they’ll be better able to survive financially if they ever decide to leave.
Sometimes, you may ask how you can help, and the other person will say that they don’t need or want any help from you right now. This can be very frustrating to you, especially if your perspective is that they need a lot of help. If you find yourself wanting to force your help or advice on the person, resist this urge! A much more helpful approach is to let them know that you’ll be there for them if and when they ever do need your help. This leaves the door open for the person to seek your help at another time, and it also avoids disempowering the person by telling them what to do.
There are some situations where you may need to take some action to address an abusive relationship situation, even if the person you’re helping doesn’t want you to intervene. These may include the following:
- If it is a highly dangerous situation for anyone involved, and lives are at stake.
- If your own safety is at risk, such as if the abuser has threatened to harm you as well.
- If there are children, elderly adults, and/or adults with disabilities who are involved, and you are required to report the situation to Child or Adult Protective Services.
In these cases, you may need to report the abuse or take other protective actions to promote the safety of those involved. If you find yourself in a situation like one of these, we recommend that you consult with professionals (e.g., domestic violence service providers, law enforcement, social service professionals, and/or an attorney) in your local community – such as The Family Justice Center who can help guide you through the steps you need to take. These cases can be especially difficult to navigate, so draw upon your own support network to help you think through your decisions and actions.
Ultimately, the power of asking what kind of help the person needs lies in trusting their judgment, as well as honoring their choices and expertise to make choices for their own life. This empowerment approach is fundamental to the way that many domestic violence service agencies operate, and it’s useful to adopt in helping a friend as well. Asking how you can help may seem like a simple task, but it requires courage, patience, and compassion. By offering to help in a way that is most meaningful to them, you send a powerful message that their needs and decisions are important, and that help is available if and when they need it.
This information has been adapted from materials in the How to Help a Friend Collection from See the Triumph. Visit See the Triumph at www.seethetriumph.org for more information.