Support from Family and Friends is Vital for Abuse Victims

I was recently asked to write on article for our local newspaper on this topic. It was published today. And I thought I would share it on my blog. I enjoy being assigned a topic. Especially anything that helps victims of abuse and domestic violence.


Breaking free from an abusive relationship is a bigger challenge than most people are able to comprehend.

As a survivor, I've had the privilege of being a friend to numerous victims. Quite often I am able to share the acquired wisdom that comes from personal experience. But other times, friends have experienced abuses I have not; abuses I perhaps cannot imagine suffering. And even in those instances, I am still able to offer support because what a victim needs most is someone who is engaged and who truly cares. When anyone expresses appreciation for my role in their healing, I remind them that all I've done is be a friend. And I have drawn from whatever resources I have to be a supportive friend.

Empathy is possible even when we have not experienced the exact same pain as another. Despite our different details, we all know what pain feels like. Victims primarily need to know (and see evidence) that we care. As one survivor said to me recently, "Just because I was a victim of abuse, that doesn't mean I don't have the same basic need to feel accepted and cared for."

To increase empathy, we need only to remember a time or circumstance in our own life where we may have chosen the pain that was familiar rather than facing our fear of the unknown. That's the tension victims live in daily. The future looks scary, not inviting.

If you suspect a friend or family member is in an abusive relationship, pursue a closer connection with them. Don't disengage. Abusers are experts at nurturing emotional isolation in order to hold their victims captive. Abusers may try to convince their victims that friends and family don't truly love or respect them. Keeping a safe distance may make your life easier, but it will only confirm to the victim that they are indeed alone and perhaps no one cares enough to reach out and risk involvement through genuine connection.

When abusers are unsuccessful in isolating their victims from friends and family members, the walls of their prisons become surmountable. We don't have to have answers to their problems to be a friend. We can be passionately on a victim's side in surviving and overcoming, while completely aware that we can't make their choices for them. In fact, trying to do so would be counterproductive. They have to learn how to take control of their own circumstances, not transfer control from the abuser to us. We must be patient while we wait for them to outgrow the mental prison that keeps victims locked up in abusive relationships.

We must not minimize the gravity of their fears. When well-meaning friends have reduced my anguish to a problem that is solved with a quick and clear-cut solution, it has only made me feel diminished or even dismissed. There's no empathy or compassion in that type of "problem solving." And stating how quickly you would have already left -- especially when you haven't walked in your friend's shoes -- is not only unhelpful, it can be hurtful.  Try to avoid offering simplistic answers or resolutions. Listen without judgment and encourage. I've learned that we never help anyone to feel stronger or less alone by judging, criticizing or imposing our own expectations. Instead, we trigger shame in those who constantly fear they fail to measure up. Victims are frequently tortured by self-doubt.

Most victims have been threatened if they leave. The threats may be to them, their children, their families, their finances and security. But sometimes abusers threaten to harm themselves in a way that makes the victim feel bound to and responsible for them. Shortly after I finally left my 27 year long abusive marriage, I told my counselor, "I don't miss him, but I still love him." My counselor said, "You love him like a mother loves her child. You feel responsible for him."  I know from experience that survivors only learn this distinction fully after we have broken free from our abuser.

It may be difficult to avoid letting your own emotions and frustrations (or dislike for the abuser) motivate your responses. I've struggled with this more times than I care to admit out of a genuine desire to see a victim break free. But our frustration can leave a victim feeling defensive or protective of their abuser. To be a stabilizing presence, maintain a calm focus when a victim confides in you.

Anyone suffering abuse is living in a state of chronic stress, even on "good days." Why? Because life is precarious from one moment to the next. Even when the abuser is not antagonizing his victim, she knows his mood can turn on a dime. The slightest mistake or "wrong" tone of voice can trigger a barrage of verbal/physical abuse, belittling, character assassination, cruelty. She learns to live in a state of heightened awareness, anticipating the harsh lashing out that often results from her slightest misstep. Small differences of opinion bring the dreaded escalation a victim fears. Wrath. Rage. Punishment.

It's like living on an obstacle course.

When overwhelmed, our friends need time and space to safely share their struggles. What may be less apparent to us is how much they simply need a break from the constant emotional strain of day to day life. Laughter is a stress releaser. It helps us cope and rejuvenate in even the most dire circumstances. So consider how you might be able to bring a moment of humor, joy, or peace with your presence.

When we think about legacy, we tend to think of something left behind when a person dies. But a broader definition of legacy would be offering ourselves in making a lasting and meaningful contribution to humanity one person at a time while we are living. Legacy begins the moment we have something to offer. And supportive friendship is a valuable gift we can all offer to others.

 Written by Shari Howerton for the Beckley Register-Herald