The following is a brief summary of the excellent book Helping her Get Free by Susan Brewster. Some of the points she makes may not come naturally to you as you watch a loved one suffer in an abusive marriage. The most important point is “Do No Harm” and so it is so important that you know what you can do and what really has the potential to make things much worse.
Most abused women don’t lie or exaggerate their abuse. On the contrary, most will minimize the extent of it. Note that sometimes under the extreme stress of the abuse, some women may have spotty recollections of their experience, so that what she tells you of the violence may not be completely accurate; nonetheless, that is how she experiences it as her reality.
For you to accept and validate her reality is what’s important, not determining with precision the facts of the case.
You can show her that you are taking her abuse seriously by: listening carefully to what she tells you, not minimizing her abuse yourself, and not passively agreeing with her or others when they minimize the seriousness of her abuse experience.
Remain neutral; don’t take sides. Taking sides, even if is her side, will only place her in a position in which she’ll eventually have to choose between you and her partner. She will usually choose him. Then, she will either further minimize the abuse, distance from you, and/or actively defend him, which only fuses her to him more – the “us against the world” phenomenon.
This operates whether she is with him or nor, but especially do not fall into the trap of taking sides when she has left him. She may say she hates his guts, etc. it’s tempting to at least agree with her. Don’t do it. No matter what she is saying now, she will likely change her mind several times before finally moving beyond this relationship.
- If you so much as agree with her now you may be on her opposing side tomorrow. And keep in mind, most abused women leave and return to their abuser several times before they make the final break.
- It is not necessary to take sides against him in order to show your support of her. Indeed, support comes in the form of good listening.
Respect her decisions, don’t judge her. It is helpful to respect her decisions. It is not helpful to judge her decisions as either good or bad. Sure, you probably have your own strong feelings about the way she should do things or should feel, but who is to say you are right?
If you have never lived with an abusive partner you can’t possibly understand the conflicting issues and feelings she is balancing. One thing is certain, you don’t have as much information as she does about her situation.
It may be extremely difficult for you to respect and not judge her decisions if you have seen her acting irrationally or making seemingly irrational decisions. If you look more closely at the decisions she makes concerning herself and her relationship with her partner, however, you might find that she is making very rational decisions considering the erratic circumstances in which she is living. If you don’t agree with a decision she has made, say nothing or simply say that you don’t agree with that decision.
Focus on what you see that she does well rather than what you see as her failures. Show her that you recognize her inherent worth by telling her what you like about her or what she means to you. Of course be careful to say what you truly believe, your dishonesty will not bolster her self-esteem.
Honor her feelings. Throughout her time with her abuser, her feelings were negated by her abuser. During the course of her relationship with him, she numbed herself so that she feels very little. She would benefit from a from an anchor who acknowledges all of her feeling as neither right nor wrong; they are simply hers. For you to criticize her feeling is to fail to recognize her humanity.
You can help her recognize her own feelings by mirroring them for her or by simply asking “How do you feel about that?” I can’t emphasize the usefulness of this simple question. It may feel like you are probing into personal matters, but it’s important question to ask.
Another way to express respect for her feelings is by showing her that you allow yourself to have uncomfortable feelings. You can do this by talking about your own feelings. “I feel afraid for you when you tell me how your husband pushes you around.” If she was feeling afraid of her husband when he pushed her around, knowing that you also feel afraid can help to validate her feelings.
Don’t give advice. For you to offer advice or accept her invitation to give it has essentially the same effect as judging her feelings or decisions. As if her feelings are somehow wrong and that she can’t make good decisions on her own. Giving advice tends to take away her power. Taking away her power is what her abuser does best. She doesn’t need you for that. What she does need is a sense of power. You can help her get back in touch with her feelings and to make decisions in her own best interest.
In addition to the above consideration, to follow your advice may put her in great danger. You would probably feel awful if she did what you suggested only to be beaten up. She is in a better position to make safer decisions if she is confident of her own abilities and feeling than if she lacks that belief in herself.
What can you do instead of giving advice? It is crucial that you encourage her instead to regain confidence in her ability to make the choices that will be best for herself and her children. You can turn questions back to her: “What do you think you should do?” Then you can support her answer: “You’re the one who knows the situation best.”
Control yourself, not her. There are infinite numbers of ways people try to exert control over other people; this is it human nature to a degree and not inherently bad. It becomes potentially hurtful when that control attempt is to a mentally sound adult and is coercive, manipulative, threatens force or uses force.
When you care about an abused woman you might find yourself wanting so desperately for her to stay away from her batterer for her safety, and her children’s safety; you may be surprised to see yourself using controlling method you never knew you knew. Don’t do it!
Show her your reality. An abused woman changes to accommodate her abuser. She is usually so manipulated by her partner into thinking the way he wants her to think that access to reality as perceived by much of the outside world, is lost to her. You can help her become more aware of who she used to be and who she still is inside. This can help a battered woman see how much of herself she is giving up to be with him. Then you can motivate her to take action to reclaim her lost self.
One way you can help is be an historian for her. You can gently, and without judgment or criticism, remind her of how she used to be. Try to be more of an observer than an opinion or advice giver. You can also help her see her reality as different from the one her abusive partner has thrust upon her by noticing and commenting on inconsistencies and falsehoods which she seems to believe.
Try to empathize with her while maintaining your objectivity. It is important that you attempt to achieve a delicate balance between your being emotionally available and maintaining and objectivity so as not to be sucked up in the same roller coaster of feelings that she is experiencing. This balance is what makes you a safe person to go to.
You are human and you will have uncomfortable feelings about what she is telling you. No matter how angry or afraid you feel, you must control your reaction in front of her so that you show yourself as having self control. She won’t trust you if she has to worry about you freaking out.
A tried-and-true way of keeping yourself focused is to ask how she currently feels or how she felt when she was in the situation she’s describing. This tends to help you both focus on what is really important – her experience – rather than endless details.
Be a good model, fulfill your own needs. Be aware of your own needs and take action to fulfill them. That may mean that you take a walk every day to have thinking time, talk to a friend or take some time away. Although it is important to maintain regular contact with the abused woman you care about, you still need breaks. The important thing is that your break doesn’t become permanent distance.
Let her know how you can and cannot help. Be honest with her about what you are willing and able to do – your limits. If you’re not clear with her about your limits or if you help her in such a way that you feel used up, you will resent that and neither of you need that. Only you can determine what your personal limits are. If you are unable to help her in the way that she is requesting, try not to let guilt cloud your judgment. You may be able to help her find someone else who can do what she is asking.
Suggest ways of helping her which don’t have strings attached. (ie: you don’t expect anything in return.) Any help that is giving free of your control or judgment will show her that your intentions are purely to care for her. Too often family members and friends are only helpful if their loved one leaves her abusive partner. This leaves her with the impression that they are trying to manipulate her into staying away from him.