It's a phenomenon that's been around for as long as humankind. Hidden behind closed doors and masked by makeup and a shaky smile, it's been whispered about and kept secret with every desperate attempt.
But in recent years, more and more victims of domestic violence have been speaking out, and with that come the ultimate question: How do we help?
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence states,
On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men.
Of those 10 million, “1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of [some form of] physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.”
It's easy to walk around believing these incidences aren't related to us, but with those stats in mind, someone you have met or even someone you know quite well could have experienced some form of violence.
If you know someone living in a domestic violence situation, if you suspect that domestic violence is happening or even if you don't, here are five ways you can help:
1. Look for warning signs.
Because there are so many types of domestic violence, from physical abuse to financial abuse, it's not always easy to tell if domestic violence is happening to yourself, a family member, a co-worker or a friend.
However, most warning signs are universal, and they can be used to raise a red flag that domestic violence is occurring. The Public Legal Education and Information Service of New Brunswick offer a great resource on warning signs, including someone becoming isolated from friends, family or activities, seeming sad or withdrawn, missing work, trying to cover up bruises, seeming nervous about speaking when their partner is around, having no access to their money, constantly needs permission from their spouse, etc.
2. Ask the question.
Asking someone whether they are experiencing domestic violence can be daunting. You don't want to upset them or have them be angry with you. You may think it's none of your business, but the question needs to be asked.
Whether violence is occurring or not, your friend will know you're looking out for them (even if they react negatively). Many times, someone might be too scared to come forward on their own, and your question might be just what they need to disclose. If you're still not convinced, consider that their situation might be life or death.
3. Do not berate them.
Please do not scold someone for remaining or returning to an abusive situation. People experiencing domestic violence have often been manipulated, broken down, berated and have had their self-esteem crushed. On average, a woman will leave an abusive relationship seven times before she leaves for good, according to the Domestic Abuse Shelter of The Florida Keys. Show you care and show that they will always have your support.
4. Help them create a safety plan.
Your friend might not be ready to leave the situation, but they will be ready for a written safety plan. A safety plan includes helping your friend to pinpoint warning signs that their abuser is likely to become abusive and what to do when that happens.
Who are the people they can trust? If they need to leave within minutes, what does that look like? Where would they go? How will they get there? How long can they stay there?
Is an emergency bag ready to go and in a safe location? In that safety bag, include copies of any important documents, protective orders, health care info and other items such as children's clothes and toys, car and house keys, a cell phone, etc.
5. Stop making jokes.
Those woman-bashing jokes, the man-bashing jokes, the rape jokes and the sexist jokes are not funny. Stop telling them, stop chuckling at them and stop letting your friends engage in them.
Don't be afraid to call them out on it, either. This might be an unpopular request, and people might say, “Stop being so sensitive. It's just a joke.” But, it's not just a joke. Abuse is real. It's illegal, it's destroying lives, it's harming children and it's in no way funny.
Domestic violence is an ongoing problem, and it is everyone's problem. As a person in the social work field, I was terrified the first time I had to do a domestic violence screening. I was scared to ask the question, and I was scared of the answers.
But, you don't need to have a credential to show your support. You only need to ask the questions. And please ask because you might be saving a life.