Whether the abuse is physical, emotional, financial, or sexual, knowing that your friend is being mistreated can put you in an extremely challenging position. As powerless as you may feel, there are ways to help if your friend is in abusive relationship. Every friendship is unique and therefore, there's no one-size-fits-all approach to support in these situations — but regardless, there are certain strategies experts recommend for offering up some much-needed support.
Dating abuse is an issue that can affect people of all backgrounds, ages, and identities. According to the organization Break The Cycle, young women (ages 18-24) experience the highest rates of intimate partner violence — almost double the national average. Nearly half (43%) of all college women and one third (28%) of college men report having experienced either abuse or controlling behaviors in a relationship. Clearly, this is a prevalent issue — but it's one that people often don't know how to handle when it comes to their loved ones.
Back in college, when I suspected that my best friend's partner was emotionally abusive, I felt totally paralyzed: on the one hand, I wanted to see her in a happy and healthy relationship, but on the other, I was afraid that she might resent me if I spoke up. Years later, long after the relationship ended, she finally admitted how destructive that relationship was to her sense of self-worth. I instantly regretted not trying to help in some way. I wondered: what if I had expressed my concerns with her at the time? Might she have left him sooner?
How you help your friend will obviously depend on a few factors — like the nature of your bond with them, where they're at in terms of their current relationship with the abusive partner, and even the type of abuse they're experiencing. Regardless, the goal is always to create a safe space where your friend feels supported and empowered to make the right decisions for them. Here are some expert-approved ways to achieve just that.
How you approach helping your friend may depend on what kind of abuse you believe your friend is experiencing, and given that mental and emotional abuse can sometimes be more difficult to recognize as an outsider than physical abuse, the first step might be doing some research on your own time.
For example, educating yourself on common signs of mental and emotional abuse may make it easier for you to recognize it when your friend is talking to you about their relationship.
Aimee Daramus, a licensed clinical psychologist and the author of Understanding Bipolar Disorder: The Essential Family Guide, recommends learning about abuse cycles, so you're better prepared to identify which stage you friend is in at any given time.
At the very least, this information can help you to be more understanding and supportive of your friend. Additionally, if and when you do approach your friend about the situation, Daramus says simply sharing what you've learned can be a smooth way to segue into the conversation — rather than having a direct confrontation, which may feel intimidating for your friend.
If you're not 100% sure that your friend is being abused, you'll definitely want to try to get a clearer picture of their relationship before figuring out how to proceed.
Daramus recommends gently pointing out a red flag you've noticed and asking directly, "Are you OK? Have you been feeling hurt or mistreated in any way?"
This way, you're not making any assumptions about the relationship, and you're giving your friend an opportunity to voice their experiences and feelings on their own terms.
Even if you are sure that there's some abuse going on, it can be difficult to know how to start a discussion with your friend about it. Love is Respect Director Angela Lee advises starting the convo by asking questions rather than making any statements.
"You want to make sure that the questions are probing enough to bring that person to a conclusion, but something as simple as, 'So, how's your relationship going?'"
Once your friend has had a chance to express what's going on, Lee says you can follow up by asking, "Well, how do you see things playing out?" or, "What are you thinking about doing?" Aside from validating your friend's feelings by saying things like, "I can see how that would be hurtful for you," it's best to stick with questions in the early stages of hashing this out. This strategy gives you more information about how to move forward while allowing your friend to lead the discussion however feels comfortable for them.
"Instead of putting on pressure, invite them to talk about their reasons for staying in the relationship, such as financial problems or simply conflicting emotions," adds Daramus.
This can also be an effective way to test the waters on the subject and gauge your friend's reactions and feelings before they've openly identified their relationship as abusive.
Make time for them.
One of the best ways to help a friend in this situation is to simply open up your schedule and set aside some quality time with them.
"Sometimes someone has been manipulated so much that they don’t even see it as abuse, so you may need to help them see it as such before you can even work on safety," explains Daramus. "If someone’s still in denial, see if you can get them to spend time with you so they remember what a non-abusive situation feels like."
You don't even necessarily need to talk anything relating to the abuse or their relationship while you're hanging out together — unless of course, they want to. The important thing is that your friend is in the company of someone who makes them feel physically and emotionally safe.
Help them come up with a safety plan.
According to Lee, it's crucial for your friend to come up with a practical safety plan that protects them while in the abusive relationship, while they're preparing to leave, or after they leave. Since the plan will need to include info tailored to their specific circumstances that dictate how they'll respond to different possible scenarios, it might be difficult for your friend to handle it on their own.
Depending on where your friend is at in their relationship, their safety plan might include coming up with a code word that loved ones are aware of so they can call or text for help when abuse is happening, always keeping gas in their car, setting aside money in a new account to prepare for an escape, and having a packed bag ready to go at all times. As part of this plan, Daramus highly suggests identifying a safe place where your friend can stay if the abuse becomes physical or sexual.
Coming up with a safety plan can be overwhelming, but fortunately, trained advocates at the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE) are available 24/7 to help with the preparation. You can also call Love Is Respect (1-866-331-9474) or text LOVEIS to that number.
While your first instinct may be to call the police when you know your friend is in an abusive relationship, Lee cautions that this may not be the best way to help your friend — especially if they haven't figured out their safety plan yet.
"That may not be what they want, and it may put them in danger," she says.
As Lee points out, you don't know if their abusive partner has threatened to harm them. If it's a LGBTQ relationship, that could include threatening to out them. Your friend may not be in a place where they feel safe honestly sharing the abuse with law enforcement (such as if they live with their partner), and getting the police involved may upset the abusive partner, thus causing more harm. Not to mention, not all law enforcement officers have undergone crisis intervention training, and may not be equipped to de-escalate or navigate these situations.
For these reasons, Lee says you might ask your friend how they'd like for you to respond in moments of crisis. Be sure to clarify whether or not they want you to contact law enforcement, and if not, who they would like you to reach out to instead.
You can't make decisions for your friend — but you can arm them with information that will empower them to make the best possible choices for their own well-being.
Daramus suggests researching local therapists, online support groups, and nonprofits that might be able to offer your friend guidance regarding housing and financial planning as well as legal advice.
If your friend is experiencing abuse that's sexual in nature, Lee recommends telling your friend about The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) — an anti-sexual violence organization that also runs the free and confidential National Sexual Assault Hotline, which is available 24/7.
According to Lee, Love is Respect has over 5,000 resources in its database to meet anyone's needs. That's why she advises encouraging your friend to call their hotline, as they may be aware of organizations and resources that you don't know about.
You might say something like, "Have you heard of Love is Respect? I know their hotline is totally confidential. How would you feel about chatting with someone there?"
"For some reason, speaking to a friend or a family member in that type of situation can come with a level of shame." explains Lee. "So, sometimes we find that speaking to a total stranger is more comfortable."
Above all, experts agree that the most helpful thing you can do as a friend is to simply listen to your friend non-judgmentally, remind them how much you care about them, and build up their self-esteem.
"You want to emphasize that this is never their fault and that they deserve a healthy and respectful relationship," explains Lee.
The key here is to build a strong foundation of trust with your friend — which means never shaming them for their decisions, and never doing something that goes against their wishes behind their back (even if it's in the name of trying to help).
"You must remember that your friend will only turn to someone for support if they know they can trust you," says Lee. "Building that trust depends on supporting and empowering them to make their own decisions."
Daramus adds that it's a good idea to reassure them that you won’t act without their consent, and that whatever information they share about the relationship is safe with you.
"You want to make it clear that you stand with them," she adds.
When you're not sure what your friend needs from you, just ask. It's extremely challenging to navigate this situation, and no one expects you to have all the answers. Sometimes, it's important to remember that you need to let your friend dictate how they'd like to receive help from you. By continuing to be a loving, comforting, and encouraging presence in their lives, you're showing them what a healthy relationship looks like — and that in itself is powerful.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org. You can also text "loveis" to 866-331-9474, or call LoveisRespect at 1-866-331-9474.
Aimee Daramus, licensed clinical psychologist
Angela Lee, director of Love is Respect