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Supporting a Friend After Domestic Abuse: What You Can Do (Guide)

Unsure how to help a friend who's been impacted by domestic violence? We've got practical tips and resources.



When a friend shares their history of domestic abuse with you, it's not just a window into their past; it's an invitation to understand a deeply personal and complex journey.


Abusive relationships are very complex and can be difficult to understand, even for those who have experienced them. They include psychological unique adaptions such as trauma bonding, dissociation, learned helplessness, and emotional dysregulation—where we change psychologically as a response of relentless experiences of abusive trauma and manipulation.


As a quick summary :

  • Trauma bonding creates a strong emotional connection between the victim and the abuser (a biological addiction to a cycle of drama - a threat and relief cycle), often making it difficult for the victim to leave or process the abuse.

  • Dissociation is a coping mechanism where the person mentally distances themselves from the pain, making their emotions hard to understand or predict.

  • Learned helplessness can occur when the victim feels powerless to change their situation and lose even the will or ambition to escape.

  • Emotional dysregulation—intense, fluctuating emotions—can continue even after leaving the abusive environment.


All of this, and more, often the reality for a victim for years or even decades in their past relationship!


These complex reactions can be confusing for family and friends who want to help. You might feel lost, unsure how to provide support, or even frustrated by what seems like erratic or self-sabotaging behavior. However, the most crucial insight to hold onto is that while fully grasping the psychological aftermath of abuse is helpful, it's not as critical as offering consistent, empathetic support that respects your friend's needs and boundaries.


Understanding that your role as a consistent valuing supporter sets the stage for how you can be this pillar of support for your friend/loved one. By listening actively, validating their feelings and decisions, supporting their journey to autonomy, and encouraging self-compassion and recognition of their worth, you're not just a friend—you're an invaluable ally in their path to healing. Let's delve into how you can embody this role with kindness, respect, and understanding.

Practical ways to support:


Listening with Empathy

  1. Be an Active Listener: Create a safe space where your friend feels heard and understood. Active listening involves paying attention, nodding, and using phrases like "I hear you" or "That sounds really tough," which can significantly affirm their feelings and experiences. Re-telling, for some people, is a key need for them to process past trauma - and so expect repetition and high emotions.

  2. Respect Their Pace: Allow your friend to share as much or as little as they're comfortable with. Avoid pressing for details; let them lead the conversation about their experiences and feelings.



Validating Their Decisions

  1. Affirm Their Choices: Validate their decision to leave the abusive relationship, reinforcing that it was a courageous and correct choice, regardless of how challenging the journey has been.

  2. Challenge Guilt: Survivors may struggle with misplaced guilt about leaving or the abuser's well-being. Help them understand that they are not responsible for their abuser's actions and that prioritising their safety and happiness was the right decision.

  3. Challenge 'Love': Survivors can feel pre-occupied with their ex, as their brain has learned to meet their ex's needs over their own needs and to fear their distress. This can be confused as love. Try to support your friend in realising that wanting their ex is not the same as it being right to go back. Re-affirming their choice to leave and why they made their choice, with their own words - not as pressure, but as a helpful reminder of what they truly want and need.

Supporting Autonomy and Healing

  1. Encourage No Contact: If your friend is attempting to maintain zero contact with their ex, support this boundary. No contact can be crucial for emotional healing and breaking the cycle of abuse.

  2. Offer Flexible Support: Let them know you're there for them, even during unsociable hours. Your willingness to be available, even at odd times, can provide immense comfort and a sense of security.

  3. Suggest Rewarding Activities: Engage your friend in activities that bring joy and fulfillment. Whether it's a hobby, exercise, or a creative pursuit, these activities can boost self-esteem and provide a positive focus away from past trauma.


Fostering Self-Compassion and Worth

  1. Encourage Self-Compassion: Remind your friend to be kind to themselves. Survivors often deal with self-criticism and unrealistic expectations. Encouraging self-compassion can foster healing and a healthier self-view. We have a free self-compassion course you may want to point your friend/loved one to.

  2. Celebrate Their Successes: Help your friend recognise and celebrate their achievements, no matter how small. This can reinforce their sense of self-worth and encourage them to appreciate their own validation rather than seeking it externally.

  3. Highlight Their Strength: Remind them of their resilience and strength. Surviving and moving beyond abuse is a testament to their courage and determination.


Avoid disappointment

  1. Compassion for all outcomes: It can be incredibly disappointing and frustrating to see a friend/loved one break their own promises or commitments to themselves, to you or others. For most survivors, going back is more likely than staying out - over time, this can change. Expect it and realise that it is so very hard for survivors to wake up to reality and to keep away from a person who had so much power over them.

  2. Communicate Acceptance and Truth: Survivors can feel great shame, guilt and regret when they see themselves in this cycle of attempted escape, escape and return. Help your friend or loved one to know you understand that it is not simple and accept their choices. Offer safe space to come to you if they need any help and let them know you don't judge, "I can see it is complicated and you are struggling to decide. I just want to help and don't judge you. I think you are going to get hurt again, but I don't want you ever to feel you can't come to me whatever you need."


Resist distance

Survivors (in or out of the relationship) can become isolated, due to their partner/ex's behaviour but also due to their own shame and guilt. It can feel tiring to be the one who has to reach out and initiate contact, against resistance. Try to understand this as a need in your friend/loved one. It can be so very hard to reach out, when you feel deeply ashamed of yourself (more on survivor shame, here).



Get your own support

  1. Trauma by proxy: Listening to stories of abuse can be challenging and even traumatic for families and friends, seek out your own support and places where you can safely discuss your own experience of supporting your friend. Don't feel guilty for needing this, it is not gossiping - it is self-care.

  2. Avoid taking sides: We don't need to take a side to support a victim, which can be complex when we know both parties. You can line up with the realisation that your friend has had a difficult experience and needs to recover, outside of the relationship.

  3. Get educated: If you feel you'd like to understand more about abusive relationships, and the struggles of your friend consider our book.

Conclusion

Supporting a friend/loved one who has survived domestic abuse is about providing a steady presence, offering empathy, and empowering them to see their own strength and value. It's about standing by them as they navigate their path to healing, offering support without overstepping, and celebrating their journey toward reclaiming their life and happiness. Your understanding, patience, and unwavering support can be invaluable gifts to your friend as they rebuild their sense of self and look forward to a brighter future.

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