Psych Corner: How To Help A Friend In An Abusive Relationship


I was catching up with a friend when she asked me a surprising question: “I think my friend might be in an abusive relationship,” she said, “How can I help her? Should I even say anything?”

Unfortunately, abuse in relationships is all too common. According to Safe Horizon, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will be a victim of domestic violence or abuse in their lifetime.

With these high statistics, it’s likely that you may know someone who is in an abusive relationship. But, like my friend, you might be wondering what to say or do and what not to say or do.

The good news is that there are many ways you can offer your support. Being informed means that you can help a friend, should you ever need to.

What is an abusive relationship?

An abusive relationship is one where one partner uses fear or intimidation to control the behavior of the other. The person who is being abused is often afraid to leave the relationship, because the abuser has threatened harm to either the person themselves or their family.

How can you tell?

One important thing to know is that, while there isn’t one type of person who is more likely to be in an abusive relationship than others, there are some common risk factors that increase the likelihood that someone might be in an abusive relationship. These include being less educated, female, dependent on drugs or alcohol, and being a teenager or young adult.

Common qualities of abusers include having few friends and being isolated from others, emotional dependency, desire for power and control in relationships, and heavy alcohol and drug use. However, someone can be in an abusive relationship and not fit perfectly into these profiles.

The warning signs that someone might be in an abusive relationship extend beyond physical violence such as punching, choking, hitting, and kicking. If your friend tells you that their boyfriend makes them feel worthless, accuses them of cheating, threatened to hurt themselves if your friend thinks about leaving the relationship, isolates them from friends and family or requires them to check in constantly, your friend may be in an abusive relationship.

Any signs that your friend’s boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse threatens them (whether physically, verbally, or emotionally) or lives in a relationship mainly run by fear,  is likely a sign of an abusive relationship.

How do you talk to them?

Your friend might be aware they they are part of an abusive relationship or, they may be in denial. Sometimes, admitting that they are in an abusive relationship might be too painful or frightening to consider.

Be patient with your friend and try to help them see what a healthy relationship is versus an unhealthy one. The Office on Women’s Health has a helpful website that lists the differences between a healthy and unhealthy relationship. It also includes some helpful resources if your friend does decide to seek help.

While it may be hard to see your friend ignore the signs of being in an unhealthy relationship, you can’t force them to take action if they aren’t ready to. But you CAN offer a listening ear and help once they are ready to acknowledge that the relationship is unhealthy.

Why don’t they leave?

From the outside, you might see how important it is for your friend to leave the abusive relationship immediately and it might even be frustrating to see you friend stay in such a harmful relationship.

Keep in mind that your friend might be scared to leave or may not know how to leave. There may be many factors involved that might make it difficult for your friend to leave the relationship. They may be worried about money or a place to live, for example.

So don’t yell at them, or tell them you can’t believe they haven’t left the relationship already.

Instead, let your friend know that you are there to help them whenever they are ready to takes steps to leave the relationship or take steps to protect themselves.

Being there for your friend in whatever way they need you to be is the best thing you can do to help them.

This might mean giving them the number for the domestic violence hotline (1-800-787-3224) and website: The website includes a button they can click to exit the site immediately in case someone is watching their internet use. The hotline offers support and can help your friend find a safe place to go if she needs to leave the relationship right away.

Supporting your friend could also mean helping them come up with a plan to leave the abuser including a place to stay and access to a phone. It might also mean calling the police if you believe that he or she is in danger.

The most important thing you can do for a friend that you suspect might be in an abusive relationship is to let your friend know that you can be a trusted source of help. And that’s the best gift you can give your friend.

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