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If you are worried someone you know or care about is experiencing family violence, there are some simple things you can do to help and support them.
Don’t all couples have fights?
Yes, disagreements are common in relationships. Family violence is different to the problems that may arise in a healthy relationship. Most couples argue and struggle with shared decision-making without violence, threats or actions that crush the other person’s sense of self. Raising your voice during a fight doesn’t mean that others will be afraid or feel controlled.
But in an abusive relationship, one person demonstrates a continuous pattern of behaviour that makes the other person feel smaller, afraid for their safety, and attacks their sense of self. Family violence of this nature is an attack on another person’s freedom and ability to control their own life, and makes the other person feel fear.
Signs someone you know is experiencing family violence
It can be hard to tell if someone is experiencing family violence. Often there are no obvious signs and the person may not even recognise that what they are experiencing is abuse. However, there are some signs you can and should look out for.
- Has the person become withdrawn from close friends and family? Do they seem unusually quiet, lacking in confidence or depressed?
- Does the person say things that indicate their partner is controlling like ‘he doesn’t like it if I don’t let him know where I am’ or ‘he’s always checking my text messages’?
- Does the person talk about their partner being jealous or quick to anger? Have they mentioned their partner getting really angry about something small like the house not being clean enough or forgetting to purchase something from the shops?
- Does the person seem anxious, afraid or just not themselves around their partner?
- Does their partner criticise the person in public, calling them stupid in front of friends, family or colleagues?
- Has the person ever indicated that their partner pressured them into doing sexual things?
- Has the person ever said their partner pushed them, restrained them, hit them or was in any way physically abusive?
- Has the person ever had physical injuries, like bruises, broken bones or abrasions? If you have asked them about the injuries, have they become evasive, upset or given unlikely explanations?
What should you do to help?
There are a number of things you can do if you are concerned for a friend, family member or neighbour.
Ask them if they are okay
It’s best to do this in a sensitive way, one-on-one when their partner is not around. Tell them you are worried about them, explain why you are concerned and make it clear that you want to help. Don’t be discouraged if the person is defensive or denies abuse is occurring – don’t try to make them talk if they are not ready to, just tell them you are there if they ever need support.
If the person wants to tell you about what they are experiencing listen to them and believe them without judgement or criticism. Help them understand that the abuse is not their fault and that they always deserve to be treated with respect. Tell them that admitting to being abused is a hard step, and they are brave for having told someone.
Let them know about Safe Steps and other services
The best thing you can do to support someone experiencing family violence is help them explore options to become safe, and this is exactly what Safe Steps is for. Our specialist family violence response workers are available 24/7 via our phone line to assist women and children experiencing abuse. Let your friend know that they can call out phone line anytime on 1800 015 188 or send them a link to this website so they can read about our services.
It’s a good idea to let the person know that there are lots of supports and services available and that leaving an abusive relationship is not something anyone has to do alone without assistance. To find out about more family violence support services, check out our list of other service and information providers.
Offer practical assistance and emotional support
Often people experiencing family violence need practical assistance with small everyday tasks. This might mean helping them prepare a safety plan, agreeing to be an emergency contact, offering to let them stay at your house, driving them to an appointment, or looking after their children so they have time to visit a lawyer or counsellor.
Having the emotional support of a trusted friend is also invaluable, particularly during difficult steps and stressful times. You could offer to accompany the person to the police station to report the abuse, or to court for a hearing, or you could just ensure you are checking in with them regularly to make sure they are ok and have someone to talk to whenever they need it.
What shouldn’t you do?
Don’t criticise or blame
Admitting to experiencing abuse is a big step for anyone, so it’s important that you aren’t judgemental or dismissive. Don’t blame the person for the abuse, don’t say they should be doing things differently; don’t make excuses for the abuser’s behaviour. Instead be calm, supportive and helpful.
Don’t tell them what to do
Don’t make comments like ‘It’s about time you stood up to him’ or ‘You should just leave’. These comments fail to understand the complexity of the person’s situation and can make them less confident in their own decision-making skills. Instead, provide information and help them brainstorm options that could increase their safety.
Don’t pressure them to leave
The person may not be ready to leave or they may have valid reasons for staying in the relationship, such as fear for the safety of themselves or their children if they do leave. Remember: family violence tends to escalate when a women is preparing to leave, or has recently left an abusive relationship. This can be a very dangerous time. Trust that the person understands their own situation, and knows what the safest thing to do is.
Don’t give up on them
On average, a woman experiencing family violence will attempt to leave the relationship seven times before successfully separating. It can be discouraging to see someone you care about return to an abusive relationship, but that doesn’t mean you should cut them off or get angry with them. Instead, reiterate that you want to see them happy and appreciated, and you are willing to support them however you can to become safe. Keep in regular contact.
Looking after yourself
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed or out of your depth when trying to assist someone experiencing family violence. If you need advice or support, you can call Safe Steps 24/7 on 1800 015 188 to talk to a specialist family violence support worker.