Helping a Friend Leave an Abusive Relationship: Don't Count on Being a Hero
I've been in two abusive relationships.
No, I'm not proud to say that, but that is my story. Although each was abusive in a completely different way (one was physical and emotional, the other was emotional and financial), the situations I was in while leaving both of them were eerily similar.
If you have a friend in an abusive relationship, your first instinct is to open their eyes to the abuse; your second instinct is to help them get out. But know this: They know they are in an abusive relationship, and they know that when they leave, it will get much worse. Getting out is far more dangerous than staying in and putting up with it, in addition to all of the emotional fallout when leaving a "normal" relationship, such as guilt and grief. So pushing them to leave, especially without professional help, is a really bad idea.
My only caveat: If your friend seems to be in a literal life or death situation, i.e., they have been hospitalized because of the abuse, seek professional help immediately to help remove them from the situation. He could end up killing her. If at all possible, do not take this responsibility on yourself, as the abuser will likely be very angry and may physically harm you, too.
The following tips are gleaned from my personal experience; many victims of domestic violence suffer through the same issues. It is imperative that, before trying to "rescue" someone from an abusive relationship, especially one that has turned physically violent, I would recommend that you contact a local women's shelter or domestic abuse hotline to see what the best options are for your friend in your area:
- It is ALWAYS worse than they say it is. Trust me, they are too embarrassed to tell you how bad it really is. If she says he pulled her hair, he probably also hit her in a place where you won't see the bruise. So when your friend seems more terrified of her abuser than her anecdotes suggest she should be, it is because she's not telling you how bad it is. If she told you that he threw a dish at her, and is now saying she is afraid he is going to kill her, assume that while they were in the kitchen, he also threatened to kill her with a knife. Again, this playing down of the situation comes from shame, and the fear of the inevitable rage that will follow when she leaves.
- They don't need moral support. If a victim opens up to you, the first thing out of your mouth should NOT be, "Well, then, you have to get OUT!" Followed by you saying that 20 more times. If they're talking to someone about the abuse, they know it's not okay and they know they need help to get away from their abuser. However, unless you are genuinely willing to physically go with them to the women's shelter on your lunch hour or put them up in your house, don't keep hounding them to leave. Do not create false hope. Also, the more you hound them about leaving, the guiltier you make them feel for not pleasing you and feeling so worthless. Remember, this is a person already in an abusive relationship, I guarantee she's prone to feeling guilt over nothing. When I was in a physically abusive relationship (which nearly ended with him killing me), there were plenty of people encouraging me to leave but none offering any solutions. And I was lucky; I had a very good-paying job and lots of good friends. Many victims don't have that big of a safety net.
- There is no reasoning with an abuser. If there was, they wouldn't be an abuser, they'd be a normal guy and you wouldn't feel the need to rescue your friend. Know that when she leaves, he will probably lose all control, and he will act out on his violent impulses. Remember that when your friend leaves, her abuser has lost control of the entire situation, which will probably trigger enormous amounts of anxiety. He may feel that his life has essentially come to an end and he must act on these emotions. None of this is based on rational thought. You will not be able to calm him down. You will not be able to talk him out of anything. The only thing you can do is put your friend somewhere where he absolutely, under no circumstances, will be able to find her. You may feel that your house is as good a place as any, but if he knows where you live, think long and hard before putting you and your own family in danger for the sake of your friend's freedom. You will need professional help with this situation; please don't think you're Rambo and can defeat any enemy. Do not hesitate to call the police to help in the situation; sometimes they are the only people who can subdue the insane hate monster that used to be your friend's husband and father of her children.
- You will have to operate in "spy mode." This isn't as fun as it sounds. I was living in Russia, not long after the fall of the Soviet Union, when I left my first abuser. The Soviets were infamous for an astounding surveillance system that included, among many other disturbing things, disguising microphones as rocks in parks, so I was already in this mindset when I left him. If you're going to help your friend leave, you need to act like a spy that will be captured and executed if caught. Do not talk on her phone, or any phone he could have access to, about your plans. Set up a new e-mail account for her, but know that this is not a good way to contact her in an emergency; she will never be able to check it at home. Assume that all her electronic devices have spyware on them, and never use anything like her home computer to discuss your escape plan. (My girlfriend had an insanely jealous husband who put keystroke technology on her home computer to keep track of her.) Assume that he is a computer genius and has accessed all her accounts; and know that it is not because he is a genius, but more likely because he has visited websites where guys talk, in-depth, about how to spy on their wives and girlfriends.
- Your friend is going to be incredibly lonely. It sounds crazy, right? Why would she be lonely without that jerk? But think of it this way: The person she fell in love with never left her alone. Yes, a rational mind can say that it was creepy that he monitored her every move, but think of how much attention she was getting. No, really. This person was entirely devoted to her and her alone, and whether it's healthy or not, it is important to understand that when she leaves, that (albeit unhealthy) feeling of knowing there was constantly someone not only watching her, but watching out for her, is ripped out from under her and she is left spiraling into the abyss of instability and loneliness. All of a sudden, she is left to be "free," without any safety net, and that can be very scary. People leave her alone so she can "think" and "find her center." But don't leave her alone. Many of us victims have gone back for many different reasons, but I know loneliness alone nearly drove me back several times.
- This WILL cost you money. It is likely that the abuser has a tight grip on finances in the relationship and notices every dime going in and out of their various accounts. So if you want her to have a throwaway phone for emergencies, you're probably going to have to buy it. If you think she needs to open a bank account, you're probably going to have to give her - not loan, but give - the money needed to open the account. You might have to put down a deposit on an apartment. There is usually help from churches and other organizations in your community for the victims of domestic abuse, so don't think you have to foot the bill yourself. But know that your friend probably won't be able to help herself financially for quite a while.
- After you rescue her, you will understand why she didn't leave sooner. I told several people how insane my boyfriend was, but it wasn't until the day I left him and he broke in the door of the law firm where I worked - interrupting a meeting between our managing partner and the CEO of a multinational corporation - did it become clear to everyone else that this guy was as dangerous as I said he was. Yes, he did pay people at my office to get my phone number and address. Yes, he did follow me everywhere. Yes, he did show up at my work with the intent to shoot me. No, he's not going to stop calling all the time. This is the behavior he promised would happen if she ever left him. And it's all coming true. He cleaned out the bank account and stopped paying for everything. He's destroying her reputation at work. I know there was a tiny part of you that thought she was being melodramatic, but now you see. So for anyone reading this: Try to see it before you embark on the journey, so you can be a more effective hero.