If someone close to you was in an abusive relationship, you think you would immediately see the signs, right? Don’t be so sure.
Domestic abuse—also known as intimate partner abuse— isn’t always as obvious as the movies make it out to be.
Sure, the signs of physical violence always manifests itself: bruises, scars, a black eye and broken bones are not hard to miss, but the little details about your friend— how a once bubbly person is now secretive and reserved, how she doesn’t tell you a lot about her life anymore, if she’s always racing to check her phone everytime it rings, how she isolates herself from you for long periods of time—might be some signs of other forms of abuse occurring in her relationship that might go undetected.
Intimate partner abuse can be emotional abuse, stalking, and even financial abuse, with the threat of physical violence always looming.
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so Health has asked experts to shed some light on how to recognize that what might seem like a toxic or difficult relationship a friend is in is something more serious—and then help her find safety before the abuse escalates:
Recognize the signs
A bruised leg, a black eye—physical signs of harm like this can be caused by one-time accidents. But if you repeatedly notice visible symptoms of injury, consider them red flags. You might be wrong—your friend really could be accident prone or suffer a string of gym-related mishaps. But it’s worth the risk to follow up.
“There are certain types of body language or little cues you can pick up on that might indicate that a victim is fearful of their partner,” says David B. Wexler, PhD, author of When Good Men Behave Badly and executive director of the Relationship Training Institute in San Diego.
Consider also how your friend seems to be bending over backwards for her partner, or canceling plans at the last minute with sketchy excuses.
“This is often an indicator the abuser is being excessively demanding of their partner’s attention,” explains Wexler.
If she’s bombarded by texts and calls from her boo when they’re apart, pay attention.
“I’ve met with survivors who receive multiple calls and texts from their partner just while they’re sitting in my office,” says Jimmy Meagher, director of the Domestic Violence and Empowerment Initiative at Safe Horizon, America’s leading victim assistance facility. If she has to repeatedly check in with her partner, that could be a tip-off that her significant other is tracking her behavior in an unhealthy way.
And keep an eye out for how your friend and her partner interact. “If someone is very controlling, they’ll hover almost in a stalking fashion,” says Wexler. “A man might show up without warning when his partner gets off work not because he’s a nice guy, but because he wants her to know she can’t linger or hang out with coworkers. That extra level of vigilance is another sign.”
Broach the subject
“If you suspect a friend or family member is being abused, talk to them at a safe time and place, away from their partner or anybody else who could overhear and potentially compromise their safety,” advises Meagher.
When you bring up your concerns, use “I” statements instead of sentences filled with “you,” which will make her less likely to feel blamed or attacked and then react defensively. Questions like, “I notice Sam has been calling and texting you all night and I’m concerned about that. Is everything okay?” You’re not accusing her partner of anything; just voicing your observation.
“It’s helpful to ask questions that start to paint a picture for them that something isn’t right,” adds Wexler. “Maybe you say something like, ‘I’m wondering how the kids are reacting to what’s going on in your house.’
These are ways to supportively indicate concern that actually help the victim come to some of their own realizations about what is going on.” You want to be calm and direct, not accusatory or overly emotional, so she feels like she can confide in you.
Listen and don’t judge
It might be a gut reaction to want to immediately step in if you think a loved one might be involved with an abuser. But telling your friend how to handle the situation or asserting that you’re going to call authorities won’t necessarily help.
“Survivors are the experts in their own safety,” says Meagher. “They know their abusers best and they know what has worked to keep them safe in the past and what hasn’t.”
If they do share that they have experienced abuse, validate what they are saying and how they are feeling. Avoid “you need tos,” “you have tos,” and “you shoulds.” This language can actually make victims feel even more disempowered. Plus, you could come off as judgy—behavior no one responds well to.
Remind her that you are there for her and willing to do whatever she wants you to do to help her get out of the relationship or find safety.
Offer to help—but accept limitations
Abusive behavior tends to spike around the time a victim tries to leave a relationship, so victims may be especially in need of support if they decide to end it. What can you do to make sure she’s safe and out of harm’s way once she leaves?
Gather information on local resources such as shelters, hotlines, and counseling centers, suggests Meagher. “You can also escort or accompany them to a clinic, police station, or court, if that’s what they want to do,” he adds.
It can also help to keep a go-bag in your house so your friend can have extra clothing, toiletries, and documents on hand, should she need to get away fast.
And remember this: “While we see patterns of abuse, every relationship is unique,” says Meagher. “It’s always a good idea for somebody experiencing abuse to reach out to program and service providers who understand domestic violence and its complexities. We can help them make a safety plan, whether that’s going to a shelter, sleeping at a friend or family member’s home, or staying in the relationship.”
Safe Horizon’s free and confidential domestic violence hotline is a good place to start: 1-800-621-4673.