When a friend or loved one (we’ll use “friend” in this article) experiences a toxic or violent relationship, it can be very stressful and difficult to watch. Many people wonder, “What’s the best way I can help or intervene?” While you can’t make decisions for your friend, there are some things you can do to support them.
While you’ll probably have many feelings – including anger, sadness, fear, and frustration – it’s important to keep those feelings in check when talking to your friend. Be kind, nonjudgmental, and supportive. Never blame a person experiencing an unhealthy relationship; it’s the perpetrator who’s at fault. Don’t criticize or question your friend for staying in the relationship. Leaving an unhealthy relationship, or one involving domestic violence, is complicated.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline website: “On average, it takes a victim seven times to leave before staying away for good. Exiting the relationship is the most unsafe time for a victim. As the abuser senses that they’re losing power, they will often act in dangerous ways to regain control over their victim.”
Care and curiosity, not criticism
It can be detrimental to criticize your friend’s unhealthy or abusive partner. This may lead them to become protective or minimize their partner’s behavior. Don’t give up on your friend. Gather resources and continue to support them until they are ready to take the final step to leave.
It may be difficult to understand why your friend might remain in a toxic and scary relationship, so it’s important that you have resources and information you can lean on. We encourage you to view Private Violence – Why We Stayed, a short film featuring women talking about the barriers that prevented them from leaving a violent intimate partner relationship.
A readily accessible and confidential resource is the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Advocates are available 24 hours a day via call, text, or chat. They’re there to support you and serve as a resource to confide in, answer questions, and give tips and guidance on how to safely help and support your friend.
When talking to your friend about their relationship, be curious without being judgmental and leave the window open for your friend to talk with you about their feelings, questions, and concerns. Your friend may already have low self-esteem due to the unhealthy relationship, and criticizing them for not leaving may exacerbate this. TV, movies, and music often romanticize traits that are unhealthy; don’t play into that.
Educate yourself on unhealthy relationships so you can identify them. Be ready to address your concerns with other people who may respond to unhealthy behaviors as if they were “romantic” or “sweet,” inadvertently supporting the abusive person’s behavior and not validating uncomfortable feelings the victim may have.
OneLove provides some suggestions for what to say when talking to a friend experiencing an unhealthy relationship or exhibiting unhealthy behaviors toward their partner in Help a Friend: Instead of Saying This, Say That. For example, instead of saying, “Why do you always listen to everything they say? I don’t get it,” say, “They seem to get mad when you hang out with us. What’s your gut reaction to that?”
Sheltering Wings has more suggestions for helping friends in violent relationships in When you think someone you love is a victim of domestic abuse, how will you respond? For example, instead of, “You can’t still be in love with them!” say, “I understand things aren’t always bad. I’m here if you want to talk through this. I won’t judge.”
A person in a violent relationship is the best judge of when they are ready and it is safe to leave. The best thing you can do is listen, be there for them, and be ready with resources if they’re talking about leaving.
Provide numbers or websites for national and local domestic violence hotlines (see resources at the end of this post), share the create a safety plan tool, gather information on shelters if that will be necessary, and encourage your friend to talk to domestic violence advocates.
When your friend shows an unhealthy dynamic with their partner
Sometimes it’s equally stressful to suspect or watch a friend act in unhealthy or violent ways toward their partner. Talking to them about their behavior can be even more difficult. Don’t be complacent or an active participant when you witness unhealthy behaviors. It’s too easy to laugh it off, ignore, or explain away the behavior.
Help a Friend: Instead of Saying This, Say That has suggestions for talking to a friend exhibiting unhealthy behaviors. For example, instead of laughing if a friend says something derogatory about their partner, say, “How do you think they felt when you said that?”
Keep the channels of communication open. Your safety is also important in the process of holding them accountable. Approach your friend the way you feel comfortable and in an environment that feels safe. Keep in mind that accusing a friend of being abusive will probably shut them down and may put their partner at further risk, so use other techniques to encourage them to seek help.
If you feel like you need more support or think it’s not safe to question a friend, reach out to a helpline like LoveisRespect or The National Domestic Violence Helpline. Additionally, the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence has created conversation cards that can prompt a dialogue with someone who is acting abusive. Check out How’s Your Relationship?
Bystander intervention tips
If you witness violence or harm being perpetrated against someone, knowing how to intervene is important – even if you don’t feel comfortable getting directly involved due to safety concerns or feeling unsure of what to do. Bringing any type of attention to the situation could help save someone from being severely injured or killed. Your safety is always important and there are a variety of ways to intervene.
The American Friends Service Committee created some helpful infographics on The DOs & DON’Ts of BYSTANDER INTERVENTION | THE FOUR Ds of Bystander Intervention and a related video.
THE FOUR Ds of BYSTANDER INTERVENTION
- D1: DISTRACT
- D2: DELEGATE
- D3: DIRECT
- D4: DELAY
The DOs & DON’Ts of BYSTANDER INTERVENTION
⇒ DO make yourself known.
⇒ DO take cues from the person being harassed.
⇒ DO keep both of you safe.
⊗ DON’T CALL THE POLICE (unless the person being harassed asks you to)!
⊗ DON’T escalate the situation.
⊗ DON’T do nothing.
As discussed above, there are things that you can do to support a person involved in an unhealthy relationship by being a good listener, offering support, and providing resources. But remember that your friend will need to make the decision to leave an unhealthy or violent relationship. You can be there to support them, but cannot make the decision for them.
Know that intervening may be as simple as offering words of support, or it may be that you need to rely on the 4 Ds and act. Do your research, support healthy relationship skills, and be ready to act should the situation call for it.
If you’re a young person age 14-22, or know of a young person interested in getting more involved in promoting healthy relationships, check out OneLove Youth Leadership Workshops. You’ll learn how to become a leader in spreading healthy relationship information to your schools and friends.
- When a friend won’t walk away from abuse, by Sarah LeTrent, CNN, 1/10/13
- Private Violence – Why We Stayed: Private Violence short film
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: Advocates are available 24-hours a day via call, text, or chat. Chat: thehotline.org | Text “START 88788” | Phone: 1.800.799.SAFE(7233)
- Help a Friend: Instead of Saying This, Say That: OneLove
- When you think someone you love is a victim of domestic abuse, how will you respond?: Sheltering Wings
- Create a Safety Plan: Interactive guide to safety planning from the National Domestic Violence Hotline
- How’s Your Relationship? Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence conversation cards
- The DOs & DON’Ts of BYSTANDER INTERVENTION | THE FOUR Ds of Bystander Intervention: Infographics from American Friends Service Committee
- Youth Leadership Workshops: OneLove
- Is Someone Spying On Your Cell Phone? 10 Ways To Tell & How To Stop Them: Pixel Privacy
Solid Ground’s Broadview Emergency Shelter and Transitional Housing provides confidential temporary housing for parents and their children experiencing homelessness due to domestic violence. We provide 24-hour trauma-informed support services to help families meet their immediate needs and move forward with their goals. Our team of housing counselors, child advocates, domestic violence/legal advocates and specialized service providers partner with residents as they work to secure permanent housing, heal from trauma, and increase self-sufficiency and stability.
Domestic Violence Help in Seattle/King County
Call 206.299.2500 for Solid Ground’s confidential Domestic Violence shelter services. You can also dial 2.1.1 or toll-free at 1.800.621.4636, Monday-Friday, 8am-6pm, for info about all King County resources.
National Domestic Violence Hotline
1.800.799.7233 or TTY 1.800.787.3224
English – Online chat is available 24/7/365.
Español – Póngase en contacto con nuestros asesores altamente capacitados las 24 horas, 7 días de la semana y reciba el apoyo que merece. Chat en Español esta disponible cada cuando el botón de chat está en rojo.
Resources for Youth
Get relationship help | love is respect advocates are available 24/7/365. They offer confidential support for teens, young adults, and their loved ones seeking help, resources, or information related to healthy relationships and dating abuse in the US.
OUTSpoken Speakers Bureau & Youth Programs | The NW Network offers a wide range of supports to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and questioning youth and young adults (13-24) around issues of violence and crime, including dating violence, bullying, hate violence, physical and sexual assault, exploitation, theft, police harassment, and experiences in the sex trades.