What to Do in a Domestic Violence Situation: A Guide for Survivors and Supporters

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The Ms. Blog will be publishing a series of posts detailing the impact of domestic violence, including personal essays and more, throughout the month.

If you are reading these words, then you’ve been affected by domestic violence. For some of you, these words immediately ring true. They speak to memories or current experiences, whether or not you consider these experiences to be an important part of your identity, or see them as “in the past” or separate from “the real you.” For others, the effects of domestic violence are more obscured. You might vaguely remember growing up in a difficult situation at home, but can’t recall the details. Maybe you’re in a domestic violence situation right now, but don’t know if your relationship “qualifies” as abusive. Maybe you know it does, but don’t know how to escape it without it affecting your entire life.

For the past year, I’ve worked at East LA Women’s Center as an advocate for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. This work usually entails answering calls to our 24-hour rape and battery crisis hotline. There are two kinds of calls I tend to receive: those asking for information about a specific resource or program, and those where the person on the other end of the line isn’t sure what they need or want.

The second type of call is certainly more difficult. Having been there myself, I recognize the strength it takes to reach out to someone, to share the details of your private situation with a stranger, to place your most fragile secrets in somebody else’s hands.

There are, after all, legitimate concerns with taking action to escape domestic violence. Abusers often isolate their victims from family and friends in order to remove their support network, making the victim dependent on them sos/he cannot leave without suffering great amounts of emotional and financial turmoil.

“What do I do?” a friend asks me about her sister who has just disclosed that she’s been in a domestic violence situation for over five years. There is no easy answer, and many who are inexperienced with this scenario might tell her to look the other way because it’s not her fight, to ignore it “for the sake of the family,” or offer vaguely to just “be there for her.”

Though often hurtful and callous, these responses are also understandable. It is ultimately the responsibility of the victim to extract themselves from a domestic violence situation. It has to be, because if the victim has not come to that conclusion for themselves through careful consideration, they will often return to their abuser. It is also possible that outside interference could aggravate the situation. The abuser, knowing that others know about their actions, might react with violence and further isolate the victim.

But while the victim must be trusted to make the decision to leave, this does not mean victims should be blamed for choosing to remain in that situation. Victims of domestic violence need support more than anything. They will not come to the conclusion that they should leave simply by hearing others demand that they do so, regardless of how well-meaning.

There are many reasons why a victim of domestic violence might stay with an abuser. One reason, mentioned above, is that the abuser may have isolated the victim from her/his sources of support to the point where the victim does not feel s/he can leave the situation without great difficulty.

Another reason a victim may choose to stay with an abuser is s/he may not recognize the relationship as abusive because there is no physical violence involved, a common misconception. Carmen Lorenz, volunteer and hotline coordinator for East LA Women’s Center explains, “A lot of men and women feel like for something to be domestic violence there has to be a physical situation, a bodily injury to one or the other, but domestic violence also relates to emotional and verbal abuse.”

In fact, because every situation is different, domestic violence can take the form of a wide range of forms of violence and control, including but not limited to: coercion; manipulation; psychological degradation; sexual violence; financial control; social abuse; and neglect. Abusers are often clever in their application of these tactics in order to trick the victim into thinking no abuse is taking place.

A victim might also say something like, “Well, he/she’s not always abusive.” And that’s probably true. You yourself might have witnessed their partner treating them very well only to later observe the relationship degrade into violence again. This is called the cycle of violence. A domestic violence relationship sustains itself by cycling through phases of tension building, conflict and resolution. This pattern of abuse/release from abuse lends an increasing sense of normalcy to domestic violence, where further instances of abuse can be absolved or outright dismissed.

Remember, everyone’s experience is different so there is no road map to escaping domestic violence. That said, as Domestic Violence Awareness Month draws to a close, I wanted to pass on some suggestions I made to my friend about her sister, to try to help those who are or know someone who is confronted with domestic violence.

If You Know Someone Who is in a Domestic Violence Situation:

  1. Don’t blame/judge the victim. Don’t re-traumatize the victim in your response to their situation. If you truly want to help your friend or family member, you have to demonstrate that you care. The best way to do this is to listen. If your first response is to judge the victim, they may not trust you enough to keep you informed of the situation. This could lead to them feeling isolated and unwilling to reach out to you or others in times of emergency.
  2. Offer your support. Do you have a place they can stay if they need to? Money they can use if their abuser has made them financially dependent? Are there other ways you can support them?
  3. Trust the survivor to come to the right decision. A victim of domestic violence may attempt to leave their situation many times before they finally succeed. They may go back and forth to their abuser. They will only finally leave for good when they are ready. Be prepared for this, and offer your support no matter what.
  4. Suggest domestic violence support groups, hotline numbers and other resources for your friend or family member. This will take the strain off the victim, who may be too scared or too isolated to do the research themselves.
  5. Do not confront the abuser. This can place both you and the victim in danger.
  6. Always dial 911 in an emergency.

If You Are in a Domestic Violence Situation:

  1. Don’t alert your abuser if you are planning to leave.
  2. Create a safety plan. Is there a way you can put aside some money, clothing, documents and other necessities in case you need to leave? Can you find a place to stay in case of emergency and alert a few trusted friends and family members? Even if you are unsure as to how the situation might escalate, it is important to be prepared for your safety.
  3. Join a support group for survivors of domestic violence: even if you are not prepared to leave the relationship, you can discuss your situation with other survivors and receive group therapy with trained counselors.
  4. Get one-on-one help: many domestic violence centers offer free one-on-one counseling. A domestic violence counselor can help discuss your situation, offer therapy and connect you to resources in your area.
  5. Call the hotline if you need help. Take precautions while calling. If your abuser checks your phone logs, try calling from a pay phone or a friend’s phone. Don’t call while your abuser is within hearing.
  6. Always dial 911 in an emergency.

If you are in a domestic violence situation or know someone who is, you can call the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Hotline at: 1-800-799-7233. If you would like to make a donation to support East LA Women’s Center you can visit our website at elawc.org or call 323-526-5819.

Support the Ms. Magazine Prison and Domestic Violence Shelter Program today and show isolated women that they’re not alone.

Photo via Shutterstock


Mirabelle Jones is a book artist, performance artist, and writer living in East Los Angeles. She a sexual assault and a domestic violence victim's advocate for http://elawc.org/ and the founder of artagainstassault.com. You can follow her at MirabelleJones.com or support her future projects at Patreon.com/mira.