October marks shorter days, turning leaves, pumpkin-spiced everything—and Domestic Violence Awareness Month. By pulling intimate partner violence into the sunlight, we can see it for what it is and, hopefully, have the chance to watch it wither like an autumn leaf. But when a friend or co-worker confides their story, how we respond matters.
Domestic violence is really about power and control: It’s a pattern of behaviors used by one partner in an intimate relationship to dominate another. Domestic violence—whether it comes in the form of physical abuse or emotional and psychological tactics—erode a victim’s self-esteem, rendering them disempowered, self-blaming and shameful. But you don’t need to have a degree in counseling psychology to support someone who has exited an abusive relationship, or is caught in the thick of one, and is ready to talk about it.
National Domestic Violence Month will transition from jack-o-lanterns to down jackets soon enough, but the conversation surrounding abuse must continue for education and healing to endure. Domestic abuse is a delicate topic—but when one in four women and one in nine men experience violence from their partners in their lifetimes, it’s critical that we all stay informed and open to hearing from victims and survivors and doing what we can to support them.
Below are five ways you can support survivors all year ’round.
#1: Leave Judgement Out of It
Be a receptive sounding board. Your job is simply to validate their experience and to express your belief in them. The victim may ultimately choose to return to their abusive partner; therefore, it is essential for you to remain objective, and not show your anger over their partner’s past behavior.
It is not your responsibility to diagnose or label their situation. Just be there and listen.
#2: Meet Them Where They Are
Depression, anxiety, fear and isolation are often experienced by trauma survivors. After suffering domestic violence, a victim may not be ready to share everything with you—and that’s perfectly fine. Connect with survivors on whatever level is comfortable for them. Don’t try to solve their problems, and do not be overly solicitous with suggestions if they are not asking for your help. Let them know you are available to them, acknowledge the scary nature of their past situation and encourage them to maintain their relationships with family and friends.
#3: Do Your Homework
Resources such as hotlines, websites and local counseling services are available to both victims and those who seek to support survivors. Your friend may already be aware of these outlets, but it is helpful to investigate them for yourself and to be prepared with a short go-to list.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available at 1-800-799-SAFE. The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence can be reached at 1-800-537-2238.
This is vital: If someone you know asks for your assistance in getting out of an unsafe domestic situation, you need to direct them to social services such as the hotlines mentioned so they can get informed help. If lives, including those of children, are in imminent danger, police need to be notified.
#4: Applaud Their Courage
Given that seven in ten victims don’t report domestic abuse, realize that your friend has taken an enormous step in discussing their circumstances. Tell them you admire their courage and that you recognize the great strength it takes for them to extract themselves from an abusive partnership.
#5: The Little Things
Survivors of domestic violence often experience residual guilt and self-blame. You can support a victim with a small token of self-care, such as a journal or a good book, or you can encourage them to join you for a walk or a yoga class. Text them, call them and let them know you are holding them in your positive thoughts.
They need your encouragement, and the most valuable thing you can offer is your friendship.