It’s scary to consider this, but you probably know at least one person who has been in a domestically abusive situation — or perhaps you’ve been in one yourself. You know that no one should tolerate physical violence, but did you know emotional abuse can feel just as threatening? And for those who experience this tough situation, it can be really difficult to reach out for help.
If you have a friend or family member who was in an abusive situation, you probably don’t know what’s best to say. We highly suggest you heed our advice and skip some of these unhelpful phrases — and don’t worry, we have some better words you can borrow, too.
Worst: Why did it take you so long to leave?
If domestic violence hasn’t personally affected you, it can be really hard to understand why an abused person doesn’t just leave their situation. But really, it’s quite complicated. The National Domestic Violence Hotline explains that some people who are abused don’t understand how a healthy relationship is supposed to function, or their safety could be threatened if they leave. Also, experiencing abuse in such a way can really wear on their self-esteem, making them believe part of the abuse was their fault.
Asking them why they didn’t just leave can trivialize a very complex situation. And it will also make them feel even worse, which we’re sure isn’t really your goal.
Better: You’re safe now that you’re out of that situation
Instead of asking the abused person why they didn’t leave when things started to go sour, ensure them things going forward are going to be way better. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence even suggests asking questions about what the situation was like. This will create an honest conversation between the two of you, making the abused person feel like they’re in a safe space to share their feelings.
Once you get a full understanding of the situation, let them know you’re there to help, or you can assist them in finding help through others. The most important thing is to leave all judgments at the door.
Don’t say this, either: There are two sides to every story
It can be hard to understand just how severe a situation is when you’re not in it. This is especially true in the case of emotional abuse, where there’s no physical evidence of what’s going on.
But you should never suggest to your abused friend that they may not be telling the whole truth, or that they could have provoked the violence, Domestic Violence Bureau chief Michelle Kaminsky told Cosmopolitan. Your friend might already blame themselves for the situation — you don’t need to encourage this train of thought.
Try saying this instead: You didn’t deserve what happened to you, no matter what
It’s OK if you don’t understand exactly what a victim of domestic abuse has gone through. They don’t expect you to know precisely how they feel. What you can do, though, is ensure them that none of what happened was their fault.
Shawn M. Burn, Ph.D., tells Psychology Today, “Say things like, ‘I’m sorry this is happening to you,’ ‘I know it’s complicated,’ ‘It’s not your fault,’ ‘You don’t deserve this,’ and ‘This doesn’t change how I feel about you.'” That last one might be the most important of all. The abused person needs to know they can depend on you to be on their side.
This is also unhelpful: It’s time to stop dwelling on it
The abuse is over, so it’s time to look forward instead of dwelling on the past. But domestic violence survivors often deal with trauma that lasts way beyond the actual situation.
Támara Hill, M.S., tells Psych Central you can make the victim feel guilty by suggesting they need to just “get over it.” They need the time and space to go through the grieving process, and you pushing them along may cause them to pull away. If you want them to feel safe talking to you about what happened, refrain from saying this.
This is better: Are you open to asking for professional help?
The abuse may be over, but if your friend is having trouble coping with the aftermath, it may be wise to suggest a professional can help. The abused person may need therapy or medication to get over the trauma, Hill says.
Making the initial suggestion might encourage them to take this step for themselves. Additionally, you could suggest they engage in self-care to overcome any negative feelings they may still have. Changing their diet, exercising, and making time to do the things they love are all important in rebuilding self-esteem and moving forward.
Know someone currently affected by domestic violence? Here’s what you can do
While some people are able to escape domestic violence, many others are still in the throes of it. If you’re concerned someone you know is currently being abused and you’re not sure how to approach the situation, heed the advice of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. Know the warning signs, but also know you can’t “save” someone from their situation.
What you can do, however, is empower them to make the decision to leave for themselves. Support them, be a listening ear, and never judge them — even if they choose to stay with their abuser. If they don’t leave a potentially dangerous situation right away, help them make a safety plan.