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What to Do When Your Friend Is in an Abusive Relationship


The shock of finding out that your friend is in an abusive relationship might make you feel incapable of giving her the support she needs. Thankfully, there are many resources to help both you and your friend get through this. We asked experts for the telling signs that you should be worried about your friend’s relationship as well as the steps you should take if her SO’s behavior is unacceptable.

How to tell if your friend’s relationship is abusive

There are many signs that could tip you off that your friend’s relationship is abnormal and harmful. Jessica Ladd-Webert, LPC, director of the Office of Victim Assistance at the University of Colorado Boulder, lists some of the signs of an abusive relationship:

  • Your friend’s partner constantly puts her down.
  • Your friend gives up on things that are important to her because of her relationship, such as school, family, friends or hobbies.
  • Her partner gets overly angry and has unpredictable mood swings.
  • Your friend is embarrassed by her partner’s behavior towards her.
  • Her partner makes all the decisions in their relationship and is overly controlling.
  • Her partner reads your friend’s messages and calls her very frequently to check up on her.
  • Your friend’s SO manipulates her with guilt, insults and/or threats.
  • Her SO threatens to harm her, him/herself and/or others.
  • Her partner destroys your friend’s property.
  • Her partner threatens or harms her pets.
  • Her partner harms your friend physically, by pushing, shoving, slapping or hitting her.
  • Her partner forces her into unwanted sexual activity.

If you notice any of these signs, you should talk to your friend. Then, you two can work through it together.

Rebecca*, a senior collegiette, saw some of these signs. “My friend Kira* went to school a little ways away from me, so I never even met the guy,” Rebecca says. “All I knew for sure was that he was into some pretty scary drugs and … had a lot of anger management issues, and she saw the brunt of that.”

How to approach her if she hasn’t told you

Even if you have noticed that your friend’s relationship is harming her, it’s possible that she is either denying it or hasn’t realized it herself. The right thing to do is to “express concern and empower your friend to make her own decisions,” advises Denisha A. Champion, a counselor at the Wake Forest University Counseling Center. “A person may not realize that they are being abused, may feel very in love with their abuser or feel too embarrassed to tell anyone about what is happening for fear that they are just imagining it.”

This was – and still is – the case for a friend of Ashley*, a sophomore collegiette. “[My friend’s boyfriend] was very insecure, jealous and did not trust my friend at all,” Ashley says. Her friend spent most of her year in her dorm talking to her boyfriend, did not meet anyone new and always defended her partner when Ashley and her other friends tried to warn her about him.

In order to help your friend realize what’s happening, you have to reassure her that you are on her side. Tell her that you’re worried about her and that she deserves better treatment. “Be specific,” Ladd-Webert says. “Avoid putting down her partner’s whole personality. Say, ‘When so-and-so insults you in front of us, I get worried,’” for example.

Don’t make any accusations, and don’t act like you know exactly what the situation is like. Instead, make sure to listen, because “your friend may be confused about her relationship,” Ladd-Webert says. “Use 'I' statements and avoid telling her what to do; make observations about what you are seeing and hearing.”

You should find out the resources that are available to your friend and suggest them to her, but, most importantly, you should “avoid taking control of the situation,” Ladd-Webert says. “Talk with a confidential counselor or advocate who understands the dynamics of intimate partner abuse.”

Finally, don’t forget about your own well-being, because “it can be very hard to see someone you care about in this kind of relationship, especially if they go back and forth a lot,” Ladd-Webert says. Use your school’s counseling center for advice for what you should do for your friend, but also to helpyou stay strong in this difficult situation.

How to react if your friend tells you about her abusive relationship

The best thing to do if your friend comes to you for help is to “listen actively and be supportive,” says Abbey L. Carter Logan, a clinical counselor at the Ohio State University Counseling and Consultation Service. “Take a non-judgmental attitude and just let your friend talk to you so she knows that she can trust you. Let her know that you are there for her if she needs to talk or if she feels unsafe.”

Additionally, and although this might seem intuitive, you should always make a point to believe your friend, “even if you personally know the partner and are shocked to learn that [he or she] might be engaging in abusive behaviors,” Champion says.

Your friend is much more likely to downplay the abuse she is experiencing than she is to make it up. “[Kira] told me that her boyfriend would go into a fit of rage, but she always insisted that it was because he cared about her,” Rebecca. “She never eluded to the fact that he would hit her.”

You have legitimate reasons to be angry with your friend’s partner, especially if you knew and trusted him or her, but “do not try to take on the abusive partner yourself or try to get between [your friend and her SO],” Carter Logan advises. “This has the potential to isolate your friend further and will make it more difficult for her to talk with you in the future.”

Finally, encourage your friend to seek out support, and make sure she knows the resources that are available to help her on and off campus. Check out the next section to find out where to go.

Which resources should you and your friend turn to?

You and anyone else your friend has confided in are her first resources; don’t underestimate how much you can do for her. Even if she refuses to go to counseling at first, your ongoing support and understanding could eventually change her mind. “If informal support, like friends and family, respond in a positive, supportive way, this will increase the likelihood that the person in the abusive relationship will seek formal support,” Ladd-Webert explains.

After the summer when Kira reported her boyfriend's abusive behavior to Rebecca, both girls went back to their respective schools. “All I felt I could do was insist that she break up with him and report his behavior with the school,” Rebecca says. After many arguments between the two friends, Kira finally broke things off with her abusive partner and obtained a school-issued restraining order against him. When you seek formal support for you and your friend, a counselor might suggest you do the same and help you with the process.

Formal support refers to “a confidential advocate or counselor who is knowledgeable about the cycle of violence and abuse,” Ladd-Webert says. Thankfully, there are many such services on college campuses. Research your school’s counseling services and find out how to set up an appointment for you, your friend, or both of you. This is usually done over the phone so that you can answer a few questions before the appointment.

With that in mind, don't make an appointment for your friend without consulting her first. Many schools' counseling centers won't let you set up a session for someone else, but even if yours does, you should “avoid taking control or telling your friend in the abusive relationship what to do,” Ladd-Webert says. “She is already dealing with this in her relationship.”

Both the National Domestic Violence Hotline and The Red Flag Campaign are comprehensive websites on which you will find information about abusive relationships, a list of local counseling services and numbers to call in order to get help for you and your friend.

Depending on the seriousness of your friend’s situation, domestic violence professionals will either help her get out of her relationship or direct her to police in cases where there were threats or physical abuse.

Having a friend in an abusive relationship is a horrible situation to be in, and it’s the kind of thing we think only happens to others. Unfortunately, abuse on college campuses is common. According to the Counseling & Testing Center at the University of Oregon, 57 percent of reported abusive relationships happened in college. This is why it’s essential that you know which resources to turn to if you find yourself having to help a friend.

The good news is that your friendly support is one of the best resources for her to begin separating herself from her abusive partner. You should empower your friend, let her know that what’s happening is not her fault and encourage her to seek out professional help. You are strong and so is she; neither of you should ever forget that.

*Names have been changed.

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