Helping a Family Member or Friend Who Experiences Domestic Violence

Dr. Alison Jackson-Wood

By Dr. Alison Jackson-Wood, Executive Director of Bethesda House

“I thought the only way my daughter was going to get out of that relationship was in a body bag,” a mother of a Bethesda House resident said.

Knowing that a loved one is suffering in an abusive relationship is like watching a fire get out of control in the house next door and being unable to do a thing about it.

Yet help is possible, if we know what to do.

To begin, however, families and friends have to acknowledge there is a problem.

According to the Domestic Violence Resource Centre of Victoria, Australia (DVRCV), too often, families and friends dismiss the abuse because physical harm is minimal or does not seem to be part of the dynamic. Indifference increases the likelihood that the victim will not be forthcoming when he or she really needs help. Listening to the victim is the beginning of lending support.

Janice Miller is the director of client service of House of Ruth Maryland (not to be confused with the House of Ruth in Dothan, Alabama). Miller states that it is important to avoid blaming the victim for the abuse. In any relationship, partners can disagree and occasionally one person is more at fault than the other.

Abuse, however, is different because it really does not matter what the victim does or says, the issue is about the abuser needing to dominate. Therefore, shame and blame must never enter the conversation when a victim gives information about an abusive partner.

It is also not helpful to criticize the partner, although the listener’s reaction may, understandably, be to do so.

This often puts the victim who is trying to sort out feelings and an already-complicated scenario on the defensive.

Instead, says the DVRCV, keep the focus on the victim and apply a sensitive approach. A statement such as “I’m worried about you” or “you seem unhappy” can open the door to asking “how can I help?”

What does help look like? offers a list of 25 actions to support victims. Strategies include:

Building up the victim’s self-esteem, which is often diminished as part of the emotional abuse.

Gently helping the victim recognize the abuse by identifying the behavior of the abuser as unacceptable, rather than labeling the abuser or name-calling.

Setting up a code word or phrase if the victim is in an emergency situation

Helping the victim prepare to leave by making copies of identification documents and birth certificates, putting together a travel bag with clothing and essentials to have ready if needed, setting aside some funds for the victim to access after leaving, and identifying places the victim can go when he or she is ready and able to leave.

Families and friends are key to helping a victim become a survivor. For more information, feel free to contact Bethesda House at 334-977-1005 or YAP Adult Services at 334-582-1580.