The statistics are unfortunate, but important to know: nearly half of all women (48.4%) have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime, and more than 1 in 3 women (45.6%) in the U.S. have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner. This means that, as a woman, you’re likely to have at least one friend who has had (or still has) an abusive or even violent partner.
It can be frustrating to watch a friend return to an aggressive partner, especially if you’ve been supporting her and encouraging her to leave. Many people ask why victims of domestic violence don’t just leave their partners. The psychology of survivorship in domestic violence or abuse is more complicated than it appears. Understanding the cycle of violence and what it does to your friend’s mental state of mind can help you support her through her relationship, whether she decides to stay or go.
The Cycle of Domestic Violence
Many abusive relationships follow a pattern of repetition — the cycle of domestic violence — that can be easy to spot from the outside, but difficult to break , especially as the victim. There are three phases to the cycle:
- Tension building: This is when the victim may feel that they have to walk on eggshells to keep the abuser from exploding. The victim may not know what will bring the tension to a head, but they feel their partner’s anger under the surface. During this period, as a friend, you may observe the victim is acting as if she is on her best behavior to please the abusive partner.
- Abusive incident: Unfortunately, the common breaking point for the building tension is an abusive incident. Often the abuser will physically lash out at the victim, although this can also happen in psychologically abusive relationships as well. The abuser may call the victim names, humiliate them, deny the victim access to money or other necessities, or make a threat of violence.
- Honeymoon phase: After the tension has broken, the abuser may try to work to “make up” for the abuse. This can include profuse apologies or promises to change, extravagant gifts, or extra affection in an attempt to get the victim to stay in the relationship. Once the victim has agreed to try again and the cycle of abuse starts over.
It can be frustrating as an outside observer to see your friend continue through this cycle. The hard part for the victim is that, from the inside, the honeymoon phase holds so much promise. They can see that the abuser knows his behavior is wrong and that he wants to change it. However, abusers often do not change their behavior, and the only way to end the abuse is for the victim to leave.
The Most Dangerous Time is Leaving
What many observers may not understand is that the most dangerous time for a victim of domestic abuse or violence is when she leaves. Staying with an abuser is a complex decision that many women make for a multitude of reasons. However, one of the most common reasons is that the victim knows her abuser, and knows the extent to which he will go to keep his control. In fact, studies show that 75% of women who were killed by an intimate partner were murdered when they attempted to leave or after they left a relationship.
A victim can be confronted with many very real fears when she decides to leave, including:
- The abuser becoming more violent
- The abuser turning his anger on her children, pets, or other loved ones
- Losing custody of children
- Lack of means to fully support herself, such as her own bank account or home
- Embarrassment from friends or family learning about her problems
Remember that a victim of domestic violence is not a weak person. Abusers work hard through manipulation and coercion to destroy a victim’s self-esteem and question their abilities. The abuser craves the power that physical violence or emotional abuse gives them over the victim. They will work hard to keep the victim under their power, and a victim may not be able to escape it without help.
It can be difficult to support a friend who stays with an abusive partner, but it’s important to understand that your support may be her lifeline.
How to Help a Friend in an Abusive Relationship
Sometimes watching a friend go through an abusive relationship can make you feel helpless. However, it’s important to know that your support can be their lifeline.
The best thing you can do for a victim of abuse is listen to them. The abuser is probably trying to isolate them and make them feel completely alone. Being a receptive listener can help the victim analyze her circumstances and create an exit strategy. Remember listening does not mean you condone the relationship. Continue to tell your friend that you support her even if you don’t support the abuse.
Beyond listening and understanding, you can offer very real help to your friend in the following ways:
- Help her make a safety plan, whether she’s staying or leaving
- Encourage her to hang out with you and other supportive friends and family members to remind her she has support
- Provide her with supplies or other resources to the extent that you can
- Encourage her to talk to professionals or get resources at https://www.thehotline.org/ or by calling 1-800-799-7233
Remember that you cannot “rescue” your friend from her relationship. She has to make decisions for herself. You can help by providing pathways to safety and plenty of support, no matter what she decides.