When your Friend is in an Abusive Relationship
*All names have been changed in this story to respect the privacy of the victim. *
According to The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. This means that we all know someone that has been impacted by interpersonal violence.
For me, it was a close friend during my freshman year of college. When *Pam first started dating *Matt he seemed very attentive, always concerned that she made it home safely and stopping by the apartment just to say “Hi, I miss you”. However, over the next several months Pam no longer joined us for late night snack runs, gym sessions, coffee dates, club outings or roommate dinners like she had previously. We joked that wherever she was, Matt wouldn’t be far behind.
Since Matt was Pam’s first serious boyfriend, my friends and I initially chalked it up to infatuation. But one night, Matt came to a party and saw Pam talking to a male friend of ours and grabbed her by the wrist and dragged her back to our apartment. He grabbed her wrist so forcefully that she woke up bruised the next morning. Naturally, Matt apologized saying that he “lost his cool” and that it would never happen again. Over the next few months, we watched as Pam became more introverted and her self-confidence withered away. It seemed that nearly every word that came out of Matt’s mouth was a critique of Pam.
As a college sophomore, I don’t think I would have used the term “domestic violence” to describe Pam and Matt’s relationship, I’m not sure I even knew what that was – but I knew the relationship wasn’t healthy and that Pam deserved better.
On the rare occasions that Matt wasn’t around, we actively listened to each of Pam’s stories, keeping our emotions to a minimum – as best as possible. We knew that if we all criticized Matt, then Pam would feel attacked and ashamed, which would likely lead to her distancing herself from us even more – so we were careful to use neutral language when discussing his actions. We focused on expressing our concerns for Pam’s well-being and safety.
I could feel Pam’s shame and disappointment radiating through her weak smile as we constantly reassured her that none of Matt’s actions were her fault. Pam frequently made excuses for Matt’s behavior, but we kept firm in our reassurance, stating that abuse (whether physical or emotional) is never okay. We wanted Pam to know that she wasn’t alone in this situation and that we would always be there to support her, but we also wanted her to know that she deserved better.
After what seemed like countless nights of biting our tongues and supporting our friend, Pam finally decided to break up with Matt and we were right there by her side. We found a counselor on campus who specialized in relationship issues, we helped block Matt’s phone number and social media accounts, and we even made sure that Pam was never alone on campus. We even opened our apartments to Pam so she was always surrounded by positivity and support. Fortunately, Pam broke things off with Matt before there was significant physical violence, but it is always important develop a safety plan in case things escalate.
I wish I could tell you that Pam and Matt never got back together, but that’s not the case. Despite all of the support and affirmation we provided to Pam, she and Matt are still together – even now, two years after college graduation.
At first I felt like we had failed Pam in some way, but after working with the YWCA I have learned that, on average, it takes a victim 7 to 10 attempts to leave their abuser. I’ve learned that the question “So why don’t they just leave?” does not have a simple answer. I’ve learned that, even if you do everything “right” your friend may still choose to stay.
At the YWCA, we refer to victims who have come into our shelter more than once as “HOPE clients”, because we have hope that one day they will permanently leave their abuser. While Pam and I have drifted apart, I have “hope” that one day, when she’s ready, she will decide to leave and find a network of support, like the one offered by the YWCA.
So what should you do if you suspect that a friend may be going through a domestic violence situation?
1. Talk to them.
2. Be direct.
3. Do not judge them.
4. Start by believing!
5. Focus on supporting them and building their self-confidence.
6. Help them develop or keep up outside contacts.
7. Be patient.
8. Do not push them to leave or criticize them for staying.
9. Safety Plan!
10. Provide information. The YWCA-SHR’s 24-hour hotline number is 757-251-0144.
This blog post was written by a YWCA staff member.