February 20, 2019

How to Support a Loved One in an Abusive Relationship

How To Help A Friend Experiencing Domestic Violence

When your friend or family member is in an abusive relationship, it can be incredibly difficult to navigate how to support them. Between keeping yourself safe and healthy, not wanting to make the situation worse, and feeling uncertain of your place in the situation, it can be a difficult process. Our advocates sat down to discuss some ways to support a loved one in an abusive relationship.

How To Help A Friend Brochure

What is intimate partner violence?

Intimate partner violence a pattern of behavior in which one person establishes and maintains power and control over another person. Abuse can be physical, mental, emotional, sexual, financial, spiritual, and/or cultural abuse. Victims or perpetrators can be men, women, or people who identify as nonbinary. The relationship does not need to be domestic, meaning the couple does not need to live in the same household as one another. “Intimate” implies there is currently, or at one time was, a romantic relationship, distinguishing it from other types of family violence.

How do I support a loved one experiencing IPV?

No matter how far fetched their story may seem, it is important to believe your loved one’s story without judgment. It is important to not tell survivors what to do or how to get out of the situation; don’t force what you would do in the situation on them. Victims of intimate partner violence already have lost much of their power and control and they need their friends and family to empower them to make their own decisions.

It can take a survivor of intimate partner violence on average 7 times to leave their abuser. To support your friend, don’t get upset if they don’t leave or if they go back to their abuser. Holding an open-door policy for support while maintaining healthy boundaries is the best way to support your loved one. Remember, the survivor is the expert of their own life. Brainstorming ways to stay safe is a helpful way to provide support.

What do I say to support a friend or family member experiencing abuse?

If your friend or family member is acting out of the ordinary when they are around their partner, consider using phrases like “I noticed” or “I wonder” to begin the conversation. It is important to do your best to have these conversations in person, as their phone could be monitored by the perpetrator and text messages or emails could be unsafe for the victim. Some great conversation starters, courtesy of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV) include:

  • Is this relationship energizing or draining for you?
  • What happens if you disagree?
  • What does arguing look like in your relationship?
  • How do you both apologize to each other?

These questions can help begin a conversation to allow the victim to share what they are experiencing. Saying something is much healthier and more helpful than leaving the situation alone out of fear of saying the wrong thing. Saying something could plant the seed of awareness in the victim. We must normalize discussing the health of our relationships to remove the stigma surrounding domestic violence.

How do I keep myself safe?

Remember, this is a situation of violence, a threat of violence, and/or a situation of abusive behavior. It is imperative to keep yourself safe. When an airplane is crashing, you must put on your own breathing device first before assisting others. Checking in with yourself, sharing your experience with a trusted friend or family member without gossiping, or speaking to a counselor all may be great options for you.

In situations of violence, the victim needs empathy, rather than sympathy, to feel supported.  Brené Brown’s metaphor for empathy versus sympathy is a helpful tool for understanding how to emotionally support loved ones.

One thing advocates warn against is treating the situation with tough love. An abusive relationship is not like an addiction; cutting the victim off will only isolate them more and help the perpetrator achieve their goal. Maintaining contact and healthy boundaries are the best ways to continue support to your loved one.

In addition, you do not need to be a victim of domestic violence to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline. They are open 24/7, so if you are feeling in need of support, please consider giving them a call.

Educate Yourself on the Cycle of Violence

It is difficult to understand why victims don’t simply leave their abusers in situations of violence. Understanding how intimate partner violence works can help you empathize with your loved one in this situation. Please see our Power and Control Wheel to understand what intimate partner violence looks like and its cyclical nature. The Power and Control Wheel was developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Program in 1980, from the experience of survivors in Duluth, Minnesota who had been abused by their male partners. It has been translated into over 40 languages and adapted over the years, resonating with with the experience of survivors worldwide. Please see our webpage on what intimate partner violence looks like for more information, or consider hosting a free Intimate Partner Violence training at your business/organization. Please contact our Education and Outreach Coordinator, Nicole Nimens, to schedule a training at nicolen@ywcaspokane.org.

Learn More about Intimate partner Violence


Talking to a friend or family member who shows abusive behavior

Due to grant restrictions, YWCA Spokane can only provide services to victims and survivors of intimate partner violence. However, we have provided some resources that may help you talk to a friend or family member who shows abusive behavior.

You can love someone who has bad behaviors. It can be difficult to talk to a friend who you notice is showing abusive behavior toward their partner. First and foremost, we encourage you to keep yourself safe. Don’t cross any boundaries that would put you in any sort of danger. If you feel comfortable talking with your loved one about their behaviors, check out WSCADV’s Conversation Cards for easy ways to start a conversation. Here are some examples of conversation starters and tips.

  • Hey, you two! How’s it going? Inserting yourself into the conversation decreases isolation for the victim. Opportunities for abuse can arise when the victim is alone. Being around the couple helps decrease the amount of isolation and opportunity for some abusers.
  • You need to stop. Making it clear that you won’t tolerate abusive behavior can have the power to influence the perpetrator.
  • Don’t use the word “abuser.” By creating the person’s identity around their abuse, you could make the perpetrator angry, and possibly put you in a dangerous position.
  • “Sometimes I’ve noticed…” By leading with observation, you allow yourself to be a listener which could allow the perpetrator to understand their behavior. Be specific, share your feelings, and avoid global statements like “you never,” or “you always.”
  • If they become defensive switch to positive notes to change the feeling of the conversation. Abusers often make excuses or manipulate situations, so keep on track but try to keep the conversation deescalated.
  • If you become scared, end the conversation. Let the victim know, if safe for them, how you are feeling. Keep your safety a priority.
  • Remember, it’s not your job to change someone. 


Conversation Cards


If your friend or family member is in a situation of intimate partner violence and you are unsure how to help, please call 509-326-CALL (2255) for help.

By: Olivia Moorer

Related Posts

Jun 24, 2024 Jul 23 @ 1:45 pm

Celebrating Success in Gun Safety Amidst Recent Supreme Court Decision

I am grateful to be able to share some good news with you today about one of the ways we’re collaborating with law enforcement to prevent senseless violence and protect survivors.

Jun 20, 2024 Jul 23 @ 1:45 pm

2024 Pride Re-Cap

YWCA Spokane joins thousands in Spokane for the 2024 Pride parade and festival.