If you are a family member or a friend of a woman with children who is leaving an abusive relationship, Luke’s Place’s newest toolkit, “Supporting After Separation: A Toolkit of Legal Information and Resources for a Survivor’s Friends and Family Members” is for you.
Guiding principles in supporting a loved one who is subjected to post-separation abuse
Listening while reserving your own thoughts, opinions, and feelings can help your loved one feel more comfortable confiding in you. You may be the first person she is open with. Create a safe space and time to talk without distractions and interruptions.
Believing your loved one’s story means affirming that she is not at fault for the abuse she experienced. Abuse is often perpetrated behind closed doors, and many women do not disclose violence for fear of not being believed. Gaslighting is a frequent tactic of abusive people to make women think that the violence they lived through was in their head or their own fault. Do not minimize her experience or pain. Remember, the abusive ex-partner may have portrayed a different version of themselves to outsiders and saved their anger and control for your loved one.
Before making offers of support, ask your loved one what they need in the moment. Sometimes they might need a listening ear, and other times they might need help with the children’s pick-up and drop-off from school. Ask your loved one, “What would be the most helpful thing I can do for you right now?”
Empowering your loved one to make her own choices will enable her to regain power and control over her own life. You may wish to take on the role of advocate, protector, problem solver or coach, but it is important that your loved one leads the process of separation. This will build up her confidence, help her rediscover her voice, establish boundaries with her abusive ex-partner and allow her to trust herself again.
Offering help may look like many different things and does not require an all-or-nothing approach. Sometimes “small” or “simple” tasks can make the biggest difference in your loved one’s life. Help might be bringing over a cooked meal, babysitting the children while she works on court documents or calling and checking in with her to offer emotional support. Be patient with her and try not to offer unsolicited advice.
Last, and most importantly, take care of yourself
You will feel many different emotions when trying to support a loved one who has experienced intimate partner violence. You may feel angry, stressed, relieved, drained, helpless, and frustrated. You may even find that you have mixed emotions towards your loved one and wonder how much longer you can help. This is normal. There is no simple solution to family violence; please be gentle with yourself. Take an assessment of your own personal capacity and be honest about the level of support that you can provide.