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My friend’s partner is abusive

If you’re worried that your friend is in an abusive relationship, it can be hard to know what to do or say. Here’s some information that may help.

Young person being grabbed by the arm by a hand, looking back fearfully over their shoulder

How can I tell if my friend is in an abusive relationship?

It’s important to pay attention to the warning signs.

Your friend may be in an abusive relationship if their partner engages in some or all of these behaviours:

  • Accusations of flirting or being unfaithful
  • Controlling finances
  • Controlling what they wear
  • Humiliating them (especially in front of people)
  • Monitoring what they are doing, including reading emails and messages
  • Discouraging or preventing them from seeing friends and family
  • Threatening to hurt them or those they care for, including pets
  • Physically assaulting them (hitting, biting, slapping, kicking, pushing)
  • Yelling at them
  • Threatening to use a weapon against them
  • Constantly comparing them with other people
  • Constantly criticising their intelligence, mental health and appearance

“Victims of abuse may not recognise the risk of violence or might minimise it. They may feel it is all in their head, not as bad as they imagine it to be, or that it’s their own fault.” – Amanda, Kids Helpline Counsellor

Red flags

The risk of significant violence is increased if the following red flags are present:

  • Recent separation, especially in the last 3 months – this is because the highest risk times are: just before leaving; just as the person leaves; and immediately after leaving an abusive relationship
  • Patterns of coercion in the relationship – this can include assaults, threats, humiliation and intimidation to harm, punish or frighten
  • Stalking, including cyberstalking
  • Non-lethal strangulation
  • Sexual assault

Having the conversation – what to say and do

People are more likely to confide in a trusted friend for support.

It can be hard to know what to do or say, but here are some things that can help:

Listen openly, without interrupting.

Explore support options – this can help you understand if they have professional supports.

Validate and normalise, e.g. “Talking about this must be really difficult. It’s normal to feel confused.”

Ask questions, e.g. “How are things between you and your partner?”, “I’ve noticed changes in you, like bruises. How did these happen?”

Explain that what they’ve described sounds like an abusive relationship and that this behaviour is not ok, e.g. “It’s not ok you have experienced this and no one deserves to be treated this way.”

Support them to access professional support – you’re not a counsellor and aren’t expected to have all the answers.

If you think a friend is in immediate or significant danger, call 000.

If they are safe at the moment, but you have serious concerns about their future safety, contact 1800 RESPECT.

“We can sometimes get caught up in the need to say the ‘right thing’. What you say to your friend doesn’t matter as much as your genuine connection. If in doubt, you can’t go wrong with simply listening and expressing concern.” – Amanda, Kids Helpline Counsellor

Having the conversation – things to avoid

Some things can shut down the conversation. Try to avoid doing and saying these things:

Filling in the story/making assumptions, e.g. “Did they kick you?”

Asking too many questions or pressuring for details

Expressing anger at the abuser

Confronting the abuser (as this can make things worse)

Making promises you can’t keep, e.g. “I won’t tell anyone.”

Questions or statements that might make them feel they are to blame, such as, “Did you scream for help?”

A person who is being abused can take steps to try to avoid violence, but they cannot stop the violence.

The only person who can stop the violence is the abuser.

Seek support

Abusers can control their behaviour.

They choose who they abuse, when and where they abuse. They are able to stop abusing when it benefits them. 

When it comes to violence, they can also choose to harm in ways that aren’t easily visible and don’t always leave marks. 

Abuse thrives on secrecy. But abuse rarely resolves without intervention, as abusers want it to be kept secret so they can keep abusing.

If you are supporting a friend who has asked you to keep abuse secret, it can be hard to talk to someone else about it, as you may be worried about betraying their trust. There may also be limits to what professional supports can do if your friend is not willing or able to seek support. 

Fortunately, you can seek support anonymously or confidentially, on the best way to support your friend. You can contact Kids Helpline or 1800 RESPECT.

Look after yourself

Supporting a friend who is being abused might impact on your own mental health.

Some people may even experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of supporting a friend who is unsafe. 

Make sure you self-care, practice coping strategies that work for you, and seek support if needed. Your wellbeing is important too!

If you are worried about a friend, we’re here to help

No matter how helpless or confused you might feel, Kids Helpline can listen and support you.

Give us a call, start a WebChat or send us an email anytime, for any reason.

This content was last reviewed 10/06/2020

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