What is domestic violence? It’s not just hitting or slapping, punching or pinching. Domestic violence occurs when one person in a relationship uses a pattern of physical, emotional or sexual abuse to gain control over their victim. An abusive individual may be:
- Isolating a survivor.
- Controlling a survivor’s money.
- Gaslighting, or making the survivor think they imagine the abuse.
- Stalking and using spyware to monitor survivor movements.
- Hiding medication or refusing to administer medication.
- Taking legal documents or threatening to report a survivor to ICE.
- Refusing to take a survivor to the hospital or doctor.
- Ruining birth control or harming a pregnancy.
- Threatening to “out” LGBTQ survivors to family or employers.
- Threatening to remove the children if the relationship ends.
However, actions such as these can escalate. In the past 10 years, 223 Washingtonians died from domestic violence-related homicide. Other negative outcomes of domestic violence include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, thoughts of suicide, developing drug or alcohol addictions, or loss of a job, home and children.
Here’s what to do if you suspect or know someone is experiencing domestic violence.
How do I know if a friend is in a violent relationship? Often, there are warning signs. For example, a friend might receive rapid-fire texts or calls from a partner. Or you or a family member are being tracked by a partner, says Doris O’Neal, director of YWCA’s Domestic Violence Services.
A normally happy, outgoing or talkative friend may suddenly become withdrawn or avoid others. “They’re scared. If they tell somebody about the abuse, that person may call the police,” says Da’Vonya Jackson, who works to advocate for and house domestic violence survivors at the YWCA.
Of course, there can be more obvious evidence, Jackson says, such as black eyes, bruises, long shirts or coats that cover arms.
Children may show signs, too, O’Neal says, such as revealing fear about a parent, or outright disclosing that one parent is hurting another.
Remember that while women are the primary survivors of domestic violence, men can be survivors as well; 1 in 25 men have been injured by an intimate partner.
What not to do. Don’t say: “Just leave,” or, “If he’s doing all that, why stay with him?”
“Don’t blame her or him for the situation or the abusive relationship,” O’Neal says. An abusive person successfully isolates a survivor, she notes, when the survivor feels blamed and judged for her decisions (or lack of options), and can’t seek out help when necessary.
Remember that immediately involving the police may raise new, valid concerns. For example, immigrant survivors worry that calling the police may lead to problems such as deportation or child separation. Black women may be concerned that a call to the police could put her partner in immediate danger, or she may end up being the accused, O’Neal says.
People of color, transgender people, gender nonconforming people, refugees, immigrants, indigenous people, and people with disabilities are all at higher risk for domestic violence, and may face more barriers to assistance.
What to do. Pull your friend or family aside into a more private, one-on-one setting, and don’t confront or assume, Jackson says.
Say something like, “I’ve noticed you’re more isolated lately. If you need to talk, you can talk to me,” Jackson says. Small conversations like this can open the door, and increase comfort in sharing when they’re ready. After all, isolation may also be the result of depression or another mental health challenge.
“As a friend, just listen, validate her or his feelings, be nonjudgmental, be compassionate,” O’Neal says.
If someone discloses domestic violence, ask: “What do you want to do?” and “What do you need to be safe?”
If she wants to leave. Make a safety plan with the survivor, O’Neal says. They won’t be able to “just leave,” without a plan for important documents, a safe location and their children’s well-being. That may mean paying for a hotel or bus ticket out of town, or helping your friend reach a shelter, O’Neal says.
Listen to the survivor’s description or fears of what might happen next. The survivor “knows the aggressor better than we do,” Jackson says. “This person has to go back home, and you’re not going with them.”
How to support a friend through the process. When fleeing a domestic violence situation, a survivor may simply be thinking about reaching a safe destination. If a survivor can’t find housing, they may need to choose between staying with their abuser or becoming homeless.
To support your friend, Jackson suggests collecting some resources and phone numbers offering assistance with housing, mental health, food, legal aid, clothing and childcare, including the following resources:
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE)
- 211 for urgent community support and referrals
- YWCA’s support groups for women of color, African American, Spanish-speaking women; other local survivor support groups for refugee, Jewish, LGBT or indigenous people
However, a friend or family member might tell you about the abuse or even leave, then return to the abusive partner. “That’s what she needs to do right now,” O’Neal says.
Although you might imagine “saving” your family member or friend, that’s probably not going to happen. She didn’t fall in love overnight, and won’t fall out of love overnight, O’Neal says. It takes time to accept that the cycle of abuse always includes promises to improve—and promises broken, over and over again.
If and when a survivor is determined to leave, be available, with a listening ear, compassionate heart and a phone number for help.
YWCA Seattle King Snohomish is on a mission to empower women, eliminate racism and strengthen communities. If you’re interested in volunteering to support domestic violence survivors, or are curious about YWCA’s domestic violence programs, visit our website.