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Empathy: Supporting Someone in or after a Harmful Relationship

We don’t want our loved ones to be hurt. If someone we care about is in a harmful relationship, we want them away from the person who is hurting them. But harmful and abusive relationships are complex and for the person inside the relationship, it takes a long time to see it for what it is.

For friends and family, observing the relationship is difficult and once our loved one is safely out of the relationship, our instinct is to think, “Whew! That’s behind us”. But the survivor is going through a myriad of thoughts and emotions and they need support to get through them and heal.

I've been in an abusive relationship and I've had a boyfriend pass away after being in a motorcycle accident. I've also had friends and family who have lost a loved one. I see similarities between trying to support someone who has been in a harmful relationship and when a friend or family member loses a loved one.

When a family member or friend of someone we know passes away, we want to provide comfort, but often struggle with the right words or even say the wrong thing. The same is true when talking with survivors.

Our society tends to focus on “do what makes you feel good”. We want to be happy and want those around us to be happy. When there’s a death, we comfort, then as the other person’s sadness continues, we struggle. We don’t like seeing them sad or hurting. We understand but also want them to move on from their grief.

Likewise, after an abusive relationship is over, we're grateful and want our loved one to move on. But, the loss of a relationship, even a hurtful one, is also difficult and grief is part of the healing process.

Just as when someone loses a loved one and experiences a range of complex emotions, a survivor of an abusive relationship is going through a range of emotions, including shame, blaming themselves, and guilt. In the relationship, they walked on eggshells. They’re probably doubting themselves. What they need most are kind words and support.

The video clip from Brene Brown* we’re sharing in this post is great at explaining how to express empathy for the other person. I love that one of the things she highlights to say is, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m glad you told me”. She goes on to explain that “rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection”.

Below are a few ways you can support a survivor:

Be present. It’s okay to just sit next to the other person.

Hug them.

Hold them while they cry – for however long they need to cry.

Listen to and try to understand the other person’s perspective. Even if you don’t understand it, accept their perspective, rather than try to change it.

Don’t judge. DON’T say derogatory things about the abuser or the survivor. They likely feel shame over the relationship and talking down about the ex, the relationship, or the survivor for being in it, only makes them feel bad about themselves.

Offer support – ask them how they’re doing, invite them to do things, or try a new activity together.

Engage them - Go out for coffee, lunch, dinner, or a walk. Anything where they can connect and talk with you. Watching TV or a movie together is okay, but be aware that rather than building a connection, it may be a setting where the victim’s mind is likely to wander.

Be Positive - As you spend time together, give them a sincere compliment or say something positive to lift up your friend or family member.

Empathize – regardless of the circumstances, breakups are hard. As appropriate, express empathy for the sadness or loneliness they’re feeling.

Encourage – remind them that while healing and moving on may be hard, it will get easier. Recommend they talk with a counselor or peer support group.

Help Create a Safety Plan – If the survivor doesn’t have one already, help them think of ways to avoid their ex or keep themselves safe if their ex approaches them.

It’s difficult to watch a loved one endure harm and applaud you for supporting them as they heal. We hope these tips are helpful.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:11

Additional information:

  • For more about the shame the survivor may be feeling, please see this post.

  • And for more ways to help, please see this post.

*Brene Brown video is used under the Open Access license for RSA content.


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