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How to Help

Our instincts are to run in and help. To do anything we can to “pull” our loved one out of a harmful relationship. My parents tried talking with me, then restricting the time I could see Brock. When they saw bruises on my arms, they took me to a doctor to be checked for health conditions. With my very guarded posture, their attempts to help just made me feel like I was in trouble. And I know that walking and staying away worked because it was my decision.

If you think someone you know may be in an unhealthy or harmful relationship, below are some key ways to help them.

Discuss and teach healthy character traits Before they start to date, teach the youth in your life about healthy and unhealthy character traits in friendships. Ask them about their friendships and how the relationship makes them feel. As they get older, talk about dating. It’s helpful to let them know that all relationships can be challenging sometimes, and even ones that seem really good can suddenly change. Help them think through what they wouldn’t want to tolerate in a relationship and how they would handle it. As they start dating, ask them about the relationship and help them evaluate their feelings and if they see any warning signs. Let them know you hear them.

Express your care and support If you believe your loved one may be in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, let them know you care about them. Don’t mention your concerns yet; just be sincere and say or do kind things for them. If they’re in an emotionally or verbally abusive relationship, they probably feel like they’re walking on eggshells. They may feel embarrassed, ashamed, guilty, and/or confused from abuse such as derogatory comments, being put down or ridiculed. Their partner has probably damaged their trust in others and themselves. They need someone to lift them up. You can do so by being present, saying kind words to them, or giving them a sincere compliment (not over the top), or letting them know you enjoy spending time with them.

Share information In addition to kindness and support, share a social media post, brochure, website or news article with them. You could tell your loved one that you heard this information at a meeting and want to share it with them in case they or anyone they know ever experiences something harmful. Let them know you are there to support them.  If they start opening up, be careful not to come across as judgmental or blaming them, such as saying things like this would never happen to you. Don’t try to shame or guilt them into leaving the relationship. They’re processing a lot, and it takes courage to leave a relationship. They need time to evaluate and decide to leave.

Help them build a Safety Plan Even if they’re opening up, they may not be ready to leave. When they seem receptive, help them build a safety plan. For example, help them think of statements they can say or how they can avoid being alone with the other person. Talk about staying out of places that could put them at risk, such as being in the kitchen with the other person (because of knives and other sharp objects).  If they seem comfortable, ask them if there are other places or situations they feel uneasy with the other person and help them brainstorm how to avoid or handle those situations.

Be patient This is hard because you want your loved one to be safe. The person being abused must be the one to decide to leave. It’s unlikely that anything someone else says to keep them away will work. And if they feel pressured to leave the relationship, they’re likely to doubt their decision and go back.

Break up safety When they’re ready to leave, help them extend their safety plan. The breakup and up to two years after is the most dangerous time for the survivor. The abuser may threaten to hurt the survivor, themselves, or others. It’s important to break up in a public place or even over the phone. They need to let someone know their plans. In the days, weeks, and months after the break-up, the survivor must create new routes to avoid running into their ex. They should be mindful of who is around them and watchful if they’re alone.

Support their journey to rebuild healthy relationships When they leave, they’ll need support. They’ve been isolated and need to rebuild friendships and healthy relationships. They need to re-engage in things they enjoy doing. The other person was a big part of their lives, and, at times, they may miss their ex. As they heal, they’ll likely see parts of the abuse and the relationship through a new lens. Those thoughts are hard and take time to process and heal. You can help them by asking how they’re doing, doing an activity they enjoy, or listening if they want to talk.


Read more in our post about healthy and unhealthy dating traits.

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