How can you help?
If you have a friend who’s in an emotionally abusive relationship and now wants to leave, you may be tempted to run around with sparklers and a party hat. But as wonderful as this news is, there’s a question that arises when your friend decides to take this wonderful step forward: how can you help? Emotional abuse doesn’t leave bruises, but it’s still dangerous, damaging and horribly traumatic. According to Martha Brockenbrough of Women’s Health, emotional abuse “can range from verbal abuse—yelling, blaming, shaming, and name-calling—to isolation, intimidation, and threats. It also commonly shows up as stonewalling and dismissing, behaviors that make victims feel alone and unimportant.” And just because you can’t see the scars of emotional abuse, doesn’t mean that they’re not present: it can leave survivors with post-traumatic stress disorder or other lasting mental health issues.
Your friend’s desire to leave their abusive relationship should be encouraged; but leaving an emotionally abusive relationship is not simple, and figuring out how to best be a supportive friend at this time becomes complicated, as well.
As a friend in this situation, you will likely rapidly discover that, like the relationship itself, the break-up may be terrifying and brutally upsetting. If you’re in this situation, I sympathize deeply, but I also applaud you for wanting to help your friend — your support is crucial. Fortunately, there are things that anybody with a loved one or friend in this position can do to help ease the situation, whether it’s offer practical help, emotional support, or help them access professional advice. Here are seven ways you can offer support to your friend while they try to claw their way out.
1. Recognize That They May Not Listen To You
One of the most important things to understand when supporting your friend is that the break-up of an emotionally abusive relationship is not at all the same thing as the break-up of a relatively healthy one. Emotional abusers typically make sure that their partners are entrenched on a variety of levels, and make the process of breaking free stupendously hard. As “Today” relationship contributor Gail Saltz notes, emotional abusers use a wide variety of manipulative tactics to convince the survivor “that you cannot live without him, and because he has undermined your confidence and feelings of self-worth, you believe it.”
So recognize that the break-up may be very long and drawn-out, and that the well-meaning advice you usually give to friends going through for break-ups (“just leave them/find somebody else/get out of this city for a while”) will likely not apply. Many people in emotionally abusive relationships leave more than once, only to return due to their partner’s manipulation.
This pattern of break and return may also mean that they “go back” on earlier promises to leave, and may ignore or not fully listen to suggestions that this was a dangerous idea. Your friend is caught in an exceptionally powerful hold, and that may be very frustrating for you as you watch their two-steps-forward-one-step-back journey towards freedom. Be aware of this.