These statistics are shocking and frightening, and if one of these statistics happens to be someone you love - a sister, a friend, a daughter - the sense of outrage, confusion and frustration you feel can be overwhelming. Few things in life are more painful than watching someone you love being hurt, humiliated or even terrorized. You want to help but wonder how you can.
To be of real help to someone who is being abused, it is essential that you avoid judgments but offer understanding. Most of us who are not in an abusive situation ask the question, "Why doesn't she just leave?" We believe we would never put up with that kind of treatment. The tendency to be critical and judgmental does not help.
Why does she stay? First and foremost, battered women do not stay in abusive relationships because they like being abused; they are not machochists. Women stay in abusive relationships for a number of important reasons: They may still love or feel responsible for their husbands or boyfriends who are often very charming or manipulative.
In attempting to help someone who is abused, it is also essential to understand the pattern abuse usually follows. Research has shown that this pattern crosses all social, economic and educational boundaries.
A 'cycle of abuse' has been identified by psychologist Lenore Walker. It begins with a buildup of tension between the couple as the abuser gets angrier and more controlling while the woman tries her best to pacify him. This build-up of tensions ends abruptly when the abuser becomes violent and attacks his partner. Battered women usually report they cannot control or predict these attacks. Severe emotional abuse usually accompanies physical abuse. The violent outburst is usually followed by the 'honeymoon stage.'
During this stage the abuser begs for forgiveness and promises never to hurt his partner again. At this time the abuser can be very warm and loving, even romantic, and often pleads desperately with her to stay. The woman often loves this side of her partner and wants to believe him, so she may convince herself that this time he means it and the abuse will not happen again. Tragically, however, the tension starts to build again, and the cycle of abuse is repeated.
Not all abuse is physically violent. Emotional and psychological abuse often hurt more than kicks or punches. An emotionally abused woman is constantly criticized, belittled and humiliated by her abusive partner. These blows to a women's spirit are devastating. Her abusive partner seldom takes responsibility for his own feelings and behaviour and blames her for the abuse. He usually tells her it is something she has done that causes the abuse. As well, he often manages to isolate her from family and friends who would support her and challenge his interpretation of the situation.
All of this erodes a woman's self-esteem and perspective to the point where she may no longer trust her own judgment. At this stage she has difficulty making decisions and loses the ability to see the reality of her predicament. By now you may have offered advice and help, only to feel helpless and frustrated when you see the abuse continue. As a result, though you want to help, you may feel there is nothing you can do. There is no doubt that it is very difficult to provide effective support to someone in an abusive relationship. The following suggestions are offered to help you in your desire to be understanding and supportive.
Offer a sympathetic ear. This is perhaps the most important thing you can do. Just talking about what's going on will probably relieve some of her confusion and isolation. Try to listen to what she has to say without rushing in with judgments or advice. Do not try to talk her out of her feelings. Instead, acknowledge that her feelings are valid and probably normal for someone in her situation. It is essential that you try to show her that you believe what she is telling you, no matter how charming her husband or boyfriend seems, and no matter how impossible it all sounds. A battered woman has been told many times that her feelings and perceptions are wrong, so when she finally tells someone what's been happening to her, it is crucial that she is believed.
Offer support and understanding. Reassure her that you realize her abuser can have his loving side and that you understand how frightened or humiliated she must feel. It will not help if you blame her or tell her she is crazy. Rather, tell her that no one deserves to be abused and that she is not responsible for how he feels and behaves.
Discuss her options. A battered woman often loses sight of what options she has so she may find it helpful if you discuss these with her. Let her know about community services that are available whether she chooses to stay or to leave the abusive situation. If she is being physically abused, remind her that assault is a crime and pressing charges has been effective in reducing the violent behaviour of battering men. Resist the temptation to take over and try to fix the situation for her. She has been controlled too much already and needs to be allowed the freedom to take action herself.
Allow her to feel safe with you. Assure her that you will keep what she says in strict confidence and will not try to force her to make drastic decisions before she is ready. You might want to suggest some protective actions, such as setting aside money for an emergency, hiding extra clothes and keys at a friend's house or asking neighbours to call the police if they hear a fight.
Respect her choices. Even if your friend or loved one makes decisions that you cannot agree with, she has the right to choose for herself, and needs to know that you respect this right. The exception to this would be if the safety of a child is at risk. If you have reason to believe her children are also being abused or traumatized, you are bound by law to report this to your provincial child protection agency. You can make your report anonymously if you wish. Keep in mind that many battering men also abuse their children, and children who witness abuse suffer almost as much as children who are themselves battered.
Don't give up on her. Because it is not unusual for a battered woman to leave and return to her abusive partner many times, she often angers and alienates those who have tried to help her. When she is finally ready and able to break free, the people who have tried to help her in the past may no longer be there for her. Do try to maintain constant support.
Learn about abuse in our society. It is important that everyone learn all they can about the roots of abuse in our society in order for effective and long lasting change to take place. The more you know and understand about abusive situations the more helpful you can be. As you read and investigate, you may begin to question some of your assumptions about family rights and responsibilities and about relationships between men and women.
Supporting a loved one who is involved in an abusive relationship can be very difficult. You may find at times you need help as well. If this is the case, it may be important for you to find a supportive person, a friend or a counsellor to talk to, especially if you feel overwhelmed or are accepting responsibility for events beyond your control. Honour your promise not to reveal the victim's identity.
An abusive situation is terrifying for the victim and frightening for you who love and care about her. It is essential to remember the reasons a battered woman stays in an abusive are complex. She does not need your judgments or criticism, and often not even your advice. What she does need is the knowledge that she is not crazy, that she is a valued human being, and that she has your love, your respect and your support.