Someone you care about may be experiencing domestic abuse

Questions and strategies to help you have a supportive conversation when someone you care about may be experiencing domestic abuse.

This is one of a series of topics in the Supportive conversation library. Review the guidelines including what to do if you are concerned for another’s safety before engaging in the conversation.

What do you notice?

You notice that someone you care about might be experiencing domestic abuse. Maybe you notice they’re more reserved or distant than they used to be. Perhaps they cancel engagements at the last minute or drop out of activities they usually enjoy. In conversation, they express a lack of control over aspects of their life and feel sad or less confident. Maybe they appear anxious or nervous when away from their partner, or often have bruises or injuries.

What do you need to understand?

Domestic abuse is about control, whether it’s through violence or psychological manipulation. Some examples of control are having to always ask permission from the partner to engage in activities or social events, tracking communication or movement, or having little access to money. Noticing that an individual has little control over their life could be a sign that they’re being abused in some way. If they’re being abused, their world is likely very lonely and filled with fear. Victims often feel no one will believe them, so reaching out and demonstrating concern is very helpful for them to know that someone notices them.

What do you need to consider?

Victims of domestic abuse often feel alone and that no one will believe or support them. If you’re going to have a conversation with someone about potential abuse, be sure to leave enough time so you don’t  cut them off. They might have conflicted feelings as a result of talking about their partner, and the conversation could go in many directions while they share how they feel. Listening and offering assurances of belief, such as “I believe you” and “this is not your fault,” are helpful when someone first opens up about potential abuse. Be sure to check in frequently with someone who has opened up about potential abuse as it is a vulnerable time for them.

Engaging in a supportive conversation

Have the right mindset

Come into the conversation from a supportive place. Watch out for your hidden agenda, such as wanting to fix or influence the individual. Avoid “you” statements, such as “you always do…”. They often make the person feel judged or invalidated. Be curious and have the mindset that you don’t know anything about their experiences.

Questions to check your mindset:

  • What are my assumptions about this situation?
  • How will I keep my assumptions out of the conversation and be supportive?
  • What do I hope to achieve by having this conversation?
  • How can I keep my desires for an outcome from interfering with my ability to be supportive?

Notice

Notice changes in behaviour that aren’t typical for the person and ask about them. Don’t add your assumptions or opinions about why those changes may be  happening. If you’re wrong, the person may be discouraged from continuing the conversation.

Examples of “noticing” conversation starters:

  • “I noticed that you’ve been distant lately and cancelling our meet-ups. Are you okay?”
  • “I noticed it’s hard for you to be away from your partner. Is everything okay?”

Preparing for the response

Not all supportive conversations lead to an understanding of how you can help. Remember, the goal of a supportive conversation is to understand the individual’s needs and wants and whether they’re open to assistance. The guidelines below can help prepare you to respond when the person is open or not to a discussion.

When the individual doesn’t appear open to discussion – a closed-door response:

Not everyone’s comfortable being asked how they feel or exploring reasons why they’re behaving differently. You might get avoidant responses, like “I’m fine” or “It’s none of your business.” If this is the case, you can reiterate your concern and leave an opening for them to walk into when they’re ready.

  • “I was concerned about you and wanted to ask. If you say you’re okay, I’ll trust you. If that changes, I’m here to support you if you need me.”

If the supportive conversation ends here, you should feel good that you noticed and asked about their well-being. Try not to take the response or tone personally despite the conversation not going anywhere. It takes courage to initiate these types of conversations, and it’s not your responsibility to force another to notice or change their behaviour.

When the individual appears to be open to discussion – an open-door response:

If the person confirms they feel differently or that life circumstances have changed for them, you’ve opened the door to having a supportive conversation.

The next statement might be:

  • “Tell me more. I want to better understand what you’re going through.”

Continue to follow the guidelines below for having a supportive conversation.

Continuing the conversation

Listen

Listen for where the individual feels unsupported or doesn’t have their needs met. When they’re finished speaking, confirm what you heard by rephrasing it and asking if you understand it correctly.

Examples of “listening” in the conversation include:

  • “I’m hearing that you’re worried that your partner would be mad at you if you were away too long or not spending time with them. Is that what I’m hearing?”

Highlight

Highlight strengths you see in the person. Some examples could be courage or persistence in dealing with the situation they just shared with you.

Here’s an example of “calling out strengths” in the conversation include:

  • “Thank you for trusting me to hear your concerns. Sharing this with me takes great courage. I didn’t know what it has been like for you.”

Identify

Identify what support the individual wants and connect them with relevant resources. Don’t insist on support or resources they don’t want or aren’t ready to accept.

Examples of “identifying support” in the conversation include:

  • “You’ve identified the need to seek further understanding about healthy relationships and finding your own voice, so how can I best support you at this time?”*
  • “I can support you with finding resources that might help to address this – would that be helpful?”

*Note: If there’s a limit on how you can be supportive, be specific about how you can help. The offer of support needs to be realistic and in line with your abilities and available time. Otherwise, talk about what’s realistic for both of you to do to create change in the other’s life.

Create

Create an action plan with the individual to leverage their strengths and follow up on a regular basis, adding additional resources when they’re ready. Give a clear timeline or understanding of  how you’ll be supportive.

 Here’s an example of “creating an action plan” in the conversation:

  • “I’m so glad we had this conversation. I’m here to support you and I’m concerned about your safety. I would also like to discuss a safety plan should you decide that you’re feeling unsafe and need to leave the relationship. Let’s create a plan of what you would do if that were to happen.”

Thank you for being supportive! You’ve taken the time to learn to have a conversation that lets  your loved one or friend know you notice and care about them. By showing concern, you can help them evaluate whether they should continue as is or address certain elements in their life. For some, this may be the beginning of a journey that will require the assistance of additional support services or professionals.

Additional resources

To be an effective supporter, it’s helpful to understand more of what your family member or friend’s experiencing. Check out these resources to provide more context about their experiences: