What To Do When Someone You Love Stays In An Abusive Relationship

I’ll try to write about this with as little abject fury as possible. Yesterday morning, my Facebook feed was full of sympathetic posts about Janay Rice, some good burgeoning conversations about domestic violence and how it’s been swept under the rug and normalized by our culture — but by the afternoon more than half the conversations I saw centered around statements like “What, was she stupid?” or “Anyone with half a brain knows how a MAN should act” or “If she’s going to stay, she’s bringing it on herself.”

Did the Hulk do diaphragmatic breathing or something? What were his methods? I need to know.

I was in an abusive relationship — emotionally, verbally, physically, and sexually — for seven years. I wasn’t “stupid” during even one second of that time. You call Janay Rice stupid, you call me stupid, and you call the other quarter of women in America who experience domestic violence in their lifetimes stupid. My feeling on all of you who are calling Janay Rice stupid for staying is this: If I’m going to speak out on something, I’m going to do it in order to help people, to be constructive. What are you doing to help those of us who have experienced domestic violence? Nothing? Then keep it to yourself.

Bringing it back down. All right.

I want to talk about what you should do to help, if someone you know or love is in what you know is an abusive relationship. And I put it that way — that you know that it is — because from the inside, we have been trained by our abusers to believe that it is merely a normal relationship, and anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is just trying to tear apart your love. Yes: Even when we get hit, even when we’re raped, even when we’re intentionally publicly humiliated, we have been trained to tolerate it, trained to view it as just slip-ups, just things people do sometimes. Abusers apologize and make sweeping promises and say it was just a one-time thing, and to please stick with them, they’ll do better; then they play along for a while, and then they hurt you again and the cycle loops through over and over and over.

So I have two pieces of advice. First of all, don’t try to personally intervene (leave it to cops and social workers). Victims of domestic violence who have chosen to stay with their partners after continued abuse will get angry at you for trying to get in the middle of what, to them, is a complicated but ultimately loving relationship. Even if they understand your concern and believe that you’re coming from a good place, they will brush it off as you just not understanding and probably recede from contact with you. Because if the abuser finds out that someone is trying to interfere, the abuser will take it out on the victim, justifying it by saying that the victim is purposefully having conversations that do harm to his reputation, that she doesn’t really love him no matter how much he does for her, and that she is intentionally damaging their relationship, that she is hurting him.

The protocol in emergency rooms is to honor the wishes of domestic violence victims, because it gives them a semblance of autonomy and self-empowerment to be able to make their choices for themselves. This is a good tactic in real life, too. What made me start to re-frame my abusive relationship was the success I was having in other parts of my life: I was doing extraordinarily well in school, I had a job at which I was excelling and getting raises and increased responsibility. When I thought I needed therapy, I sought it, and found it useful. I started biking, barbell lifting, and going for jogs. I took an academic interest in street art, and, with my grades going so well, started looking at graduate programs. I cultivated a little intellectual life for myself that my ex couldn’t object to (we needed the income, and he saw my educational success as a means for greater eventual income) but also didn’t share. I was able to set goals for myself and achieve them.

Those tiny bits of self-empowerment built up over the course of years, until I started to feel like I had achieved enough to be able to respect myself after years of being told that I had absolutely no reason to respect myself. That was why I left. He refused to give me even the respect that it would take to do me a small favor, and I wanted more than that.

In the course of those years, I had several people who encouraged me to keep going after my goals: My supervisors in the bakery I worked in told me that I absolutely should take every academic opportunity I had, because at then 29 and 37 years old, they wished they’d done the same thing. My coworkers applauded my academic success, as did my professors, and my parents, when they found out about it. On the rare occasions that I was able to talk to my sisters without it raising my ex’s ire, they told me how happy they were that I was doing so well in school. My bosses praised the work I was doing and continued to give me raises.

That support can translate into social relationships, too. So, second of all, support the victim without necessarily supporting her relationship. Encourage her to do things she’s independently interested in. Help her to create space for herself within the relationship. Abusers don’t think anything of it when their partner starts, I don’t know, making soaps in her free time — but those soaps might be the only thing over which she has control in her life. The yoga she gets up early to do while he’s still asleep might be the only time she gets to spend taking care of her body. The more she pursues things that are hers and hers alone, the further she gets from depending on her abuser for her identity.

It’s a long road, but the bottom line is that if you love someone who is being abused, really love them, love them in the way that their abuser claims to but really does not, they need you around. There’s nothing you can say to convince them to leave because leaving is dangerous. But they do need to know that they have people they can count on if they do eventually choose to go.

Be that person. Don’t be the person who sits on Facebook calling her stupid. Be the person who’s always there for her, who picks her up when she tells you she wants to leave.

For the purpose of this particular essay, I used male pronouns for abusers and female pronouns for victims. This is obviously not all-inclusive: 15 percent — which is not in the least statistically insignificant — of domestic abuse victims are male. All around, domestic abuse is one of the most underreported violent crimes. If you can, tell an abused person to seek help either via the law or through organizations like the NCADV.

Rebecca Vipond Brink is a writer, photographer, and traveler. You can follow her at @rebeccavbrink or on her blog, Flare and Fade.

[Photo illustrating domestic violence via Shutterstock]