When you love someone who you think might be a victim of domestic violence, it’s natural to feel scared and uncertain. What can you do to help? Is this really happening?
Maybe he’s never left bruises, as far as you know, but his anger gets intense very quickly, and he calls her names or insults her. You might witness jealousy and controlling behavior as he isolates her from family and friends. She might tell you she just needs to act differently to keep him happy. (Of course, the pronouns can vary; men, women and nonbinary people can all be abusers or victims of abuse.)
These are all signs of abuse. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns resulted in a more than 8 percent increase in reports of domestic violence in the United States. Part of the problem, besides the rise in stress, substance use and financial instability, is that victims were isolated from friends, family and peers who might have spotted signs and tried to help.
So how do you help without making matters worse? We spoke with professionals at the UNC Health Beacon Program, which provides comprehensive, coordinated care to UNC Health patients, families and employees experiencing abuse. Here are some do’s and don’ts they shared with us:
Do: Know that anyone can be a victim of domestic violence.
Domestic violence abusers and victims come in all ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, socioeconomic statuses, levels of education, religions and ethnicities, says Melinda Manning, JD, MSW, director of the UNC Health Beacon Program.
“Sometimes people don’t recognize they are victims initially,” she says. “Abusers are often charming. They make grand gestures, like bringing flowers and jewelry.”
But these and other gestures often are ways of manipulating, confusing and isolating their victims.
“People don’t abuse you on the first date, or you wouldn’t get involved with them,” Manning says.
Abuse also tends to get worse during pregnancy, in both severity and frequency. “The abuser may see the pregnancy as a threat to their control,” she says. “Whatever the reason, the health effects can be terrible.”
Do: Be aware of signs of domestic violence.
Just as every relationship is different, the type of abuse can be different, too, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Signs include criticism, jealously, intimidation, isolation and physical violence. Any of these behaviors can demonstrate that one partner is trying to establish power and control over the other.
Sometimes the victim is the last one to recognize the danger. “Other people sometimes see the abuse before the victim,” Manning says.
The abusers may apologize, or say they are doing the victim a favor by controlling the finances or who the victim sees or speaks with. Victims often don’t want to believe that they’ve let themselves get into an abusive relationship, even though it can happen to anyone. They are embarrassed to admit the problems to others or even to themselves.
Don’t: Tell a suspected domestic violence victim what they should do.
There are ways you can help—but facing your suspicions head-on may not be the best approach.
“People mean well, but sometimes the biggest mistake you can make is to tell someone what you think they should do,” Manning says. “The best thing you can do is listen, or maybe offer resources. The person won’t be able to act or prepare until they are ready to do so. And if they’re not ready to talk about it, they may cut off contact with you. That’s what the abuser wants.”
The National Domestic Violence Hotline lists many reasons that victims stay in abusive relationships, including fear of consequences, financial dependence, not wanting to disrupt the family or children’s lives, and genuine love for the abuser.
You can express your concerns and your love for the person, but don’t push them to take any specific action or tell them they’re doing something wrong.
Do: Support them as they make their own decisions.
Instead of giving advice, here are some tips Manning and UNC pediatrician Molly Berkoff, MD, MPH, suggest:
- Approach the person in a private place where the abuser can’t overhear or see you.
- Don’t text them or write down anything that an abuser might find.
- Instead of telling the person what you think they should do, “you might say something like, ‘I’m concerned about your relationship,’” Manning says. “Have examples of things you’ve seen that concern you. Then just listen. Don’t be surprised if they aren’t ready to talk about it. You’ve opened a door, and they know you care.”
- Know some resources that could help. Don’t write down a list, though. Just tell them where they can get help. Let them know that people are available to help them find shelter, get a restraining order and obtain financial assistance.
Numerous local services, including the Beacon Program, are available to people who believe they are victims of domestic abuse. The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides information, including a safety planning tool for individuals, as well as their children and even pets. Victims can access services via phone or text.
Do: Include their physician on the list of helpful resources.
Doctors can be a resource for a person who is being abused, or who is concerned about the way an intimate partner, parent or adult child is treating them, so encourage someone you think may be a victim of domestic abuse to speak to their primary care physician.
“Health providers screen patients with questions about how safe they feel at home,” Manning says. “It’s part of what The Joint Commission requires, but it’s also best practice. It’s done in different ways. We try to make it very conversational, maybe asking about someone’s relationship. The patient may feel like it’s a safe place to open up and start the process of asking for help.”
Doctors are trained to ask sensitive questions and listen carefully to the answers. They also know how to interpret nonverbal communication. A doctor can gently guide someone who expresses concerns to get information or help.
Don’t: Forget that children are victims, too.
Children may be abused physically or mentally, Dr. Berkoff says. The abuse may be directed at them, or they may be traumatized by seeing their parent being abused.
“Anyone who even suspects that a child is being abused is required by law to report those suspicions to child protective services,” she says. “Child protective services will work with the family. Everyone needs to recognize that even threats (to a child or parent) can have an impact on a child’s mental health.”
If you feel uncomfortable with or threatened by an intimate partner (or you are concerned about a friend or family member), call the National Domestic Violence Hotline or a domestic violence center in your community. You can also speak with your doctor, or find one near you. If you are a UNC Health patient or teammate, you can contact the Beacon Program.