Episode 43: Helping a Friend series - "How Do You Help a Friend in Denial About Their Abusive Relationship?"Support the show
Today, as part of another series on Helping a Friend, we’re talking about what to do when a friend is in denial about their abusive relationship. This is Jessica Skultety, Community Outreach Associate at Safe+Sound Somerset. We are Somerset County, New Jersey's lead domestic violence response organization, providing services at no charge for survivors of dating and domestic abuse for over 40 years.
Today's question from local teens is: How do you help a friend in denial about their abusive relationship?
It’s fantastic that you want to help your friend – the best way is to express that you care about your friend and focus on their partner’s concerning or harmful behaviors. You can also provide information and support, but also understand that they have to make their own decisions. You need to take care of yourself, too. We’re talking about all of these things in detail today, so let’s get right to it.
First, it’s important to say something if you think your friend is in an unhealthy, or abusive, or unsafe relationship with someone else. As a friend, it’s normal that you would be worried about them – you care! So speak up! If in your gut, you feel that something is wrong, definitely say something.
Just some warning signs of an abusive relationship are: your friend constantly has to keep in touch and text their partner, your friend makes up strange excuses for injuries or missing activities or hang outs, your friend changes the way they act or dress, they make excuses for their partner and/or are convinced that they can help or change them, and their partner threatens them or makes them do things they don’t want to do.
When you say something, it’s best to focus on behaviors, like, “I notice that your partner is constantly texting you when we hang out, and you always seem nervous about getting back to them in time. Is everything okay?” If your friend seems to just brush it off, don’t give up. You can say something like, “I’m your friend, and I care about you, and I want to make sure that you’re happy and safe in this relationship.”
Sometimes, as teens have asked us, friends can be in denial about the warning signs that you mention. This could be because they actually feel scared or unsafe. Maybe they’ve told someone but no one has believed them, so they think it’s normal. Maybe they love their partner – every relationship, even those that are unhealthy or abusive, have good times – and they don’t want to see the bad parts.
If your friend is in denial, it can be really difficult to help but what matters most is that you do. If you say something, keep saying something. Dating abuse tends to get worse and more dangerous over time.
You can also give them information about an organization like Safe+Sound Somerset, where we offer supportive listening on our call or text hotline, counseling, and more. This would be in a situation when your friend is NOT in immediate danger but might want to talk more about how they feel in the relationship. Maybe your friend would want to make a safety plan to stay in the relationship safely. As the friend, you could offer to sit with your friend as they call or text us.
If you keep saying something about the behaviors you notice, you never know when something might stick, and you also need to let your friend make their own decisions. One client we heard from said, “the time I left wasn’t when my partner hit me – it was the time when they made fun of me in front of their friends.” Also keep in mind that this whole time, your friend might feel ashamed or embarrassed, or full of love for their partner.
If you keep bringing up your concerns about your partner or the relationship and your friend gets angry and defensive, you might also have to take a step back for your own mental health. Tell your friend that you’ll be here to listen and support them when they’re ready, but you need to take a step back to take care of yourself.
At this point though, don’t let your friend drift away from you. Still hang out with them if you can, keep watching for signs that abuse has gotten worse. At any point, including when you take a step back, you should consider talking to a trusted adult in your life about the situation. You should support your friend but no one can do this alone, and if the situation becomes more intense, or your friend is in danger, a trusted adult is 100% necessary. If there’s an emergency or your friend is in immediate danger, always make sure to call 911.
Even as a supportive friend, you can call or text the Safe+Sound Somerset 24/7 confidential hotline at 866-685-1122 for supportive listening, information, and tips about how to talk to your friend in your specific situation.
Want to “Ask Ava” a question? Visit our website at www.safe-sound.org/ask-ava. Thank you for listening today. Join us next time here on Ask Ava.