Ask Her: What to do when your friend is in an abusive marriage

In our latest Ask Her column, clinical psychologist Dr Lissa Johnson – who specialises in therapy, treatment, and counselling for individuals, couples and families – answers our latest reader question:

My friend has been in an abusive relationship for almost 10 years. It is more emotional, than physical abuse, but her partner has a drinking problem which sometimes cause the abuse to turn physical as well. She feels trapped because she has young children and they share a mortgage. She can’t afford to go out on her own and he won’t leave, insisting she is the love of her life. She is open with me about it all, but no matter what I say or do she can’t (or won’t) leave. How can I help her find the strength to move on with her life?

Answer:

This is a tricky and challenging situation as a friend. On one hand the situation is pressing, given that domestic violence is very detrimental to children and can prove fatal for women, even if it is infrequent. On the other hand, placing pressure on your friend to leave her partner is likely to backfire, and could even drive her away from you and further towards the abuse.

To help your friend gather the strength and optimism that she needs to care for herself and her kids, focus on making your relationship with her a safe, understanding and non-judgemental place. Within that context help her to express both sides of her ambivalence – the part of her that wants to escape the abuse and the part that is afraid to leave.

Let her know that she is normal: ambivalence is very common in domestic violence and abuse. Fears about financial hardship are real, as is grief over her losses on many levels, along with mixed feelings about her partner, including a longing for return to better times.

While accepting and understanding her struggles, you can nevertheless stand firm in your knowledge that the abuse is unacceptable, and not her fault. While sitting with both sides of her ambivalence, be honest about your concern for her emotional and physical welfare, and that of her kids. Domestic violence and the associated family dynamics are traumatic and damaging for children. They have a lasting negative impact on all aspects of children’s wellbeing and development. The sooner children are in a safe and nurturing environment the sooner they can begin to heal.

As your friend opens up about the abuse, help her to develop a safety plan. Where can she go if she and her children need to leave the house to be safe? Encourage her to call 000 if she ever needs to. Or call 000 yourself if you have fears of imminent harm.

Offer whatever practical assistance you can. The more that your friend feels supported, understood, and empowered, and the more options she perceives, the more likely she is to escape the cycle of abuse.

To help you both with this, 1800RESPECT is an invaluable resource. Their 24-hour counselling and information service provides specialist help for those experiencing domestic violence and abuse, and for concerned family and friends. By calling, you will be able to discuss the particulars of your friend’s situation and obtain advice that is specific to her and your relationship with her. Of all the steps that you can take, this is likely to be the most powerfully constructive.

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