He was perfect.
That was the phrase I heard over and over again to describe the beginning of what would turn out to be an abusive relationship.
I was interviewing women for a documentary I made on how to spot abusive relationships, so I met with many survivors who had escaped dangerous and violent partners. While their stories were harrowing to listen to, what shocked me the most was that all of their stories began in the same way. An intense whirlwind romance, a charming man who had swept them off their feet, a perfect love story.
This was not the image I had in my head of what an abuser would look like. These guys sounded more like Prince Charming. I had thought I’d be able to spot an abuser from a mile away, now I wasn’t so sure. Would I even know if someone close to me was being abused? Given that one in six Australian women has experienced violence from a partner or ex it’s highly likely that you know someone who’s been affected. The question is who?
What are the signs a friend is being abused?
Unfortunately, many abusers are good at covering their behaviour. They don’t walk around with a giant sign above them saying, “Hey, guess what, I’m controlling and abusing my girlfriend”.
Instead, you might need to look at subtle changes in your friend and trust your gut feelings about a person. This is because domestic and family violence isn’t always physical – it can be psychological, emotional, sexual, social, spiritual, verbal, financial or technology based.
In our lives, we’ve all had friends whose partners we don’t like. They might be a bit boring or stingy or always causing drama and you can’t quite understand what your friend sees in them. But the key difference between a bad relationship and one that is abusive is the presence of fear and that one partner is exerting power and control over the other. Does your friend appear to be afraid of their partner or always very anxious to please them? Do they seem depressed or less confident than normal? Is their partner constantly phoning or texting to check in on them? Or have they suddenly dropped off the radar entirely and you barely ever see them?
These could all be signs that someone is being abused.
What should you do if you suspect abuse?
Telling a friend you’re worried their partner is abusive isn’t exactly an easy thing to bring up, but if you don’t, your silence can send a message.
The most important thing is to find a safe way to do something. Small actions like opening up a conversation, letting the victim know you care and directing them to support services could seriously change their life. Whether it is a close friend, a family member or a neighbour, don’t assume someone else will take care of it, you are that person that can make a huge difference. For a really helpful guide about how to have the conversation and show your support to someone in need, the Queensland Government’s Bystander campaign outlines the best approach.
Remember, if you or someone you know is at immediate threat of violence call triple zero (000) and ask for police.
Some key points include:
Pick the right moment
If there is no immediate threat of danger, it’s important to find a time and place that are safe to have the conversation with the person experiencing abuse. As abusers often monitor phones and social media it’s best to have the conversation face to face and in a location you know the abuser won’t be present.
Express your concern
Opening the conversation may seem difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. Just letting them know you are concerned about them and are there to listen and support is a great way to start. It isn’t about telling them what to do or solving all their problems but just letting them know you are there. You could open with a concern and a specific example like “I’m worried about you because I’ve noticed XX”, or “I’ve been really concerned about you lately”. The Bystander campaign gives a list of suggestions to get you started.
Let them know support is available
Before you approach them, familiarise yourself with the support services that are available and where to find them. Let them know that they don’t have to leave the relationship to seek help, this could just help them understand their options and get some guidance.
Be prepared for their response
Initially the person might be defensive, deny the problem or downplay it. If they are not ready to talk don’t force the issue but let them know you are here whenever they are ready. By letting your friend know you are concerned it could help them recognise the abuse or seek help at a later date.
Listen, believe and respect
If they are ready to talk the best thing you can do is listen without judgement. If they feel criticised, not believed or judged it may stop them from seeking help at all.
You could also encourage them to think about their safety, or the safety of their children and focus on their own needs, not just those of their partner.
While making the documentary on abusive relationships, I was really struck by the fact that for many of the victims I spoke to, it was a friend that ultimately was the emotional lifeline that supported them to move on from the relationship. Many of them hadn’t even been aware that they were in abusive relationships, this is despite enduring horrific emotional and physical abuse and living in constant fear.
One young survivor I spoke with, Ella, had a friend who refused to give up on her. She had expressed her concerns to Ella numerous times but Ella didn’t want to hear it. Her friend told her that she cared for her and would always be there no matter what. By the time Ella realised her life was at risk and she needed to escape, she felt isolated and had lost contact with most of her friends. Knowing there was this one person that she could turn to that wouldn’t judge her, is what helped her have the courage to leave.
It may not feel easy to get involved, but it is everyone’s responsibility. If you know someone that you think could be at risk, find a safe way to express your concern and let them know you will always be there for them when they are ready to talk. That simple action could save someone’s life.
For more information, go to the Queensland Government Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Bystander campaign website.
If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone now, call the DVConnect Womensline on 1800 811 811, the DVConnect Mensline on 1800 600 636, the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or the National Sexual Assault and Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT/1800 737 732.
If you or someone you know is at immediate threat of violence, call triple zero (000) and ask for police.
Authorised by the Queensland Government, William Street, Brisbane.
Briony Benjamin is Mamamia's Executive Producer of Video, and director of the 2016 documentary Big Bad Love.
Domestic and family violence can affect anyone, regardless of their age, gender, background or location – and it needs our intervention to break the cycle. It is important that everyday Queenslanders feel comfortable and confident to safely intervene in situations where they think domestic and family violence may be occurring - whether it’s happening with a neighbour, a friend or a family member. That is why we’ve partnered with Mamamia – to deliver information, insight and empowerment for you to feel confident to step in and do something. Domestic and family violence can stop with someone like you. Find out more: qld.gov.au/dosomething