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'I desperately want to be there for her.' How to help a friend experiencing domestic violence.

At Mamamia, we have a year-round commitment to highlighting the epidemic of domestic violence in Australia. During May, Domestic Violence Prevention Month, we will not only raise awareness of the personal impact of violence, but do our best to ensure victims have access to help, and encourage those who abuse to take responsibility and seek help for their behaviour.

This post deals with domestic violence and suicidal ideation and might be triggering for some readers.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was stuck in an emotionally abusive relationship

And watching her struggle was incredibly difficult. Because given we were both so young, neither one of us knew what to do. Nor did I know how to help her

And when she told me that her boyfriend had threatened to end his own life if she broke up with him, I could see that she felt helpless. As a friend watching on and seeing her pain, I desperately wanted to make everything better for her. But I couldn't see how. 

Years down the track, we as a society have a much better understanding of what domestic violence is, the impact it can have and the support systems available. Though from a micro perspective, it can be challenging to know exactly what you as a friend can do to help your loved one when they are in a domestically violent relationship.

Watch Women And Violence: The Hidden Numbers. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia.

Safe and Equal is the peak body for specialist family violence services that provide support to victim-survivors in Victoria. As for the National Women's Safety Alliance, they bring together a diversity of voices, expertise and experience to inform and guide national policy on women's safety.

Mamamia spoke to both Safe and Equal and National Women's Safety Alliance about this question exactly - how should I go about helping a friend currently experiencing domestic violence?

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As the CEO of Safe and Equal Tania Farha noted - friends, family members, colleagues and the community play a crucial role in identifying abuse and supporting loved ones to safety. And throughout history, there still seems to be a stigma attached to the idea of asking for help. But Tania hopes people know help is always available. 

"The important role that loved ones play has been especially key during the pandemic. In 2020, during the first rounds of restrictions and lockdowns, family violence services reported a dramatic rise in the number of 'third parties' - friends and family - reaching out about someone they were worried may be in danger," she said to Mamamia.

Tania also recommended looking at the Are You Safe At Home? website. It's designed to break down the fear associated with talking about family violence by providing clear information on how to start a conversation if you're concerned someone you care about is experiencing abuse. 

There's another peak body that plays a big role in this conversation too. And according to Dr Renee Hamilton, the CEO of National Women's Safety Alliance, it's the government.

“Training more people in the community to identify signs of violence is critical to stop violence escalating and get victim-survivors the support they need," Renee said to Mamamia

"We want to see an incoming government set a community training target for at least 50,000 people a year. That way more people will be able to identify the early signs of violence and respond compassionately."

Listen to The Quicky: Frontline domestic violence workers tell us what's really happening. Post continues after audio.


Here are five things you can do to help a loved one you think might be in an abusive relationship: 

1. Find a private place to talk.

Renee stressed how important this factor is. In order to make your friend comfortable enough to talk openly, it's imperative that the conversation is had in a safe space. 

"If you believe someone you know is experiencing domestic or family violence, wait until you have an opportunity to speak to them in private and ask them if they are safe and what you can do to help them," she said to Mamamia.

2. Listen without judgement. 

For anyone who has experienced domestic violence, something that can really affect them is the fear of not being believed. So if your friend is telling you they are in an abusive relationship or situation, the best thing you can do is listen to them. 

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As Tania said - "Disclosing abuse is incredibly hard, and having someone listen and believe you, without judgement, can mean the world. Don't pressure them to talk if they're uncomfortable, but let them know you're there whenever they feel ready to talk."

Renee agreed, saying it's best not to interrupt the victim-survivor with too many questions or statements, but rather let them get their feelings and fears off their chest, as this will create trust. Because it takes a hell of a lot of courage to speak up. 

3. When the time comes, these are some of the questions you can ask.

According to Are You Safe At Home, these are some good questions you can ask if you are worried that your friend is experiencing domestic violence. But of course remember not to bombard. 

- What can I do to help you?

- How is the behaviour affecting you? How is it affecting your children?

- What do you think you should do?

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- What are you afraid of if you leave?

- What are you afraid of if you stay?

As victim-survivor Geraldine Bilston wrote in a recent article for Mamamiathe simple question of 'are you safe at home?' can also make all the difference. 

Asking the question may not make a woman decide she's safe to leave. But it will plant a seed in her mind and be the "first step to starting a conversation to end family violence".

4. Recommend some practical support services.

Another practical thing you can do is provide a few simple resources and the details of support services available.

Some tangible examples include 1800 RESPECT or Safe Steps. The Are You Safe At Home website service directory is also handy. You can also find some support resources here

Checking in regularly, offering practical support and remaining patient and understanding can make all the difference in someone’s journey to safety.  

But of course always remember that your safety and your friend's safety is paramount too, so if someone is in serious danger call emergency services.

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5. Be patient. 

Patience is at the heart of this. Because as Renee highlighted, on average it takes someone seven times to leave a violent relationship.

"Remember, they may want to stay with the person using violence and you need to respect that choice - however hard that may be. It's important to understand that the most dangerous time for someone in an abusive relationship is when they leave or plan to leave," Renee said.

Tania stressed the same point, saying patience and being there for your friend is the most important thing you can do.

"Women experiencing violence make decisions every day to keep themselves safe, which may not always reflect what you think they should do," she said. 

"For example, sometimes people aren’t ready or able to leave a violent relationship, for all kinds of really valid reasons."

For Geraldine, she said it was her family's patience and support that made all the difference.

As she wrote - "Collaborating and supporting those we love and care for is not about being their saviour, nor is it about telling them what you would do in that situation. It is about acknowledging that they are experts in their own life, and remaining ready to help and care for them through their own decision-making, in their own time."

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

You can also call safe steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit www.safesteps.org.au for further information.

The Men’s Referral Service is also available on 1300 766 491 or via online chat at www.ntv.org.au

You can also access the Are You Safe At Home's website service directory.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636. 

Feature Image: Canva/Mamamia.