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What to do if your friend is being emotionally abused

Sep. 20, 2017
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When it comes to abusive relationships, most people automatically think of physical abuse or sexual abuse. However, abuse comes in many forms, including psychological/emotional abuse. Just like physical abuse, psychological abuse is used to control the victim. However, instead of using violence as a means of control, the abuser uses emotions and psychological trauma to control. This can include verbal abuse, threats, coercive tactics, yelling, intimidation, isolation, shaming, name-calling, and other nasty tricks. 

What makes psychological abuse so dangerous is that a majority of abusers don’t realize they are being abusive, and most victims of psychological abuse don’t realize they are being abused. However, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), 48% of men and 48% of women experience at least one psychologically aggressive behavior by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Additionally, psychological abuse tends to preclude physical/sexual abuse. 

Sadly, most people don’t know what to say when their friend comes to them about being emotionally abused, or they say things that only act to worsen the situation. Don’t worry, though—we’re here to help. If one of your homies comes to you in confidence with a story about their partner that sounds a lot like psychological abuse, keep the following things in mind when you respond:

1. Don’t judge.

This one may seem like a no-brainer, but even if you know to not outwardly show judgement, make sure you don’t inwardly judge them either. You don’t know the situation they are in, and judging them or blaming them for not acting how you think you would act in that situation helps no one. Just be a sounding board for them.

2. Don’t tell them they need to leave their abuser.

The first thing you might want to do is tell your friend that they need to leave their abusive partner immediately. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Your friend may very well know that they need to leave, but not feel safe or comfortable in doing so. Pushing a victim of abuse to do something that they don’t feel safe doing is not the best way to handle the situation. 

Or it’s possible that your friend may not even want to leave the relationship. The tricky thing about psychological abuse is that the pattern of abuse is not always easily recognized by the victim. They may be convinced into thinking they are dependent on their abuser or even in love with them. Telling them to leave may push them further into the arms of their abuser and further away from getting help. 

3. Don’t badmouth their abuser.

Again, this tempting thought may be one of the first things that jumps into your mind when you hear of your friend’s emotional abuse. Well, stop that idea right in its tracks! Badmouthing the abuser or calling them names might drive your friend away from confiding in you and straight to defending their abuser, which only makes it more difficult for them to realize their situation. Your friend doesn’t need to be told that the person they are with is a bad person—that may only act to further shame them. Instead, what they need is understanding. 

4. Ask them to fully explain the situation.

Ask your friend about their relationship with this person in detail. How does their partner treat them? What are some of the things this partner says to them? How does their partner make them feel? Does their partner expect them to act or behave or dress in a certain way? The better handle you have on the situation, the easier it will be for you to assist your friend in getting help once they are ready. Answering questions like this may also help your friend to realize that what they are going through is emotional abuse and that they need to get help. 

5. Reassure them of your confidentiality.

Make sure your friend knows that everything said between you two stays between you two. Your friend doesn’t need to hear her personal and painful information from anyone else because you decided to share it with someone. They need to feel like they have someone they can trust, especially if something were to happen and they needed your help. 

6. Reassure them that you believe them.

If your friend knows they are being emotionally abused and comes to you about it, make it explicit that you believe them. Many victims of psychological abuse are made to feel like they are crazy, that no one will take them seriously, that no one will believe them. The abuser does this to exercise control over the victim by keeping them isolated and dependent on the abuser. By telling your friend that you believe them and that what they are saying is valid helps them to recognize that they are not alone and that they can get help.

7. Reassure them it’s not their fault.

Another common tactic of emotionally abusive partners is making the victim feel guilty or to blame for the abuse: “You make me do this!” “This wouldn’t happen if it weren’t for you!” Etcetera, etcetera. Your friend needs to be reassured that nothing they do warrants being psychologically abused and tormented. You can do this by communicating to them that they are not at fault for their abuser’s behavior. 

8. Help them get in touch with experts.

The best thing you can do for your friend is connect them with professionals. As amazing of a friend as you are, your friend will benefit the most from talking to people who handle abusive relationships on the daily and are professionally equipped to help get your friend back to feeling free and happy.