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Domestic Violence: How to Support Yourself or a Friend

In this article we look at how to support yourself or a friend going through domestic violence.
Two women walking in a forest with their arms around one another.
© Trinity College Dublin

Every day in every corner of the globe women, are emotionally, physically, sexually and financially abused by those closest to them – their husbands, partners and boyfriends. According to Women’s Aid research, 1 in 5 Irish women experience some form of domestic violence. This can affect any woman regardless of age, marital status, class or ethnic background. Without exception, a woman’s greatest risk of abuse is from a man she knows.

In Ireland in 2018, the Women’s Aid 24 hour National Freephone Helpline responded to 15,835 calls. This figure is shocking but we know that this is just the tip of the iceberg as research tells us that only a small percentage of victims will access support from a Helpline or support service1.

That means many thousands of women may be suffering in silence and alone. It is important that any woman who is being abused feels she can talk to someone, whether a family member or a friend, a colleague or a support service like Women’s Aid. No one deserves to be abused and no one should suffer in silence.

Living with domestic violence can feel like living in an horrific trap. However, there is good news.

Domestic violence isn’t like a terminal illness. We know many women who have escaped abuse and become safe.

If it is happening to you, the main thing to realise is that you are not alone, it is not your fault and it happens to other women every day. Talk to someone you trust or call your local support service. You can find a list of contacts and resources available for women experiencing domestic abusive, in Ireland and other English speaking counties, in the See Also section below.

Domestic violence and pregnancy

Many women who experience domestic violence will be pregnant. It is a common mis-perception that domestic violence stops or reduces during pregnancy, but research demonstrates that not only does it not stop during pregnancy but in many cases it escalates – 30% of women who experience domestic violence are physically assaulted for the first time in pregnancy2.

During pregnancy domestic violence can have a range of adverse outcomes on maternal and neonatal health, including: poor nutrition, miscarriage, haemorrhage, premature labour, trauma, placental abruption, low birth weight, maternal deaths and still births.

All of this makes domestic violence a key concern for health professionals within the maternity services.

While pregnancy may be a particularly vulnerable time for women in abusive relationships the regular health check-ups during antenatal care offers professionals key opportunities to identify victims and support them appropriately.

Warning signs for women affected

Physical abuse is the easiest form of abuse to understand but domestic violence also covers emotional, sexual and financial abuse. Women contacting us want to talk about all these experiences. It may be a recent incident that hurt them or a whole pattern of behaviour evolving over time that feels increasingly difficult to bear. Domestic violence is not a once off event, but rather a pattern which often escalates over time. It can sometimes be hard ‘to see the wood for the trees’. Having a safe, non-judgemental space to talk enables women to explore concerns and fears they have been harbouring for a while, but felt unable to voice.

For more information on the signs of domestic abuse visit this link.

Are you concerned about someone you know?

Women affected by domestic violence may hide, minimise or excuse what is happening to them. There might be no obvious signs that something is wrong in the relationship. However, you may have started to notice that she seems to be nervous of her partner, of upsetting him or disagreeing with him. She may have started to withdraw from work, social occasions or reduce contact with family and friends. She may show signs of losing her confidence, of being depressed and feeling very low in herself.

What are the questions to ask?

Unless you are trying to help a woman who has been very open about her experiences it may be difficult for you to acknowledge the problem directly. However, there are some basic steps you can take to help and support someone who has confided in you that they are being abused.

Emotional support

  • Listen to her, try to understand and take care not to blame her. Tell her that she is not alone and that there are many women like her in similar situations. Acknowledge that it takes strength to trust someone enough to talk to them about experiencing abuse. Give her time to talk, but don’t push her to go into too much detail if she doesn’t want to.
  • Acknowledge that she is in a frightening and very difficult situation.
  • Tell her that no one deserves to be threatened or beaten, despite what her abuser has told her. Nothing she can do or say can justify the abuser’s behaviour.
  • Support her as a friend. Encourage her to express her feelings, whatever they are. Allow her to make her own decisions.
  • Don’t tell her to leave the relationship if she is not ready to do this. This is her decision.

Practical support

  • Tell her about the Women’s Aid National Freephone Helpline 1800 341 900, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or a helpline in your country.
  • Give her mobile phone credit so she can make calls in case of emergency.
  • Ask if she has suffered physical harm. If so, offer to go with her to a hospital or to see her GP.
  • Suggest that it might be useful in future to have records of any injuries as abuse frequently escalates over time.
  • Help her to report the assault to the police if she chooses to do so.
  • Go with her to visit a solicitor if she is ready to take this step.
  • Agree a code word with her which she can use if she is in danger and needs help.
  • Plan safe strategies for leaving an abusive relationship. Let her create her own boundaries of what she thinks is safe and what is not safe; don’t urge her to follow any strategies that she expresses doubt about.
  • Offer your friend the use of your address and/or telephone number to leave information and messages, and tell her you will look after an emergency bag for her, if she wants this.
  • Give her a small amount of money to put away in case she needs a taxi or bus in an emergency to leave the house and go to family or refuge.

Remember to look after yourself while you are supporting someone through such a difficult and emotional time. Ensure that you do not put yourself into a dangerous situation; for example, do not offer to talk to the abuser about your friend or let yourself be seen by the abuser as a threat to their relationship.

What do you do if you are in this situation and you want to get out of it?

Recognising that you are being abused is an important step. Where you go from here is up to you. You may feel you need time to think about your situation. Or perhaps you have already made up your mind to leave. Whatever you decide, your safety and that of any children you may have is always the priority.

Take it one step at a time. You don’t have to decide whether to leave the relationship right away, if at all. Only you know what the right decision for you is.

Ringing the Women’s Aid National Freephone Helpline or a service near where you live is a good place to start for support and information on your options to help you a build new life where you and your family can be safe.

Sarah Benson
Sarah is the Director of Women’s Aid Ireland.
Sarah Benson
© Trinity College Dublin
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