Politics & Lifestyle

How to support someone you care about who is in an abusive relationship.

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On Mar 29, 2023

HOLAAfrica, HOLAA, queer, LGBTI

A few of us have been here before, either in abusive relationships or as friends bearing witness to our closest people enduring abusive relationships. Or we’ve experienced both. Either way, it is an emotionally challenging space to be in and can be heavy emotionally and spiritually.
If you’re a friend or loved one to someone in an abusive relationship, you may feel like you want to do something or want to support them but don’t know where to start. As HOLAA! we thought we’d put together a list of some important things that you can do.

1. Listen
More than anything, your friend needs you to listen. Listen to what they’re saying and what they’re not saying. Do not try and solve things. Listen. If your friend is speaking about the abuse, it’s a big step forward and chances are they’re tapping into all of their courage and through all of their shame to tell you what’s going on. Honour this act of vulnerability by listening and being truly engaged. Your friend may also need you to act as a sounding board. Basically, they recognise that they’re in an abusive relationship and they’re hearing themselves out. You may have to go through this conversation with them a few times. See it as a build up to them getting ready to take action.

2. Build up their self-esteem and remind them why they are important
Abusive relationships are brutal; the abusive partner unconsciously or consciously systematically breaks down their victim. By the time your friend reaches out to you they’ve probably got very little self-esteem and self-love left – which means they’ve probably got very little emotional strength in them to remove themselves from the situation. As them friend, remind them of their self-worth by talking about their successes or positive traits. Pour love into them as a human and remind them that their are love and they are loved. Gently remind them that they are ‘the business’ (the awesomeness, the bomb diggity, the most amazing thing) and that she deserves someone who matches her general awesomeness. Chances are they put their partner’s needs ahead of theirs and doesn’t believe they are significant enough. That they deserve the abuse. They don’t. No one ever deserves to be treated with violence, whether it is emotional or physical.

3. Don’t push them too hard to leave
They will leave, when they are ready and when they remember who they are. It takes time. It can take weeks, months and sometimes years to leave after someone realises they’re in an abusive relationship. Obviously we don’t want your friend sticking it out for months or years, but it has to be their decision, your role is to be there in a space of support. They are in a place in their life where they probably feel that they have very little power, the act of choosing to leave and then leaving is an act of power. Let them own that process.

Note: if things are really bad and their life is in danger, try your best to intervene.

4. Create a safe space for the break up
The break up  is the toughest. They will question themselves over and over again. Reassure her that she is doing what’s best for her. Help her establish boundaries with her abuser, it is very easy at this stage for the abuser to regain control over your friend. You may, if need be, have to become a safe space for your friend or help her find a safe space to stay. Abusers are relentless in trying to have control over their victims. One of our own at HOLAA! had to deal with their ex showing up at their office, their gym and following them in traffic. Things can get messy quickly and safe spaces do help alleviate the anxiety your friend may feel after leaving. A change of environment will help create the energy needed to start a new chapter.

5. And in really tough situations…
Things do get intense. You may need to be prepared to accompany your friend to a hospital or to a police station to lay a case if things get physical. Your account of things will help your friend but most importantly, your presence may give them the courage to follow through on getting medical attention and taking legal action against their abuser. Also be prepared to support them through acquiring a protection order if this is something that is available in your space. The actual application can be terrifying as much as it is emotional especially when queer couples can be at threat of exposure or are treated a certain way because they are queer. The painful space is the hearing and having to face their abuser again but hopefully there will be people and a system in place to protect your friend.

Even if this system is not necessarily part of the legal system it can also include NGOs, other friends and family or even just a tight group that is supportive of here. There are many ways to set up a support system, even outside the police and courts which can sometimes fail people even in the most ‘progressive’ spaces.

6. Take care of yourself as well

While you’re being a good and supportive friend, be sure to take care of yourself. Speak to someone or try to process your feelings. Sometimes it can be very heavy to hold these sorts of experiences especially if you have experienced something similar and therefore the experience of supporting someone can be triggering for you. We recommend you speak to someone who is not the friend that you are supporting. This is because as someone who is in or is exiting an abusive relationship, realising that their experience is affecting you may leave them feeling guilty and overwhelmed by this. In time, connect and share your experiences when your loved one is stronger and able to speak about things.

And lastly, we send you all the best vibes for being that person who gives a damn to support someone through a painful time in their life. It’s tough on the heart and we totally get it.

This piece forms part of  the #QueeringTheCloak series which is part of a larger project exploring sexual, emotional and physical violence in queer women spaces on the continent.  The project seeks to essentially ‘pull back the cloak’ on shame and silence around this violence.

For all the articles and pieces on #QueeringTheCloak click here.

Also an article on 11 Signs You Are being Gaslight in a relationship and another 10 things the author learned from someone using gaslighting as an abuse tactic. There is also a piece where the woman says At least she didn’t hit me”. There is also a piece by a woman who writes a letter to her ex abuser’s new girlfriend. Also some healing words for after the relationship is done.  There is also this piece about tackling abuse in queer feminist spaces


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