I’m worried that my work friend “Elena” is in an abusive relationship. She used to vent to me all the time about her boyfriend, “Josh”; how he is so uptight, and how much they fight. At one point, she told me he grabbed her during a bad fight, which really scared her. I told her that it scared me, too, and that it sounds like Josh doesn’t deserve to be with her.
Lately, Elena hasn’t been going to happy hour as much with me and others at work, but says things with Josh are better. I feel like she’s avoiding me. Should I just let this go? What if things are worse, but she’s afraid to tell me? Please help!
Thanks so much for writing — this is a tough situation, and you’re clearly being a good friend. Based on what you wrote, it does sound like you have good reasons to be concerned about Elena. It also sounds like you’ve said the right things: You were honest with her, but not judgmental — Josh grabbing your friend scares you, and you let her know that.
It’s counterintuitive, but the most important thing to remember when trying to help a friend/loved one who is in an abusive relationship is not to tell them to leave the relationship. Why? First, if they’re in an abusive relationship, they are most likely being controlled in multiple ways — being told what to wear, when to see their friends, and/or how to spend their money. The last thing you want to do is take even more power and control away from your friend by telling them what to do in their relationship. Most importantly, if you tell your friend to leave their partner and they don’t, it’s much harder for them to come back to you for support if the abuse gets worse. They may be embarrassed, fearful of being told “I told you so,” or worried about being judged.
When supporting a friend experiencing domestic violence, it may also be helpful to better understand what they’re experiencing emotionally and/or what leaving may mean. Many abusive relationships follow a cycle of violence, where tension builds, the abusive partner blows up, and then apologizes (the honeymoon phase), followed by another period of rising tension. The cycle does not always look the same or follow this exact pattern, but there are usually good times and bad times as in any relationship. It can be difficult to reconcile the good times with the abuse — “Things feel so good right now and we feel so connected — what if that doesn’t happen again? What if he really has changed?” Your friend may also still be in love with her boyfriend. How many of us have been in love with someone who ended a relationship with us? We know that feelings don’t turn off like a switch.
You’ve noticed that Elena is skipping happy hour and avoiding you. Abusive relationships often include social isolation. The abuser may begin to control when and if their partner sees family and friends. Unfortunately, this can be an effective way to keep someone in a relationship because it’s more difficult to leave without social support. That’s why I would encourage you to stay available to Elena. You don’t need to confront her, but rather stay open. Keep inviting her to happy hour. Keep asking her if she wants to grab lunch. Ask how she is, including her relationship with Josh, in a way you would ask any other friend, and check yourself during and after these conversations. Being non-judgmental and available go a long way.
This does not mean, however, that you should ignore safety concerns or other issues your friend may bring up. The most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is when someone decides to leave. If things seem to be getting worse for Elena, I would encourage you to call us at JCADA at 1-877-88-JCADA(52232). In addition to seeing victims of abuse, we also see those who are supporting victims and can help you help your friend in the best and safest way possible — 100 percent free of charge.
For the past 17 years, JCADA has offered support to victims and survivors of domestic and dating abuse. These free clinical and legal services are available to any resident of the Greater Washington area, 14 years of age and older, who is affected by any type of domestic abuse. Staff are available to answer questions, offer support, and connect callers to services on our free and confidential helpline Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Fridays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 1-877-88-JCADA (52232).