Four tips on how to talk to your friend in an abusive relationship to support them in leaving.
I'm jet-lagged, raw and emotional. I sobbed tears of relief and grief as the plane lifted off the ground and I rose above Cairo 24 hours earlier, leaving my abusive relationship of 9 years. Now I'm back in San Francisco, sitting across the table from my mother, humbled, hurt and tired when she says, "I was always worried you would join a cult...at least he was a cult of one."
It will take many days for her words to fully penetrate, to sink into me and as they do, I feel my anger rising.
As I reconnect with more friends, I hear similar sentiments, "Always knew he was a jerk," and "It was so obvious the relationship was bad for you," and with each comment my anger intensifies.
Why didn't anyone tell me what they really thought in the nine years I was with him?
I try not to be angry. No one else is responsible for my choices after all. And yet, I'm deeply frustrated that everyone feels perfectly fine telling me what they thought back then now that I have left.
Would I have listened had they told me years earlier that I was in an abusive relationship? Would I have heard? Would I have taken action at that moment?
If pursuing abusive relationships is like going off into the woods, then each person's words of concern are like a breadcrumb trail back out. I searched my mind and heart for crumbs of confirmation to leave and clung to those I found. I imagine that if each person had been honest with me, those comments, though unwelcome and difficult at the time, would have been a clearer path of love to travel and I might have left sooner.
"But everyone makes their own decisions and has their own lessons to learn. Better not to interfere."
This is the conventional, polite and 'safe' approach; we pretend we don't see; we bite our tongue to avoid conflict; we do not reflect back, we do not share our insight. To what end? With two in three women experiencing sexual violence, with so many experiencing domestic violence, are we not complicit when we don't speak up?
Time to come from behind ourselves and share the truth of what we see, for the highest good of all. Yes, that woman may not respond immediately, may become angry and withdraw, may even stop talking to you for a time or maybe forever. And when she searches her mind and heart for reasons to leave, for evidence that she isn't crazy, then your words will be there, a light, a ray she can move towards.
Please speak your heart to those in your life; it could matter more than you ever imagined; it is a gift you give to the other and to yourself.
"But how? What can I say and how do I say it?" someone asked me recently.
Here are my tips on talking to someone you're concerned is in an abusive relationship:
- Tell them what you see
Don't dole out advice and tell the person what to do, like, "Leave him, he's bad news!" None of us like to be told what to do and generally react defensively.
Instead share what you see: "I remember when we first became friends you always had a smile on your face and a tune on your lips. Now I rarely see you smile."
In my experience, we serve each other by being mirrors for each other—it's difficult for us to see ourselves from the outside and we become acclimated to our conditions beyond our perception of doing so. Sharing our observations is a powerful way of reflecting back to the other what we are putting out, a feedback loop that we struggle to see alone.
- Share how you feel
"Mary, I feel really scared for you when you tell me about how he talks to you."
Own your feelings—"I feel," not "You make me feel."
By sharing your genuine feelings and observations, you reveal yourself and your caring and shine a light on the situation from your perspective without making anyone right or wrong. When we're in abusive relationships we're avoiding many of our feelings, so by sharing yours you're modeling and leading by example that feelings are valuable information worth noting and sharing.
- Ask them questions that deepen their experience
I remember when I finally told MG, my good friend in Aswan, that I was being called stupid everyday. She didn't tell me what to do or get all reactive and in my face, but rather asked me questions like, "Wow, how does that make you feel?" and "What's going on in your relationship?"
These questions helped me look inside, to deepen my experience, to probe the places I was avoiding in a safe and non-judgmental way. MG asked questions from a place of compassion and curiosity which created spaciousness for me, a sense of stepping back and looking again.
- Let them know you are there for them
Part of the trap of abusive relationships is that the 'love' is conditional. We stay in an effort to meet the conditions, to prove worthy, to earn the support and love that we each seek. In approaching your friend who has chosen and stays in this relationship, let them know that your love is unconditional. How powerful it is to to hear that you love them with no strings attached, regardless of what they choose to do. I see this love as a bridge back to the self-love required to leave. They may not know how to cross the bridge yet and it still matters that you show them the bridge exists.
So your side of the conversation could go something like this:
"Mary, I remember how excited you were when you met Doug, all giggles and joy. Now I notice that all your stories are about how hard it is to live with him and how angry he is. You seem really unhappy.
I feel really sad and scared for you.
How do you feel about your relationship?
Know that I am always here for you, whatever you decide, whatever happens, I love you and you can count on me."
She may not want to talk about it; she may get upset or even angry. That's OK. Stay with your intent to be truthful, compassionate and loving. She may not be able to receive what you have to share in the moment and it still matters that you share of yourself as you are dropping the breadcrumbs of love that lead out of the dark forest of an abusive relationship back to into the sunlit clearing of freedom and love.
Cara Cordoni supports high-achieving women in creating empowering relationships, reaching their unique and meaningful goals and creating lives they’re thrilled to be living. All first sessions are about discovering what's possible for you and there's never a cost for that. Schedule yours here.
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