Dealing with a toxic relationship is hard work, and no survivor can go it alone. If you know someone who is in a toxic relationship, be it with a partner, a parent or someone at work, I can assure you they can use some help. What I have also learned from experience, is that not all help – however well-intended – is in fact helpful.
So how can you support abuse victims? Well, here are a few pointers.
1. No Judgments
A target will find it hard enough to acknowledge the problem, and not to take full responsibility for the problems. This is not something they have done,this is something that happened to them.
Some of the stories that I have shared with people are hard for them to understand, and that has lead to some harsh responses. Especially my in-laws were shocked that I walked out of my parents’ lives, it took them years not to express judgment and seriously jeopardized my relationship with them.
2. Show Concern and Encourage Conversation, But Do Not Push
Figuring all this stuff out can be hard, and being pushed into something you are not ready for does more harm than good. So make sure the target knows you have an awareness that there is a problem and are willing to listen. Be open to conversation and make time for a person, that will let them know you are a friend. As long as they know there is a path, they will come to you when they are ready.
3. Respond With Patience, Support and Encouragement
Talking through the toxicity can create an opportunity for a survivor to explore options and in time make decisions. And it can take a lot of time, a lot of going back and forth to get to decisions, and so providing a safe and supportive sounding board is very important. It is important that you listen and believe what you are told. This will help you and the survivor build an ongoing relationship of trust.
You can also help the survivor find other resources, like this website, a counselor, or a local support organization. Encourage the target to talk to these people, it will help the target realize they are not alone, there are others that have similar experiences. Keep assuring them help is available, and make sure they have emergency numbers at hand should they at any time feel in immediate danger.
Realizing the toxicity of my family and deciding to remove myself from that situation was only the first step. Once I had taken that, I started a long and sometimes treacherous healing journey. When my partner would realize I had a bad day, he would park me behind the computer and say: You sit and talk to your SwanWaters friends, I will cook/clean/do whatever I was supposed to be doing.
4. Keep Things Private
When you talk to a target, make sure you have privacy. Especially make sure the abuser cannot listen in on the conversation, or have access to emails or chat-logs. A toxic person will use every snippet of information to use against their target. And when they realize a target is waking up to the abuse, they will double and triple the abuse to make sure they do not leave.
When my partner and I were staying with my parents for a few months after having lost our home, my toxic mother started taking to doing gardening right under our window when she would hear us discuss our relationship. As soon as we realized, we started taking walks in the park at least once a day so we could talk privately.
5. Be There Regardless of Excuses, Rejection, Defensiveness or Denial
Coming to terms with the toxicity of a relationship is not a linear process. Some days the survivor will be struck with doubt, or make excuses for the abuser. The emotional roller-coaster ride that the survivor is on, often means that they may vent emotions at people other than their abuser. Realize that helping a survivor is something you do in the long run. There are no quick fixes, no short cuts. If you want to help, you need to stick by the survivor for the whole ride!
6. Reassure the Survivor This Is Not Their Fault
Every Survivor I have ever spoken to will at some level feel responsible for the abuse they suffered. They have been made to feel that it is their shortcomings that are the trigger to the abuse they suffered. It is important that you reassure them that they are not responsible for the way they have been treated. Abuse, whether physical or not is always the responsibility of the perpetrator.
7. Do Not Assume the Abuse Is Not That Serious
I have commented on more than one occasion that if my parents would have beat me to a pulp every day, no-one would question my choice to remove them from my life. But because they bullied and manipulated me, because they abused me mentally and emotionally people seem to think that cutting contact from my family is an over-reaction.
Non-physical abuse is so often shrugged off. ‘Sticks and stones’ people say, without realizing the many negative effects non-physical violence can have on a person. It is important that you understand, and help your survivor understand, that the abuse they suffer in a toxic relationship is serious, and is harmful to adults and children alike.
8. Let the Target Make Their Own Decision
You may be tempted to tell the target to leave the toxic relationship, but the decision of how to deal with the abuse is up to them. Making that decision involves the emotional aspects of potentially ending a relationship, but also deals with practical implications. Is a target financially independent, do they have a place to stay, are their children involved in the relationship. No-one but the target can decide. So make sure your target understands that the abuse is wrong, but support them no matter how they choose to deal.
9. Provide Practical Support
Escaping an abusive relationship is hard, and some practical support can make all the difference. Having a place to start stashing some important papers, or having someone to accompany you to see a housing officer… whatever actions a target is taking to deal with the toxicity, they can use help. So, make sure they know they can come to you for support.
When I decided to cut contact, I still had a lot of stuff in my parents’ house. With the help of my partner I made a list of all the things I needed to do. Get our degrees out of their fire safe, move the last furniture out, etc. This list helped me stay focused on the jobs I needed to do, and helped me prepare for the emotional day ahead.
10. Help a Survivor Rebuild Themselves
The focus of non-physical abuse is to break down a person. Every action is aimed to chip away at the victim, and survivors are usually plagued with confidence issues. An important part of helping someone deal with a toxic relationship is by reminding them they have the ability. Remind them of their strength and talent. Point out how well they are coping with the toxicity, and dealing with the challenges and stress of that situation.
11. Do Not Mediate
You may feel that a good talk can fix everything, but toxic and abusive relationships are complex and full of pitfalls. Judging whether mediation may be effective, as well as actually mediating any healing is a job for professionals. If this is an option that the target would like to explore, get them in touch with a domestic abuse charity that can advice them on this issue.
12. Look After Yourself
Helping someone deal with, break away or heal from an abusive relationship of any sort is difficult. In order to support a survivor you need to be able and willing to deal with the commitment, as well as the mental and emotional investments necessary. So while supporting the survivor, make sure you do not forget to take care of yourself.
We have gathered some of the resources that will be useful for you to read to further your knowledge and learn how better to support your friend, partner or family member.
Also, check out this Pinterest board where we gather resources and inspiration especially for the helpers and supporters.