How to Help a Friend in an Abusive Relationship

It can be hard to know what to do when your friend has a violent or controlling partner. Here are some things you can do to support them.

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Nov 21 2018, 10:00am

Meera Dalala (left) and her friends. Photo by Shriya Parmar

Every year, women in the UK are killed by stalkers and domestic abusers—despite previously reporting them to the police. Unfollow Me is a campaign highlighting the under-reported issue of stalking and domestic abuse in support of anti-stalking charity Paladin's calls to introduce a Stalkers Register in the UK. Follow all of our coverage here.

Knowing how to help a friend in an abusive relationship can be hard. They may push you away, dodge your calls, cancel plans without notice, or even be rude or abrupt. In such situations, it’s important to hold onto the reasons why you became friends with that person to start with. Focus on their good qualities, not the person they’ve become—because when someone’s in an abusive relationship, their whole focus is on surviving.

Meera Dalal, a 25-year-old from Leicester, UK, had a great circle of friends. They’d have sleepovers at each other’s house, go on nights out together, or on weekend breaks to cities like Amsterdam. She taught her best friend Dixita Tank how to blow dry her hair into big, bouncy curls. When her other friend Shriya Parmar’s dad was in hospital, Dalal would come to her house every day to check she was holding up OK.

But when Dalal got into a relationship with a violent and abusive man, her friendships started to suffer. She’d cancel plans, or be evasive, or spend whole evenings on her phone, texting her partner. “We all drifted away,” Parmar told Broadly.


Watch: Unfollow Me: The Story of Meera Dalal

Although Dalal broke up with her abusive boyfriend, he began stalking her and turning up at her family home without warning. In her final days, Dalal seemed depressed, withdrawn, and down. Her friends still tried to reach out to her, but she hardly ever replied. On 15 February 2016, Dalal died by suicide. “You never imagine that someone is going to go to such extreme measures,” Tank said. “If any of our friends going forward were even a little bit upset, I think we would take it very seriously.”

Abusers like to isolate their victims from their friends, family, and colleagues. By alienating them from their support groups, abusers are better placed to control and manipulate their victims. We asked Laura Richards of anti-stalking charity Paladin how to spot when your friend is in an abusive relationship, and what you should do to help them.

How can you tell if someone is in an abusive relationship?

Look for changes in their behavior. They may not call or socialize as much as usual, or become withdrawn and quiet. Perhaps they’ll cancel on your repeatedly at short notice, seem anxious or fearful, or often have to ask their partner’s permission to do things. When you do see them, they may not have access to money, wear more makeup to disguise bruises, or less revealing clothes than they normally would do to cover injuries. They will often be on their phone, texting their partner, or speaking to them on the phone. If their partner often checks up on your friend, turning up on nights out, or texting and calling them continuously, this is a sign something may be wrong.

What should you do if your friend becomes distant as a result of their abusive relationship?

Keep in contact via text, calling, emails, or social media. Let them know you’re always available to chat. Be a supportive friend and check in regularly.

What should you say if your friend tells you that they're being abused in a relationship?

Listen to them. Don’t be judgmental, blame them, or shame them. Don’t make the victim feel like they’ve done something wrong. Tell them they are not alone, and many people experience this. Say that no-one deserves to be treated that way. Explain that you will support them, and that they have choices and options. It’s a brave step to tell someone what’s happening to them, so empower them and validate their experience.

What should you never offer to do?

Don’t blame them, or judge them. Don’t tell them what to do or that they should leave the relationship immediately. Don’t bombard them with questions. And don’t offer to talk to the abuser—this may make things worse.

What practical steps should you suggest if your friend says they want to leave the abusive relationship?

Leaving a relationship is a high-risk time. Offer to help your friend leave safely. Give them information about local domestic abuse services, and stalking services. Go through the DASH Risk Assessment with them—this will help identify whether they are in immediate danger for their lives.

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What if your friend leaves the abusive relationship and their ex starts stalking them?

Tell them to follow the six golden rules: Report the abuse as soon as possible to the police. Get good practical advice from the National Stalking Helpline or Paladin if they’re based in the UK, or the Victim Connect Helpline in the US. Collect as much evidence as possible, whether it’s screenshotting messages the abuser has sent or taking pictures of them outside their house. Keep a diary of the stalking behavior. Fill out the DASH Risk Assessment, to see if they’re in immediate danger for their lives. And most importantly, tell them to trust their instinct.

If you are being stalked and you are based in the UK, you can call Paladin on 020 3866 4107. If you are based in the US, you can call the Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime on 855-484-2846.