If you think a friend or family member is experiencing abuse
Last year 1 in 15 women, and 1 in 33 men experienced domestic abuse at the hands of their partner or former partner. 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men have experienced this kind of abuse at some point in their adult lives.
Around a third of those who are victimised experienced ‘severe force’, and for some this is an almost continuous feature of their lives: 3 per cent of victims experienced abuse in the previous year “more than 50 times or too many times to count.”
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In this guidance we are focusing on domestic abuse by an intimate partner or ex partner, but there are other kinds of domestic abuse such as forced marriage, elder abuse and so called ‘honour’ based violence.
Who does abuse happen to?
Domestic abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. That said, some groups are at greater risk of experiencing abuse, or may face additional barriers to seeking help.
In our society, because of gender inequality, women are much more likely to be victims of domestic abuse. Women are more than twice as likely as men to be victims of abuse, and are much more likely to experience repeated abuse. You can read the director of public prosecutions’ explanation of the gendered nature of domestic abuse.
Domestic abuse affects same sex couples and follows the same pattern of power and control as those in heterosexual relationships. Individuals that identify as transgender are at even higher risk of physical violence from their current or former partner.
Domestic abuse affects people from all ethnic groups. However, the form the abuse takes may vary between communities, and some people from black and minority ethnic groups, those with insecure immigration status, or without English as a first language, may face additional barriers in getting help.
Individuals with a physical disability, long-term illness, and/or with mental health problems are at greater risk of experiencing domestic abuse and face additional barriers to getting support.
What can you do to help?
You may be able to help a friend, family member or colleague who is experiencing abuse if you:
- pay attention to changes in behaviour
- start a conversation
- listen, support and believe
- suggest further help.
Abuse isn’t always easy to spot. Even if it’s physical it may be hidden. And many abusive relationships might not have any physical violence. Domestic abuse is about one person seeking to control another , and that could be physical, emotional, financial, psychological or sexual.
Abuse can happen in a range of relationships including between partners, ex-partners and family members. Although women are at least twice as likely as men to be subject to domestic abuse, anyone could find themselves in an abusive relationship whether they are male, female, transgender, gay, straight, bisexual, young, old, disabled and from any background or culture. A victim of abuse might be confident and outgoing with friends. It doesn’t mean everything is OK at home. And abuse doesn’t always begin at the start of a relationship. In fact it is often when relationships end that the victim is most at risk. Nothing excuses abusive behaviour, but sometimes big life events like pregnancy or having a young child may make domestic abuse more likely.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when you are thinking about your friends, family and colleagues:
Have they changed their behaviour or are they discouraged from doing things that they used to? Are they seeing less of friends and family, or have they stopped going to college or work?
Have you noticed that your friend or family member seems fearful or worried about their partner’s reaction? Perhaps they have asked you not to tell their partner about something they did or somewhere they went. Being frightened, about a relationship with a partner can be a key sign of domestic abuse.
Are they checked up on a lot? Is their partner always texting or phoning them? Perhaps they seem to need to check in with their partner about what they’re doing or have mentioned that their partner checks their phone or online communication, or turns up unexpectedly.
Does their partner get jealous? Do they get accused of flirting or being unfaithful? Do they worry about spending time or being photographed with friends because of their partner’s reaction?
Has their self-esteem dropped? Do they blame themselves for things more than they used to or seem to be lacking in confidence? Have you seen them being mocked, judged or put down by their partner?
Have you noticed that your friend has little or no control over finances in the household? Do they have to explain everything they spend? Are they worrying about spending too much? Or maybe they can’t always get their money, or their partner spends most of the household income or has taken out credit and built up debts.
Has your friend or their children shown any signs of being physically harmed? Or have they said that they were threatened with physical harm? Perhaps they have physical signs such as bruises, or seem to cover themselves up more in an effort to hide bruising.
Has your friend mentioned that they have been pressured into sexual activities they feel uncomfortable with? Perhaps they feel like they have to do things they aren’t happy about in order to keep their partner happy or prevent an argument. Or maybe their partner has been posting or disseminating intimate pictures without consent.
These aren’t the only scenarios. There are many different forms of domestic abuse.
People are much more likely to tell someone close to them about abuse, rather than a specialist or the police. Starting a conversation about domestic abuse can be tough but it can be easier to admit there’s abuse if a friend asks the question. Don’t assume that someone else is better placed to talk to your friend or family member - in a fifth of cases of domestic abuse last year, nobody knew what was going on. As one victim explained ‘No one asked. No one asked, so I just didn’t tell’.
Think in advance about how and when to start a conversation about domestic abuse. Here are some tips on how you can safely and sensitively talk about abuse.
Play it safe. Try to always talk face-to-face, as your friend’s phone and social media messages could be being monitored and this may put you or them at risk. Make sure you won't be overheard or interrupted and you and your friend are both in a safe place before you start the conversation. Abusers are dangerous people and you could risk your own safety, or that of your friend, if they become aware of your intervention. It is important to be aware that you could be putting yourself in danger, so make sure you always think about safety first. Do not confront the abuser. Do not do anything that may endanger you, your friend or their children.
Always contact the police if you believe anyone is in danger, by calling 999. Police should always treat reports of domestic abuse seriously. If you wish to anonymously report an incident of suspected domestic abuse, you can call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.
Remember that you may also feel stressed or overwhelmed by getting involved in a traumatic situation. You may find it difficult to see your friend going through a hard time, and find that being the person they confide in can bring a lot of pressure. Look after yourself and call the Freephone 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247 (run in partnership by Refuge and Women’s Aid) in England, or Live Fear Free Helpline in Wales on 0808 80 10 800 if you are struggling to cope.
Find out about domestic abuse
Before you ask your friend about abuse, it is important that you feel you understand what domestic abuse is, and feel able to manage what might happen if your friend tells you that they are being abused. You can read about domestic abuse, what it looks like and what the experience is like for victims. If you live in England, you can also call the Freephone 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247 (run in partnership by Refuge and Women’s Aid). If you live in Wales you can call the confidential Live Fear Free national helpline on 0808 80 10 800. Both helplines are for friends and family of victims, as well as victims themselves, and they will be able to help you to learn more about abuse and how you can best support your friend.
Having the conversation
It is OK to talk to your friend about domestic abuse if it is safe to do so, but it is important that you are sensitive in how you do this.
Words like ‘abuse’, ‘abusive’, ‘domestic abuse’, ‘victim’ could sound off-putting. Whether or not someone’s in an abusive relationship, or going through a tough time, they may not want to label it as abuse. They may not feel ready to hear themselves, their partner or their relationship spoken about in those terms.
You might want to start the conversation focussing on how your friend is feeling.
‘I’m worried you’ve not seemed yourself lately. Is everything OK at home?’
‘Are things OK with you? Sometimes you seem scared of your partner’s response to things.’
‘You seem frightened, can I help?’
People may react in different ways to being asked about domestic abuse. They may be willing to talk and be glad of being asked. Or they may get angry, or upset. They may change the subject and not want to talk. Don’t pressure them. They might not want to tell you the first time. That’s OK, but if you carry on having worries, try talking to them again in the future. Remember they may be many reasons why they don’t want to tell you. For example, they may be frightened for their own safety, or they may be worried about their children and what might happen to them.
If they do confide in you, make sure you let them talk, and listen to what they have to say. They may be worried they won’t be believed, so be clear that you do believe them, and reassure them that it isn’t their fault. Be sympathetic and kind.
It’s OK to ask questions, but try not to make them feel overwhelmed. They may not wish to tell you everything right away. There may be some things they don’t want to talk about. You can make yourself available to them, to help them understand that they are not alone, to listen and let them know where they can turn to for more support.
It's important victims don't feel blamed by society. They may be worried they will be judged or criticized, they may even blame themselves for what is going on. So it is very important that you don't say anything that questions or blames your friend or family member for their own or their partner’s behaviour, like asking why they haven’t left, or telling them they shouldn’t put up with it.
Even if meant well, questioning or challenging them may make them less likely to want to talk to you or take any action. They need to make the best decision for them, and that may take some time. They best thing you can do is raise their confidence to make it more likely they seek help.
Tell them clearly that you believe them, be sympathetic and reassure them that this isn’t their fault. For example:
‘This must be very hard for you, I’m really glad you are telling me - I believe you and I’m here for you.’
’I’m sorry you’re going through this, you don’t deserve this and it’s not your fault. No one has a right to hurt or frighten other people.’
‘If you ever want to talk to someone, you can call the English National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247. It’s completely confidential.’
‘If you want to talk to someone there is a Welsh bilingual support available; you can call the Welsh Live Fear Free national helpline on 0808 80 10 800.’
Acknowledging abuse and seeking help is not easy. There are different ways to get help and make changes. Leaving a partner may be an option, but it is not always the route that a victim will chose and there may be many barriers to leaving. Ultimately it is their choice, but you can support them and direct them to places where they can get further help, whatever they choose to do.
However, if you think anyone is at serious danger of harm (this includes children), call the police. Sadly, people are regularly killed by partners or former partners. Call 999 if you think you, your friend or any of their family are in immediate danger.
Try not to tell your friend what to do - even if you feel it’s for the best. Try not to start sentences with ‘you should’. Instead, make constructive suggestions and offer to support them along the way:
‘You could talk to someone. There is a helpline. Everyone is trained, and understands the sort of thing you’ve been going through and it’s confidential. They offer free advice and support.’
‘If you want to talk to a specialist or the police I am happy to come with you.’
‘If you ever want somewhere to stay, you are welcome at mine.’
‘If you decide you want to leave, I will help you. There are places you can go and we can work out a plan together.’
Let your friend know that there is help available. There is also help available for you - supporting somebody may not be easy, particularly if they aren’t ready to leave a relationship. All these helplines are confidential and run by trained advisers who understand domestic abuse.
For victims, or those who need advice about abuse for someone else:
In England, call the Freephone 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247 (run in partnership by Refuge and Women’s Aid). This is open 24-hours a day, but is less busy out of working hours. It is confidential.
In Wales, call the Live Fear Free Helpline on 0808 80 10 800.
For male victims, or those supporting a male victim:
Help and support is available for male victims and their friends and family on Men's Advice Line on 0808 801 0327.
Project Dyn provide advice and support to male victims in Wales.
For those experiencing abuse in LGBT communities, and their friends and families:
Contact Broken Rainbow UK on 0300 999 5428. They also have information and an online chat service on their website.
For anyone (male or female) who wants help dealing with their own abusive behaviour:
- call Respect on 0808 802 4040.
For victims of sexual violence and their friends and families:
- call Rape Crisis on 0808 802 9999.
There are also some useful websites with information and resources, as well as links to specialist organisations who can help. Remember, somebody might check up on your computer. Find out more about covering your tracks.
The National Domestic Violence Helpline (run in partnership by Refuge and Women’s Aid) also offers specific online guidance for friends and family.
The Survivor's Handbook from the charity Women's Aid is free and provides information on a wide range of issues.
The Live Fear Free campaign in Wales has guidance and information for victims and friends and family.
Citizens Advice has online advice about dealing with domestic abuse.