I have a friend or loved one who is being abused. I want to get her out of her situation but she will not leave her abuser. What can I do?

I know the grief that this must cause you. You must feel very powerless and afraid for your loved one. However, since she is presumably a competent adult (albeit one who is being controlled and possibly terrorized by an abuser), there is little that you can do about it legally. I have known many people in this horrible situation and essentially it is a very frustrating position to be in. It is important to understand that in most states, reporting intimate partner abuse to the police is not mandated (except by medical professionals when certain severe injuries have occurred), and this should always be a decision that the victim herself makes. She knows best whether this action is more likely to help her or hurt her. (Of course, if an assault is actively occurring, calling 911 is appropriate.) Find your state’s domestic violence laws here

A victim is most likely very afraid to do anything to defy or anger her abuser since she knows he can and probably will retaliate in some way if she tries to leave him. He could abuse her more severely; even kill her, for reporting the abuse. Abusers have many ways to punish their victims – they frequently have them wrongly committed to psychiatric facilities, hurt the children, threaten their family members, cut them off financially, get them fired from their job, have them falsely arrested for abuse, report lies about them to their employer, Child Protective Services, authorities, their faith leader and/or their family, take out a restraining order against them, snatch and hide the children from them, and/or take legal custody of the children. Sadly, this is why many abused women choose to stay with their abusers until the children are out of the house. Things typically get worse and more dangerous for victims when they try to leave their abusers, so it is very important for them to carefully and secretly plan their escape if possible.

A word of caution: If you try to take control of your loved ones life, and make choices for her instead of empower her to make her own choices, you will most likely alienate her and cause her abuser to isolate her further.  Unless a victim is open to help, and asks for or accepts your help, you can support her best by not rejecting her and keeping the lines of communication open with her. Let her know that the abuse is not her fault, that you do not blame her and that you are always there for her, willing to act when and if she is ready to make a change.

Since her abuser is likely to be monitoring her actions, phones, computer, etc. very closely, I would caution you not to talk with her on the phone about her situation or send e-mails or texts about the abuse. In-person communication with her is the safest, away from the home where she may be being recorded. Remember, the more information the abuser has about your attempts to assist or become involved, the more he is likely to isolate her from you. He could even become a danger to you.

You might consider contacting the domestic violence agency nearest you to see if you can arrange to meet with an experienced domestic violence advocate for support and information. Talking with friends violates her confidentiality, and even experienced counselors, doctors and faith leaders have very little understanding of the nuances and safety issues involved with domestic violence, so talking with DB experts is the safest and wisest move. You may also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or reach out to your state's Coalition Against Domestic Violence for information or support. Find your coalition here.

If your loved one has confided in you about the abuse, it is critical that you not betray her trust and break confidentiality with her for ANY reason unless the law requires you to do so. For example, if she tells you her child has been abused, or you suspect this, you may be legally obligated (or feel morally obligated) to report this information to Child Protective Services (CPS). However, know that doing so often creates a more dangerous and difficult situation for an abused mother. If you are planning to make a report, consider first discussing your concerns with her and suggesting that she make the report herself. This will put her in a better position and demonstrates to CPS that she is a protective parent. If you are a mandated reporter of child abuse, explain this and offer to sit with her while she makes the call. Be sure first that a DV advocate has safety planned with her if possible.  She may even need to go to a DV shelter before making the report, since her partner will likely be infuriated and retaliate. If she chooses not to make the report right away, let her know that you will be doing so at _____ (pick a time - such as noon the next day) if she has not already called. This empowers and supports her, does not betray her trust or confidentiality, and does not further endanger her or children. Click here for more information and help understanding the dilemma of abused mothers and their children.

The hardest thing for a friend or loved to do is to surrender their desire to handle and manipulate the situation themselves. As heartbreaking as it is, this is best until the victim is willing and ready to take action or leave her abuser. If you try to coerce her (which is what he does), you will likely push her away from you. She will fear that your interference will endanger her and make things worse. Victims are often traumatically bonded to their abuser, which creates a confusing dependence on him that is hard to understand from the outside looking in. The systematic, constant coercive control exercised by an abuser is akin to a hostage situation, and relationship dynamics akin to Stockholm Syndrome might be occurring. For information on about this see this article and/or the excellent book Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman MD. 

Finally, as a loved one or concerned friend, you may be under a great deal of stress yourself because of your concern and sense of powerlessness. I highly recommend that you address your own self-care needs and develop some practices which contribute to your own emotional well-being and peace of mind. You may be at risk for developing what is known as vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue. Learn more about vicarious trauma here.

I hope you will find some ways to take to care of yourself and find some inner peace as you deal with the heartbreak of this very difficult situation.