I speak with many people who are trying to help a friend whom they suspect is in an abusive marriage. Many are uncertain about the extent of the problem, but they fear for their friend and want to help.
While Scripture calls us to care for the weak and to guide and protect the oppressed (Ps. 82:1–4; Prov. 31:9; 103:6; Heb. 13:3), helping victims is a difficult task. To complicate matters, some victims are not aware they are being abused, and others live with so much fear they have learned to hide what is happening.
Three Starting Points
It’s hard to speak into a friend’s life when you’re uncertain about a situation. To complicate matters, domestic abuse often means there’s danger. The situations are challenging. Walking with these tender souls takes patience and gentle persistence.
When I first sat with abused wives and listened to their stories, I made many mistakes. I was overwhelmed by what I was hearing. I didn’t think through the responses I gave or how they might affect the victims.
Over time, I have learned from my mistakes and want to share this hard-won knowledge so you know how to care for your friend. Most important, try your best to:
- not take over her choices by telling her what to do;
- avoid minimizing her abuse; instead, carefully listen to what she shares with you;
- connect her to the help of others who have experience with domestic abuse.
These are the basics, and you may need to return to them when you feel confused. Here are eight suggestions to guide you as you help your friend.
1. Express Concern Gently and Be Patient
When you suspect abuse, approach your friend sensitively. Let her know your concerns for her. You might say, “I am worried about you because you seem really stressed.” It’s OK if she’s not ready to talk about her abuse. She may feel defensive, afraid to trust you, or ashamed.
By taking a gentle approach, you give her room to share when she is ready. If you are too forceful or speak of abuse too soon, she may not see you as approachable when she is inclined to share.
2. Believe Her
Speaking up about abuse is a considerable act of courage. Victims are more likely to cover up or downplay abuse than to make it up or exaggerate it. You may find it hard to imagine that what she is saying is true—especially if her oppressor’s public presentation is good.
In time, you will be able to verify the details of her story—but when she first starts to tell it to you, it’s not the time to ask questions to satisfy your disbelief or doubt. Instead invite her to tell you more, with questions like:
- Has that happened before?
- Can you tell me more about that?
- Are there other times you feel fearful around your spouse?
Remember, victims tend to tell repetitive, sometimes incoherent, and circular stories. This is an effect of trauma, so be careful not to discredit what your friend is saying by judging how she is saying it.
Be careful not to discredit what your friend is saying by judging how she is saying it.
3. Realize She May Be Watched and Monitored
Many victims’ communications and locations are monitored electronically. Assume that any emails, texts, or messages will be read by her abuser. You might even gently warn her, “It’s common for men who struggle with control (or anger) to monitor a woman’s communication. Let’s be extra cautious about how we exchange messages.”
4. Criticize His Behavior, Not His Person
Be careful that your criticism of her abuser is not a global attack on his person but is focused on his abusive behavior. Say things like, “It was wrong for him to throw that at you and frighten you.”
You may be tempted to say, “He is so selfish” or “How can you live with that monster?” But if you criticize her abuser’s overall character, it will likely make her want to defend him. Be precise and condemn his actions and motivations, not him directly. This will help her label sin and gain important clarity.
Be precise and condemn the abuser’s actions and motivations, not his person.
5. Don’t Excuse Abuse
Make every effort not to excuse the abusive behavior. Your friend might attribute her abuser’s behavior to drunkenness, drug use, job stress, or hurt feelings. But you should never offer excuses for abuse. It is always wrong and always inexcusable.
I often remind victims that two things can be true: “Your abuser can have an addiction and be abusive, but not all addicts are abusers. Abuse is always a choice.”
6. Resist Telling Her What to Do
Do not sweep in and take over her life in an attempt to rescue her. Believe me, you will be tempted. It’s hard to witness oppression. But keep in mind that being oppressed means someone else is controlling all her choices. It’s important that your friend makes her own choices, since she will have to live with their consequences.
It’s important that your friend makes her own choices, since she will have to live with their consequences.
Instead of saying, “Here’s what you should do,” brainstorm some options with her and then ask, “What do you think is a wise next step?” “What would keep you from doing that?” “What feels doable to you?”
Helping her think through her next step signals you believe she is capable, with God’s help, of making wise choices. Take the time to help her think about what she can do, but keep in mind that it may take her months to decide. Then see how you can help her achieve it.
7. Support Her as She Shares Her Story
Your friend may have to go to court, the police, a lawyer, or her church leaders. She should not do this alone. Offer to go with her or help her find another woman who will. Help those involved in church meetings with her (pastoral staff or elders) see that their authority or sex may be intimidating. Ensure she has someone in the room who can advocate for her and help her discuss her experience afterward.
8. Seek to Connect Her with Care
Oppression is a big problem. Your friend will need lots of support and wisdom. To complicate matters, you may fear that she is in danger, learn that her children are also being abused, or her suffering is more intense than you know how to support.
Help her reach professionals who are trained in how to deal with abuse. They will work for her safety and that of her children. Friends and church leaders can call the Domestic Abuse Hotline (800-799-7233) for a victim and see what resources or options for protection might look like. It is ideal to have these supports in place before a crisis emerges.
Even though you are not an expert, your role is vital.
If you keep these items in mind, you will likely avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made. And remember, even though you are not an expert, your role is vital. You will greatly bless your friend by walking alongside her, praying with her, and reminding her that Jesus identifies with the powerless, and stands against those who harm the vulnerable (Luke 4:18). Even after you’ve connected her to professional counseling, church support, and community resources, continue to support her in these life-giving ways.
Two Further Principles
First, sometimes a victim is not ready to take steps to protect herself. When this happens, you should gently remind her of the danger she’s in and connect her with someone who will help her plan for safety. But don’t push her to take steps she’s not going to take. It’s more dangerous for a woman to leave an abusive situation and then return to it. She should flee when she’s ready to apply measures that can keep her safe, such as avoiding physical contact and having little if any communication with her abuser. I have a safety plan and assessment in my book Is It Abuse? A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims. The National Domestic Violence Hotline offers this guidance. Remind her that even Jesus fled from danger (Matt. 2:13–14; John 8:58–59; 11:53–54), as did Paul (Acts 9:22–25; 14:5–7; 17:8–10, 14). There is wisdom in having a plan and taking steps that lead her and her children to safety.
Second, if a mother discloses child abuse, a report should be made to the authorities. But as the report is investigated, the victim may be in more danger when her abuser is made aware of the report. If this occurs, seek expert help and guidance immediately. Do not wait! Connect your friend with someone who will work to establish safety for both the mother and children, before the investigation.