Supporting someone who may be experiencing domestic violence

Research tells us that during major events such as COVID-19, domestic and family violence become more frequent and severe. If someone you’re close to is at risk, knowing how to support them can make a real difference.  

It’s very worrying when you know or suspect someone you care about is experiencing domestic or family violence, and unfortunately the pandemic may continue to cause a spike in cases.

Many households and families are continuing to experience unprecedented stress and insecurity due to COVID-19, and while this doesn’t cause violence directly, it can increase its likelihood, frequency and severity. Plus, for some people, lockdown restrictions may mean they are isolated at home with an abusive partner.

Not only is it okay to say something if you think someone you know is experiencing violence, Anne Hollonds, former Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies and current Australian National Children's Commissioner, says it’s vital.

“It’s not just those who may be at risk who ideally need to be aware of warning signs of abuse,” she says. “Family and friends need to take action if they observe behaviour that worries them, too. Initially, it’s the people in close contact with someone experiencing family violence who may be able to help the most.”

Is someone you know at risk?

Domestic and family violence isn’t just physical. It can also be emotional, financial or social. “Any type of controlling behaviour is a sign of danger,” says Hollonds, “so don’t wait to see evidence of physical violence before you feel justified in offering support.”

Other signs that someone is being abused include being afraid of their partner or seeming anxious to please them all the time, or if their partner makes all the decisions. They may also say things like, ‘My partner doesn’t like it when…’

Warning signs specific to COVID-19 include expressing strong anxiety about being isolated at home with their partner or talking about being afraid to be at home.

Not surprisingly, domestic and family violence also has a significant impact on the mental health of people who experience it, so the person you’re worried about may be anxious, depressed or unusually quiet. This may be exacerbated during COVID-19, which may be causing feelings of anxiety and worry all on its own.

As well as recognising signs of possible abuse, it can help to understand how someone who uses violence may see the pandemic as an opportunity to do so more often.

What you can do

  1. Speak up. This might feel like a difficult thing to do, but the only way to be sure there’s a problem is to ask.

    “Choose your time carefully and go in gently to avoid them putting the barriers up,” says Hollonds. “Put it back on yourself, rather than giving your opinion. Say something like, ‘I’m wondering if everything is okay at home?’ or, ‘I find it hard to hear you say that’s happened – it worries me, does it worry you?’”

    If they do become defensive, don’t be surprised. This can happen for a range of reasons. Someone feeling anxious or upset when their partner is discussed or brought up can be a warning sign of family or domestic violence.

    Don’t push them if they seem uncomfortable. “Remember that, particularly in the early stages, many people don’t see or identify themselves as a victim of domestic violence,” says Hollonds.

    Let them know you’re there if they need to talk and pay attention for signs that they’d like to.
  3. Respond helpfully. If the person you’re concerned about does open up, how you respond matters. Treat their concerns seriously, listen without interrupting or judging, and try to provide information, not advice. Resist telling them what to do or what you would do.

    Likewise, try not to say anything that makes them feel at fault, and avoid criticising their partner. While calling out the abusive behaviour is helpful, criticising the person is likely to trigger a defensive reaction.

    COVID-19 and any resulting lockdown restrictions may mean they feel more physically isolated from you and other support networks than ever. Maintain communication with regular phone calls and video chats. It’s important they know you’re there.

    Also keep in mind that leaving an abusive situation can take time. Some people may also leave and then return to the relationship. While this can be frustrating and even disappointing to witness, protect the person you’re supporting from these feelings when and if you experience them. And don’t give up on them. Remind yourself how important your support is and trust that it will have a positive impact eventually.
  5. Explore the next steps. Learn why creating a safety plan is crucial and consider the role you may be able to play in that plan. And familiarise yourself with the support organisations that are available. You or the person you’re supporting can reach out when the timing’s right.

    Options include:
    If someone you know is in immediate danger, call 000.

Looking after yourself

As well as considering the mental health and wellbeing of the person you’re concerned for, you need to look after yourself, too.

Supporting someone who’s experiencing domestic or family violence can be frightening, stressful and even frustrating at times. Being physically isolated from each other may heighten these feelings, so it’s important to seek support when you need it.

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