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September 29, 2011 9:33 AM   Subscribe

A friend in another state spent the night in a domestic violence shelter. What can/should I do to help?

My friend is in a long-term live-in relationship with a guy. I've known her since we both lived in the same east-coast metro area six years ago; I'm in the southwest now and she's in Virginia, but we still talk on IM or the phone a few times a month. She's been mentioning the guy's abusive behavior for at least six months. It's infrequent, and not violent enough to leave marks/bruises -- she says that once he pulled her by her ponytail away from a display, in public; several other times he's just hit her. Throughout, I have been encouraging her to leave the guy and seek other living arrangements, whether temporarily with a shelter, or with friends/family. She owns a car (he does not) and she has a part-time job that provides some income, but not enough to make rent on her own in her current area. Her family lives in other states and is not financially well-off.

She gave me the following justifications for not leaving: "Oh, he only does it when he's upset, and we're working on making that better." "If I leave and take the car, how will he get to work?" and, "I worry I'll be taking up a bed in the shelter that someone with a more abusive spouse could use." I disagree with these justifications, and have encouraged her to seek help and leave.

Last night I got a late-night text message from her, saying he'd hit her again and she'd got in the car and left, but didn't know where to go. I called her, and she'd been on the phone with her local domestic violence shelter. She stayed there last night, and is apparently now connected with some local resources. I talked to her this morning, and she sounded stunned, for lack of a better word.

Long story aside: I really want to support my friend in getting help and not going back to this abusive situation. I am on the other side of the country, so there's not much I can do in terms of offering a place to crash, etc. I'm a grad student, so there's not much I can do in terms of money. I will continue to listen to her and gently encourage her to continue getting help/support, but can anyone recommend other steps I can take to support her in getting help, taking care of herself, and not going back? I don't want to be preachy, but I also want to make sure she knows that her friends care about her and want to see her safe, and this guy is, based on what she's told me, in no way safe.
posted by Alterscape to Human Relations (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Keep talking to her. It sounds like she needs a sounding board, and you've already done a lot to help her to keep perspective about how completely nonnormal her situation is. She might be feeling lonely or guilty right now. Keep talking to her to help her keep up her spirits, and to maintain the sense of clarity that helped her to leave.
posted by pickypicky at 9:43 AM on September 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yes, keep talking to her and make sure you're calling/texting her more often than she's calling/texting you. Sometimes when we need help (we in the general sense; I've never been in an abusive partnership) we feel bad for leaning on people so much and we stop calling.

Is there a mutual friend in the area you could point her to, or do you have a good friend where she lives who you could introduce her to?
posted by cooker girl at 9:54 AM on September 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

In this situation, just being someone she can listen to, someone who is on her side, and who is supporting her in knowing that she is 1000% right in leaving this guy, is what she needs right now.

DV shelters have professionals who are well-trained and experienced with the practical stuff such as finding an apartment, job-hunting and practical things. From your post, it sounds like she has practical resources. What she needs now is as many strong, supportive people who are in her corner as she can get friendship-wise, and you are one of them.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:54 AM on September 29, 2011

Sometimes when we need help we feel bad for leaning on people so much and we stop calling.

This, lots. If she seems at all like she feels guilty for dragging you down or something, try to be reassuring, and reach out a lot on your own.

Also, I find that I really enjoy talking with normal people about normal things, if that makes any sense. Since I've been in the hospital program I'm in now, I've spent a lot of time talking with a friend about science and politics and it's been great because I spend hours every day talking about my issues with people who are paid to be there, and I feel so weird and isolated and different at the end of the day. It's like I'm not me, I'm just the Reason I Need Help, and that seriously blows.

Your friend is going to have to spend some time finding herself again, and that's just as important as ending the relationship was/is.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 10:02 AM on September 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

-contact your local friend's shelter and ask them about how you can help your friend despite being out of state
-call your friend at least three times a week to talk about whatever you two want to talk about (your days, tv shows, music, and if she's comfortable more information that she can disclose) and text her on the days when you don't call her by saying kind things like "thinking of you" and "i hope you are okay" to let her know that you care about her
-send her care packages that she can pick up from the local shelter (items should include toiletries, comfort food, cash, etc...)
-ask her if there is anything in particular that you can do to help her out, she may or may not say what she needs help with, if she says that she is okay then let her know that you are always here for her regardless of what she needs help with or when she needs help
posted by sincerely-s at 10:04 AM on September 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

My number one regret when I was in a similar situation was not reaching out enough (the woman ended up going back to her husband and is with him to this day). So, I completely agree-- just stay in touch and be there for her and do everything you can to not make her feel alone, or like she's imposing on you.
posted by stoneandstar at 11:15 AM on September 29, 2011

I left an abusive relationship two months ago. For my safety, I had to walk away from 2/3 of my "local" friends in that area. I also had to move out of town.

The whole thing was scary and embarassing and shameful and nerve wracking.

But two months later, it's one of the best things I ever did for myself. Please tell your friend, from me, this gets better. There will be resources. Her friends from her life "before" will be there for her in whatever ways they can. She will find a way to support herself, and inside herself she has the courage to keep her back turned to this guy.

She needs to not answer any of his phone calls, not meet him anywhere to discuss things, and not blame herself for any of what has happened in the past. She can take responsibility for some of it, but not blame.

As others have said above, keep reaching out to her. For the first few weeks I was so needy and so overwhelmed, but reaching out to other people was physically painful. I didn't really want to be talking about what happened, but I wanted to be talking to people. I needed to be surrounded by the best parts of my old old life, while all around me were reminders of my recent life. I still haven't unpacked all of my boxes, because I'm just not ready to face some of the stuff.

All of this rambling to say. I've been there. Recently. It's fresh. But it's already ten thousand times better. Just hang in there and keep putting one foot in front of the other.
posted by bilabial at 11:31 AM on September 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

A few things:

1) If it's actually a confidential shelter, they won't even acknowledge that she's there, and likely won't even agree to pass on information, packages, etc. You can still try, but be prepared to hear "We don't give out information about who is here, or our address".

2) Don't judge her, even if she does things you disagree with. The shame and isolation associated with DV arise in part because victims do things that non-victims don't understand. If she leaves the shelter and goes back to the abuser, continue to talk to her, support her, etc.

3) Ask her what she needs (as others have said). You can make all kinds of plans about how to help, but what you do needs to be based on what she wants from her support network.

4) Don't pin your measurements of how much you're helping based on whether she goes back to the guy or not. You're successful in supporting your friend as long as you answer the phone when she calls, listen to her when she cries, and continues to be a point of stability in an otherwise unstable and dangerous situation. Most victims will not be successful in leaving on their first attempt, and this is not a failure on their part.

5) Take care of yourself. Supporting someone that's in an abusive relationship is hard. Figure out what local resources are available to you, both to help you understand the nature of domestic violence, and to help you work through the frustrations and other emotions that you might encounter. I think most DV agencies can support friends/families as well as victims themselves.
posted by Gorgik at 12:22 PM on September 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

And bilabial, congrats on getting out.
posted by Gorgik at 12:23 PM on September 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

+1 to Gorgik. Victims aren't to blame for their victimhood, but they do fall into patterns of behavior with their abuser that are hard for outsiders to understand, let alone break. Your friend is probably more likely to have a change of thinking if she comes to it herself. The ways for you to increase the likelihood of her attaining some clarity is to be available to listen and be non-judgmental about her situation. This is probably more difficult than it sounds because you have a different perspective, and little or no support of your own. Never support or agree with any statements that she may have brought this on herself, and don't suggest that she do any joint counseling with her boyfriend.

Gently suggest that she continue to let a professional with DV counseling experience help her evaluate her situation and her own specific needs. Remind her that the people who help with services are in a better position to judge which services are appropriate to her situation and that she should ask them if she's worried about it.

FWIW, her history seems classic. I would bet money that there are prior victims in his past. The DV abuser who does this stuff in public is dangerous. Don't get into any conversations with him, and you certainly should not discuss your private conversations with your friend with anyone, let alone him.
posted by Hylas at 1:21 PM on September 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

If she goes back to him, please don't assume that she's doing it for bad or stupid reasons. She may need time and specific, concrete assistance to be able to leave safely.

Some discussion: "Why doesn't she leave?
"Why don't women just leave abusers?"
posted by Lexica at 2:02 PM on September 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

This article is also along the same lines as Lexica's and may also be useful (NSFW blog)
posted by Blasdelb at 4:34 PM on September 29, 2011

I've spent many years working in shelters for women.

Keep in mind - most women leave and go back to the relationship several times before making a final break. Emotional abuse is sometimes a lot harder for women to explain because there are no visibly marks.

Just keep supporting her - let her talk and just listen. Don't comment or offer advise - she needs to work this out on her own. Careful about criticising the abuser, as that often puts women in to a position of having to defend him. Focus on her and her needs.

Let her know her feelings are normal. Many abused women feel like they are going crazy. Isolation from families and friends is a key strategy in abuse - so sometimes women get overwhelmed being in a shelter, because they have been threatened for years and told not to talk to anyone. Let her know it’s important to talk – and that she is not alone with this experience.

I sometimes ask women: "If a stranger on the street walked up to you and - hit/put down/criticised you – how would you feel?”. Most women respond that they would be outraged. And then I ask “then why is it okay when your partner does that to you?”. It’s not meant to create defensiveness – but to get women to understand on how we minimize abuse when it is someone close to us.

If she does go back – read up on creating ‘a safety plan for abused women’. The shelter should go over that with her. Maybe set up a safe email/communication system on-line. There is a lot of information on-line about abused women and on-line safety.

She obviously reached out to you because she see's you as support. Be that support.
posted by what's her name at 10:07 AM on September 30, 2011

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