How to help a friend in a toxic relationship
It can be heartbreaking to watch someone you care about remain stuck in a dangerous situation. And it can be hard to know how to help a friend in a toxic relationship. It’s easy to feel powerless. So if you have a friend in a dangerous marriage or other abusive situation, what can you do?
One of the most important things to keep in mind – and hopefully this is a relief – is that there are some wonderful organisations out there who can help. The best professionals know when they are getting outside their area of expertise, and the importance of connecting people with the best support. So the number one tip we have to give, far above any other piece of advice, is to help your friend connect with experts who can help them. That is, refer.
Ask the right people for the right kind of help
In Australia, we are very blessed to have a nationwide service dedicated to helping people in abusive relationships. 1800RESPECT is a wonderful service that can help with questions like, “Is this relationship abusive?” But they can also help victims of abuse to work out safe escape plans – and that’s vital. Without exaggeration, sometimes having a safe escape plan could be the difference between life and death.
If you aren’t sure how to help, just encouraging someone to contact 1800RESPECT can make a huge difference. You might even help save a life.
How else can you help?
Having said that connecting people with expert help is incredibly important, it’s not the first step. Before anything else, it’s best to listen, and believe.
1. Start by listening
If you want to help a friend in a toxic relationship, start with listening.
Listening well can be hard work. It’s an act of service and a skill that relies on us to practice the fruit of the Spirit. Think especially about patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. But at the simplest level, a great goal is to focus on understanding. Do you understand what your friend is saying, and how they feel about it?
Being listened to, and understood, is hugely important. For all of us. But especially if we are suffering. So one of the greatest investments we can make in loving the people around us is to develop our listening skills. That’s a journey we can stay on for the rest of our lives – there’s no such thing as a perfect listener.
“This is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight”1
Working on our listening skills is a wonderful way of increasing our knowledge and depth of insight about love.One of the greatest investments we can make in loving the people around us is to develop our listening skills Click To Tweet
If you suddenly find yourself in a situation where someone is in difficulty and they need you to listen well, here are some quick tips:
Quick tips on listening well
1. Take James’ advice:
“Be quick to listen, slow to speak”2
Take a deep breath if you need to. Give them your full attention. You might need to remove any distractions and perhaps get into a place where you are free to talk. Give your friend space just to talk and be heard.
2. Focus on them and their story, not your own.
As tempting as it might be to take up space with your own experiences, reign that temptation in and focus on listening to your friend.
3. Listen with grace and avoid making judgements.
Keep in mind you likely don’t know the full details. People tend to clam up if they sense they are being judged, so stay open to what the person is saying.
4. Check with them if they feel you are understanding correctly.
Be open to correction. Even if you misunderstand at first, showing that you want to understand makes it clear you are sincere.
5. Silence is fine.
Don’t rush to fill every silence. It might be that your friend is taking time to process things. Give them the space they need. Doing so is a service to them.
6. Listen to their feelings as well as their situation.
Just making simple, heartfelt responses like, “Oh wow”, “I’m so sorry you’ve been dealing with all this”, or, “No wonder you feel hurt”, can go a long way to help someone feel heard and understood.
For the most part, you can tell if you are listening well by the way they respond. Ask them if what you are doing is helpful. Again just simple questions like, “Is this helping?”, or, “Do you feel like I’m getting it?” can give them a chance to let you know what they need from you.
If you have the need or interest in strengthening your support skills, you might be interested in checking out the Accidental Counsellor courses offered by Relationships Australia, or a Mental Health First Aid course. Listening is a relationship skill well worth investing in – in good times and bad.
2. Believe them
So many victims of abuse are simply not believed. And many abusers use tactics to boost that disbelief. To be listened to, taken seriously, and believed, can bring hope and life to a person. It’s vital.
The tactics abusers use can be so effective! Take the situation with Jonathan, David, and King Saul, for example. David was Jonathan’s best friend, but Jonathan was so taken in by Saul’s tactics that he flatly refused to believe David.
Meanwhile, David’s life was at risk. A fact that was obvious to many people. Just not to Jonathan. That can be a warning for us.
So, here are a few quick tips to keep in mind:
- What the victim describes might be completely different from your experience of their abuser.
- The abuser might be well respected and admired.
- The abusive behaviour might be so shocking that it’s difficult to believe. (One might wonder, “How could anyone possibly behave that way?”)
None of the above situations is proof that the abuse isn’t real.
What can make things more complicated is that the abuser might claim the victim is the true abuser. Turning the tables like that can make it difficult to know who to believe. If you aren’t sure, start by taking every accusation of abuse seriously – but call an expert for help. Again, let us recommend 1800RESPECT. They are there to help with exactly this type of situation.
Perhaps it might seem like a small thing, but one of the best ways you can help a friend in a toxic relationship is just to believe them.
3. Refer to an expert
One measure of a good professional is their willingness to refer people to those who have the right expertise. They love passing people on to those who can help them best.
We ought to take that attitude too. To be humble and know our limits. Then we can be free to help in the ways we can, knowing that others are doing their part also.
Where to refer to
Here are some contacts in Australia, and other ideas that might be useful:
The first place to call. They can help victims work out safe escape plans, answer questions about abuse and domestic violence, and help them find other support services.
1800RESPECT also have a great guide to supporting people who are experiencing domestic or family violence, here. Plus, they have a great database of support services, here. (Call 1800 737 732)
Not every therapist will be competent in dealing with abuse or domestic violence. They have their own areas of focus and expertise. But many wonderful, abuse and trauma-informed therapists are out there, and it’s worth looking around. Many professionals would say that couples counselling is not a good idea when abuse is involved. It’s best to at least start with individual counselling.
The Fair Work Ombudsman
Not all abuse takes place in family settings. Abuse in the workplace, including in churches and Christian ministries, is extremely common. Check out FairWork’s information on workplace bullying here, and their contact information here. (Call 13 13 94.)
Centrelink can help with payments and access to other services. Check out their guide, here: How we can help you with family and domestic violence concerns – Family and domestic violence – Services Australia.
Abuse is complicated. When seeking help, try to keep in mind that different professionals have their own areas of expertise, and that might not be in abuse. It’s incredibly important to know your limits, and theirs.
One common and dangerous error that has been noted in religious communities, including the Christian community, is pressure on victims of domestic and family violence to return to their abuser.3 That pressure can place lives at risk, so be on guard.
However, a good professional knows when they are beyond the limits of their expertise and will help victims find expert help.
Having said that, victims of abuse often need many kinds of support. Other, trustworthy professionals can be an invaluable part of a support crew: doctors, youth workers, pastors, and teachers for example.
4. Stay Present
What can often happen is that friends and family are supportive in the beginning, while the journey for a victim of abuse can go on for years and years. Long after their friends have moved on. That’s especially true in domestic and family violence cases where children are involved. That is, even after leaving an abusive marriage, a victim of domestic violence may need to share parenting with their abuser for many years, leaving them, and their children, open to continued abuse.
We all have our limits, and we need to consider self-care as well. But I love this verse from Hebrews, which speaks to one of our core principles at The Abigail Project:
Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.4
If you want to know how to help a friend who is in a toxic relationship, standing with them for the long term can be an incredible gift.
Recovery can take years
Similar to many chronic illnesses and disabilities, abuse and the trauma it causes can be invisible. An abuse victim may well feel social pressure to hide what they are dealing with. Sadly, it can be especially easy to pressure people that way in the Christian community. When we do, we might well be adding spiritual abuse to other burdens a person is carrying. Instead, it can be much more helpful to let the person with the burden guide you. What kind of help would they find great right now? That might be quite different from a week ago, a year ago, or 6 years ago.
That doesn’t mean we need to remain lifelong friends with every person who is carrying a burden. But what we can do is try to make conscious choices about the way we help others, and certainly not assume in cases of abuse that the appearance of “still waters” means everything is now ok.
Having supportive friends who listen, believe, and offer the right kind of practical help when needed, can make all the difference for a person who is suffering.
Steve WadeSimilar to many chronic illnesses and disabilities, abuse and the trauma it causes can be invisible. Click To Tweet
- Philippians 1:9
- James 1:19
- See Truong et al: Faith-based communities responses to family and domestic violence
- Hebrews 13:3