09/11/2014 08:46 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2014

What You Should Do Instead Of Asking A Friend Why She Stays In An Abusive Relationship


Following the release of a video showing Ray Rice assaulting his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer -- and Rice's subsequent suspension from the NFL -- many survivors of domestic violence have come forward to share their stories and their reasons for staying in violent relationships.

The outpouring of responses has made two things abundantly clear:
1. There is no one answer to the question, "Why did you/do you stay?" and
2. That should not be the question we ask victims.

Even if it were easy to "just leave" -- which it is not -- doing so certainly doesn't ensure a battered woman's safety. The Atlantic cites a staggering statistic: A victim of intimate partner violence is 75 percent more likely to be murdered if she attempts to leave.

But putting aside the question of why or when someone leaves an abusive relationship, what can you do if you suspect your friend, family member, or coworker (female or male) is in one? Here are 10 things to know before you intervene:

1. Recognize the warning signs. According to Katie Ray-Jones, president and CEO for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a notable change in a person's mood or personality could be an indication that something is wrong. If your friend stops talking about her relationship, you might question why that is. And, if that person starts to rag on themselves more than usual, it could be because their self-esteem is being destroyed at home. Perhaps most obviously, bruises on her body or a change in the way she dresses, in order to hide those marks, are major signs that something is very wrong.

2. Avoid judgmental language like, "You're smarter than that" or "How did you let this happen?" Yes, you may think that you're being supportive, but your friend might internalize that type of phrase and think she or he should be ashamed, Ray-Jones says. Victim-blaming is the last thing you want to do.

3. Ease into the conversation. Start with, “I'm really concerned... are you doing OK?,” Ray-Jones suggests.

4. But if that doesn't work, use statements instead of open-ended questions. Pam Smieja, a public speaker and educator on domestic violence, told O Magazine in 2006 that questions like, "What's going on?" might yield a lie. Instead, "look her in the eye, and say, 'If you need me, I'm here for you,'" Smieja recommends.

5. If confronting someone directly feels too uncomfortable, consider dropping subtle hints. If it's a coworker who you're concerned about, leave the number to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, or another local resource, on her desk. Another approach could be to bring up a news story (perhaps about Janay Rice), and see if that prompts a more personal conversation on the subject.

6. Skip the previous three suggestions if it is possible to be direct. Ray-Jones says that, depending on the relationship, it's best to tackle the topic head on. "Hey I'm concerned, ever since you starting dating George, I'm not seeing you as much," is one conversation starter she recommends. Or even more direct: “You know, the way you said he reacted to an argument you had? That sounds abusive to me.”

7. Focus on the victim, not the abuser. "The victim feels anger from her partner already," Miriam Ehrensaft, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Glamour in 2011, adding, "If she feels it from you, too, she's less likely to hear what you have to say."

8. Don't expect the person you confront to leave his or her partner right away. Your friend is not going to say, “OK, I’m going to break up with him immediately or divorce him,” just because you've started the conversation, Ray-Jones explains. Statistics say that a victim leaves their abuser seven times before it becomes permanent. It's a slow process, and patience on the part of that person's community is key.

9. Don't confront the abuser. You'll probably feel a burning desire to take matters into your own hands, but Ray-Jones warns that that approach will likely put everyone in danger. Remember that you're dealing with a violent person who may have threatened his victim with greater violence if she ever speaks up.

10. Have a safety plan for when your friend does decide to leave. Ray-Jones stressed the importance of not telling the abuser that his partner is planning on leaving. Before she does, you need to identify the safest place for her to go. If you're the closest person to her, that might not be your house. Find a local resource or counselor to guide her through the process. The Hotline and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence both list resources on their websites.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.



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