University of Southern California

Intimate Partner Violence

Supporting Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence

Many victims of intimate partner violence either don't know who to turn to or have had bad experiences when they've reached out for help. Your willingness to help can be important to a victim in her safety planning efforts. But while being willing and well-intentioned is good, being prepared to offer the kind of help that's needed is even better.

Possible indicators of intimate partner violence

The effects of intimate partner violence are far-reaching and can emerge in many different ways. Awareness of these effects will not only help you better understand the experience, but will help you better identify someone who is being abused.

Visible physical injury

  • Bruises, lacerations, burns, human bite marks, and fractures, especially of the eyes, nose, teeth and jaw
  • Injuries during pregnancy, miscarriage, or premature births
  • Unexplained delay in seeking treatment for injuries
  • Multiple injuries in different stages of healing

Emotional and Mental Health

  • Change in demeanor and mood (such as someone who used to be outgoing becoming introverted)
  • Psycho-somatic symptoms such as headaches, backaches, chronic pain, cardiopulmonary symptoms, gastrointestinal disorders, sleep disorders, eating disorders, sexual disorders, and fatigue
  • Anxiety-related conditions such as heart palpitations, hyperventilation, and "panic attacks," irritability, restlessness, hyper-vigilance, and exaggerated startle response
  • Dissassociation, disorientation, detachment, or numbness
  • Depression-related symptoms such as lack of interest or motivation, suicidal thoughts or attempts, and alcohol or other drug problems
  • Problems with interpersonal relationships such as separation from family and friends and others in their previous support network

In the workplace or in school, the effects of intimate partner violence can emerge as

  • Difficulty concentrating within the school and/or work setting
  • Lost productivity, chronic absenteeism or lateness, or requests for excessive amounts of time off or a leave of absence
  • Isolation and lack of participation in student organizations and activities
  • Ongoing harassment by abuser, either in person or over the phone
  • Poor employment history, or loss of employment

How can I know for sure if abused is taking place?

The only way to know for sure if someone you know is being abused is to ASK.

Common Myth - One of the common myths about victims of intimate partner violence is that they don't want to talk about their victimization. While many do make efforts to hide the battering, they often do so because they fear being embarrassed, their partner finding out, being blamed, not being believed, or being pressured to do something they're not ready or able to do. Directly asking a potential victim of intimate partner violence in private, without judgment, without pressure, and even without expectation that she/he will trust you enough to disclose, relieves her/him of the burden of coming forward on her/his own, and can tell her/him a lot about your concern, caring, and willingness to help.

Keep it simple. If there are specific observations that are the source of your concern, you might say something like, "I noticed "x, y and z" and I'm concerned about you and wonder if there is something I can do to help." Or, "It seems like you're stressed out and unhappy. If you want to talk about it now or some other time, I'll keep it between us." People are sometimes hesitant to approach a possible victim of intimate partner violence because they feel that it is "none of their business," or that their offer of help will be unwelcome. But the notion that "what happens behind closed doors" is off limits is a notion that has contributed greatly to person's isolation from help and support. Your risk of being rejected is relatively minor in comparison to the risk of contributing to her isolation. If you ask, be prepared to respond supportively.

Prepare to offer supportive and empowering assistance

There are many things you can do to prepare yourself to offer supportive and empowering assistance to a victim of intimate partner violence:

  • Educate yourself about intimate partner violence - Utilize the resources and information on this website, seek out additional resources, and understand what services are available.
  • Initiate a conversation in private and when you have enough time to talk at length, if she/he chooses to.
  • Let go of any expectations you have that there is a "quick fix" to intimate partner violence or to the obstacles a victim faces. Understand that "inaction" may very well be her/his best safety strategy at any given time.
  • Challenge and change any inaccurate attitudes and beliefs that you may have about victims of intimate partner violence. Victims aren't abused because there's something wrong with them. Rather, they are people who become trapped in relationships by their partners' use of violence and coercion.
  • The better you are able to recognize and build on the resilience, courage, resourcefulness and decision-making abilities of the individual, the more you will be able to help.

"Do's" of providing supportive and empowering help

  • Believe what she/he tells you, and let her/him know that you do. If you know the partner, remember that abusers most often behave differently in public than they do in private.
  • Listen. If you actively listen, ask clarifying questions, and avoid making judgments and giving advice, you will most likely learn directly from them what it is she/he needs.
  • Build on strengths. Based on the information she/he gives you and your own observations, actively identify the ways in which she/he has developed coping strategies, solved problems, and exhibited courage and determination, even if the efforts have not been completely successful. Help her/him to build on these strengths.
  • Validate feelings. It is common for people to have conflicting feelings—love and fear, guilt and anger, hope and sadness. Let her/him know that those feelings are normal and reasonable.
  • Avoid victim-blaming. Tell her/him that the abuse is not her/his fault. Reinforce that the abuse is the partner's problem and responsibility, but refrain from “bad-mouthing” him/her.
  • Take fears seriously. If you are concerned about safety issues, express your concern without judgment by simply saying, "Your situation sounds dangerous and I'm concerned about your safety."
  • Offer help. As appropriate, offer specific forms of help and information. If she/he asks you to do something you're willing and able to do, do it. If you can't or don't want to, say so and help identify other ways to have that need met. Then look for other ways that you can help.
  • Be an active, creative partner in a safety planning effort. The key to safety planning is taking a problem, considering the full range of available options, evaluating the risks and benefits of different options, and identifying ways to reduce the risks. Offer ideas, resources and information. Download a safety plan at http://www.ncadv.org/protectyourself/MyPersonalSafetyPlan_131.html.
  • Support decisions. Remember that there are risks attached to every decision that a victim of intimate partner violence makes. If you truly want to be helpful, be patient and respectful of her/his decisions, even if you don't agree with them.

Quicklist

DO: DON'T:
Ask Wait for the victim to come to you
Express concern Judge or blame
Listen and validate Pressure
Offer help Give advice
Support decisions Place conditions on your support

Resources for Supporting Victims

VAWnet
Information on supporting victims and survivors