I think many of us are at a place in our lives where we recognize a great deal of injustice and pain occurring around us, but may be feeling helpless about how to help. It’s a terrible feeling to care, but have no idea how to show it or what to do. Today, guest writer Jennifer Scott shares some tips for helping with one particularly difficult-to-address scenario: helping a loved one heal after an abusive relationship.
Jennifer Scott shares stories about the ups and downs of her anxiety and depression at SpiritFinder.org. She offers a forum where those living with anxiety and depression can discuss their experiences.
Helping A Loved One Heal After Abuse
Your loved one has left a physically abusive relationship, and you want to help her heal. There are several things that you can do and many that you definitely should not. We will go over a few of both, along with some good places to find more information and get help.
Positive Actions and Affirmations
First, recognize that abuse victims feel isolated. They may feel ashamed that they “let” it happen or even responsible for the abuse. They likely feel inadequate and afraid that you will judge them. Many victims become used to the abuse and negative emotions. They may not see a way out. For those who have gathered the courage to leave, there is still doubt that they made the right decision, or fear that they will be hurt again. This fear is not unfounded. You need to validate your friend’s choices and help her to feel supported in all her decisions, even if she decides to go back to the abuser. Remind her that it’s not her fault and you will be there for her, no matter what.
Focus on actions that will help her to regain her sense of control, especially if they were activities her abuser did not allow her to do. Help her to get back out in the world slowly, doing things that she enjoys so that she can re-learn to rely on her own instincts. Physical activities, for example, can help her reclaim her body as her own: exercise, eating right, enjoyable movement such as dancing, gardening or creating art, all promote healthy neurochemicals and instigate a healthy daily routine. Encourage her to organize her surroundings in a way that’s pleasing to her. If she’s ready, help her tell her story. If she’s not comfortable talking about it, she can write in a journal. Claiming her experience is an important part of healing. It can be helpful to create a list of experiences where she was controlled or hurt, as a way of realizing what she’s endured and to help recognize her own strength. She needs to replace the abuser’s voice in her head with a kind voice–her own voice. Help her to laugh and to feel okay being silly. This will eventually lead her to trust again, and to reconnect to herself and the world around her.
What Not to Do
This may come as a surprise, but you don’t want to criticize her abuser too harshly. This can send the message that she should have recognized him as an abuser, leading her to once again doubt her choices or even feel the need to defend her perpetrator. You also don’t want to encourage her to try to “fix” the relationship or make it work by going to couples counseling. Nor should you try to confront the abuser yourself. Your role now is as your loved one’s support system, and she needs to be able to trust you and rely on you. Finally, never post her whereabouts on social media.
Domestic violence is new territory for you, and you might not be sure how you can help. Contact your local domestic violence resources to learn how you can help and support not only your friend, but others in your community. Many areas have monthly meetings that are open to the public, and serve as collaboration among community members and agencies to address local domestic violence concerns, brainstorm ways to better serve victims such as your friend, and raise awareness about the local effects of domestic violence.
Professional Support Is Crucial
You should encourage your friend to seek counseling. She will need more support than you’re able to provide–a domestic violence program or hotline can help her access some professional resources. Some communities offer services such as a 24/7 emergency hotline, emergency shelter, case management, crisis intervention, support groups, and counseling. All of these wonderful services can help put her in contact with those who will become a vital part of her support network, such as a therapist, lawyer, or victim advocate.
You might also suggest that she speak with a local licensed mental health practitioner about getting an emotional support animal. If she is clinically depressed, a licensed counselor can prescribe a support animal to comfort her. Unlike Mobility, Medical, or Psychiatric Service Dogs which perform specific tasks for their handlers, like seeing eye dogs or support animals for other ADA disability impairments, Emotional Support Dogs are companion animals that assist in providing comfort. For people with depression, these dogs can help provide comforting companionship and a sense of purpose.
Whatever you choose to do to help your loved one, be sure to offer suggestions and then affirm her choices and support her decisions. She will need to re-learn to love herself, and it helps to be surrounded by those who love her. Give her that, unconditionally. Show her that she’s worthy and capable of love, and she will eventually trust–again–that it is true.