Help! My friend is in an abusive relationship

When I was in my early 20s, I fell hard for someone who was addicted to drugs and ended up in what I know today was an abusive relationship.

Dave was smart, funny, and adventurous. We had all-night hangout sessions that involved talking, playing chess, and discussing our lives.

He also was unpredictable because of his addiction. Cocaine made him paranoid… and alcohol made him violent. My friends all wanted me out of the relationship as soon as they learned I was living with an addict, but they didn’t know what to say or do, and often what they had to say just made me feel like they didn’t understand or respect that I loved him.

Friend in bad relationship image

If you’re reading this, you might be worried about a friend in an abusive relationship like the one I was in. That’s why I’m writing it — to help you understand what to do (or not do) from the perspective of someone who’s been in that kind of relationship.



REMINDER: This blog is intended for general purposes only and isn’t meant to be advice about any person’s specific situation. If you have specific questions or concerns, please don’t rely on reading an article that you find online. Talk to someone in your life like a parent, life coach, or therapist to get the answers you’re looking for.



 

The most important thing to remember is that only the friend in an abusive relationship can decide whether or not to leave.

That was the thing that threw me off most when I was with Dave. My friends said things like this:

  • You can do better than him.
  • He’s using you.
  • Leave him already.
  • Things are going to get worse if you don’t leave right now.
  • Go to Al-Anon so you can learn how to leave him.

All of these things were said with the best of intentions, and I’m sure my friends were frustrated and upset that I wasn’t listening to advice that they thought was obvious.

But the problem was that ALL of that assumed that I wanted to leave the relationship, and some of it implied I was naive or in need of rescue because I was in this relationship.

Plus, some of it was flat-out wrong or based on assumptions. For example, my friends assumed because Dave was an addict, he was stealing from me or making up stories about why he needed money, which wasn’t true at all. So when they said things like this it made me double down on believing that it was him and me against a world that didn’t get it.

Relationships are complicated and negative ones doubly so. If your friend is in an abusive relationship, it probably isn't bad ALL the time and that's what makes this difficult. Click To Tweet

Most abusive relationships are unpredictable. I know mine with Dave certainly was! I never knew what I’d get when I came home from work. He might be high and lock me out of the bedroom, he might be drunk and in the mood for fighting with anyone or anything that got in his way.. or he might be totally sober and offer me a home-cooked meal.

That was what kept me there for so long. I knew what he was like when he was sober and I kept thinking if I hang on for long enough, THAT guy will come back around. 

Being the friend of someone in an abusive relationship is hard because you have to accept that you can’t rescue your friend.

You have to accept that your friend loves this person and wants to be with them even if that person is mistreating them.

You have to accept that your friend is letting someone hurt them.

You have to accept that only your friend can decide to get out of that relationship and that it might not happen before it’s too late.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t do ANYTHING.

If your friend is in an abusive relationship, here’s some things that you can do to help:

  1. Allow them to talk to you about the relationship. It helps a lot for them to have someone to talk to. If your friend complains about their partner, it’s okay to tell them what you really think (that’s what friends are for, after all), but make sure to also listen to what your friend is saying. Don’t push them to leave, but DO make it clear you’re there for them no matter what.
  2. Ask what you can do to help. Tell your friend you care about them and are concerned about what you’re hearing, and find out what, if anything, they want you to do. Don’t necessarily agree to do it, though — make sure it’s something that feels reasonable and comfortable to you first.
  3. Set boundaries. It’s easy to get sucked into your friend’s abusive relationship. But that’s not going to help anyone. It’s important that you take care of yourself and focus on what you need to do to move your life forward rather than allowing yourself to get derailed by what’s going on with your friend. So set the boundaries you need to set. For example, you can tell your friend you only have 30 minutes to talk or tell the friend you are not willing to hang out with her partner.
    Self care is key if your friend is in an abusive relationship
  4. Use the magic IF when you want to state concerns.  Using the word “if” can help make your suggestions less threatening. For example, instead of telling the friend to leave her partner, you can say something like, “If you decide you don’t want to stay in this relationship, I know of places you can go.”
  5. Consider not keeping secrets. Sometimes your friend might ask you to keep it to yourself that his partner is hurting him in some way. If that happens, you have a big decision to make: do you keep the secret and risk your friend continuing to get hurt or do you tell someone and risk his anger and sense of betrayal?  I discuss this more in  What to Do When A Friend Confides In You About Something Terrible but the basic thing to keep in mind here is that if you think your friend is in immediate danger of physical harm, it’s important to tell someone who might be able to help.
  6. Keep safety at the front of your mind. Some abusive relationships involve physical violence — and sometimes it turns deadly. Statistically, the most dangerous time for the partner of an abusive person is when she decides to leave. If your friend does decide to get out of the relationship, she might need a plan to do so safely. In addition, if the person is physically violent, you might be putting yourself in danger if you encourage your friend to leave or let her stay with you. This isn’t always the case, but sometimes it might be, so it’s important to keep your own safety in mind when thinking about ways to help your friend.
  7. Realize that it doesn’t always end when your friend walks away. Your friend probably has mixed feelings about his partner for all the reasons we talked about, and sometimes the end… isn’t the end. After leaving, your friend might miss his partner or want to go back to him — and sometimes he does go back. This can be frustrating to watch as a friend, but again, only your friend can make the decision to leave (and to stay gone). Just do your best to take care of yourself and be there for your friend in healthy ways if this happens.

What if my friend won’t talk to me?

Some abusive people isolate their victims by controlling who they spend time with or manipulating them into not spending time with their friends. 

If your friend is distancing herself from you because of an abusive partner, there’s not much you can do. However, don’t give up! Keep reaching out and trying to make plans with this friend from time to time so that if and when she is ready to leave the relationship she knows you are still there for her.

A final note about friends in bad relationships

Not all bad relationships are abusive, and not all relationships that you disapprove of require intervention. Sometimes your friends will hook up with people that you can do without. Keep being there for them in the way we discussed, but also remember that if your friend is happy and healthy and her partner doesn’t seem to be abusing her, that’s more important than whether this is the person you would have chosen for her.


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Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • May I add that there are many forms of abuse, not just physical. Emotional abuse is just as devastating, and even harder to recognize, for the victim, and their loved ones. There is also financial and sexual abuse, and often where there is one form, there are often others. Extra kudos Jack, for using “him/his” as a potential abuse victim. It does happen to men, too and nearly as often. They stay for the same reasons as women too.

    • Jack A. Ori, MSW says:

      THanks Michelle! And thank you for pointing out the other types of abuse too. Very important points and honestly this topic is worth a series of blogs because there’s no way to cover it all adequately in one post.

      • Michelle Burden says:

        It is a big subject, and pretty complicated. I can understand how hard it is for a person to understand all of the issues involved. I was in an abusive relationship, even though he never physically hurt me or even said a harsh word, it was long lasting mental/emotional abuse, that though away and safe now, I’m still struggling to be “okay” or feel like me again.

        • Jack A. Ori, MSW says:

          I’m sorry you’re going through that. I can definitely relate. Sadly, Dave passed away in 2006 and one of the first things I thought when I got the news was that it made sense in a weird, twisted way… because that was the only way I was ever going to fully break away from him.

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