A Priceless Gift: How to Support a Friend or Family Member Impacted by Domestic Violence This Holiday Season

by Jennifer Howard, Supervising Attorney of the Domestic Violence Institute

“You don’t know what he is like to live with,” explains Maria to her friend Lucy. They had been discussing holiday decorations and Lucy commented how perfect Maria’s home had been decorated, apparently by Maria’s partner. Maria goes on to describe through tears a life controlled by her partner’s endless criticism, manipulation, and physical intimidation. Maria has taken a brave step disclosing this information to her friend. How can Lucy help?

The season of joy and anticipation is upon us, as families scurry in preparation to celebrate traditions and keep everyone happy. Survivors of domestic violence likely experience the challenges that come with this time of year at a heightened level, as the realities of financial pressures clash with the desire to provide gifts, and the difficulty in keeping the peace collides with the expectation of family harmony. While there are no reliable statistics demonstrating a rise in domestic violence around the holidays; this absence is more likely a consequence of a victim or survivor’s attempts at maintaining an atmosphere of good will than it is a statement about the impact of this additional holiday stress on families coping with abuse. Moreover, what we do know is this: when survivors do reach out for help, 60% of them turn to friends and family first, compared to the 1% that call a traditional domestic violence program. This yields a meaningful opportunity for all of us to help.

What can you do if a friend of family member who is being abused reaches out to you for support this holiday season?

  • Bear witness to their pain and sorrow.
  • Respect their perspective, their opinion, privacy, and their wishes. Giving support is not the same as giving advice.
  • Avoid statements that could be construed as blaming your loved one for the situation as it exists; the question is not why he or she has stayed as long as they have.
  • Ask specifically what you can do to help? Can you run errands, provide child care, bring a meal, wrap presents, shovel the walkway, etc.? Small, tangible assistance can lighten your loved one’s load, opening up some time for them to attend to other concerns.
  • Give them reprieve from the abusive person by occupying the abuser’s time with an event out. Separation, especially around the holidays, is not always an option; giving the survivor or victim a moment or two without the oppressive presence of their abuser can be a tremendous help.
  • Research resources in your area that may offer meaningful assistance, particularly if financial hardship is looming. Local domestic violence advocacy services can be a critical first stop for understanding what support may be available. Find a safe way to communicate your research to your loved one. Offer a safe space for him or her to make calls or receive mail. Do not take it personally if your suggestions are not met with enthusiasm. The only person competent to decide what is best for his or her situation is the person in that situation.
  • Keep your door open. Isolation can be an abuser’s most dangerous weapon; keep yourself available, even if your loved one just wants to talk about it, as opposed to “do something” about it.
  • Brainstorm strategies to maximize his or her safety, keeping in mind times or places that leave them most vulnerable.
  • Share their joy. The abuse does not define their entire lives; join them in celebrating blessings as they come.

A survivor’s network of friends and family can make a significant difference in helping a survivor move toward peace; but good intentions are not enough. Listening without judgment and supporting without conditions demonstrate to your loved one they are not alone. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 24 people per minute are abused by an intimate partner. Will you be ready to respond if it affects someone you care about?

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