How to help someone who you think might be a victim of domestic abuse

If you suspect that someone may be in an abusive relationship, you can try to find a safe space and time to talk to them and let them know that you are there for help and support.

Evidence shows that victims are much more likely to confide in a friend or someone close to them, than to the police or professional services.

Don’t leave it to someone else to start the conversation – in a fifth of cases of domestic abuse last year, nobody else knew what was going on. As one victim explained: “No one asked. No one asked, so I just didn’t tell.”

Always start the conversation face-to-face – if you try and have it over the phone or social media their partner may find the messages and retaliate against them or you.  Make sure you won’t be overheard or interrupted and that you are both in a safe place before you start the conversation.

Do not confront the abuser. Do not do anything that may endanger you, the victim or their children.

What to say?

Approach the subject with obvious kindness and concern. Avoid using the labels of ‘domestic abuse’ or ‘domestic violence’ as many people don’t want to identify with these.

To start the conversation, try asking the person how things are in their relationship, or mention things you have noticed in their behaviour or the behaviour of the abuser. For example:

  • “We haven’t seen much of you recently, is everything ok?”
  • “I’ve noticed you seem a bit down, has anyone upset you?”
  • “Wow, they text you a lot – do they do that all the time?”
  • “I’m worried about you – I saw the way they looked at you and you seemed scared.”

If the person starts to talk about the abuse, try to listen with an open mind and a supportive attitude – even if you don’t agree with what they say. It can be difficult not to offer opinions about the relationship or the abuser, to criticise or to blame, but this is unhelpful because it can make the person clam up and make them less likely to talk to you later. If the person does not disclose the abuse, respect their wishes but let them know you are always there for help and support.

Don’t pass judgement.  Saying things like “Really?! That seems so unlike him” or “It sounds like you are both as bad as each other” is not helpful.

And, be careful not to offer advice – leave that to the experts. Never tell them to leave the relationship immediately, as this can be highly risky and there may be many reasons (fear for themselves and their children, lack of money or risk of homelessness) why they are unable to. The victim is the expert in their own situation.

Important things to get across 

  • Let them know that you believe them
  • Let them know that you want to help
  • Reassure them that the abuse is not their fault
  • Thank them for their bravery – it takes a lot of courage to open up about something like this
  • Let them know that help is out there – make sure they know where to find the contact details of relevant support services and helplines who can help them with safety planning

If they want to find out about what might happen to the perpetrator, and what options are available to them and the authorities, Victim Support has a simple, clear guide on this web page.

You don’t need to have all the answers. Just by listening you will be helping the person to admit what is happening, and this will break the silence around the situation.

Ask them what they want to do, or have happen next, so that they feel in control of the situation.

Ending a relationship with an abusive partner or adult family member is an extremely difficult and risky decision to make and the victim may take some time to decide to do this – and to work out how to do it safely.

Once they’ve opened up to you….

But there are some general tips that you can share with them, especially if they are still in the relationship and considering leaving:

  1. Encourage them to pack an emergency bag and to hide this in a safe place, possibly away from their home, in case they need to leave their house quickly. This might contain important documents such as passports and birth certificates, spare keys to their home or car, money, medications, some clothes and a few of the children’s toys.

  2. Help them to work out a plan for leaving including who they can call, where they might go, and how they can get there.

  3. Agree a code word with the person so they can signal to you if they are in danger or distressed and need you to access urgent help on their behalf.

  4. If they have left the relationship, the person may need to change their contact details and think carefully about who they share them with, because some of the people they know will also know the abuser and may not keep this information secret.

Practical support

People who have been in an abusive relationship often say how helpful it was to get practical support from the people they know. Here are some examples of support that you may be able to offer:

  • Being with them when they contact support organisations or helplines
  • Offering to go with them to appointments
  • Helping them to move to a safe place
  • Letting them stay at your home for a short time
  • Looking after their children so that the person has time to think, plan and receive support

They are not alone

There are several organisations that they can contact if they want to get help:

In England, call the Freephone 24 hour National Domestic Violence Helpline run by Refuge on 0808 2000 247.

Contact Women’s Aid.

In Wales call the All-Wales 24 Hour Domestic Violence Helpline 0808 80 10 800 or visit the Welsh Women’s Aid website.

In Northern Ireland call the Freephone 24 Hour Domestic Violence Helpline 0808 802 1414 or the NI Women’s Aid website.

In Scotland call the Freephone 24 Hour Domestic Violence Helpline 0800 027 1234 or visit the Scottish Women’s Aid website.

Karma Nirvana is the specialist helpline for forced marriage and honour-based abuse.  It is open 9-5 Monday to Friday. 0800 5999 247.
Or email them at info@karmanirvana.org.uk

Galop is the LGBT+ anti-violence charity which runs the National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline 0800 999 5428
Or email help@galop.org.uk

Men’s Advice Line 0808 801 0327

Crimestoppers 0800 555 111

Victim Support 0808 16 89 111

National Stalking Helpline 0345 6000 459

Revenge Porn Helpline 0345 6000 459

There’s also a helpline offering advice, information and support for men who want to stop being violent and abusive towards their partner:
Respect Phoneline 0808 802 4040

You can find your local domestic abuse service on the Domestic Abuse Directory.

Women’s Aid has also created The Survivor’s Handbook, a comprehensive resource for women experiencing domestic violence.