Like all intimate connections, romantic relationships are emotionally complex; even the best will have moments of conflict, sadness, and anger, along with joy and fulfillment. How people treat each other in those difficult moments says a lot about the quality of the relationship. When a relationship is unhealthy or abusive, those negative elements intensify into patterns of control, disrespect, and manipulation. Intimate partner violence (IPV), also called relationship abuse, dating violence, or domestic violence, can cause major emotional and physical harm. Over time, those abusive patterns can escalate to involve sexual or physical assault, threats of violence, or coercion. IPV can happen between current or former partners, and can happen in the context of sexual, romantic, and other intimate relationships.
“IPV can feel extremely chaotic and difficult to understand,” says Cari Ionson, Sexual Violence Response and Awareness Coordinator at Mount Royal University in Alberta. “Within abusive relationships, a cyclical pattern can emerge: First tension builds where it feels like you’re walking on eggshells. Then an explosive, violent, or abusive event may occur, followed by a ‘honeymoon’ phase, with sincere-seeming apologies, gift buying, or promises to change.”
What to do if a friend is experiencing IPV
There are many ways to support a friend who may be experiencing relationship abuse. Most of these steps are just ways of being a good friend. Small and simple actions can make a big difference for our friends and can help build a community where people support each other.
Why does this matter so much? Research shows that unconditional support via social networks is vital to coping with relationship abuse (Women’s Studies International Forum, 2004). That doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything your friend says—but it helps enormously if your friend knows you’re always there for them, ready to help.
IPV can take a range of forms and can be hard to identify from the outside. “When we think about IPV, we tend to think about physical violence, sexual violence, and emotional or psychological aggression such as threatening with violence, name calling and insulting, and then stalking,” says Dr. Deinera Exner-Cortens, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary in Alberta. “Always ask the question, ‘do you feel safe?’—if they don’t, then I’m concerned. Sometimes we may be looking for a black eye, but if we’re only focusing on that, we’re missing the whole spectrum of what’s going on.” While all relationships are different, the following patterns are common:
- Isolation. In a healthy relationship, each person talks to and communicates with their friends and family as they’d like. Abusive behaviours include preventing a partner from spending time alone with friends or family, or constantly calling or texting to keep tabs on a partner. “People who are abusive can feel threatened or jealous of friendships and work to separate their partner from their friends. When people are isolated from their relationships and community, they’re easier to control,” says Ionson.
- Invasions of privacy. In a relationship, each partner is entitled to privacy. Violating that privacy is a major warning sign. Red flags include checking a partner’s emails, texts, or social media without their permission, or monitoring where a partner goes. “Apps can show the location of where people are, computer history can reflect the sites and pages that have been visited, and social media can be used to monitor a social group, looking at who likes whose pictures, where people are at, and what they’re doing,” says Ionson.
- Emotional manipulation. This includes belittling comments or put-downs, sudden or explosive anger, and jealousy or possessiveness. These behaviours can make a person feel anxious and nervous about doing anything to upset their partner. Emotional manipulation can also include over-the-top gestures, such as extravagant gifts early in a relationship. “Much of what he did was very subtle. He said things that were flattering, but aimed to control me,” says a graduate student at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.
- Using or threatening physical violence. This can mean anything from destroying possessions—phones, glasses, clothes, or other property—to physically harming a partner. Some abusers also threaten self-harm as a kind of manipulation. Making someone nervous or uncomfortable can be a deliberate power tactic. “In unhealthy relationships, your partner does things that are meant to make you fearful,” says Casey Corcoran, Program Director at Futures Without Violence, an advocacy organization working to end violence against women and children.
- Pressuring or forcing sex or physical intimacy. Pay attention to signs of sexual pressure, such as being pushy about sexual activities or ignoring signals of disinterest. Sexual pressure is always unacceptable, including in romantic relationships. “It’s never OK to pressure someone for sex. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been dating for a long time or have had sex before,” says Corcoran. “A previous sexual encounter with someone isn’t an all-access pass that excuses forceful or threatening behaviour,” says a first-year graduate student at Ashford University in California.
People experiencing abusive encounters and relationships tend to tell a friend, studies show. If you’re that friend, you can make a difference. If you think someone might be experiencing abuse, these steps can help outline what seeking support may look like.
IPV isn’t always obvious. Because of the isolation and manipulation that characterize abusive relationships, your friend may be hesitant to directly ask for help. Therefore, pay attention to how your friends’ relationships are going, and pay attention for signs of isolation and control. It’s important to check in even if you aren’t sure that the relationship is abusive. Checking in is a way of being a good friend, and it sets the norm of being supportive.
Recognizing troubling dynamics within established relationships isn’t much different from recognizing such dynamics elsewhere. Whether the interaction involves a couple, acquaintances, or strangers, you can likely tell when someone is experiencing pressure, disrespect, or unwanted attention.
You might be thinking of a friend whose relationship isn’t entirely respectful or fulfilling. Low-level disregard and disrespect (e.g., belittling or putting a partner down) aren’t the same as a pattern of controlling behaviours (disrespectful behaviours that work together to establish control in the relationship). Still, it’s a sign that the relationship may be unhealthy and we should be wary.
We all want the best for our friends and want their relationships to be healthy and fulfilling. Of course, it’s important to intervene if your friend is experiencing IPV, but it’s also important to step in if your friend is experiencing lower-level disrespect within a relationship. This disrespect may escalate to violence over time, or it may be an outward sign of problems in the relationship that aren’t publicly visible. It’s also a problem in its own right: Everyone deserves to have their boundaries and desires respected.
“Trust your gut,” says Dr. Exner-Cortens. “If your friend tells you something about their relationship that doesn’t sound healthy, try saying, ‘I want you to be safe. I’m concerned about your safety and some of the things you’re telling me make me really worried. How are you feeling in this relationship?’ This will let them know that you’re safe to come to.”
Just as you may not be sure whether or not your friend is experiencing IPV, even your friend may not be sure or may be in denial about the severity of the problem. “I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. My sight was thwarted because I was in love; it was very confusing. I knew something wasn’t right but couldn’t place my finger on it,” says a second-year undergraduate at Berea College in Kentucky.
Signs to watch out for
- A friend who becomes out of touch or hard to reach
- A friend giving up activities or friendships that used to be important to them
- A friend who seems on edge around their partner
- A partner being pushy, aggressive, or suddenly angry
This sounds simple, and it goes a long way. Abusive relationships often function by isolating the abused person from their support network, especially friends and family. Being present for your friend can be powerful in and of itself by counteracting the isolation they experience.
If your friend is being isolated, it can be hard to get in touch with them. “In relationships with violence, people have their control taken away from them,” says Dr. Exner-Cortens. Keep trying and work to include your friend in your social circle. If your friend isn’t responding to texts or is flaking on your plans, that’s a sign that it’s even more important to keep reaching out. “Don’t take it personally,” says Corcoran. “When you reach out and stay in touch—even if your friend isn’t texting back or returning your calls—your friend knows that you care and may reach out to you in the future.”
Your friend might tell you directly about their relationship concerns, or you might need to start the conversation. It may feel unsettling to start talking about it—you may be more used to talking with friends about past experiences, such as a sexual assault, where you’d want to follow their lead on when and how to address it. In the case of ongoing relationship abuse, though, you may need to do more to help keep your friend safe.
How to approach the conversation
Express your feelings clearly and kindly, and avoid speaking negatively about their partner. Saying negative things about the partner or telling them to break up can cause your friend to become defensive and closed off, which makes it harder for you to help them. Focus on your friend’s experiences and your own concerns. Try language such as:
- “I have to be honest: I feel worried about you. You used to really care about the swim team, but now you’ve quit. I want you to know that I’m here for you if you ever need to talk about how you’re doing.”
- “That comment your partner made about your weight really didn’t sit right with me. You deserve to be treated with respect, and it’s hard to see someone talk to you like that.”
- “I can see that your partner is texting you over and over. Is everything OK? It feels pretty controlling that they’re demanding so much of your time.”
- “Your friends are here for you—but we’ve been thinking about you and want to make sure everything’s OK with your relationship. If you need anything or anyone to talk to, we’re here, but a counsellor or mentor might know more about what to do in this situation. Would you consider talking with someone like that? One of us could go with you.”
“Sometimes the urge is to say, ‘I’m going to get in there and fix it,’ but we want to empower survivors so that they can do it and we’re here to support whatever they think is best,” says Dr. Exner-Cortens. “Thank them and validate their experience. Be clear they’re not to blame. It’s OK to be concerned, but try to frame those into questions of safety. Just let them know you really want them to be safe. Show your support and ask what you can do for them—but in a nonjudgmental way.”
Listening has many benefits. In a classic study of abuse survivors, people said they had valued the opportunity to talk and vent about their experiences, to receive comfort and emotional support, and to observe their friends’ anger toward abusers (Feminism & Psychology, 1993).
Be aware of factors and feelings that may make it harder for someone to disclose. Frequently, people in unhealthy relationships minimize the abuse they’re experiencing (e.g., “It’s no big deal”). Some are concerned that others won’t understand and/or may respond in unhelpful ways. Some may be held back by embarrassment or shame, or fear for their safety if they tell anyone.
Common misconceptions about abusive relationships—who they happen to, what they look like—can cloud our perceptions. Stay attuned to your friend’s experiences and needs.
Avoid limiting stereotypes
While abusive relationships have similarities—the pattern of controlling behaviour, for example—no two are the same. Don’t dismiss concerns based on your friend’s or their partner’s identity. “Anyone can be in an abusive relationship: female/male, gay/straight, any ethnic or cultural background, any physical size, ability, or strength,” says Dr. Rachel Pain, Professor of Human Geography at Durham University in the UK who studies relationship abuse.
Part of your role is to emphasize that the abuser is responsible for the abuse. Aggressors try to shift the blame: “I wouldn’t have to shout if you listened the first time”; “It wouldn’t be like this if I could trust you.” Self-blame is a common and powerful obstacle to disclosing abuse and seeking help.
“Victims of trauma and abuse have a tendency to blame themselves and downplay their experience because someone had it worse. “It’s important to realize that your pain and anger are valid,” says a third-year undergraduate at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia.
Try using language such as:
- “It doesn’t sound to me like you did anything wrong. Tom’s just your friend, and Kyle should respect you if you want to spend time with him. That kind of jealousy can be really controlling.”
- “I’m so glad you’re telling me about this. It’s never OK for anyone to push you to have sex if you don’t want to. You know, it might even be good to talk with someone who knows more about this kind of stuff. I’ve heard positive things about [a campus or local resource].”
Ask: “What can I do to help?” The answer may be something seemingly small, like having breakfast with your friend regularly or walking them to class. Maybe you can help schedule an appointment with a doctor or counsellor. Follow your friend’s lead on how to help, but keep at it. Don’t let it go after the first few visits.
Keep your friend involved
When someone is experiencing IPV, they can lose their sense of self as they become isolated from communities they care about. If you’re worried about a friend’s relationship, try to pull them into normal social activities that they usually enjoy. This can help to reduce the isolation that they’re experiencing and bring them close enough that you can open a conversation about your concerns.
Dumping the abuser may seem like a no-brainer. But many people find this advice unhelpful, in part because it can come across as victim blaming. Pushing your friend to leave the relationship can also make them disengage with you entirely. Consider using language like, “I’m not here to tell you to leave. That said, if you ever want to leave, I’ll support you. I’ll have your back, whatever your decision.” Remind your friend that they’re in control of the situation.
Why leaving can be so difficult
It may seem baffling that someone doesn’t immediately walk away from an abusive relationship. Researchers have found that the dynamics of abuse, and the decision to stay or leave, are highly complicated (Behavior and Social Issues, 2005).
Studies show that people’s reasons for staying in abusive relationships are often rational (for example, relating to safety, children, and finances), and they’ve thought a lot about them. Individuals’ sense of belonging is important in deciding how to respond to abuse. Researchers now understand that leaving an abusive relationship is a process and may take multiple attempts (Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 2003).
“Most people who are in abusive relationships know that it isn’t good for them,” says Corcoran. “The best thing you can do is tell them that you’re there for them, that no one deserves to be abused, and that you want to know how you can help them. They probably have many people in their lives trying to help them by telling them what to do. That’s why it’s so important to ask them what kind of help they want and need.”
Here’s the caveat: Some people report that the advice to leave an abusive relationship was helpful. This difference appears to depend on where each individual is at, research suggests. In a 2011 study, some women who had already considered leaving or had made preparations for leaving found it helpful to be advised to leave (Feminism & Psychology). For those who hadn’t considered leaving, the same advice was unhelpful. Consider asking your friend what steps would make them feel safe and most comfortable, and go from there.
“People in unhealthy relationships know what’s best for them or what’s safest, so we really need to trust what they’re telling us,” says Dr. Exner-Cortens.
Bottom line: “Leaving an abusive relationship takes time and it’s important to be patient with your friend,” says Ionson. “They likely know when their abuser is escalating and when the time is right for them to leave. It’s important to know that the most dangerous time for someone who’s in an abusive relationship is the time that they’re leaving.”
“Informal support is important, but you also want to make sure you’re connecting your friend to resources so you don’t go beyond what you’re able to do,” says Dr. Exner-Cortens. In other words, suggest additional professional sources of support that can help your friend. “Have a couple of numbers for resources handy ahead of time so if your friend says ‘yes, I want to leave, who can I talk to?’ you can say, ‘here are some numbers,’” says Dr. Exner-Cortens. These may be on campus, in the community, or online.
Whatever you suggest, the decision on how to proceed belongs to your friend. Remind them that there are lots of options available. For example, there are confidential and anonymous resources available if your friend isn’t sure that they want support yet, but may be interested in having an exploratory conversation.
You can also help lower the barriers to reaching out for help by offering to find resources for your friend, or offering to walk with them to a campus or community resource. Simply being present and encouraging can make a big difference.
Researching the available support resources is a quick and practical way to help a friend. For example:
- On campus: Your friend could consider discussing the situation with a counsellor, a Sexual Violence or Assault Support Coordinator, a trusted faculty member, or a Resident Assistant. Make sure your friend discusses mandatory reporting and confidentiality with the person first, before they disclose any personal information.
- In the community: Your friend may be interested in discussing their experiences with a rape or sexual assault crisis centre, a domestic violence organization, or other victim advocacy organization. Many of these organizations are completely confidential, so they can be a good place to start. Depending on the situation, your friend may also want to work with a campus disciplinary body or the police. Find resources in your area.
- Online: Your friend may find it helpful to talk with an advocate via an anonymous, confidential hotline or online chat service. This may be a general relationship abuse resource or one that supports a specific community (e.g., LGBTQ). Try any of these resources:
- Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime
(available by phone or online chat)
- RAINN (available by phone or online chat)
- Love Is Respect (available by phone, text, and online chat)
- Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime
In some situations, your friend may be unwilling to seek out help themselves. Isolation, manipulation, and self-blame can make it hard for people to acknowledge that they’re experiencing IPV and need help. Again, you should express your concerns and offer your friend resources, and avoid pressuring them to leave the relationship.
“If your friend is unwilling to get help but the problem persists, reach out for help yourself, just as you would in any other situation that puts your friend in danger. Resources such as Sexual Violence and Assault Support Coordinators or victim advocates can work with you to find ways to get your friend the support and help they need,” says Dr. Melanie Boyd, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at Yale University in Connecticut.
“Always be willing to go with them or talk with them. Ask ‘when you call, do you want me to be there for it?’ and they’ll let you know. Or, if they’re going to walk to Student Health Services, ask them if they want you to walk there with them. Basically, just always be there in a way they want you to be,” says Dr. Exner-Cortens. “In the same regard, if they say ‘I’m OK,’ respect that.”
“Being a friend to someone, especially a victim, is the best thing one can do. Knowing when to take a step back, when to ask for help from someone more experienced, and finding the proper resources is the best way to help someone. There’s always someone who can help,” says a second-year undergraduate in Suffolk University in Massachusetts.
You can reach out to any of the resources listed above. Contacting a trusted authority figure, like a faculty member or a Sexual Violence and Assault Support or Awareness Coordinator, can be particularly helpful. You can also confidentially contact a sexual or domestic violence hotline or a victim advocate on campus for advice.
Ionson suggests researching what shelters and resources are available in the area. “Local shelters that focus on IPV are useful in not only supporting individuals in having a safer place to stay, but also in accessing employment, finding housing, and more,” she says. “They often have programs available too, such as therapy and court support programs where they can get support in accessing a restraining order and knowledge of the police and court processes.”
Supporting a friend who’s experiencing IPV can take a toll on you. Seek support whenever you need it from friends, family, mentors, or professionals. Relationship abuse hotlines are for you too. You can reach out for support while still maintaining your friend’s privacy.
“This year, I learned that my best friend was sexually assaulted, which was really hard for both of us. The emotional trauma caused by her recollecting the experience (she repressed it for years) affected both of us. She had to reduce her course load and reschedule exams, which she was luckily able to do. Because this was ‘her experience,’ I wasn’t able to do the same, but [it was important that] I exercised self-care to allow me to cope with my schoolwork and supporting my friend. This entire experience has opened my eyes to a world I’ve never seen before.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario
- Discuss your feelings with a professional such as a counsellor or Sexual Violence and Assault Support or Awareness Coordinator. It’s important to acknowledge what this experience brings up for you and to make sure that you have support.
- Take care of yourself. Be sure to get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise. These simple things make a big difference in helping you feel well.
- Spend time on activities you care about. Sometimes, it can feel like supporting your friend is taking over your life. Spend some time watching your favourite TV show, hanging out with other friends, or with a club or team you enjoy.
By looking out for your friends and stepping in to help them when they need it, you make it clear that your community values respect and mutual support. Intervening helps bring us closer to a culture where everyone expects to be treated with kindness and respect, and where everyone can thrive.
“Sometimes we’re so scared to get disclosure because we don’t know what we should do, but all you need to do is listen,” says Dr. Exner-Cortens. “Be empathetic, be empowering, be supportive, and then connect the person to professionals who deal with this every day to deal with some of the nitty gritty pieces around how to really support them in that relationship. It comes down to safety—if your friend, no matter who they are or who they love, is telling you things that make you worried for them, let them know.”
Hana Awwad and Evan Walker-Wells contributed to this article.
Melanie Boyd, PhD, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs, Yale University, Connecticut.
Casey Corcoran, MAT, Program Director, Futures Without Violence, California.
Deinera Exner-Cortens, PhD, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary, Alberta.
Cari Ionson, MSW, RSW, Sexual Violence Response and Awareness Coordinator, Mount Royal University, Alberta.
Rachel Pain, PhD, Professor, Department of Geography; Co-director, Centre for Social Justice and Community Action; Durham University, UK.
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