Content warning: This article contains details about family and domestic violence
Domestic or family abuse isn’t something we like to talk about very often. And for many of us, it can feel far removed from our lives. But when we bravely take a closer look, we realise that this impacts far more people than we know.
In Australia, 1 in 6 women over the age of 15 will experience domestic abuse and violence from an intimate partner over the course of their life time. And we know that 1 in 16 men have also experienced this. But how do we identify it when it’s happening? And what can we do when we feel powerless in a situation to stop it?
The first step to stopping domestic violence is to understand what it is. And chances are, if you have a friend or loved one experiencing it at the hands of someone else, you may have noticed some red flags…or for some reason, you just can’t shake the feeling that something is off.
Here’s the deal – if you think a friend may be in abusive relationship, it’s not your role to save them. But you can empower them to find safety, if they choose to do so. We can start by understanding what family violence and domestic abuse is. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare define it as:
Family violence refers to violence between family members, typically where the perpetrator exercises power and control over another person. The most common and pervasive instances occur in intimate (current or former) partner relationships and are usually referred to as domestic violence. Sexual violence refers to behaviours of a sexual nature carried out against a person’s will. It can be perpetrated by a current or former partner, other people known to the victim, or strangers.
But we know not every survivor of domestic abuse experience violence (though many do). That’s where this definition by a study in the Medical Journal of Australia is also useful:
Domestic violence can be better understood as a chronic syndrome characterised not only by episodes of physical violence but also by the emotional and psychological abuse that perpetrators use to maintain control over their partners.
So what does that look like in everyday life? Well, often it’s hard to spot because the abuser is a chameleon and a master at manipulation. Your perception of them and the experience of their partner could be two very different things. So keep your eyes open for these signs:
- Your friend doesn’t know they are in an abusive relationship
Whether the partner has always been abusive, or they have become abusive, your friend may not realise what they are experiencing is wrong. Your friend may love the abuser and have attachments to them – sexual, physical, monetary, kids. Separating the abuse from their love of the person (or who they think they are or want them to be) is a challenge and does not happen overnight – especially if the abuser emphasises their love for your friend in vulnerable moments.
- Your friend has ostracised themselves from the world for an extended time
An abuser will manipulate their partner so they can only socialize or communicate in certain ways, to certain people, if at all. If your friend has stopped texting you, is avoiding socializing at work or church, has stopped playing sports, has pulled back from social media, or is very quiet and reserved when partaking in these activities, they could be in an emotionally abusive relationship.
- Your friend has to check with their partner before they do certain things…or anything
And we mean anything. Leaving the house, having coffee, eating food, spending money, wearing certain clothes…an abuser wraps themselves around every facet of a person’s life until they are too afraid to ask do something different. And if they do something ‘wrong’ they face repercussions – emotional stonewalling, physical or sexual violence, emotional abuse, bullying, or further restrictions from people, places or things.
- Your friend shows signs of pain or bruising
When a person experiences family violence, the attacker will often leave scars, bruises and marks on the body. However, they sometimes leave these in more hidden places that can be covered. In cases where the marks are in more obvious places, your friend may try to cover them up with clothing or makeup. And if you do ask about it, there is a chance they will say they ‘bumped into something,’ ‘fell down the stairs,’ ‘had a car accident’ or the like. You know your friend. So if you see a mark on them that looks suspicious, or you see them hobbling or grimacing in pain, ask again. Often this won’t just be a once off – this will be a reoccurring event for your friend. It’s essential they remove themselves from the abuser to protect themselves and any children involved.
- Your friend is depressed, anxious or paranoid
Your friend is trying to survive, but it’s hard when you are living with a constant barrage of manipulation, abuse and control. So there will be side effects to their mental health – depression and lethargy, thoughts or plans of suicide, heightened anxiety and paranoia about their partner or other people are all symptoms. They may self harm or punish themselves in different ways when they think they have let their partner down.
- They are hyper controlled and restrictive over their behaviours
Because their partner exercises so much emotional control over them, your friend may take on a rigid mindset about what they can and can’t do. Their eating and drinking habits change. They may stop taking medication. They could begin to exercise compulsively. Perhaps they start to self harm as a way to cope with their internal pain. It could be obsessive calorie counting, comments that they are always ‘fat,’ or binging and purging food. There are many reasons this could happen – whether they want some autonomy over their life and this is their way of expressing it; or their partner may demand they meet an unreachable standard of physical beauty, sexuality or character. And while these habits may be disguised as ‘health,’ or ‘good for the relationship,’ if they are harming your friend, they are neither.
- The partner refuses to take responsibility for anything
If your friend is constantly taking the blame for everything and is poised as the villain in the relationship, there is something wrong – because a healthy relationship involves both parties coming together and mutually asking how they can better themselves and their relationship. More often than not, an abuser will refuse to change. They may promise (that’s one of their major power plays), and follow this with some mediocre acts of kindness, sex or basic decency. However, it won’t stick. Ultimately, they will continue the pattern for as long as it is allowed to stick – or until their partner is so severely harmed they are found out by the authorities. Even then, they will likely repeat this same behaviour in a future relationship.
What can I do?
If you have noticed one or more of these signs in your friend, subtly try to talk to them about it. Avoid text messaging or emailing unless you know their partner can’t access their communications. Instead, try to meet them on neutral ground. Perhaps even in their house while the partner is working or out. Or you could invite them over for dinner and pull your friend aside while everyone else is entertained.
Your friend may not know this is abuse – and if you call it that outright, they could panic and shut down. So just ask how their relationship is going, and let the conversation flow. With trust, they will open up. And even if they don’t, you can always slip them the number to 1800 RESPECT and let them know you are always available to help.
You can’t save your friend, but you can support them. And ultimately, you reminding them that they are loved as they are, for who they are, will have the greatest impact when they do decide to get help.
WatersedgeCounselling is not a crisis support service. If you or a friend are experiencing domestic and family violence, please ring 000 if you are in immediate danger. In Australia, call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visit 1800respect.org.au to confidentially speak with a counsellor who specialises in this area. You will also find more information about what abuse is, and how to prepare a safety plan here.
Have you left an abusive relationship and want to heal and take back your life? Would you like a safe person to talk to? Contact Colleen on 0434 337 245 or Duncan on 0434 331 243 for a FREE 10-minute phone consultation on how we can best help you, or press book now.