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A friend of mine recently shared with me that she’s been dealing with emotional and physical abuse at the hands of a guy she was seeing.

I say was because she has fortunately left the relationship, and now is when I worry about her the most.

The most dangerous time for a victim is immediately after escape.

My friend was safe last night and this morning. She has a plan and she is strong.

I’m not going to share her story because it’s not mine to share, but I do want to talk a little about being on the other side of this for once—being the friend who listens and believes and doesn’t say should, the way my closest friends listened to and believed me and didn’t say should. (And guess what, not saying should isn’t easy, so thank you, friends. You’re incredible.)

I’m not new to people telling me they’ve been abused. Writing about domestic violence in a public way means that women frequently contact me and tell me about their own experiences. It’s the most positive feedback I receive—which might sound strange, but those messages always come with a thank you, I feel less alone since I read what you wrote. Good, that’s why I wrote it.

What I’m new to is being close to someone, seeing warning signs, and still practicing what I preach about listening instead of instructing.

See, sometimes you tell people these secret scary things and they say, Well, what you should do is… They are properly appalled and compassionate, but they don’t know your situation. They don’t know your life, your abuser, your specific set of circumstances. They can’t and shouldn’t tell you what to do because they are not the expert in how best to keep you safe. YOU are that expert. I wrote about this in an essay about victim-blaming for Open Thought Vortex last summer:

Be a good listener. If someone shares with you that s/he is being abused, ask what you can do and really listen. Is s/he asking for advice, or just in need of an ear? Giving unsolicited advice can verge on victim-blaming because our gut instincts—mine, too—are to say, leave now… the thought process for escaping DV is exhausting. It is even more so to try to articulate to someone else while you’re in it without feeling like you’re making excuses for staying, burdening others, asking for charity, exaggerating, or being pressed for proof. Additional barriers to leaving include, but aren’t limited to, the presence of children; lack of access to one’s own money or vehicle; no support from one’s friends and family; stigmas associated with same-sex relationships and non-binary gender identity; and obligations to uphold certain family, cultural, or spiritual values. Trust victims to know their own challenges and limitations, but ask how you can help them to navigate those challenges and overcome those limitations.

When my friend said, he smashed a mirror, he took my phone, he threatened me with blackmail, he left bruises on my arms from grabbing me when I tried to leave, she was confirming suspicions I’d had for some time, but which she had never shared. All the times she’d sounded scared while hinting that things weren’t right, I would ask her if she felt safe or needed anything; but what I wanted to do was shout, you have to leave him right now!

I don’t know how to talk about DV without hyper-relating to everything another victim or survivor says, so I just listen and try not to say much. This is a lot easier when the person telling me their story is an internet acquaintance instead of a friend whose situation and community are familiar to me.

It’s a challenge, a test of empathy, to listen without advising or instructing a friend. Fear clouds the minds of us-as-concerned-witnesses in the same way that it immobilizes us-as-victims against escaping. Fear for my friend made me want to throw out everything I know about talking to abuse victims, made me want to take her by the hand and say, come on, this is what we’re gonna do, this is what you HAVE to do. Fear for my friend made me want to say, on numerous occasions, I know you aren’t telling me everything. I know you are holding back, defending him, and I even know why but I still think you should do X and Y… Fear for my friend made me want to go after the asshole. Fear for my friend made me shake with nauseous rage.

Instead, I bit my tongue, sat on my hands, and focused on her words. When she finished, I asked her what she was going to do next, and when she told me, I said her plan sounded smart and safe (it is). I hugged her, pledged to help her in any way she needs, and asked her if we could check in with each other every day.

What I did was hard for me because it doesn’t feel like enough. But doing more, without her consent or without regard for her own choices, might make her less safe or dis-empower her. Staying safe is the most important thing, and finding one’s power again is how a victim becomes a survivor.

Even I am still learning these lessons.

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If you are being abused or know someone who is, check out these tips for creating a safety plan and/or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.

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