How To Support A Loved One In An Abusive Relationship

by | Jun 5, 2023 | Relationships

For months, my friend *Megan and I devised a foolproof plan on how she would exit her five-year relationship. *Gareth was drop-dead handsome, with a thriving career in the art scene and a warm personality, that was seemingly only reserved for outsiders. I’d witnessed Megan shrink her entire life, career and vivacious personality to fit into a mould that Gareth had created for her. He’d send her derogatory texts reminding her that “she was nothing without him” — a lie she’d started believing.

Our plan was that she’d return home to Cape Town and rebuild her life in the company of loved ones. She would politely excuse herself a few days before relocating back to Cape Town to avoid *Gareth talking her into staying. When the day came, I drove her to the airport where chuffed at how a new life awaited her in the Mother City, we hugged for what seemed like forever.

READ MORE: 5 Warning Signs His Texts Are Abusive, According To Experts

Fast-forward to two years later, I spotted *Megan on a mutual friend’s Instagram story, partying at a popular spot in Johannesburg. I immediately wondered why she hadn’t told me about this visit but decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. Months went by and I noticed that *Megan was still in Johannesburg. At this point, I started feeling as though she was angry with me. Why had she not said anything, yet? I was, after all, the person who help plot her new life in Cape Town.

By the sixth month, I picked up the phone to find out how she was. The terror in her voice when she greeted me alerted me to a bigger matter. “I’m back together with *Gareth and I’ve been too scared to make contact with you,” she immediately blurted out. Mustering all the courage to hide the disappointment in my voice, I said: “*Megan, my job as a friend is to support your every decision, no matter the outcome. My job as a friend is not to judge you!” I said this, even though deep down I didn’t trust that she’d made a wise decision.

READ MORE: 5 Ways To Tackle Those Tricky Relationship Dealbreakers


Giving advice or getting too involved in a friend’s abusive relationship could prove tricky. However, imagine how you would feel should the abuse lead to a fatal incident.

Intimate Partner Abuse (IPV) is defined as a type of abuse or aggression that takes place in a romantic relationship — be it a current partner or an ex. This form of abuse usually sees the victim struggle to have a firm grip over their own decisions, says Deborah J. Vagins, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “The last thing you want to do is take more power away from them by making choices on their behalf.” The best thing you can do for a loved on in this scenario, urge experts, is to help them build up their decision-making skills, healthily so. All this, while remembering not to take things personally each time they falter. There will be a lot of instances, like with the *Megan anecdote above, where the abuser manages to lure them back into the abuse trap in your absence.


So, how should you approach this super dicey territory without alienating your loved one?

Do Your Research

“The more you understand the dynamics of intimate partner violence, the better able you will be to offer support,” says Anna Nicolosi, operations manager at StrongHearts Native Helpline. Contact a trained counsellor via the Lifeline South Africa helpline (0861 322 322). Or contact People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) and give them a rundown of the situation. POWA supports victims and survivors of GBV through initiatives such as providing shelters, legal counsel and therapy. A common misconception is that hotlines are *only* for the person in the situation but family and friends can call in, too.

Check In Often

During those regular telephonic or text check-ins, be sure not to address the matter in case the partner monitors their communication. The last thing you want is for the abuser to alienate your loved one from you. Insist on a casual meet-up where you kick off the conversation with something as lighthearted as, “how are you and *Gareth holding up?” Resist the temptation to trash-talk their partner. Instead, say something along the lines of: “How does it make you feel when *Gareth dismisses your opinions in front of his friends?” or “How does it make you feel when he pushes you around for not having his meals ready on time?” Assuming that they will open up, in the kindest tone possible, tell them that you worry about their wellbeing when you witness or hear about this hurtful behaviour. Very NB to remember is to create a safe space.

READ MORE: Why Emotional Cheating Is Far Worse — And How To Spot It

Unwavering Support Goes A Long Way

At every chance that you get, thank your loved one for opening up about such sensitive information. While communicating your own concerns, do so calmly and don’t dwell on how worried you are (experts call this phenomenon centering your own feelings), which could cause unnecessary drama or fear, says Nicolosi.  Victims of abuse and survivors want someone who will believe and listen to them, says Thandiwe McCloy, POWA communications manager. Let them know you’re in their corner, and never give ultimatums or unsolicited advice. 

Going back to the relationship is a normal part of the healing process. Your loved one may be facing challenges, financial or emotional, that they are not ready to talk about. Pressuring them to “get out” before they’re ready is dangerous. You can only hope that *they* know best how to stay safe until they can leave safely and that they will continue communicating honestly. 

READ MORE: 13 Signs You’re In A Toxic Relationship Or Friendship — And How To GTFO

Source Resources For Them

Once they’re (possibly) ready to move forward, you can help sort priorities with an open-ended question like, “Are there any options you’ve been thinking about?” Assure them that once they feel emotionally stable enough to get started on their healing journey, there are professionals and programmes in place that can help, says Thami Kotlolo, founder of the Thami Dish Foundation, an NPO dedicated to supporting and encouraging LGBTIQ+ members to dream beyond their current circumstances.

Know of a service that can cater to their urgent needs? Offer to set it up for them because chances are, they are in no mindset to do that on their own, adds Kotlolo. “For example, they could be interested in finding free or affordable therapy platforms with a special focus on trauma, support groups, or other wellness services,” says Kotlolo. 

Finding Support

Visit the Sonke Gender Justice website ( helpline-numbers), which lists names and contact details of various NPOs and helplines to make finding the necessary help easier. If they’re not emotionally ready yet, don’t jump into problem-solving mode; continue to lend an ear and unconditional support,  advises Nicolosi. Money troubles are one of the most common reasons victims stay or return to partners.

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