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Julie Lalonde on How to Support a Friend in an Abusive Relationship

Let’s step up and have each other’s backs—here's how to move beyond feelings of awkwardness and become a better ally, from a woman who's been on both sides

Julie Lalonde Support Friend Abusive Relationship: Woman Sits in Coffee Shop Deep in Thought

(Photo: Jason Briscoe)

Your bestie’s got a new boo and he seems cool, but she’s acting really different.

Your roommate comes home from a Tinder date and won’t leave her room for two days.

You run into your sister at Starbucks and when you ask her how she’s doing, she won’t stop crying.

Most of us want to believe that we would be there for the people we love. We want to believe we would know right away if our friend is in trouble.

This January, news broke that an Afghanistan war veteran in Nova Scotia had shot his wife, daughter and mother before killing himself. The story quickly became about his PTSD and whether he had gotten the help he needed. But those of us who work to end violence against women wondered: what about his wife, Shanna, and her attempts at getting help? The news horrified me on so many levels, but I couldn’t shake an interview I had read with Shanna’s sister, in which she said Shanna had confided in her about her husband’s mood swings and violence. Shanna’s sister had advised her to stand by her man. He was sick, after all, and aren’t wedding vows made “in sickness and in health”?

So how do we prevent this from happening to other women and girls? Moving beyond our feelings of awkwardness and checking in on the women we love can literally be the difference between life and death. Let’s step up and have each other’s backs. Here are my best tips for being a better ally.

Trust your gut—and check in 

If your friend is usually super social, but has become really introverted since she found a new partner, it could signal something more disquieting. A classic abuser tactic involves isolating victims from their friends and family, making them feel that nobody else understands them. It’s also an easy way of ensuring victims don’t get help. If your friend is acting out of character, check in. Ask her how she’s doing. Let her know you’re there for her if she want to talk.

Speak solely from your perspective

Maybe you check in with your friend and she’s really defensive. When I was in an abusive relationship, I was so embarrassed and guarded. I was smart, educated and came from a loving home. I “knew” better. Whether we want to admit it or not, many of us believe that smart women would never find themselves in abusive situations. That myth keeps many victims silent. Help her open up by saying, “I’m seeing this behaviour and it makes me feel X.” This way, you’re approaching the situation without judgement and speaking solely from your perspective.

Respond with validation 

If your friend or sister does disclose to you that she’s been assaulted or is in an abusive relationship: Validate. Validate. Validate. We live in a society that constantly downplays, minimizes or flat-out denies the existence of intimate partner violence and sexual assault. I can’t stress enough how important it is to respond right away with validation. “I’m so sorry that happened. I believe you. It’s not your fault. You are not to blame.”

Let your friend take the lead

After someone discloses to you, it can be tempting to feel like you’re her superhero. But that’s not your job. Every survivor is the expert on her own life, and you have to take your cues from them. Does she want you to find local resources for her? Does she want you to mind her children while she goes to therapy? Maybe she doesn’t know what she needs yet, and she just wants you to be patient. Survivors lead and you follow.

But don’t be afraid to speak up for her

Sometimes, concern can turn to fear. If you feel your friend’s life is in danger, don’t mince words. Tell her she isn’t safe and help her plan a safe exit.

For additional resources on abuse, call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 1-866-863-0511. Crisis counselling is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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