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How to start a conversation with someone who is in a violent relationship

If you believe that any of your loved ones or someone you know is in an unhealthy relationship, it can be difficult to know what to do. You may want to help, but fear distancing that person or losing their trust. However, at the Good Love Foundation, we believe that starting a conversation is crucial. Here are some tips to support you when talking to that person.

1.- Be observant, stay alert to the signs

Unhealthy relationships often involve power and control, lacking mutual respect or boundaries. It's important to be attentive to changes in behavior, even subtle ones, that could indicate trouble in the relationship.

2.- Start calmly with a positive tone If you feel something is wrong in a friend's relationship, find an appropriate time to talk one-on-one in a private setting. Begin by offering positive affirmations and complimentary statements like: "You've always been so happy and carefree. I miss seeing you like that around here!" Once they feel comfortable and the conversation flows, you can calmly express your concern. They may already feel that things are chaotic enough in their life, so to help them better, you'll need to be a consistent support they can openly and peacefully talk to. If the conversation remains harmonious and the person feels safe, they are more likely to continue seeking your advice. It's important to remain composed to avoid alarming them by visibly worrying, initiating an argument, or blaming them.

3.- Show your support

Listen to them, let them open up about the situation on their own terms, at their own pace. Don't force the conversation. Talking about a relationship can be very difficult for anyone, but remind them they're not alone and you're there to support them.

4.- Focus on highlighting unhealthy behaviors, not labels.

The conversation should focus on unhealthy behaviors in the relationship and providing a young adult with a safe space to talk about it. Sometimes, our instinct is to immediately label the relationship as "abusive" to emphasize the severity of the situation. However, this instinct can cause the conversation to shut down. Instead, concentrate on the specific behaviors you're seeing and how those behaviors make them feel. For example, saying something like "It seems like your partner always wants to know where you are and is constantly texting and calling, how does that make you feel?" This question addresses a specific behavior and prompts reflection on how it makes the individual feel. You can also gently point out that certain behaviors seem unhealthy and share how you would feel if someone did that to you. This is one of the first steps to help a friend understand what is and isn't appropriate behavior in a relationship. Help them realize for themselves that something is wrong in the relationship and acknowledge that their feelings are valid.

5.- Don't blame the victim

Help your friend understand that the behaviors they're experiencing are not normal and it is NOT their fault their partner is acting this way. They may feel personally responsible for their partner's behavior or as if they provoked the abuse, but assure them this is not the case. Everyone is responsible for their own behavior and no matter the reason, abuse is NEVER okay. Don't blame the victim

6.- Keep the conversation friendly, not a scolding Very few people in abusive relationships recognize themselves as victims and may not want to be seen that way. If you want to help, be emotionally accessible. One way to show them you're not judging is by normalizing the situation. Speaking openly about your own experiences will help them feel accompanied. Be careful not to digress from the conversation and keep the focus on the person's situation. Make them feel like an equal exchange between two friends, not like a therapist and a patient or a parent and a child.

7.- Allow them to make their own decisions

This can be difficult, especially if you are the parent, but if a young person is in a relationship, the last thing you should do is order them to end it. Remember, abuse is a very complex situation and a person may truly love their partner or be experiencing some kind of traumatic bond or loyalty to the person abusing them, and even a sudden breakup can seriously endanger the victim. Additionally, they are already dealing with a partner who exerts control and manipulation and the last thing they need is for you to mimic those behaviors.

8.- Inform them about their options

The best way to help someone is to offer them choices. Don't mention any particular option, but let them know you'll support them no matter what they decide to do. Some of these options may include:

  • Seeking institutions and organizations that address domestic violence.

  • Talking to a school counselor or therapist.

  • Or even calling the national domestic violence hotline at 079.

  • Create a safety plan

Depending on how prepared a young person is to open up, they may feel more comfortable discussing the situation anonymously over the phone with someone, or they may want to have the conversation in person with someone at their school who can help. If a young person is planning to end things with their partner, they should create a safety plan because the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is during and after the breakup. You should maintain a calm approach when dealing with the situation and be open to what they find most comfortable. When suggesting seeking help, the person may try to cover up or downplay the abuse. Remind them that they are the only expert on their own life, make them feel in control of the situation, and empower them to make a decision about the solution that feels right.

9.- If they are in danger, call the police

If a young person is in immediate danger, whether from self-harm or harm inflicted by another person, you must alert the authorities (either school security or 911) immediately. Even if you think they will feel betrayed or angry with you for involving the police, safeguarding someone's safety and life is paramount. Partner abuse can be fatal and you should not hesitate to take serious action if you believe someone is at risk of physical or sexual harm.

10.- Expect more conversations in the future

The first time you have this conversation with someone, they may admit to some things that happened and then suddenly retract. You don't have to make them completely change their mind about their partner and you don't need them to "admit" they're being abused. The goal of the conversation is to let them know you care and you're available to them whenever they need to talk. See this as an ongoing process, not a one-time conversation that will "fix everything". It's unlikely the situation will be resolved perfectly after one conversation, so expect and have more talks like this. Be patient throughout the process and remember you're doing the right thing by talking to them about this difficult subject.

11.- Expect more conversations in the future

If you're having trouble talking to someone about their relationship or they're not opening up to you, try to have someone closer to them talk to them, like a parent, a friend, cousin, or counselor. A person may be reluctant to disclose details about their relationship to you, fear getting into trouble, feel like "you won't understand," or worry about upsetting you by sharing certain information. Remind them you're on their side and there will be no repercussions for anything that has happened. The most important thing is for them to get help to resolve their situation, whether from you or someone else they trust.

If you believe that you or someone you know is in danger, do not hesitate to call 911 or the National Women's Assistance Line at 075 immediately. Staying vigilant and having a support network can save lives!
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