How Can I Help A Friend or Family Member?

Are you concerned that a relative, friend or coworker may be in an abusive relationship? Some of the warning signs you might notice could include:

  • They have unexplained marks or injuries
  • They are depressed, anxious or have noticeable changes in their personality
  • They are constantly worried about making their partner angry or they make excuses for their partner’s behavior
  • They’ve stopped spending time or communicating with friends and family
  • Their partner puts them down in front of other people
  • Their partner is extremely jealous or possessive

It can be difficult to share your concerns or know what to do when someone you care about is being abused. Your instinct may be to “save” them, but the person experiencing the violence is the best judge of their situation. After all, there are many reasons why people stay in abusive relationships. Leaving can also be a very dangerous and challenging time for a victim.

One of the most important ways you can help someone facing abuse is to consider how you might support them in making their own decisions. Read our blog about How to Support a Loved One in an Abusive Relationship for more information about how you can help.

We also encourage you to speak with a StrongHearts advocate by calling 1-844-7NATIVE (1-844-762-8483) Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. CST for additional support if you are considering having this conversation with a loved one. Callers after hours will have the option to connect with the National Domestic Violence Hotline or to call back the next business day.

Why Do People Stay in Abusive Relationships?

“Why don’t they just leave?” People who have never been abused often wonder why a person wouldn’t just leave an abusive relationship. They don’t understand that leaving can be more complicated than it seems, especially if it means leaving a tribal community to escape the abuse.

Leaving is often the most dangerous time for a victim of abuse because abuse is about power and control. When a victim leaves, they are taking control and threatening the abusive partner’s power, which could cause the abusive partner to retaliate in very destructive or dangerous ways.

Here are just a few of the common reasons why people stay in abusive relationships:

  • Fear: A person may be afraid of what will happen to them or their children if they decide to leave the relationship. If a person is in a LGBTQ relationship and has not yet come out to everyone, they may fear their partner will reveal this secret.
  • Believing Abuse is Normal: A person may not know what a healthy relationship looks like and may not realize that their relationship is unhealthy.
  • Embarrassment or Shame: It’s often difficult for someone to admit that they’ve been abused. They may feel they’ve done something wrong by becoming involved with an abusive partner. They may worry that their friends, family or community will judge them or talk about them behind their back.
  • Low Self-Esteem: When an abusive partner constantly puts someone down and blames them for the abuse, it can be easy for the victim to believe those statements and think that the abuse is their fault.
  • Love: So often, the victim feels love for their abusive partner. They may have children with them and want to maintain their family. Abusive people can often be charming, especially at the beginning of a relationship, and the victim may hope that their partner will go back to being that person. They may only want the violence to stop, not for the relationship to end entirely.
  • Cultural/Spiritual Reasons: Someone’s cultural beliefs or spirituality may influence them to stay rather than end the relationship for fear of bringing shame upon their family or to their tribal community.
  • Language Barriers: If a person’s first language is a Native language, it can be difficult to share the depth of their situation to others or to seek out help from domestic violence and dating violence service providers.
  • Lack of Money/Resources: A victim may be financially dependent on their abusive partner. Without money, access to resources or even a place to go, it can seem impossible for them to leave the relationship, especially if the person lives with their abusive partner.
  • Disability: When someone is physically dependent on their abusive partner, they can feel that their well-being is connected to the relationship. This dependency could heavily influence their decision to stay in an abusive relationship. 

Read the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s 50 Obstacles to Leaving series, adapted from Sarah M. Buel’s “50 Obstacles to Leaving, a.k.a. Why Abuse Victims Stay“, offers more insight into the reasons why someone may not leave an abusive relationship: 50 Obstacles to Leaving series: 1-1011-2021-3031-4041-50

What Unique Barriers Do Native Victims Face?

American Indians and Alaska Natives can also face unique safety and justice barriers to leaving an abusive relationship. Some of these barriers are:

  • Geographic isolation (ex. living in a rural tribal community)
  • Fear of being identified when seeking help or services in one’s own small, tight-knit community
  • Fear of retaliation from the abusive partner, their family or of being shunned by their tribal community
  • Gaps in culturally-based supportive services
  • Lack of law enforcement (ex. in remote areas)
  • Historical distrust of law enforcement authorities
  • Cross-jurisdictional issues when seeking help and/or reporting abuse

Even with all of the barriers, all Native people have a right to safety, protection and to live lives free of abuse.