Recently the New York Times had a question in its “Ethicist” column about someone who had discovered that a couple she is friends with has an abusive relationship. The letter writer says, “I have learned, both from Jane and from another close friend of hers, that Jack is verbally abusive. I have told Jane that she has my total support, but otherwise, I am at a loss for how to proceed in this situation.” You can read the entire column here.
What would you do if it were your friend? Many people have experienced a situation like this. There is a difficult line to walk between protecting your friend from the abuse, respecting her choices, and taking a stand against abusive behavior. Other friends may know about the abuse and have opinions of their own, and you may be worried about their reactions as well.
The top concern is always “Jane’s” safety and wellbeing. Jane is the best judge of how she can stay safe, and the Ethicist rightly advises the friend to talk to Jane first before doing anything.
But as advocates, the way we would suggest approaching Jane is different from what the Ethicist recommends. You cannot protect your friend from abuse by approaching with your own solution—you CAN help her make her own plan to lessen or stop the abuse. As a friend, it’s helpful to express concern without suggesting a course of action. When you and your friend are safely able to talk, name the behaviors you’re seeing or hearing about that trouble you—and let your friend know that the verbal abuse is not okay. Abuse is never justified by circumstances in the marriage (which the letter writer alludes to), like tight finances, jealousy, the demands of raising children, or a job loss.
In our view, the Ethicist also treads on thin ice when he suggests, “It’s also possible that simply knowing that friends will hear about it if he continues to abuse his wife will motivate Jack to take stock, perhaps seek the professional help he needs and try to change.” In our experience, abusers feel justified in their abuse, and they don’t see or don’t want to see that their behavior is hurtful or unwarranted. Confronted by outside parties, they may accuse their partner of exaggerating and making things up. Sharing that private behavior in an effort to transform an abuser often backfires on the person who is being abused.
So what about taking a stand against abuse you know is happening?
- Unless your friend is worried about the reaction her abuser might have, it’s ok to call out verbal abuse that happens in front of you, without mentioning what your friend has confided. Once you say, “Jack, Jane doesn’t deserve to be called an idiot” or “I don’t like the way you spoke to Jane just now,” be prepared to become a potential target of Jack’s words too.
- Whether or not you find an opportunity to say something to the abuser, check in with your friend often and ask how things are going.
- Ask what your friend wants to do—really hear what she has to say, giving her plenty of time to speak without interruption—then suggest ways you could be helpful.
- If she doesn’t want to take action yet, let her know you’re always available to talk. The decision about what to do belongs to your friend, for her own safety.
- Remember that organizations like the Alliance are available 24-7-365 via the hotline to listen and offer resources to anyone who is being affected by abuse—no matter who they are or who their partner is.