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It is incredibly frustrating to see a friend or family member be targeted by an abuser. Maybe your friend or loved one has broken away but then returned to a person who you know is controlling, emotionally abusive or physically dangerous. To an outsider, it can seem clear that a victim of abuse should “Just leave.” However, victim-survivors are trapped by a complex mix of fear, threats, finances, a sense of obligation, and even feelings of “love.” They know that the time they are at greatest risk for severe violence is around a separation from the abusive partner. Also, domestic abuse can also make it difficult for a victim to think straight.
As a witness to this, you may feel like walking away yourself. Maybe you’ve “had enough.” Enough worry, enough sleepless nights, enough unreturned phone calls and enough expenses related to trying to help your friend or family member get to safety. Maybe the worry you feel for them is draining and you’re neglecting your own responsibilities in service of your loved one. It’s just not working.
However, it is hard to walk away from someone you love, or care for, whether you have known them for a short time or their entire life. You may ask yourself if there isn’t just one more thing you can do to help.
Burn Out Is Real
Professionals who work in this field such as therapists, advocates, and lawyers often have rituals or practices to help them hit the “refresh” button and keep from burning out. They probably have a supervisor and colleagues to help carry the burden. They have vacation days and sick days. It may be a lot more difficult for a family member or friend to get that needed support and distance. People sacrifice their homes, their jobs and their own relationships, trying to “rescue” someone they love from an abuser.
So when do you know it’s it time to pull away? This decision depends on many factors. Psychotherapist Ayana Mbonu, LMHC, in private practice in Brooklyn, New York, suggests that it may be time to pull back “when you feel like you have done everything you can do, and when it’s getting in the way of you leading a full life.” Mbonu suggests that when friends and family members find themselves depressed, sleepless or unable to go to work—it might be time to set some boundaries. She suggests that friends and family members let the victim-survivor know, “I am there for you no matter what. And when you are ready to access help, I will be there for you. But for now, you are making your choice and I respect your decision.”
Stepping Away Does Not Have to Be (and Probably Should Not Be) Forever
Here are some tips for getting a break:
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- Decide what you can and cannot do, and when. For instance, maybe you no longer want to answer calls in the middle of the night, but you are willing to take care of their children once a month so your loved one can have some space and time to themselves. Or maybe you will not allow them to stay at your house during a crisis again, but you offer to give them a safe space to call an advocate at a domestic violence agency so they can explore other housing options and make a safety plan. Maybe you want to spend time with them, but you do not want to discuss their relationship if they are unwilling to make any changes.
- Communicate that you will always care about them. If it feels right, let them know that you would love to spend time with them again at a later point but that, for right now, you need to take a break because it’s too difficult to see them put themselves in harm’s way. Let them know you will be there to support them 100% with no judgement when they’re ready to leave.
- Find a way to have periodic contact. If you want to, see if you can find a way to “check in” that feels safe and possible to you both. Maybe it’s a monthly phone call or email (if safe and the abuser is not monitoring the survivor’s communication). Aim to make these check-ins pleasant to help maintain the communication. The purpose is not to push your friend or family member into any action, but rather to remind them that they are lovable and loved.
- Avoid making threats, such as “If you don’t do X, I will never speak to you again.” These kinds of ultimatums often mimic the controlling behaviors of the abuser and feed into what the abuser is likely saying to the victim about how other people do not really care.
- Seek some support yourself. Caring for someone who is being abused by their partner can be exhausting, upsetting and discouraging. You yourself might also be experiencing the effects of traumas that you have suffered or witnessed. Counseling with a knowledgeable professional can help you return to your own life fully and rediscover your own joy.
It is extremely hard to see someone you care about struggle through a relationship with an abuser. At some point you may need to walk away, recharge your batteries and get some perspective. You need to stay safe and sane yourself. Space and time will help you see whether you are ready to lend a hand again.
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