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Home / Articles / Escaping Violence / When They're Not Ready for Help

When They're Not Ready for Help

How to help someone trapped in a cycle of abuse, even if it seems like they’re not ready to hear it

girlfriends talking about domestic violence

This piece was originally published in 2016. It was updated in 2024. 

Maybe this sounds familiar: A friend, family member or coworker tells you that they’re not exactly happy in their current relationship. You ask what’s going on, like the caring person you are, and they begin to describe to you what sounds like abuse. Their partner is controlling or constantly jealous. They often put down your friend, call her names or make little comments that degrade her self-esteem. Maybe they’re tightly controlling the money in the relationship. They’re making your friend do things she’s not comfortable doing. Maybe they’re inflicting physical abuse—shoving, hitting, throwing things when they’re angry or have even put their hands around your friend’s neck (this is strangulation). Your friend says she feels like she’s constantly walking on eggshells, afraid to say or do the wrong thing. 

You jump into advice-giving mode: This is what you’re going to do now, you say, and you begin trying to persuade your friend to leave to break up with this partner as soon as possible.

A week later, she acts like the conversation between the two of you never happened. Everything’s fine, she says. Turns out, her partner actually did this really sweet and romantic thing. But your instincts tell you otherwise. Frustrated, you don’t know whether you should let it drop or keep pushing them to talk about it. After all, it could be a matter of life or death.

How Abusive Partners Keep Survivors Trapped

It can feel frustrating to learn a friend is being abused only to have them turn around and minimize it. A survivor may even become hostile toward a support person who’s trying to convince them to leave. You may feel like your care and concern aren’t appreciated and step away from this friend. 

That’s exactly what the abuser was hoping you’d do. 

Abusers often play a convoluted long game to isolate their partner from anyone who may try to help them leave. They do this by using myriad tactics of abuse to exert power and control, from fear and intimidation to brainwashing and gaslighting. Then, every so often, it’s likely things will seem back to normal. An abusive partner may be contrite, sweet, even romantic. All of a sudden, the survivor doesn’t know what to think—which version of their partner is the real one? It’s all a dizzying game created by an abusive partner to keep a survivor trapped. 

This is what’s often referred to as the “cycle of abuse.” While not all relationships with abusive partners follow this, many do to some extent, and the visual can often help survivors and support persons alike understand how abusers operate. The cycle suggests there are often four phases of abusive behavior that happen repeatedly.

  1. First, tensions build, creating fear in the survivor. This might look like a partner complaining about work or home life being stressful. The survivor may try to placate the abuser to avoid the next phase. 
  2. Secondly, there’s an incident. This could be a verbal tirade, a physical assault or some kind of psychological tactic, like blaming the survivor or weaponizing the silent treatment. Sexual coercion or abuse may also be a component. 
  3. After that, there is often, but not always, reconciliation. The abuser may try to explain away their actions, blame someone else for their behavior or attribute their choices to alcohol or drugs. An abuser might also minimize what happened or deny anything happened at all, which is called gaslighting
  4. Finally, there may be a calm stage, sometimes referred to as the “honeymoon stage.” Things seem like they’ve gone back to normal. An abuser may use love bombing, or an excess of attention and gifts, to keep the survivor from leaving. However, it’s all a manipulation tactic as pretty soon, the cycle will begin again.

5 Things to Do When a Survivor’s Not Ready for Help

A survivor may not be ready for help because she’s not yet ready to come to terms with the fact that she’s being abused. Most of us believe we could see an abuser’s tricks from a mile away, but the truth is, abusers can manipulate anyone. And it’s difficult to see the abuse when you’re in the middle of it. 

For other survivors, they may realize they’re being abused, but feel too trapped to leave. They may be holding out hope for change, they could be financially or physically dependent on the abuser, or they may fear their life or their children’s lives will be in danger if they try to end the relationship. That’s why it’s important to remember that only a survivor knows when it’s the right time to leave. 

In the meantime, here are five ways you can continue to provide support. It’s important to remember that helping a survivor doesn’t mean telling them what to do, especially since that’s the type of control the abuser has been utilizing all along:

  • Educate. Help the survivor recognize they are being abused and that this behavior isn’t part of a healthy relationship. You may want to encourage them to call a domestic violence hotline where a trained advocate can better help them understand the signs of abuse. They do not have to be ready to leave to call a shelter hotline. 
  • Listen & Support. You can be most supportive by simply listening to what the survivor has to say and believing them. Remember that abuse is not an easy subject to discuss, so recognize the strength involved in telling their story. Here are 10 phrases you can say to validate a survivor who discloses abuse. Remind them that you will be there for them when they’re ready, even if that time is not now. 
  • Reassure. Let the survivor know that in no way did they cause the abuse; it’s not their fault and they never deserve to feel unsafe with a partner. 
  • Remind. It may help to remind survivors that they are not alone. Four in 10 people experience at least one form of coercive control by an intimate partner in their lifetime. An estimated 1.3 million women endure a physical assault by an intimate partner every year, and these numbers reflect just those who got up the courage to report. Abusers can target anyone of any gender, age range, location or socioeconomic background. 
  • Create Healthy Boundaries. If your friend’s trauma is starting to feel like your own, this could be a sign of vicarious trauma, which can lead to something called compassion fatigue. It can cause you, the support person, to feel run down, depressed, on edge, irritable or hopeless. If you need to step away from helping your friend, communicate this with sensitivity. Let them know you’ve done all you can do at this moment, but it’s hard to see them in harm’s way and you need to take a temporary break. Seek help and then check in with your friend after a period of time. 

Should You Call the Police?

You’re fearing for your friend’s safety, so it may cross your mind that calling the police will help. While your heart’s in the right place, there are some things to consider first.

If someone is in immediate danger, as in, it’s happening in that moment, then a call to 911 is warranted. But if you have only heard about the abuse from the survivor and it’s not happening at that current moment, police are unlikely to respond. Also, calling the police for a survivor when she isn’t aware of this could put her in more danger. If police simply come to check on the survivor and there is no cause for arrest, there’s a chance the abuser will retaliate against the survivor once they leave.

If you’re struggling with whether or not to call police, you may want to first reach out to a trained domestic violence advocate at a local or national hotline. Advocates know how stressful it is to witness someone you care about being abused and can help advise you further on the best course of action.