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How to Help a Friend Who Is In an Abusive Relationship

Domestic abuse happens more often than you think, and it doesn’t always look like what you see on TV. Abuse is not always obvious, and it can be hard to figure out if someone you care about is going through it.  

“The outside signs of abuse can be difficult to spot,” said Jason Curry, DO, a psychiatrist with Banner – University Medicine. “Victims of abuse may not even realize the extent of their situation. They may grapple with feelings of confusion, shame and fear. This struggle might not allow signs of a problem to arise or could cause someone to hide any indication that something is wrong.”  

According to the National Institutes of Health, family and domestic violence is a common problem in the U.S., affecting millions of people every year. Contrary to common perception, it encompasses various forms beyond physical violence, including emotional (psychological), sexual, stalking, financial and technological abuse.  

If you’re reading this page, chances are you’re worried about a friend or loved one who may be abused. They might not show it, but they could be hurting inside, wishing someone would notice and help them.  

Read on to understand how to recognize the signs of abuse and the steps you can take to support a friend or loved one. 

Recognizing the signs of abuse 

Because abuse can take many forms and each relationship is unique, finding clear signs of abuse can be tough. Sometimes, these signs can even seem contradictory.  

“For example, your friend in an abusive relationship might tell you not to post anything you did together on social media because they don’t want others to know what they are doing,” Dr. Curry said. “While another friend in an abusive relationship might want you to tell their partner everything you did together that day in case the partner asks.” 

However, changes in appearance or behavior, especially if they’re unusual for your friend or loved one, can be strong indicators of a problem. Here are some common signs that could indicate your friend is in an abusive relationship: 

  • Appearance changes: They might be told to change their clothes, hairstyle or body for their partner. 
  • Submissive behavior: They become more passive or quiet around their partner. 
  • Denial and excuses: They make excuses for their partner’s behavior or blame themselves or others. 
  • Double standards: They have different expectations for themselves compared to their partner. 
  • Isolation: They start avoiding social activities or canceling plans suddenly. 
  • Financial constraints: They may have less money or time to spend than they did before. 
  • Mood swings: They have sudden changes in mood and behavior. 
  • Sexual coercion: They report being forced into sexual acts by their partner. 
  • Control over access: Their partner restricts them from certain places, events or digital platforms. 

Because visible signs may not be present or easily missed, Dr. Curry suggests regularly asking your loved ones if they’re in a loving and safe relationship.  

“If they seem unsure or hesitant, it’s important to let them know you care about them and want to make sure others in their life care for them too,” he said.  

Offering support without judgment can help your friend recognize and feel more open to discussing problems in their relationship. 

Supporting a friend in an abusive relationship 

Seeing a friend or loved one in an abusive relationship can be heart-wrenching and overwhelming. You may feel powerless and unsure of how to help without making things worse.  

Dr. Curry shared some ways to support someone in this situation: 

Start with safety

 Create a safe space for your friend to share their feelings and experiences. “Hold the conversation in a safe space, preferably away from the influence of the abusive partner,” Dr. Curry said. “Let your friend know you are asking to be helpful, and your only motivation is to help keep them safe.” 

Approach with care

Approach your friend without expecting immediate action, but give them resources for when it’s possible for them to exit the relationship. Understand that leaving an abusive relationship isn’t always immediately easy to do. Your friend may be fearful their partner will escalate abuse, threaten to harm others, and/or threaten to harm themselves

There are many local resources available – most can be accessed over the phone and online. Be aware that abusive partners may monitor their communications and location tracking. It is wise to ensure that your friend stores and privately access these resources.  

“One example is to store the National Domestic Violence Hotline number in text or as a contact that is difficult to decipher,” Dr. Curry said. “Even writing ‘800, 799, SaFe, 798, 797, 796’ on a slip of paper may not mean much to someone else but can be a clear reminder to call 1-800-799-SAFE if the need arises.” 

Offer emotional support

 Instead of telling them what they should do, lend a listening ear and validate their experience. Let them know what they’re feeling is valid and that they aren’t alone. “A person in an abusive relationship is already suffering from the acts of a partner reducing their autonomy and independence,” Dr. Curry said. “If you want to help your friend, reassure them they can make their own decisions but you are there to listen and help.” 

Provide resources

 Offer information about local shelters, support groups, counseling or helplines like the National Domestic Violence Hotline, where they can seek support anonymously.  

"These resources are staffed with trained professionals who help countless people exit harmful relationships,” Dr. Curry said. “They also have resources to help support loved ones of those being abused as they hopefully transition out of an abusive relationship.” 

Create a safety plan

 Help your friend or loved one come up with a plan to keep themselves safe. Safety planning can serve as a lifeline in times of crisis.  

  • Help them find a “safe” word. This code word can be used to let you know when they are in danger without their abusive partner knowing.  
  • Consider factors such as the nature of the abuse and the safety of others, such as children, parents and pets who may also be at home.   
  • Encourage your friend to document their abuse, including dates, times and descriptions of what happened. Help them keep this information in a safe and secure location.  
  • Locate nearby law enforcement resources (police stations, fire stations) and understand legal options like orders of protection to help your friend move out safely or remove their abusive partners legally. 
  • Ensure they have access to shelter, food and finances, including information on local shelters and support centers. 
Seek help yourself

 “Supporting a friend or loved one trapped in an abusive relationship can feel burdensome and traumatizing,” Dr. Curry said. “It’s important to prioritize your own self-care and have resources to support you when you are struggling.” 

Acknowledge these feelings without judgment and recognize it’s okay to seek support for yourself. Reach out to family, friends or a licensed behavioral health specialist who can provide you with the guidance and support you need.  

Don’t stop supporting them

Healing from abuse takes time, and your friend or loved one may not be ready to take action immediately. Be patient. It can take time for them to recognize their abuse and even longer to take steps to leave. Be there and be a strong friend. Continue to offer support and check in regularly. Focus on building their self-confidence, acknowledging their strengths and helping them keep up with outside support. 


Abuse in relationships is a widespread issue that requires collective awareness and action. By understanding the signs of abuse and offering support to those in need, you can help break the cycle of violence.  

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. You’re not alone, and there are resources available to support you on your journey to healing and recovery. 


For more related blogs, check out: 

Behavioral Health Relationships Safety