4 Common Challenges of Abuse Survivors, Plus How to Help

In today’s episode, we’ll tackle a challenging issue: why some individuals seem to get into one abusive situation after another. There are as many reasons as there are people involved, but there are also some common themes. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 4 frequent challenges faced by survivors of abuse, plus how you can help.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #71

Know that it’s normal to feel helpless and frustrated. You can’t rescue them. But you can do these five things:

Tip #1: Be an exception. When an individual keeps getting into abusive situations, be an exception in his or her life. Be loving and respectful. Listen to and believe them. Be reliable: do what you say you’re going to do. In short, be everything their abusive “friends” are not. It will show them that at least one person believes they are worth treating with respect. And that may make all the difference.

Tip #2: Oddly, keep it about you. What I mean is to use “I” statements: “I’m worried about you,” “It’s not okay with me that he takes your money,” or “I’m scared this will happen again.” When you use “you” statements, like, “What were you thinking?” “You need to get out of there,” or “You can’t let them do that to you,” the situation quickly escalates into blaming the victim. Plus, it demonstrates you’re not a safe person to whom they can talk. Instead, using “I” statements, let him or her know that what’s happening is not okay with you and that you know they deserve better.

Tip #3: Balance boundaries with support. The hardest part is watching someone you love get out of an abusive relationship, only to go right back. You breathe a sigh of relief only to start the cycle again. Some people give up on their loved ones; you wouldn’t be alone if you threw up your hands and walked away.  

It’s crazy-making, but do your best to stick it out and be supportive. However, you don’t have to feed the fire. If money you lend always ends up in the hands of the abuser, you can stop giving financial support. If you are hosting a family gathering, you can refuse to invite the abuser. You can decide never to leave your kids if the abuser is present. It’s a balancing act, but it’s possible to set boundaries to protect yourself while simultaneously being supportive.

Tip #4: Know that you’re allowed to change your mind, and then change it back again. Being supportive is a choice you make every day. Some days, after they downplay a black eye or defend an emptied bank account, you may simply be unable to remain non-judgmental. You’re only human and you can only be disappointed so many times. But you never have to call it quits for good. After a few weeks or a few years, you may be ready to reach out and reconnect. It’s painful, but likely not as painful as letting them go forever.  

Tip #5: Encourage help. Finally, encourage them to get help, not because anything is wrong with them, but because you suspect they’ve been taught lessons that are not true. What was learned—guilt, helplessness, worthlessness—can be unlearned with time and patience.  

Bottom line: you can love someone without approving of his or her choices. You can’t rescue him or her, but you can say over and over, “It’s not your fault, you’re worth so much more than this, I’m here for you, I love you.”  

Do you have friends or loved ones in abusive relationships? How do you show support, and when is it challenging to do so? Join the conversation on the Savvy Psychologist Facebook page.


Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.