Responding to Emotional Abuse: How You Can Help Someone You Know

Publication Date: 
prior to 1995
Resource Origin: 
Springtide Resources

Violence against women, or woman abuse, happens to more women than we think. 

Most women who are physically assaulted by their intimate partners are emotionally abused.  However, not all women who are emotionally abused, are physically abused.

It is likely that you know a woman who is being emotionally abused by her partner. It could be your friend, sister, neighbour or co-worker. Whatever your relationship to an abused woman, it is difficult to admit that someone you care about is being abused.

Very often, people want to help, but do not know how. If you know a woman who is being emotionally abused, and want to help, these are some things you can do:

Gather information about emotional abuse and the resources available.

  • You don't have to solve the problem, but you can provide support and information.
  • Look in the front of your phone book for the crisis line or women's shelter for services in your area.
  • Get information on emotional abuse so you can understand what she is going through.
  • If the woman does not speak English, there may be services in her language, or cultural interpreters available.
  • If the woman has a disability, or is deaf, make sure you refer her to appropriate services.

Recognize that emotional abuse has as much, if not more, of an impact on a woman's overall health and well being as physical violence.

  • She may become ill, depressed, anxious, or use alcohol or drugs to cope. If she has a disability, it may get worse due to the abuse.
  • Encourage her to take care of herself. She may want to speak to her family doctor or a counsellor who deals with woman abuse.
  • If she has children, it may be difficult for her to go out on her own. You could assist her with child-care so she can attend appointments or have some time to herself.

Assure her that you believe her and that you take emotional abuse seriously.

  • Listen and be understanding. Encourage her to talk about what she is experiencing.
  • Let her know you will keep what she has told you private.
  • Let her know that you are concerned for her safety and well being and want to provide support. Never tell her that she is lucky that she is not being hit.

Do not blame her or make excuses for her partner.

  • Alcohol or drug use, a job loss, or a bad childhood does not cause abuse.  
  • Having a disability or living with someone who has a disability is not a justification for abuse.  
  • The family's cultural or spiritual beliefs are not the cause of the emotional abuse. Woman abuse happens in all cultures.
  • Understand that it is normal for an abused woman to deny what is happening, or make excuses for her partner. 
  • Encourage her to understand there is no excuse for any form of abuse.

Support her to be safe.

  • Understand that emotionally abusive partners also commit physical assault, murder, or murder-suicide. An abused woman is at most risk of being killed when leaving her partner.
  • Take her fears seriously. She may have been threatened by her partner and be fearful of him.
  • Let her know that she can go to a shelter for abused women.  
  • Suggest that she develop a safety plan.
  • Encourage her to learn about her legal rights and the rights of her children.

Ask her how you can help.

  • Do not take over. Her partner already controls her. 
  • Remember that she will make the decisions that are best for her.

Help her to recognize her strengths and feel better about herself.

  • Women who are abused demonstrate incredible strength when they balance the everyday demands of life, such as home, children, work and school.
  • A woman's self-confidence and esteem may have been greatly eroded by emotional abuse.
  • She may believe that she cannot make it on her own.
  • She may start by taking steps towards independence, such as going back to school or getting a job.
  • Encourage her to set small and realistic goals.

Respect her decisions and support her if she stays. A woman may not want to leave her partner, even if you think that is what is best for her.

  • Many people do not understand how difficult it is to leave an abusive partner. Do not tell her that you would have left a long time ago.
  • She may lose her home, car, farm and farm animals, and financial support for herself and her children if she leaves.
  • She could be isolated from her cultural community. She may not speak English and be fearful of being on her own.
  • She may not have access to physical supports she needs to be on her own.
  • Understand that abusers often use children or threaten to abduct their children if she talks about leaving.
  • Respect her decisions and tell her she will not lose your support if she stays.
  • Recognize that identifying emotional abuse is the first step, and that it may take time for her to make changes in her life.