How to Support a Friend in an Abusive Relationship

Go bags, photo documents, and saving text messages can help

Photo: Terry Vine/Getty Images

When Lorena Gallo met John Wayne Bobbitt in the late 1980s, she never imagined her world would come crashing down around her. After marrying him in 1989, John went on to spend the next four years terrorizing Lorena with physical beatings, sexual assault, and emotional abuse. An immigrant born in Ecuador and raised in Venezuela, Lorena was particularly vulnerable because not only did she struggle with the English language, she had no family nearby she could rely on for the support she needed. She was friendly with co-workers and had a few close friends, though, and they would become her strongest allies in her fight to break free of John. If you have a friend experiencing intimate partner abuse, your love and support may be their saving grace.

Lifetime Network recently premiered I Was Lorena Bobbit, the autobiographical account of their marriage and the events leading up to the night when Lorena severed John’s penis after he had once again sexually assaulted her. I’m old enough to remember the entire spectacle made of the situation; Lorena’s pain became fodder for jokes across the media, and she was vilified as some crazed, selfish woman. Despite her testimony about the abuse she endured, people (mostly men) took up for John, basically saying nothing a man could do would be worth cutting off his penis. Lorena eventually went to trial for the charge of malicious wounding and was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. Her defense team argued that she “snapped” due to traumatic stress caused by years of abuse. Hers was one of the most public cases to expose the oppressive laws that allowed for marital rape to happen without much consequence to the rapist.

At the trial, Lorena’s friends and co-workers testified that they had witnessed several incidents of John’s violence and her bruises and scars. Lorena recalls trying to get help but having little success. Having people who are willing to help is critically important for those in abusive relationships. Victims are often isolated from the people who care about them because their abusers don’t want them feeling they can leave the situation. Abusers will trash talk friends and family and convince victims that no one else cares about them. As difficult as it is to know about and witness a friend’s suffering at the hands of an abuser, you may be the best chance they have of leaving the situation. Are you the friend who will answer the door at 3:00 a.m. if she shows up with her two kids in tow? It’s crucial that you remain as open and available to supporting your abused friends as possible; it takes an abused woman an average of seven attempts before she leaves an abuser for good.

Being a good friend means being mindful of how you speak about domestic and intimate partner violence around others because you never know if someone you love is being abused.

In 2014, Beverly Gooden, an activist for survivors of domestic abuse, created #WhyIStayed to draw attention to the various reasons people stay in abusive relationships. One of the reasons leaving continues to be so difficult is that many people feel they have nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Many victims are also embarrassed and don’t want to be pitied or ridiculed by others, so they keep it to themselves. Being a good friend means being mindful of how you speak about domestic and intimate partner violence around others because you never know if someone you love is being abused. Saying, “I don’t get why they just don’t leave. How stupid can you be?” can alienate your best friend who goes home to an abuser every day and you have no idea. Instead of expressing frustration, focus on empathy and supportive language. “It’s so hard to leave abusive relationships. I hope you know that if you’re ever in this situation, you can come to me. No judgments.”

One of Lorena’s friends, Mercedes, took pictures of her bruises and sent them to Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) as part of a petition to get asylum due to her being a victim of spousal abuse. Unfortunately, Lorena never received a response from INS. Immigrant women in abusive relationships often have their immigration status leveraged for control, or their abusers threaten to have them deported if they report the crimes. Lorena feared what John would do, but she had a friend help her understand her rights and help her through the process. As a friend, one way you can help is to educate yourself about local laws and procedures as well as resources that help people in abusive relationships. We know that calling the police can be complicated, especially when it comes to people of color, so having other options available is useful. The Hotline, for example, is a 24/7 service that victims can access without even using their phones; they have chat services that can be accessed via computer. Most cities have local 24/7 hotlines and services as well as safe-haven locations to which victims can escape. Your friend may not be aware of them, so gather the information and share it when you talk with your friend.

Lorena’s co-worker gave her advice about recording his behavior, but he discovered the recordings which led to more abuse. Documentation is important because it helps substantiated claims of repeated abuse. However, there’s more you can do as a friend. First, save any text messages or voicemails they send you referencing the abuser’s behaviors. You can save them to a cloud online so your friend can delete them from their own phone and cloud. You can also keep your own journal and instances you personally witness or they directly report to you. Be sure to include the date, time, and as much detail as possible. This journal can be used in court proceedings that can help with obtaining restraining orders and provide testimony against more serious charges. Like Mercedes, you can take pictures of any bruising or scarring and keep them secure. Your friend might not be ready to press charges, but just in case they change their mind, you have the pictures saved.

You can provide material support to your friend as well. First, you can help put together a “go bag,” a bag or case that has essential items someone needs when fleeing a dangerous situation. Birth certificate and other forms of ID for your friend and, if necessary, their children, a burner cell phone and charger, a prepaid debit or credit card, enough cash to get gas or on public transportation and a couple of meals, health insurance information, and a small supply of essential medications are among the things you can help them assemble. Then, you can independently help her save up money by making your own contributions to her escape fund. Lack of financial preparedness is a huge barrier to leaving an abusive partner, but if you take $25 per paycheck and just set it aside for your friend, by the time they’re ready to go, you can have a sizeable gift ready for them.

Women of color are disproportionately victims of fatal domestic violence. Black women, for example, are nearly three times more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than White women. And as in the case of Shanta Renee Singleton, a 37-year-old mother of four who was recently killed by her ex-boyfriend, the majority of women killed as a result of domestic violence are killed as they try to leave or after they have left. Lorena was a Latina immigrant whose own mother encouraged her to try and work things out with John, even after witnessing him abusing her. This is far too common for women of color, especially those who were raised in conservative religious families. That’s why having supportive friends is key for people trying to escape violent relationships. My friends all know that my house is always open to them, no questions asked, and that I’m ready to ride on any toxic bum who is hurting them. I’m ride-or-die and have zero tolerance for people abusing my friends. As a survivor myself, I know that I could have never left an abusive situation without the love and support of my friends. I can only hope to return the favor if and when the time comes.

She/Her | Author, Activist. Philly-based, NYC-bred. #ReclaimingOurSpace #PushTheButton Google me. Twitter/IG: @FeministaJones Contact: bit.ly/ContactFJ

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