Someone I know is in a relationship impacted by abuse, what should I do?


Pain comes from witnessing someone we care about being abused. Pain also comes from witnessing someone we care about being the abuser. And pain comes from not knowing how to help either the victim or the victimizer. This pain constitutes Vicarious Trauma, a form of trauma that comes from being a helpless witness to other’s trauma and not knowing how to intervene or, if knowing, not being able to.

Children, who see one parent abuse another or one of their siblings, are in this life-altering position of being vicariously traumatized, even if they themselves are never directly harmed. The survivor guilt that accompanies Vicarious Trauma can last a lifetime. These pages are intended to give some basic steps so that you can move from helpless to helpful, from being traumatized yourself via someone else’s trauma to finding a path of healing.

If you initiate your own private intervention with a friend or family member who is being abused, you may not receive the welcome you expect. In fact, you may be warned away with a variety of responses:

  • Nothing’s wrong
  • I can handle it myself
  • You’re going to make this worse
  • There’s no way out

It’s easy to become discouraged by this, especially if you fear that your help might actually not be considered helpful. Leading abuse expert Lundy Bancroft (2002) says, “Empowerment and recovery for an abused woman can be a long process; the urge to find fault in her interferes with your ability to help her and ultimately colludes with the abuser or with secondary abuse.”

We suggest using our healing model as your guide.


You are the front line. You have a better chance of turning around an abuser’s attitude than anyone else: his partner, a therapist, abuser program, the courts, individually or all put together. You are the hardest ones to resist or discredit. He may easily dismiss the others on the list with a wave of his hand, or the charm of his smile, but when a loved one, other than the abused, steps in and confronts him, he is likely to experience some uncertainty for the first time (see Bancroft, 2002, p. 376). He might then be willing to listen.

But you are on shaky ground. He is still in Image Management Mode, so he will need to keep his world intact, including maintaining your view of him. To do this:

  • He may admit partial confessions to deflect attention away from the severity of his actions; he may give a litany of harsh criticisms about his victim and her treatment of him. These may have snippets of truth but are riddled with deception and distortion, none of which actually justify any form or level of abuse.
  • He may state and even believe he is the one who is being abused, because as the victim gains the ability to become more of an individual and gain her voice, he may feel traumatized because she is threatening his worldview and the role she has played in his life.
  • He may begin to fold you into the problem, even verbally abusing you via criticism, ridicule, denial, or placating. Keep affirming your willingness to listen, but be willing to confront as well.

Remember: Abuse is always a choice, never a mistake, and it is never the victim’s fault.  Between 2 and 10 percent of victims lie about abuse, whereas the majority of victimizers lie about their actions. The two pillars that abuse stands on are: 1) image management and 2) the avoidance of accountability and responsibility.

****Our gift and responsibility when we are aware that abuse is occurring is to use our voices and our words to confront the abuse of the victimizer, even if a loved one or friend, instead of using our voices and words to confront and accuse the victim.  Abuse is its own category in various protocols because a professional or layperson’s fundamental charge is to Do No Harm.  In holding with this idea, you must always be willing to hear what the victim can speak, while holding her confidentiality.  But in contrast, you must be able to share in transparent ways perpetrations of the abuser the victim to support her reality testing and forward actions.

For our guidelines on how to approach and help a victimizer, follow our Accountability Model.