Survivors of abuse may stay silent, not discussing or reporting the abuse. Even so, there are ways to help a loved one being abused.
Abuse can come in many forms, from physical and sexual abuse to mental or emotional abuse. It might be domestic abuse or intimate partner violence, or come from a parent, caretaker, or someone else in your life.
Sometimes it can be very difficult to know whether a loved one has experienced abuse. Survivors of abuse may or may not show outward signs of experiencing abuse. They may stay silent and choose not to tell others about the abuse — including authorities.
However, offering appropriate support to a survivor of abuse without judgment is critical to their safety and recovery, whether they choose to report their abuser or not.
Along with offering support, loved ones of abuse survivors can help them access vital resources.
This article focuses on adult survivors. If you’re concerned about a child or teenager being abused, help is available. You can also call or text the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 800-422-4453.
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Some abuse survivors may not speak up about their experiences for a variety of reasons. Abuse survivors who choose not to disclose their experiences of past or current abuse are sometimes referred to as “silent victims.”
Domestic violence help
If you’re experiencing domestic violence, support is available:
- You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 for free, confidential care and support 24/7.
- You can call loveisrespect.org at 866-331-9474, or text “LOVEIS” to 22522 for support if you think you could be in an abusive relationship.
In addition, you can visit the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), a domestic violence prevention advocacy group with a list of resources for relationship abuse help.
There are many types of abuse, which means that signs of abuse can vary and sometimes be difficult to recognize. Everyone’s situation is unique, which can make it more challenging to recognize when a loved one is being abused.
However, there are some general signs to watch for if you suspect someone is being abused:
- Isolation. Your loved one seems isolated from seeing you or other friends and family on their own.
- Physical injuries. They may have bruises, cuts, broken bones, or signs of being restrained, like rope imprints on their wrists.
- Behavior changes. They may suddenly start acting very different from what is typical for them, such as seeming highly anxious.
- Damage to personal property. You may notice their clothes or other personal belongings are damaged or broken, such as ripped clothes or holes in walls.
Survivors of abuse may not tell anyone about the abuse for a variety of reasons, including:
- Judgment. Sometimes, a survivor may be afraid that other people are going to negatively judge them.
- “No one will believe me.” They might think nobody would believe them if they did tell someone that they were abused.
- Safety. A survivor may be very afraid of their abuser and may fear for their safety if they open up about their experiences. It can be common for abusers to threaten their victims to keep them silent.
- Fear of punishment. A survivor may be afraid to say anything due to potential punishment, such as if someone is abused by a supervisor at work, a parent or caregiver, or someone in a place of authority.
- Shame. Shame can play a significant role in keeping survivors silent. Survivors may believe that the abuse was somehow their fault or that they caused it. They might also feel embarrassed or ashamed that they didn’t or couldn’t defend themselves.
In addition, survivors of abuse don’t always report abuse to authorities. These reasons can vary greatly with each person’s situation, with reasons that can be rather complicated for some. For example:
- They feel responsible. Sometimes, a person might not report abuse because they feel responsible for it.
- Downplaying abuse. They might downplay the abuse or not even consider that they were abused.
- Lack of support. In some cases, survivors might not have support to lean on. This could be a part of the abuser’s tactics, or it may be that the survivor withdrew from friends and family out of shame, for instance.
- Financial resources. Some survivors of abuse may choose not to report the abuse because they don’t feel they have adequate financial resources to leave the abuser or hire legal counsel if necessary.
- Fears for their children. Survivors may choose not to report abuse because children are involved. A parent may feel that reporting abuse could harm their children, especially if the survivor shares children with their abuser, or if their children are also being abused.
- No safe space. A person might feel they can’t report abuse because they don’t have a safe place away from their abuser to go.
Supporting a loved one experiencing abuse can be challenging but is vital to their safety and well-being.
Safety and supporting survivors of abuse
Even if you are concerned, it’s important to let your loved one lead the conversation. Ask them questions, but try not to pry or pressure them into opening up or leaving the situation if they’re not ready.
Pressuring a survivor to act before they are ready can be dangerous.
It may take a survivor many attempts to leave their abuser for good. The period after a survivor leaves can be the most dangerous and volatile time in the abuse cycle, especially if they are experiencing violence and physical abuse.
If you feel you or your loved one is in immediate danger, call 911 immediately.
Here are some key tips to consider for supporting survivors of abuse:
- Let them open up first. Be willing to let them open up and talk with you, but only if they choose.
- Provide a safe space. Offer a safe space — emotionally and physically, if possible, like your private home or a public place away from the abuser — for your loved one to talk about any abuse they’re experiencing.
- Listen without judgment. Be sure to actively listen without passing judgment or trying to shame them into leaving the situation.
- Be honest about your concern. It’s OK to let them know you’re concerned but that you ultimately support whatever they decide to do.
- Be clear about how you can help. You can let them know what type of help you’re willing to provide, such as shelter or offering money to help leave the situation if they choose to.
- Be available. It’s a good idea to let your loved one know you are available for them should they need you.
- Gently suggest resources. You can help your loved one connect with resources. You might suggest calling a national hotline for abuse survivors, or you might offer to connect them with more local resources, such as a shelter or support group.
As you talk with your loved one, you may want to consider providing some resources for them. Some helpful resources for abuse survivors include:
Although some abuse survivors might choose to stay silent for a variety of reasons, there are many encouraging stories of survivors who do open up and seek help.
If you’re experiencing abuse, know that this behavior is not your fault, and you didn’t do anything to “deserve” abuse.
Supporting a loved one who is a survivor can sometimes be tricky. It’s important to let your loved one lead. You can ask them questions, but do not pry or pressure them to open up or leave the situation if they’re not ready.
Resources are available to help you or your loved one get to safety.
Speaking up about abuse takes tremendous courage. Though this can often feel scary, opening up can be an important first step to ending the cycle of abuse.
Sometimes, opening up to a therapist can help. If you are ready to get help from a mental health professional but don’t know where to look, you can check out Psych Central’s guide on finding support.