This document is written in an effort to help you support CSU students who may be in and/or thinking about leaving an unhealthy relationship. As a support person it is important to mirror the language your friend uses. For instance, you may hear the terms victim/survivor used in reference to the person experiencing negative effects of the relationship. You may also hear terms like abuser/batter/perpetrator in relation to the person enacting power and control in the relationship. It is important to allow the person you are supporting to choose the terms that they identify with.
Being in and/or ending an unhealthy relationship can be a difficult struggle for someone who feels powerless and frightened, but you can make a difference. Your support and concern can allow for space to question how the person your supporting feels about their relationship and what they would like to do to address the issues they identify. To show you are supportive:
- Listen: If someone is willing to share their experience/ with you, it is important that they can share without fear of being judged, rejected or betrayed.
- Believe/Validate: Unhealthy relationships occur within every social stratum, among every race, and to all genders and sexual orientations. It is a very serious problem in our society.
- Assure the person that they are not to blame: They do not deserve what is happening to them, nor are they the cause.
- Support without dominating: Encourage them to see that they still have choices and support them in the choices they make. Empower them to know that they have options.
- Be there: Supporting a person in an unhealthy relationship can be difficult but they need to know that you will be there for them. There are many things that keep someone trapped in a relationship. It is complex and rarely an easy decision. Try to educate yourself about these obstacles and be understanding when talking with someone in an abusive relationship.
How To Ask About A Suspected Unhealthy Relationship:
- Power dynamics resulting in an unhealthy relationship are very common, and many people are being hurt or controlled by their partner. Is this happening to you?
- (If injured) Did someone you are in a relationship with do this?
- Is your partner very jealous?
- You seem frightened by your partner. Are you intimidated by them?
- Do you have equal say (power) in your relationship?
Underlying Issues Involved in Unhealthy Relationships
- Everyone comes to us with a different set of experiences that may affect their response to their situation.
- Just as with any other situation, our life experiences make us who we are and affect the way that we respond to situations. Dealing with a person in an unhealthy situation is one area where we should be especially cognizant of these issues. Religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and sexual orientation all play a significant role in response to relationship, both healthy and unhealthy.
- Personal beliefs systems affect the way in which a person responds emotionally. This can have an impact on them staying in a relationship, leaving the relationship, utilizing support systems (family/friends), and whether or not they choose to participate in the legal process (should it rise to that level).
- Previous incidents of interpersonal violence may also affect the way a person responds.
- The person may have a hard time trusting people, including police or others who are trained to help.
- Talking about their situation often times makes people uneasy, and therefore heightens their sense of weariness. They also may have trusted the person who did them harm, making them question their judgment.
- The person will likely be blaming themself for what happened.
- Because of the messages we all receive from society, the person may believe that they could have prevented the situation by changing their own behavior. The ONLY person who can stop the behavior from happening is the person who caused the harm.
- The person may tell you what they did to provoke the occurrence, you may hear, “because I drank too much”…or, “Because I made them mad,” etc.
- Sometimes when people question their relationship decided to ask for help or advice from support people they may be inadvertently “blamed” for the situation. They then might feel reinforced that the situation is their fault.
- The person may be worried about being blamed for the incident.
- They often hear questions like: “Why were you with a hurtful person?” “How much did you have to drink?” “Why were you dressed like that?” “It advertises that you want sex.”
- Avoid asking questions that blame, let them know that it wasn’t their fault.
- They can be worried that other people will find out.
- People are often sensitive to others finding out about their situation…in fact, it is one of the most significant reasons a person leaves a community (residence hall, apartment, classroom, club/organization, friend group, etc.) after a public situation.
- Share with the person that what they tell you will be kept in strict confidence, unless you have a responsibility to report incidents because of a policy. If that is the case, be up front about that responsibility as well.
- Minimization of the situation.
- Many people in unhealthy relationships will minimize a situation so as not to draw attention to themselves, or to maintain control.
- Hearing them say things like, “I can handle this, it isn’t always bad.” Or, “I think things will get better when my partner is less stressed about school.”
- The person may have concern about what will happen to their partner.
- It is likely than not that they cared for their partner in some way and may be socially connected with them whether they stay or leave the relationship.
- If the police or Student Conduct services get involved, they may be worried about what will happen to their partner.
- Anger as a response.
- Sometimes the person is angry at the situation or at the flawed system.
- They maybe afraid, but are more comfortable expressing anger.
- Recovery through empowerment.
- Someone else took this person’s power away from them, it is important that we start giving that power back by encouraging and supporting a sense of control in their life.
- The person might be in serious danger.
- Some unhealthy relationships are also abusive. Interpersonal violence is very unpredictable and complex, if a student thinks they are in serious danger, believe them.
- The importance of listening.
- The person may not want you to solve the problem, or even expect you to know all the answers. They may just want someone to share experiences, validate their feeling, and to gain support.
- If someone has experienced a form of interpersonal violence, they may feel a loss of power. The best thing we can do is give some of their power back by sharing resources and allowing for the person to make their own decisions.
- Because it is so hard to believe, the first thing that most people do is question whether your friend really experienced something traumatic. One of the most important things that we can do is BELIEVE AND VALIDATE THEM!
- The person may have fear of judgment.
- This can be pronounced if your identities are different that theirs. Or if you are extremely close, there can be a fear of losing a support person.
- Talking about their situation often times makes people uneasy, and therefore silences many people in unhealthy relationships.
What to say to someone who is in an unhealthy relationship
- Violence is never ok.
- I am afraid (or concerned) for your safety.
- I am here for you when you want help.
- You do not deserve to be treated this way.
- You did not cause this.
- You cannot change your partner or the way they choose to act.
- Couples counseling is never safe or appropriate if there is an imbalance of power in a relationship.
- Asking the question may give someone you care about the safety they need to talk about their experiences in the relationship
- Avoid asking “why” questions about anything.
- Avoid using terms like batterer, abuser, victim, or battered. Mirror the language of the person you are supporting.
- Remember that emotional abuse is a very real and dangerous form of violence, and if violence is present in a relationship that it may not be physically violence.
How to refer someone to an advocate and services
- “There are offices on campus and agencies in Fort Collins that can give you information, support, or referrals to shelters where you can be safe. They can help you plan for your safety. Here is their phone number. Please call them.”
- “Do you want to use my phone?”
- On Campus Resource: Women and Gender Advocacy Center. Phone: 970-491-6384. Office open Monday-Friday 8:30-5PM.
- Off Campus (Fort Collins): Crossroads. Phone: 1-888-541-7233 (24 hour hotline)
- Off Campus (Loveland): Alternatives to Violence. Hotline 970-278-2083
If you would like to learn more or talk about ways to improve this relationship, we have advocates available to provide confidential crisis intervention and emotional support through the Women and Gender Advocacy Center. We provide information about academic, legal, medical, emotional, and student conduct resources to survivors of sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking. We also offer support to secondary survivors, such as intimate partners, friends, family, and you.