How To Recognize and Help a Loved One in an Abusive Relationship

Some dos and don’ts for supporting someone you care about in a difficult time.

Watching a loved one in a situation you suspect might be abusive can be very difficult as an outsider to that relationship. It’s natural to want to help someone you care about leave a relationship that’s at best a source of stress and unhappiness and at worst dangerous. However, there’s a lot to take into consideration before diving in to help.

“Domestic abuse can be experienced by anybody,” says Kate Koei who has a masters in counselling psychology and specializes in supporting people of all cultural backgrounds who have chosen to stay in or leave abusive situations. Part of the difficulty in talking to a loved one who might be in an abusive situation is, they themselves might not recognize it as such.

“A common thing that people tell themselves is it is not abuse,” says Koei, “because a lot of times that’s what your abuser will tell you.”

Signs of an Abusive Relationship

In order to be an ally to someone in need, you first need to know what to look for. “It’s important for people outside of the person experiencing domestic abuse to be able to recognize some of the signs,” says Koei.

Some signs a loved one might be in an abusive relationship:

  • When someone has physical injuries they can’t explain
  • Your loved one is completely different around their potential abuser
  • They’re isolated, they no longer attend social events or are always in a rush to leave
  • They have poor hygiene, possibly a side effect of depression
  • Their behaviour is controlled or they lack personal boundaries

Dos and Don’ts of Helping

If any of the signs resonate with what you observe, you might be inclined to jump in right away to fix things—but it’s not that simple. It takes seven attempts on average to leave an abusive partner. There is no quick fix, but there are ways you can help.


Believe them: If someone confides in you, believing them validates their experience and lets them know you’re a safe person in their corner. This is a crucial early step because “they have been in a situation with a person who tells them what they’re seeing is not true,” says Koei. If someone tells you they are in an abusive situation – and you’re in the position – extending safe harbour can be an important way to validate that experience while offering safe and practical distance from the abuse.

Keep confidences: Both for safety reasons, and to avoid retraumatizing the person who expressed themselves, Koei emphasizes the importance of maintaining the confidentiality of someone who shares details of their abusive situation with you. “Sharing what a person is not ready to share and having them hear it from someone else when they’re not ready can be very traumatic,” she says. The exception, however, is in cases of child abuse. In Canada, if you have reasonable grounds to suspect abuse is happening to a child you are required to report it for their safety.

Make a Safety Plan: Encourage your loved one to create a safety plan even if they’re not yet ready to leave the relationship. A safety plan can help create a sense of security for the person leaving the relationship as well as clear steps to follow when they’re ready to leave. For advice on creating a safety plan, visit MyPlanApp for more safety planning tips.

Call for help: Keeping confidences doesn’t mean letting violent situations happen without consequence. “If you see a situation happening that you would consider unsafe for a person, by all means call for help,” says Koei. If you or your loved one needs emotional support rather than legal help, consider calling an impartial person rather than a friend or family member. “Calling a family member or a close friend potentially alienates a person who would be a possible good support,” says Koei.


Tell them what to do: It takes a lot of courage for someone to tell you they’re in an abusive situation, and they may not tell you all that goes on. “Something important is to not challenge their reality,” says Kate. “A lot of times people want to belittle or minimize someone’s experience.”

Assume what they’re feeling: “People have a whole range of feelings,” says Kate. Some of those feelings, like shame, guilt, or loneliness, may not make sense to you from the outside. But assuming or judging how someone is feeling won’t support them or make them feel less lonely or ashamed.

What if they go back?

Someone opened up to you and you supported them, helped them make a plan to leave, and they decided to go back. This can be difficult to accept as an outsider, but while the path to safety and happiness might look obvious to you, you’re not the one walking that path.

“It’s not an easy decision to arrive at,” says Kate. All you can do is be patient and remain as supportive as you always have—reset the space you’ve always held for this person, listen and reassure them of your continued support. “Support the process and trust that this person is going to arrive at a place where they do make that decision,” as only they can, says Kate.

Finally, you can suggest professional help, if a person is willing. “I always encourage people coming out of domestic abuse to get professional help alongside their other resources,” says Kate. “Abuse is not just physical or emotional, there are very significant psychological issues and trauma to it that cannot be addressed through a family system or a church. You really need to find professional support.”


Kate Koei

Kate Koei is a Certified Canadian Counsellor (CCC) in Calgary helping individuals, couples and families understand and work through challenges that diminish their wellbeing. Koei has worked with a broad range of issues including anxiety and depression, chronic pain, cultural adjustment challenges, domestic violence, grief & loss and more. You can begin working with her by using her Inkblot Referral Code: GKHBCPHA.