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What do you do if someone tells you they’ve experienced domestic violence?

What do you do if someone tells you they’ve experienced domestic violence?

What you should and shouldn’t say …

BY Rebecca Bodman, 10 min READ

Domestic violence in Australia should be a national emergency.

One in three women has experienced violence or abuse at the hands of their current or former partner. The chances that you know women who experience abuse is extremely high, so what should you say if a friend or colleague discloses to you? Latte editor, Rebecca Bodman writes.

I was at the park with my two-and-a-half-year-old, coffee in hand, watching him go up and down the slide for the 68th time when I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation happening in the group of mums behind me. One of them was in tears, telling them – from what I gathered was for the first time – how violent her partner was towards her and her two very young kids. She recounted a situation the night before where he picked up his dinner she’d served him and threw it across the room at her because he didn’t like what she’d made. The other four women sat around with slightly stunned, yet empathetic faces, but it was clear they had no idea what to say. That week was the same week six Australian women died at the hands of their current of former partner. We all know the terrifying stats about domestic violence in Australia, but what do you do if someone discloses that they’ve experienced violence or abuse at the hands of their partner to you? What should you say, and what should you not say?

White Ribbon, Australia’s most prominent body working to end the violence of men against women, says an easy way to remember what to do is to think of the 3 Rs: recognise, respond, refer. If someone discloses violence to you, they are showing enormous trust in you and your response is really important. The most important thing you can do is to listen without judging, respect her decisions, and help her to find ways to become stronger and safer. The Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria suggest you do the following to help.


  • Listen to what she has to say.
  • Believe what she tells you. It will have taken a lot for her to talk to you. People are much more likely to cover up or downplay the abuse, rather than to make it up or exaggerate. You might find it hard to imagine someone you know could behave abusively. But the person who is abusive will probably show you a very different side to the side the victim sees.
  • Take the abuse seriously. Abuse can be damaging both physically and emotionally. Don’t underestimate the danger she may be in.
  • Help her to recognise the abuse and understand how it may be affecting her or her children.
  • Tell her you think she has been brave in being able to talk about the abuse, and in being able to keep going despite the abuse.
  • Help to build her confidence in herself.
  • Help her to understand that the abuse is not her fault and that no-one deserves to be abused, no matter what they do. Let her know you think that the way her partner is treating her is wrong. For example, ‘No one, not even your husband, has the right to mistreat you.’
  • Help her to protect herself. You could say, ‘I’m afraid of what he could do to you or the children’ or ‘I’m worried that it will get worse.’ Talk to her about how she thinks she could protect herself.
  • Help her to think about what she can do and see how you can help her to achieve it.
  • Offer practical assistance like minding the children for a while, cooking a meal for her, offering a safe place to stay, transport or to accompany her to court, etc.
  • Respect her right to make her own decisions, even if you don’t agree with them. Respect her cultural or religious values and beliefs.
  • Maintain some level of regular contact with her. Having an opportunity to talk regularly to a supportive friend or relative can be very important.
  • Find out about Intervention Orders (Victorian name for a court protection order – in NSW these are called ‘Apprehended Violence Orders’, and in other states they are ‘Protection’, ‘Restraining’ or ‘Domestic Violence’ Orders) and other legal options available and pass this information on to her if she wants it.
  • Tell her about the services available. Remind her that if she calls a service, she can just get support and information, they won’t pressure her to leave if she doesn’t want to.
  • Keep supporting her after she has left the relationship. The period of separation could be a dangerous time for her, as the abuse may increase. She may need practical support and encouragement to help her establish a new life and recover from the abuse. She could also seek counselling or join a support group.


When talking to someone who is being abused, some things may not help, or may stop her from wanting to confide in you fully.

Here are some of the things victims of abuse say did not help:

  • Don’t blame her for the abuse or ask questions like ‘what did you do for him to treat you like that?’ or ‘why do you put up with it?’, or ‘how can you still be in love with him?’ These questions suggest that it is somehow her fault.
  • Don’t keep trying to work out the ‘reasons’ for the abuse.Concentrate on supporting the person who is being abused.
  • Don’t be critical if she says she still loves her partner, or if she leaves but then returns to the relationship. Leaving an abusive partner takes time, and your support is really important.
  • Don’t criticise her partner.Criticise the abusive behaviour and let her know that no-one has the right to abuse her (for example, say ‘your partner shouldn’t treat you like that’). Criticism of her partner is only likely to make her want to defend him or her.
  • Don’t give advice, or tell her what you would do. This will only reduce her confidence to make her own decisions. Listen to her and give her information, not advice.
  • Don’t pressure her to leave or try to make decisions on her behalf. Focus on listening and supporting her to make her own decisions. She knows her own situation best.

Are you thinking, why doesn’t she just leave?

This is a question often asked, and for people completely removed from the issue, it’s something hard to understand. Ending an important relationship is never easy. It’s even more difficult if you’ve lost your outside support system, been isolated from your friends and family, psychologically manipulated, financially controlled and physically threatened. Professor of psychology, Debra Rickwood, from The University of Canberra says, “Victims become disempowered and trapped in a cycle of learned helplessness. Significant outreach and ongoing support is required to enable women to escape from these trapped situations safely.”

Domestic violence in Australia is a very complex issue. It will not change overnight, but all of us can do something to help. We must not trivialise abuse and need to encourage and support victims to speak out. Knowing what to say if someone does disclose to you means we can all do our bit.

 If you or someone you know is experiencing violence, call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 for advice or support. This free service providing confidential advice is open 24/7.

In an emergency, call the police on 000. All incidents of violence should be reported to the police.

For urgent support call Lifeline 13 11 14

If you are in danger, please call the Police – 000

Read next:

The movement to end domestic violence in a generation

Why we need to address gender inequality to reduce violence against women


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