I’ve been thinking a lot about how and when we talk to each other about relationships – dating, sex, break-ups, violence – the good, the hard, the scary, the beautiful stuff. What we say to each other and ourselves often reflects how we see the world and teaches others our values.
Across our lifetime, many people learn casually. We learn from what we see – how people in our lives treat others. From what we hear – overheard conversations, messages directly to us. From what we do and how others respond. And for folks who can’t see or hear, there can be huge gaps in learning if others don’t try to intentionally fill those spaces and include us. Many of us – trans, queer, disabled, polyamorous, and more – did not have a variety of relationship types modeled for us when we were young. Without examples, it can feel really hard to figure things out. How do I bring up gender or boundaries if I haven’t ever had an example of that?
The other night, friends and I were joking about when teenagers sneak dates in and out of the house. One person looked over at the ten year old, who may or may not have been ignoring us, and said – “if you date, you don’t have to sneak people in. You can tell us.” It’s such a simple moment. It’s such a simple reminder that our stories, our jokes, our memories all have meaning.
I feel lucky that I have grown up within a specific queer community that talks openly and explicitly about relationships (which is not true of all queer folks). Partners know that their relationships get discussed and that they can discuss it too. We get support and ideas from others. We process our experiences with our dates and without them.
Outside of my small community, one of the most common things I hear when doing work around relationship violence is that relationships are private. Intimate partner violence isn’t something to talk about, because you don’t talk about your partner, and you definitely don’t say bad things about them. (I can attest that many people have happy, positive relationships and do talk about their challenges openly and that actually helps the relationship). In other groups, I hear people talking badly about their partners frequently, though rarely directly with their partners. When I look on social media, I see how common it is to make jokes about how terrible partners are.
The next most common thing I hear about domestic violence is “I’m concerned about my friend, how do I talk to them about their relationship?”
So there’s the big picture piece – what if we had cultural values that supported more open, honest, vulnerable conversations? What if we could talk about fears, concerns, and challenges with each other and get support and accountability, rather than judgment, shame or isolation? What if it was the norm to talk about our relationships? Wouldn’t that make it a million times easier to talk to your friend that you’re worried about?
That change takes time, it takes a lot of us living differently. In the meantime, talking to a friend you are concerned about would probably be a really great idea. So here’s some thoughts on how that can be helpful.
If you think your friend might be in an abusive, dangerous, or harmful relationship:
Talk privately. Abusive partners sometimes escalate their violence when they think the survivor is seeking help or talking about the abuse. Your loved one may be able to speak more freely and honestly in private. If at all possible talk outside of the friend’s home or any spaces shared with the partner. Abusive partners may be monitoring their partner’s activity as part of the controlling dynamics – this can include having secret cameras or microphones, monitoring calls, texts, or emails, and more. If your friend mentions that their partner often seems to know things they hadn’t told them, this can be a warning sign of monitoring.
Ask questions. By opening up a conversation and inviting them to share, you create space for the person to be honest. This can also be a helpful way to show you want to know what their thoughts and experiences are. Listen to their answers without judgment.
Support their decisions. It’s important that people experiencing abuse are supported to make their own decisions about how to respond. This might mean helping them think through their options or simply not pressuring them to do one thing or another. This can feel scary sometimes if your loved one is being hurt. Pressuring them to change is rarely helpful, though.
You can ask if they want opinions or suggestions. Listen to what they have already tried and thought about. You may be able to think through some options that can help reduce the possibility of further harm. For example, some people find it helpful to have an escape route planned in case violence escalates or to have a safe word with someone that means get help. You could see if they want to read information about safety planning together or call a domestic violence organization together. Be sure not to use their devices for calls and research, in case they are being monitored.
Help them connect. Abusive relationships can be very isolating. Often isolation is a tactic of control. Staying connected with your loved ones can be very important. You may also have more access to looking for other resources than your friend. Ask what they need help with. Share information that you find. If the person’s phone or computer is being monitored, maybe they can call hotlines from yours, or you can give them a ride somewhere.
Possible conversation starters:
“I’m here for you. Do you want to take a walk so we can talk just ourselves?”
“I’m concerned about your safety based on what you told me. Is it okay if I ask you more about what’s going on?”
“Can I tell you about some of the information I found about resources around here? Maybe we can call them together?”
However, you start the conversation, try to find a way to support your friend’s choice and decision making, show that you care about them, and help to find a private place to have the conversation. If there are specific things that you are worried about, it can be helpful to name them, but that doesn’t have to be the first thing you say.
“I saw the way Alex talked to you. When ze kept making fun of you for wearing makeup, I was concerned. Does that happen often? It worried me because it sounded like Alex was trying to control how you express yourself. What’s your experience been like?”
“Sara looked like she pulled your arm really hard when you were dancing. How are you doing? Has something like that happened before?”
“I just want to make sure I understood. Kyle can date other people but you can’t? I know how important polyamory is to you. Are you getting your needs met too?”
Every interaction matters. Sometimes people can feel hopeless when a situation doesn’t change right away or someone doesn’t open up and share everything with us immediately. It’s okay to have those feelings. And it can be helpful to remember that every interaction matters, even if you don’t see the impact of the conversation. People may need to hear that they are loved and deserve safety many times.
You don’t have to have the answers. When I worked on crisis hotlines, I would hear from survivors all the time that they wanted someone to listen and to believe them. Many survivors are already doing so much to navigate their situations and keep themselves and their families safe. Advice isn’t always needed or wanted. Listening, believing, and supporting them is wanted, though. It’s okay to say, I don’t know how to handle this, but I’m here for you.
Sometimes it’s our loved ones who are the ones who might be causing harm in a relationship. By learning skills to engage with conflict and disagreement, to help each other learn, and to support us all to change our behavior, we may be able to help people to not hurt others.
“Kyle, I hear you that you get really jealous. I know that’s an awful feeling. I want you to get the support to be able to work through that and not feel so overwhelmed and upset. I also don’t think it’s fair that you are controlling what your partner does.”
“Sara, it’s not okay to grab someone that hard. How can I help you find a better response in the future? Can we talk about what was happening for you, so that we can figure that out together?”
“Avery, that joke wasn’t funny.”
We don’t just have to talk about relationships when we’re worried about them though. In fact, the more we talk and the sooner, the more we can support each other and help to have more positive relationships.
“I really appreciated how you and Max worked together to solve that problem. You gave me ideas on how I can respond to hard situations.”
“It’s cool that you and Bee still celebrate each other and make sure to get quality time together, even when you’ve lived together so long.”
For those of us who have experienced violence or abuse, it may be hard to hear stories from others. Take time to think about what might be upsetting for you and how you can take care of yourself. It might mean opening a conversation and setting some boundaries.
“I sometimes have a hard time hearing about jealous partners because of the way my ex treated me. I want you to know that I am here to help support you through this, even when I need to take breaks sometimes while we talk. Is that okay with you?”
It can help to remember that someone else’s experience is not the same as our own. Often the similarities can help us to find connection, yet what worked for us may not be the right decision for someone else. Ask if you can share what helped you or things you learned, and be okay if the answer is no. Our loved ones may not be in a place to hear things that sound like advice, or they may need time to vent and process before thinking about action steps.
I love this quote from Gwendolyn Brooks.
“We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”
It reminds me that we can and do take care of each other and build a safe world together. We can help each other to grow; we can (respectfully) get in each other’s business; we can be there for each other in so many ways. So let’s talk.