If you are a college student, and you suspect a friend of yours is in an abusive relationship, it can be very difficult to know what to do to help. Your friend may come to you and tell you directly about problems in their relationship — but it’s more likely that you will sense something is wrong before they confide in you.

Abuse can happen in all kinds of relationships. Sometimes the abuse doesn’t start until after the relationship has officially ended. And no matter the gender of your friend or their partner, it’s important to be aware of what to look for and how to help.

Signs your friend may be being abused

  • Your friend has distanced themselves from the people and activities they used to enjoy
  • Your friend’s life revolves around their significant other to extreme levels
  • There are marks of physical violence, like bruises, cuts, and scrapes
  • Your friend becomes more withdrawn and shy when they and their partner are in public, deferring to their partner’s initiative
  • Your friend’s partner intimidates, embarrasses, and controls them

Abuse is not always physical! It can be emotional, sexual and/or financial – even academic.

What to do?

Consider the following suggestions as you think about how to help your friend. But remember not to take over and make decisions for them – they need to remain in control of their choices, even as they reach out for help.

  1. Listen – Yes. Instead of “talking” them through it, listen first. They may simply need a friendly ear. They may need much more than that, but you will not know unless you listen to what they have to say.
  2. Assure them of confidentiality – You may think you need to immediately involve their parents or another friend or a faculty member, but don’t. Your friend needs to know that people will only be brought into this knowledge if it’s what they decide.
  3. Be there in the way they need you to be – They may have come to you for help in a specific way. It could have been to think things over, or they may need your help to get out safely. This is their situation, though, so trust them to tell you what they need from you.
  4. Do not judge – Your friend may decide they need to stay and work things out with their partner. This could be very hard to hear, and you may think it’s totally wrong. Keep that to yourself. It’s their experience and they need to be able to do what they’ve deemed best.
  5. Know when to seek outside help – While you should trust your friend’s decisions and not judge them, there are exceptions. If there is a clear and direct threat to their life, you may have to get help from the police or another campus or local authority. It’s best to ask your friend first — but in extreme situations, an exception may be necessary. Use your best judgment.

This journey is about your friend. It is theirs to take and yours to help, but only if and when you’re asked, and only in the way in which they wish to be helped.