Seeing a family member or friend in an abusive marriage is hard to witness. It’s not easy to know how to help them or if they’re even open to change. Not all victims of domestic violence need the same help at the same time. Sometimes, a victim might need to feel validated and other times, they might need more tangible help – a safe place to stay or job skills training. Although knowing what to offer at what time can seem daunting, here are some general guidelines linked to the different stages of change.
The stages of change is a model developed by Prochaska and Diclemente to look at how change happens. It consists of five stages.
- Precontemplation – unable or unwilling to see problems in relationship
- Contemplation – Recognizing there’s a problem but uncertain about making a change in relationship
- Planning – actively planning to change relationship
- Action – changing or leaving the relationship
- Maintenance – sustaining any changes made
In the first two stages, validating the victim’s emotional state is the most important role. The choice is theirs, and the power to change things or not change things is in their hands. Especially in the contemplation stage, it is tempting to jump to recommending actions and pushing for the person to leave. However, in both of the first two stages, pressure to leave or to take other action before they are ready can backfire.
If someone is planning to make change, it can also be tempting to encourage them to leave. However, what if the victim has decided to stay in the relationship but not to tolerate any form of abuse. Again, pressure to follow the path that you see as the right one can backfire and end up with the person deciding not to change anything in the relationship. In the planning stage, helping someone find resources in the community or providing a safe space for them to brainstorm are both helpful roles to play.
In the action stage, it is often easiest to match how we want to help someone with the help they need, especially if they’ve decided to leave the abuser. As the person takes action and makes changes, you can help them with moving their things out of the home they share with the abuser, finding a place to stay, etc.
Finally, the maintenance stage is an important and often understated part of the process of change. You might assume that once they’ve left or once the actions have started, that they will be maintained. However, it can be difficult for a victim to be on their own. Now that they’ve left, they’re responsible for everything in their lives, from finances to childcare to cooking. It can feel overwhelming. Social support and encouragement can be very important so the person doesn’t feel like they’re completely on their own. Regular visits, offering to watch kids, and validating the discomfort of change can all be ways of helping a victim maintain the changes they’ve made.
Sometimes knowing how to help someone change can be as important as the desire to help them. Using the stages of change model will hopefully make it easier to intervene when you see someone you love struggling in an abusive relationship. The right help at the right time can make all the difference.