Nobody wants to be an arsehole by accident. Arseholery should be deliberate: calculated, stylish, and above all deserved. The last thing you want to do, while trying to help, is say something crashingly stupid and hurt someone you care about.
The higher the stakes, the more your friend needs support, the worse it is. What do you say? When it comes to grief, or the stress of dealing with serious illness, this post on Ring Theory is something I've found really helpful, as a way of codifying what's Wrong and why:
When talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking, but if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a pot roast?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.”
If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.
Comfort in, dump out.
What I want to talk about here is how all of those things apply when you're dealing with a friend who's in an abusive relationship. After Mum died, we talked about this a lot, the things people had said and done. It's something I know I've fucked up in the past, and I regret that so much. I didn't know what to say, and what to do. Now I do, and I've learned it the way I've learned everything else: the hard way. I am living in a relationship which has been abusive.
I'm not going to talk specifically about my own situation, partly because I am utterly sick of doing so. But let me offer my hard-won wisdom on how to not Fuck Up talking to someone in my position.
Please be aware that I'm speaking in general terms here, and not everything I'm talking about has actually happened to me. This is about what is typical, and some of my experience is not typical.
Let's say you've just found out a friend is in a relationship which is abusive. I'm going to assume you found out from your friend, but if you didn't, your first step should be to talk to them. Don't take anyone else's word, especially their abuser's. That's not to imply that the person who told you is lying, but you should show your friend that you value their perspective and their voice.
You're going to have a whole bunch of Feelings. Shock. Guilt that you didn't spot it sooner. Anger, at a whole bunch of stuff. Awkwardness. Fear and worry. You're allowed to feel all the feels. You're not allowed to feel them at your friend. They have enough to deal with. Dump out, but respect their privacy while you do it.
The abuse is news to you. It's not new for your friend. You'll want something to be done right away. The abuse has most likely been going on for the entirety of the relationship. Let that sink in. It'll make your friend's current attitude much more understandable. For them, nothing has changed.
Believe. And take them seriously. Don't think, "Well that doesn't sound abusive, really." Most abuse does not leave bruises. Have a look at Women's Refuge's relationship quiz. Note how many questions are about physical violence: one. Also, note how many are gender-specific: none. I want to highlight these three: we'll come back to them.
When it comes to my partner, I feel like I can’t do anything right.
My partner tells me that I couldn’t do any better because I’m too ugly/fat/stupid/lazy.
I feel like my partner would be much happier if it was just the two of us all the time.
On average, it takes seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship. Don't think this is going to be a week where you help them leave, and then everything will be happily ever after. This is going to be a long process. It's going to be hard. At any point, it's allowed to be Too Hard. You're under no obligation to destroy yourself trying to be supportive.
Here's the most important thing I need you to understand: advice is not support. That's a tough one. I love giving advice. Look at me doing it right now. But advice is not support. Your friend knows their situation better than you do. Yes, whatever it is, they've thought about it. They actually do know what's at stake, thanks. There are organisations with enormous experience in this area, which offer counselling and advice. They don't offer friendship, because that's not their job. It's yours.
Never, ever say, "You should just leave." Look at those three statements from the quiz up there. Abuse is about control. Part of that involves undermining the victim's confidence. Their abuser makes them feel stupid, scared of doing or saying the wrong thing. They may practice gaslighting: telling someone their perceptions of events are wrong, or that abusive incidents simply didn't happen. An abuse victim may find themselves completely unable to make the smallest decision, lost to themselves as a person.
When I talked to a woman from Refuge, she asked me questions, listened to me intelligently, and then said, "Keep on doing what you're doing." She made me feel stronger, like I was a capable adult whose decisions should be respected, including my decision to stay. How do you think, "You should just leave," makes me feel?
(Actually, I can tell you. It feels like when someone tells a depressed person to "cheer up", or when a man lectures women on "common sense" precautions to avoid being raped. Like that.)
Offer help in concrete ways. Don't say, "Whatever I can do to help," unless you actually mean it. (I, personally, like to call those bluffs, just to see the obvious blind panic.) Say things like, "If you need to leave in a hurry, phone me and I'll come and pick you up." Or, "We have a spare bed if you need a break." Or, "Can I take the kids out for the afternoon?" If you don't know what they want, ask them. Put your friend in control.
You can be supportive just by sticking around. Abusers like to isolate their victims socially. Strong support networks make both staying and leaving so much easier. Offer to take your friend out. Make them laugh, if that's the role you play in the Friend Group. Stress relief is vital. Sometimes, not Talking About It is vital. Just be there.
Eventually, your friend might leave, or they might not. There's nothing you can do about that. You can't make someone leave if they're not ready to. It's not your fault, because it's not about you. Just be there. Please.