How to help a woman in an abusive relationship

I once had a neighbor who was in an extremely abusive relationship. Hearing her crying at the middle of the night was kind of normal. I regret that I was not man enough to stand up for her. But how could I?

The lady used to defend her husband for every wound he inflicted on her body. I guess that’s why they say, rudo ibofu – love is blind. I am sure you know several women who are in abusive relationships but will never end the relationship. Why?

It’s called the Stockholm Syndrome. There was a bank robbery in Stockholm and the robbers captured the bank tellers. The robbers abused and harassed them during the captivity. Interestingly, the captives developed feelings for the robbers and even refused to cooperate with the police.

A woman in abusive relationships often develop Stockholm Syndrome. She will refuse to accept that her husband is a monster. How many times have you tried to help a woman abused by her husband and she immediately begins talking about all the great things the husband did or does for her?

“My husband is a good man. He bought me a new phone and he always makes sure there’s something to eat in the house. What more can I ask for? I just have to learn to live with his demons.”

Stockholm Syndrome is a serious problem. I believe it is one of the main reasons why all rapists are not rotting in prisons. Sometimes women who were sexually assaulted defend the rapist. They will blame themselves for their dressing – I was wearing a seductive dress. They will defend his character – he is a good man who just did a bad thing.

Here’s the thing. Stockholm Syndrome is a coping mechanism. When something really terrible happens, sometimes forgetting it ever happened seems to be the only answer. However, forgetting something that really happened isn’t easy. But it is easier to reframe the reality and create an alternate reality.

For victims of abuse, that alternate reality is often that the abuser is a good man who was doing them a favor or punishing them for their disobedience. For that reason, a teenage girl might choose getting married to her rapist believing he will make a good husband.

3 ways you can help someone with Stockholm Syndrome

How do you help a person who might be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome? [Please, I’m not a qualified mental health practitioner and what follows are simply my suggestions based on my personal research.]

Tell her she’s precious. A person with Stockholm Syndrome has a warped view of her self-worth. You need to show her she matters in public and even in private conversations.

Remind her that her identity is not defined by her abuser. Abuser often inflict emotional harm on their victims. They make them believe they can’t survive without them. Your job is to show them they can survive and they can thrive.

Walk with her. Despite what Tracy Chapman said, words do come easily. Victims of abuse don’t just need your encouragement, they also need your financial support, career counseling, and sometimes a place to stay. Walk the talk.

Image by Kevin Laminto

Published by

Edmond Sanganyado

Edmond Sanganyado (PhD, University of California) is a postdoc in China. He is interested in the effect of organic pollutants in aquatic environments. His work has been featured at Publons, The Good Men Project, and University of California Riverside's Gradsuccess blog.

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