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‘I think my friend’s in an abusive relationship and I don’t know how to help her’

Ask Roe: ‘How I can help without interfering or making things worse’

Offering your friend a few codewords so she can signal to you that there’s an emergency could also be a lifesaver later on.

Dear Roe,

My best friend has been experiencing marital difficulties over the past couple of years and I am worried that she is now in an emotionally abusive situation which she is too scared to get out of.

Her husband has become increasingly hostile to her over the last year, refusing to speak to her, responding only when she addresses him and when he does it is in a cold and offhand manner, even refusing to make eye contact.

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I don’t exactly know what issues occurred to bring them to this point, but I do know that she now feels isolated and lonely in their marriage and that she is afraid to confront him, since she is just met with hostility or a verbal dressing down if he is angry.


She doesn’t work and is the primary carer for their young children. She feels powerless to make any changes in their lives and cannot afford to leave him. Her own family is not living in Ireland and she does not want to confide and have them worrying about her from afar.

As I live nearby and am a close friend of hers, I feel that I should do something but I don’t know what, other than give her moral support which I’m not sure is doing any good.

I don’t think that she is in physical danger, yet I worry that I don’t know this for sure. Even if there is no physical threat, I am worried about her state of mind and how much more hostility she can handle before she has a breakdown of some sort. Can you give me some advice on how I can help without interfering or making things worse?

Your friend is incredibly lucky to have you, and I must acknowledge how good it is that you have been paying such close attention to her situation, and how devastating for her that you have had to.

Emotional abuse can take so many forms, and the silent treatment is a particularly powerful and under-addressed form of it. When used to control, manipulate or exert power over someone, the silent treatment can be a very traumatic form of dehumanisation. It is a way of placing the abuser in a position of control; silencing the victims’ attempts to set boundaries or stand up for themselves; avoiding responsibility for their actions or any conflict resolution; and stripping the victim of their sense of power and self-esteem.

The fact that your friend is experiencing this, coupled with her husband’s bursts of anger is already deeply concerning. Add in the fact that she does not have her family around her, she is not working and is their children’s primary caretaker, and the situation gets even more complicated.

As she is not working and has said she cannot afford to leave, she is particularly vulnerable to financial abuse, which is where an abuser uses money as a means of controlling the victim by keeping them in a state of financial dependence, forcing the victim to choose between staying in an abusive relationship and living in extreme poverty – and either leaving her children in a household with an abusive person or bringing them with her. Studies have shown that the majority of women living with violent partners said that material barriers were the main reasons that they could not leave, such as not having anywhere to go, or being financially dependent on their abuser.

The fact that your friend does not even have family in the country adds in yet another barrier to her leaving if she wants to.

Given the severity of the situation, you should consult with specialist services who will be available to advise you generally and on an ongoing basis in case the situation escalates. Womens Aid provides both online information and a helpline, while has information on all kinds of abuse including domestic violence and coercive control, as well as a comprehensive list of helplines across the country. Aoibhneas, a women and children's refuge, also has a 24-hour helpline and online information. provides information about abuse specifically for migrant women and people whose experience of abuse is heightened because of their immigration statuses, and the obstacles and layers of vulnerability that comes with that. (See contact details for these services below.)

As well as doing some research, one of the most important things you can do right now is to maintain ongoing contact with your friend, and to be very explicit with her that you support her – no matter what she decides to do. Sometimes, well-meaning friends and family members pressure victims into leaving their abuser, and this can prevent the victim from speaking openly about their experiences.

On a similar note, if your friend is not using the word “abuse” about her relationship, do not push this definition on her until she seems ready. If victims are in denial about the abuse or still feel loyal to their abuser, this label may cause them to backtrack and start downplaying or defending their partner’s behaviour. Focus instead on the impact of her husband’s behaviour, asking her how it feels when he does certain things, asking about how the children are doing, and speaking about how that treatment would make you feel. This will allow her to explore her feelings and hopefully see that this this treatment is not normal, healthy or acceptable.

If she seems open to receiving help, give her the numbers of some helplines and ask her if she wants you to help her locate a counsellor and/or solicitor who will be willing to speak with her. Due to Covid, it might be especially difficult for her to find privacy, so offering to help organise this or even offering to help her with errands so she can speak to someone while pretending to do a grocery run etc, could be helpful. Offering your friend a few codewords she can put in a text or phonecall so she can signal to you that she wants to talk, come over, or that there’s an emergency could also be a lifesaver later on.

If she does decide to leave her husband, it will be vital that she feels supported as, unfortunately, leaving an abusive situation is often the most dangerous time.

Safe Ireland has great resources online for both victims and those supporting victims, including a step-by-step safety plan for leaving an abusive relationship. This includes suggesting that the vulnerable person gather together emergency contact details, important documents, bank details and essential items such as car and house keys in one easy-to-grab place, and also having a bag of essential items such as cash and children’s school uniforms stored somewhere, so that if they must leave quickly, they have what they need immediately.

You could direct your friend to this resource, and offer to help by letting her store things in your house so that if she needs to make a quick exit, she will have essentials. Would you be in a position to let her stay with you, if necessary, or to help her find accommodation? These are some things to think about in the longterm.

Your friend is incredibly lucky to have you. Please make sure you have your own emotional support and aren’t putting yourself in any danger. I’m thinking of both of you.

Womens Aid: 1800 341 900
Safe Ireland: +353 90 6479078
Aoibhneas: 01 867 0701
Immigrant Council: 01 674-0200
The National Office for Victims of Abuse: 1800 252 524
HSE National Counselling Service: 1800 235 235