My roommate is in an abusive relationship. I’ve only known her for a few months and we generally keep to ourselves. Is there anything I can do?

co-authored by Stephanie Gagnon 

It is very common, even understandable, that after realizing the complex situation your roommate faces you would wonder why she doesn’t just leave, and unfortunately, although the solution seems simple, it is not. There are ways in which you can give her help without unknowingly belittling or pressuring her, but first, let’s look into some reasons why some people may choose to stay in an abusive relationship.

Many victims cope with abuse by applying cognitive strategies to their situation that help them to rationalize what is going on by weighing out the pros and cons of the relationship.[1] Cognitive strategies are employed to minimize or rationalize the actions of the abuser. For example, someone could be thankful that his or her partner is abusive rather than cheating on them.[2] This embellishes the pros of the relationship and ignores the cons. Think of it as the cycle of abuse.[3] Tension builds up and the abuser is set off. The end stage of this cycle is called the honeymoon stage.[4] This is when the abuser “begs for forgiveness and promises never to hurt his partner again[5] and the victim is treated in such a way that no one else would ever be as compassionate or loving as the person they are with now. This stage does not last long, and the abuse starts again shortly afterwards. So, why could your roommate be choosing to stay? She values her relationship, and there is a part of her that still loves and cares for her partner regardless of the abuse. Looking past these outbursts may feel easy if the final outcome is always intense affection that isn’t otherwise experienced. A victim’s situation can be complicated if they aren’t only looking after themselves, but children as well – or if they are financially insecure by themselves, or if they’re culture does not permit leaving. All individuals are driven by different factors that we, as outsiders, may not understand. Social media created #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft to give victims of abuse an external outlet to explain their stories, and their experiences in order to help other people in the same situations as themselves.

It is no surprise that circumstances in which a person is being hurt, either physically or mentally can have long term repercussions. These effects are worrisome and put the victim at risk for developing many serious diseases such as autoimmune disease, cancer, coronary disease, and more.[6] Self-blame is a continual concern in abuse victims because their self-esteem is lowered, and the rapidly increasing possibility of depression is frightening.[7] More positively, while health benefits and increased life satisfaction are seen in healthy intimate relationships,[8] they can also be prominent outcomes of friendships – and that is something that you can absolutely provide her with.

Abusive relationships are obviously very hard on its victims, but there are ways you can help your roommate,[9] even if you aren’t very close:

  • Let her know she can talk to you. She needs someone to listen to how she feels and to believe her claims without a doubt, someone she can reach out to for support when she needs it most. Make sure she knows that any discussion with you is confidential and honour that commitment; she needs to be able to trust you.
  • Talk about what she can do. Sometimes, victims in such situations feel they don’t have any options, but they do. You need to let them know they do without being overbearing. Don’t take their autonomy away; it needs to be done on their own.
  • Respect her choices. Leaving an abusive relationship is not always clear cut, so whether she decides to stay or to leave, you need to make sure she knows you will respect her choices and continue to support her, even if you do not agree with them.
  • Don’t leave her hanging. Whether the decision is to stay or leave, the victim is going to need your ongoing support – make sure it is known that you are there unconditionally, no matter if they continue the relationship or not, whether it is just to listen, or to just to be a reliable friend.[10]

You can help your roommate locate a local shelter and peer groups or counseling services, and create a safety plan in case she needs to get out of the situation she is in immediately – be sure it includes dialing 9-1-1 as soon as she can, the local authorities are well equipped and trained to handle domestic disturbances in an immediate fashion, and remove the threat as quickly as possible.[11] Her experiences may be traumatic regardless of how they compare to other women. Thankfully, as her roommate, you have the ability to provide her with a safe and caring environment when she is home. Any individual should be granted the right to feel safe when at home, and although safety can be tricky, anyone facing abuse needs to know that not all people they trust are going to hurt them, and you are the perfect candidate to prove that by providing the support and care a victim needs.

As her roommate, you can give her care and respect, and you’ve already started by taking measures to optimize her safety.


[1] Bennett, T., Silver R., Ellard, J. (1991) Coping with an Abusive Relationship: I. How and  Why Do Women Stay?. Journal of Marriage and the Family. 53(2), 311-325.

[2] Bennett, T., Silver R., Ellard, J. (1991) Coping with an Abusive Relationship: I. How and  Why Do Women Stay?. Journal of Marriage and the Family. 53(2), 311-325.

[3] Miles, E. (1997). When someone you love is abused [How to help a friend]. Family Health. 13(4), 4

[4] Miles, E. (1997). When someone you love is abused [How to help a friend]. Family Health. 13(4), 4

[5] Miles, E. (1997). When someone you love is abused [How to help a friend]. Family Health. 13(4), 4

[6] Watkins, Le,. Jaffe, AE., Hoffman, L., Gratz, Kl., Messman-Moore., Tl., Dilillo, D. (2014) The Longitudinal Impact of Intimate Partner Aggression and Relationship Status on Women’s Physical Health and Depression Symptoms. Journal Of Family Psychology. 28. 655-665.

[7] Watkins, Le,. Jaffe, AE., Hoffman, L., Gratz, Kl., Messman-Moore., Tl., Dilillo, D. (2014) The Longitudinal Impact of Intimate Partner Aggression and Relationship Status on Women’s Physical Health and Depression Symptoms. Journal Of Family Psychology. 28. 655-665.

[8] Watkins, Le,. Jaffe, AE., Hoffman, L., Gratz, Kl., Messman-Moore., Tl., Dilillo, D. (2014) The Longitudinal Impact of Intimate Partner Aggression and Relationship Status on Women’s Physical Health and Depression Symptoms. Journal Of Family Psychology. 28. 655-665.

[9] Adapted from Miles, E. (1997). When someone you love is abused [How to help a friend]. Family Health. 13(4), 4

[10] Adapted from Miles, E. (1997). When someone you love is abused [How to help a friend]. Family Health. 13(4), 4

[11] Options for Victims. (2012). Myriad Media. Retrieved July 17, 2015, from https://www.victimsofcrime.org/help-for-crime-victims/get-help-bulletins-for-crimevictims/options-for-victims