Safe harbour: what to do when a friend tells you she’s leaving him

25 Apr

When I was 15, me and my parents were preparing to spend six months living in Northern England. When we were over for coffee one day, my mother’s friend handed her a note, “just in case you need it”. On it was written the address of a woman down South who would offer safe harbour to us if, for whatever reason, we needed to get away from my father.

The notion of ‘safe harbour’ has stayed with me since then. It’s made me see the systems of support women put in place for each other, often covertly, that stretch across the world. The story of family violence sounds almost the same in every retelling. The reality or threat of violence at the hand of the men we love is, tragically, a shared experience that bonds women together.

That bond is there in the worried glances we give when a friend says she has to get home or “he’ll be angry”. It’s in the mental notes we take of the bruises on each other’s arms. It’s in the the culture of hospitality we create whenever we say “you guys are always welcome”.

Violence against women and children in Australia (and I would posit almost everywhere) is at a crisis point. We know that when women do decide to leave their partners the danger to them and their children increases. It’s in the period surrounding the separation, as well as milestones such as anniversaries and court dates, that women need safe harbour most.

I’ve spent my afternoon chatting with a friend who is in the process of leaving a violent partner (statistically speaking, chances are you have a friend like that too). She and I live far apart, but I gave her the address of a relative she could call on in an emergency. It was exactly the same act my mother was grateful for 11 years ago.

Inspired by this, I’ve been talking with people on Twitter about the strategies that have worked for supporting the women we know when they decide to leave a violent partner. I’m a writer, not a social worker, lawyer or psychologist so I’m not going to offer advice.

What I will say is that this covert network of support women build for each other needs to be strengthened. We need to constantly reassure each other that help is there, that we are entitled to protection from society.

And when a friend comes to you with the same story of family or partner violence we’ve all heard before, for the love of all that is holy please believe her. She is not lying. She is not crazy. She did not contribute to this situation. She is a friend in need.


The Domestic Violence Resource Centre has a list of support services in each state.



One Response to “Safe harbour: what to do when a friend tells you she’s leaving him”


  1. The 72nd Down Under Feminist Carnival is here! | bluntshovels - May 5, 2014

    […] Cussen has some suggestions about how to help a friend when she says she’s leaving a violent relationship. (CN: […]

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