‘My colleague has said she’s having marital difficulties. Worryingly, it includes physical abuse’

Tell Me About It: ‘Being there for her, bearing witness to her struggle and always believing her is crucial to your colleague’s wellbeing’


My colleague with whom I am friendly has disclosed to myself and another colleague that she is having marital difficulties. Worryingly, this seems to include physical abuse at the “lower end” – being pushed, etc. She also seems to be the victim of controlling behaviour, and psychological and financial abuse.

Her husband has shouted at her to the extent that their children have woken up and he has said nasty things about her to the children, who are all under the age of six. I am trying to support her, but unsure how to do this. I have advised her to contact Women’s Aid and our employee assistance program. I have contacted them both myself in an aid to providing me with appropriate support for her.

I am unsure, however, how to manage her, in that I do not want to tell her what to do or that such advice might make her unstable situation worse. I am making every effort to not let this situation upset my own equilibrium while being empathetic.

Any advice would be appreciated.



Everything you are doing is in the right direction, including your sense that you should allow your colleague to take control of the situation herself. The experience of someone in a coercive control situation is that their sense of agency is taken away, so this is not something you want to mirror.

However, if your friend tells you that she or the children are becoming more at risk of violence, then calling the gardaí is the immediate response needed. You already are in contact with Women’s Aid and their experience and knowledge in this area is extensive and checking in with them on an ongoing basis will offer you the back up you need for any actions you may need to take.

Your colleague trusted you and another friend with her story, and this suggests that she is readying herself to take more decisive steps in tackling her situation. That she trusts you enough to tell you of her fears and experiences suggests that she will use you as a support when she finds the strength to tackle things. Allowing her to choose the timing and direction of her actions is hugely important so that she can exercise her own judgment and harness whatever courage and confidence is available to her.

This woman is living in fear for herself and her children and she may also feel concerned for her partner who once represented hope and sustenance to her. At the very time that all the resilience and strength of a lifetime is needed to change a life, your friend is depleted, vulnerable and fragile as she faces the imminent crisis of reporting her husband as an abuser.

Being there for her, bearing witness to her struggle and always believing her is crucial to your colleague’s wellbeing and this you are doing in spades. However, there is a cost to empathising without being able to take action so you must do as much as you can to resource yourself at this time. Again, you have done a lot by contacting your EAP programme and Women’s Aid, but I wonder if it would be useful to continue with the counselling offered by your workplace so that you have a confidential space to explore all your emotions around this emotionally difficult situation. It may be something in your own life is triggered by this, and it is worth exploring this in light of the huge difficulty you are experiencing in the non-action response that this situation requires.

You also have another colleague who has been included in the confidence of this woman in a domestic abuse situation and perhaps you and this colleague could get some solace from each other in sharing the burden of this knowledge. Sometimes, the EAP programme will offer group support, and this may be an option for the two of you, to help with your sense of direction and being supportive.

The best time to process your feelings is after the victim and her children are in a safe place, then all your anger, hurt and sadness for your friend can be expressed without fear of complicating things for her. It can be difficult to support someone in a non-judgemental manner when everything in you is directing towards a particular action. It may even be more difficult when you are a decision-maker in the workplace and are used to fixing problems and taking decisive action.

Your efforts to support (without influencing) your colleague is a credit to your capacity to listen to the experts and to follow the advice given. This is your contribution to a colleague who has trusted you with her most vulnerable confidences and this demonstrates a capacity for friendship that will stand the test of time.