If you know someone who’s been affected by domestic violence (or suspect that someone you know is being abused by their partner), chances are you’re itching to do something to help. Yet intervening in these situations is extremely tricky. Not only is the relationship between victim and abuser complicated, but if you’re not careful, it’s very easy to make things worse. So it’s important to proceed cautiously and with some awareness of the dynamics at play. If you attempt to rush in guns blazing to intervene and assert your moral authority, you could put yourself or the victim in greater danger.

Right about now is when I’m supposed to give you the standard disclaimer that these situations are best left to the authorities to handle. But we all know that isn’t always true. Police have a fairly poor track record in cases of domestic violence, and in the real world, most of the heavy lifting in situations like this is done by those closest to the situation. With that in mind, here are some guidelines that will help friends and family intervene in these difficult situations.

Things you need to understand when trying to help victims of domestic violence

Here’s a crash course in reality for those trying to intervene in domestic violence situations:

1. Real life isn’t like the movies. Even if you do report domestic abuse to the authorities, it’s not a simple matter of cops rushing in to arrest the bad guy (or gal), hauling them off to jail so the victim can live happily ever after. There may not be enough evidence to make an arrest. A more thorough investigation may lead to both parties being arrested. The victim may not want the perpetrator arrested. And the person arrested might be out on bond a few hours later.

Legal interventions aren’t the panacea they’re made out to be, and won’t necessarily solve the problem. In fact, such interventions frequently make things worse. Many families have had bad experiences dealing with the authorities, and legal interventions can have a ripple effect that makes life more miserable for those affected.

This doesn’t mean there should never be legal consequences for domestic abuse, or that you shouldn’t ever call the police. But you want to think long and hard before going this route.

2. A restraining order is little more than a piece of paper. It’s not an electric fence. It does nothing to deter someone who’s truly determined to get at the victim. In that sense, restraining orders are usually a rather pointless exercise: they only deter those who were never really a threat to begin with, while doing nothing to stop those that are truly dangerous. Again, this doesn’t mean that there’s never a reason to get one, just that you shouldn’t have delusions about what it can accomplish.

3. The victim may not want to sever the relationship or break ties with the offender. People are a complicated mixture of good and bad, and victims may not want to get rid of the good in a person just because there’s also bad, especially not right off the bat. So you can’t count on having the victim’s full cooperation. Even when those being abused do eventually leave the relationship, doing so is often a process.

4. There are always two sides to every story, and you should realize that the situation might grow murkier as further details emerge. Few arguments are one sided, and this can also be true in situations of domestic violence. For example, it may come to light that the victim struck the first blow and then wound up receiving the worst of the physical altercation that followed. There may be infidelity or other family secrets involved that the victim isn’t eager to disclose. None of this means it’s the victim’s fault, nor does it excuse violent behavior. It just means that you shouldn’t go into the situation judging and making assumptions. You know what they say about ass-umptions: They routinely make an ass out of people.

5. Whatever decisions are made can have a ripple effect of consequences for all involved. Arrests can strain family finances, resulting in lost work and lawyer/court fees. Leaving an offender means children switch schools and possibly lose all their friends. Survivors need a place to live and pets need to be cared for. Again, severing ties is a complicated process that can impact virtually very aspect of a person’s life.

6. In the worst cases of domestic violence, escaping the perpetrator may require a significant amount of planning and preparation. Which is yet another reason to avoid going in guns blazing. To truly escape, victims may require new identities and a significant relocation. A badly executed break can leave them in a worse situation than they were in before, or would have been in otherwise.

7. You can also find further assistance by contacting the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or online at thehotline.org. Just keep in mind that these hotlines are funded through grants from the justice department, and therefore often try to steer people towards legal actions that aren’t necessary in their best interest.

More information on how to help victims of domestic violence: