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How do I deal with a mother who has been in and out of an abusive relationship for years?
February 6, 2011 9:13 AM   Subscribe

How do I deal with a mother who has been in and out of an abusive relationship for years? She'll leave him for a few months, but always goes back. Can or will this ever stop? And how to I support her while not condoning her behavior?

My mom has been with this guy (off and on) for over six years. He's almost 10 years younger than her (she's 55) and spent almost a decade in prison for murder when he was a teenager. When they first got together, before I knew anything about him, she flew out to visit me (she lives in a tiny town in Wyoming and I live in Portland, OR). When she showed up she was wearing a lot of makeup and was acting strange. Later that night I walked in when she was washing her face, and saw that she had two black eyes and bruises on her cheeks. At first she was really defensive, but ended up admitting that they got in a fight, and this was not the first time he'd hit her.

After she went back home, I drove out to Wyoming to pick her up and bring her back to live with me (we did this while he was at work because she was scared). She lived with me for three months, and I found out later that she was in contact with him for almost the entire time. He ended up coming out to pick her up, and they got back together (I refused to let him come to my house, so he picked her up at another location).

So that was almost 6 years ago, and she has left him probably over five times since then. I've heard horrible stories about what he's done (including threatening her with a knife), but she always goes back. She'll have break-trough moments where she's supporting herself with a job, taking classes, etc. and I always make sure to tell her how proud I am of her at those times. Then a couple weeks will go by when I don't hear from her, and I'll find out she's with him again. When they get back together she is always too embarrassed to tell me, and I have to find out from my sister, who lives near her. (My sister is 19.)

And as you've probably guessed, she does have an alcohol problem (although she doesn't drink much when she's not with him) and has had abusive relationships before. Her childhood was not good either. I'm just not sure what to do at this point. I love my mother, and I sometimes feel like I'm the only person who has been there for her no matter what. But I can't deal with what happens (and what she becomes) when she's with him. I already refuse to be anywhere near him, so I don't visit when he's around (she just got back together with him a few days ago, after having been apart for over six months). I was thinking of saying something like, "I love you and will always be here for you when you need me. But I can't be in contact with you when you are with him." My worry is that this will make her cut off contact with me completely, and that something bad will happen. I want to be there in case she needs a place to go, but I don't want to condone her actions.

What should I do?
posted by Delfena to Human Relations (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Have you told her those last two sentences? I think you should tell her just what you told us, "I love you and will always be here for you when you need me. But I can't be in contact with you when you are with him. That is exactly what I want to say to you, but I'm worried that you will cut off contact with me completely, and that something bad will happen to you. Now what do we do about this?"

It's straight forward and it's honest. I would also add that you don't know how much longer you can take her actions and that one day, you may not want to stay in touch with her.

People like her are afraid of change and develop this odd need to stay with them.

Good luck and I'll be thinking of you.
posted by magnoliasouth at 9:36 AM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I can tell you what I did: I stopped trying. My mom (who is now deceased) didn't ask for nor did she want my help. She lived with an abusive SOB for years (the second one in a row!) and it finally got to the point where I realized that the only thing I could do was tell her that if she ever needed my help that I would always be there for her.
posted by brownrd at 9:36 AM on February 6, 2011


I don't know, but I do think there's a chance that she'll cut you off if you tell her you can't be in contact with her when she's with him (which she may take as an ultimatum and choose him). So if you're not willing to accept an outcome like that, as simple "I'm always here if you need me" may be better.
posted by J. Wilson at 9:45 AM on February 6, 2011


Apologies if this is teaching my grandmother to suck eggs, but the canonical "Why Does He Do That?" by Lundy Bancroft has lots of good advice for concerned friends and family of abused women. I strongly recommend that you read this book if you haven't already.
posted by tel3path at 9:51 AM on February 6, 2011


Consider this post from another AskMe:

When I was the person in a bad relationship...and all my friends were concerned about me, here is some of what helped:

* express concern for her and draw attention to what she's going through ("Wow, that must be hard." "You seem really stressed out.")
* help her remember ("This sounds like the fight you had last weekend.")
* let her know that what is going on is out of the norm ("Wow, he really must want to have you around. I go out with the girls once a week!")
* help her judge her risk ("Do you think he'd hit you?")
* reassure her it's not her fault and she doesn't deserve it ("Oh, even if you were late, nobody deserves that." "He said it was your fault he was hungry? Why didn't he just make a sandwich himself?")
* support her sense of independence and self-worth in any way you can. ("You'll make the right decision." "Oh, everybody has the right to change their mind!" "Oh, no, you're very smart, remember when you won the spelling bee?")
* and maybe, at some point, draw some attention to the choices she's making, but in a nonjudgmental way ("You really have more patience than I do. If Bob talked to me that way, I'd probably walk right out.")

Throughout this, your number one priority should be to keep the door open with her. Change will be a long, long process, if it happens at all. But at some point, she may really need you. All of the following might go without saying, given how kind and understanding your post sounded, but to state the obvious: don't put pressure on her to "do something about this now." Try not to make yourself a threat to the relationship, or you'll get closed out in the times when she capitulates to his insecurity or trying to prove her loyalty. Even expressing bad thoughts about the guy could make her back away from you during the times when she's trying to make things work with him. Just make it clear that you'll always be there for her if she ever needs any help, and consistently communicate that your only concern is for her wellbeing.

And, as much as possible, try to remain non-judgmental: maybe she's in this relationship to learn to fight back or to make it so bad she has to change, who knows? I don't think you could "kidnap" her out of this dangerous situation, since she's choosing to be there and will probably just return to it. Watching women be abused is a really hard thing.


And if you're in the United States, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−SAFE(7233) to discuss your concerns and questions.

Good luck.
posted by magstheaxe at 9:54 AM on February 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


You can't do anything, really. As you've already learned, she's going to continue to participate in this cycle of abuse until she's ready to stop it.

Make sure she has the phone number for her local DV shelter. Suggest that she keep important papers, a set of keys, a fully packed bag and some emergency cash at the home of a good friend in case she needs to make a quick escape and doesn't have time to pack.

I was thinking of saying something like, "I love you and will always be here for you when you need me. But I can't be in contact with you when you are with him." My worry is that this will make her cut off contact with me completely, and that something bad will happen. I want to be there in case she needs a place to go, but I don't want to condone her actions.

If you do this, do it for yourself. Done for yourself, it's a boundary (and maybe a very healthy one if that's what you need). Ultimatums rarely work to control others.
posted by dchrssyr at 10:12 AM on February 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


I would call the National Domestic Violence Hotline and get some professional advice: http://www.thehotline.org/
posted by MsKim at 10:20 AM on February 6, 2011


I would too. And/ or consider getting support in other ways (therapy or Al-Anon meetings for children of alcoholics) because what you're dealing with is very hard.

she just got back together with him a few days ago, after having been apart for over six months

Oh ugh. I'm sorry.

If you feel like you need to set a boundary like the one you suggest, you can. Your instincts about how she'd react are going to be more accurate than anyone else's. I'm curious why you think she'd cut you out entirely (too proud to call and "give in to you" during the off-again times?). You've already taken a pretty strong stand against him; would this be that different? (Maybe so.)

You could, as someone pointed out above, make clear that you're willing to be there when she needs help. My question would be: if that's how you set up the rules, then when she misses you and wants to talk to you, will she come up with some emergency or need for help just to get to spend some time with you?

Only knowing what you've written, it seems like your overall approach here is pretty healthy, and the idea of setting up a new boundary is a fine one. You might just want to find a therapist or thoughtful friend or someone who can help you think through the "if I do this will she do this?"s until you're comfortable that the boundary is the right one.
posted by salvia at 11:18 AM on February 6, 2011


Thank you all very much for your input. Dchrssyr: You are right about setting the boundary for myself. I think I was hoping that she would choose me over him (since I haven't asked her do that yet), but I realize that is just wishful thinking. In the past, I have simply not mentioned him at all when we talk, but I do notice the difference in her demeanor when she's with him (even just on the phone). She sounds more frazzled, less happy, etc.

Magstheaxe and MsKim: I will definitely check out the Domestic Violence Hotline; thank you for bringing it up. And thank you for the book recommendation, tel3path.

I'm still thinking over what I should do (she still hasn't returned my calls, so I'll probably have a while to figure it out). Thanks again for the advice!
posted by Delfena at 9:07 AM on February 7, 2011


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