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Sister wants to try to make a bad relationship work. What do I say?
August 22, 2012 10:58 AM   Subscribe

My sister is engaged to a man who has been displaying controlling, dismissive, manipulative behavior. From her description, it doesn't sound like it crosses the line into outright abuse. The relationship is failing, but she still wants to try to make it work because he moved across states to be with her. How can I talk to her without alienating her?

She sent me an email telling me they've been having problems, with a few specifics that raise reg flags for me. When she sent me a similar email a few months ago, she explicitly asked for advice about how to make things work. At that point, it sounded like he was kind of being a jerk, but I responded as well as I could. This new email didn't ask for advice. She called it an update, and invited questions.

She seems pretty pissed off about his behavior. I'd love to let lose with my own opinion, but I don't want to cause any kind of distance between us, especially if they do decide to work things out. I don't know how to communicate the fallacy of sunk costs in this context, or whether I should.

We grew up in an abusive environment, and I don't think she's had a lot of exposure to healthy relationships.

How can I best support her?
posted by Eolienne to Human Relations (32 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Can you give examples of the types of behaviours she described?
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:15 AM on August 22, 2012


I'd be straight out, but not insulting to her. Something like, "If this guy hadn't moved for you, would you be putting up with this type of behavior? I think your kind-hearted natured is getting the better of you, here."
posted by xingcat at 11:19 AM on August 22, 2012 [9 favorites]


I think framing it in these terms may be helpful:

"How would you feel about your relationship if these problems stay exactly the way they are and never get better? How would you feel about your relationship if these problems get worse?"

I was in a very long (not at all abusive, just lousy) relationship in college that I kept thinking would work through sheer force of will. DEFINITELY the sunk cost problem. I figured that since I had already invested x amount of time, it was worth sticking around, because surely, SURELY things would get better. Nope. No they didn't, and they really never do. If I had had the mindset of "OK, if it never gets better, can I enjoy this relationship the way things are now? Can I enjoy this relationship if he only gets worse?" I guarantee you I wouldn't have been with him nearly as long.

I take the same line about much more minor stuff. Example: a dude is dating a chick and is upset that she's gained, say, 20 lbs since they've been together. Even if she's super motivated and just went through some health problems or something and it's temporary, he has to assume (for longevity purposes) that that 20 will turn into 120. If he's not happy at 20+, he's really not going to be happy at 120+.

Taking the abuse/potential for abuse out of this equation entirely (because that makes it more alarming, and talking to your sister about that may cause her to take a defensive reactionary stance), try to focus on making her face the (very real) chance that her current relationship issues never, ever change.
posted by phunniemee at 11:28 AM on August 22, 2012 [7 favorites]


Focus your intervention on her. Never, never, never disparage him. You can say things that encourage her to question his BEHAVIOR, sure. But when you say something like, "You deserve better/this guy is scum," this thing inside her says, "If he's terrible, I must be REALLY terrible for actually sticking with him even though he clearly sucks so much." And wow, when you're already feeling so bad, that kind of self-talk hurts so much.

Help her focus on the things that are good and right with HER, not bad and wrong with HIM (and, thus, her for liking him). Everybody makes decisions that lead to things they couldn't predict. Make sure that she knows that no matter what she does, even if she goes through with things or makes some other not-great decision (you won't tell her that, will you?), you'll be there.

"I want you to be as happy and safe as you can be."
"I love you, and lots of other people do, and we will be here for you no matter what."
"Would you be okay if someone did something like this to me? Would you be okay if someone said something like that to your daughter, or to Mom?"
"Being a happy, healthy and more settled [sister's name] means that you will be better equipped to deal with problems that come up. So I want to make sure that YOU and YOUR LIFE are as strong as they can be to provide a good foundation for whatever you want to do."
posted by Madamina at 11:37 AM on August 22, 2012 [10 favorites]


She seems pretty pissed off about his behavior. I'd love to let lose with my own opinion, but I don't want to cause any kind of distance between us, especially if they do decide to work things out. I don't know how to communicate the fallacy of sunk costs in this context, or whether I should.

Your sister is worth it. She, her future, her health, her well-being, is worth you standing up to her, even in spite of the risks. If the risk of conflict isn't enough for you to act, how would you ever expect her to realize that the risk she faces is worth her action? Your sister has reached out to you twice, and she hasn't married the guy yet. Act now.

If you are wrong and she marries him anyway, and he turns out to be a stand-up guy, then you can say, with relief and enthusiasm, "boy was I ever wrong about him! I am so happy for you!"

But if you are right and still decide it's not worth it to you to speak up, and he turns out to be awful to your sister, well then she's been let down by both her spouse and her family.
posted by headnsouth at 11:41 AM on August 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


PuppetMcSockerson: She used the words "controlling" and "insecure", but didn't give a lot of specifics. She says she "can't go anywhere" without him having to know exactly where and who and when and why. He apparently assigned her and her son a list of chores when she took a day off (she rarely takes days off, and has a heavy load both at work and at home). He feels she should go to bed when he is ready.

She has dinner with each of our parents once a week. He was initially fine with this, but now will not go. Her wording made it sound like he was doing this as a sort of punishment or manipulation.

When he moved into her apartment, he unilaterally made a bunch of significant changes around the home. He dismissed her request to not buy a particular item yet, and went ahead with the purchase. The day he was supposed to drive up, he went out and got so drunk he couldn't remember anything instead. (Just jerkish behavior there. His alcohol use concerns her, too.) When she tried to talk about things (she was feeling pretty irritable at this point; I would be, too), he told her he was adjusting just fine, so he didn't know why she was having such a hard time.
posted by Eolienne at 11:48 AM on August 22, 2012


I'd suggest letting her off the hook on his moving: "Whatever you decide to do, just remember that he made the decision to move, not you, and that he took that risk knowing that you might have broken up with him the very next day. His moving is a sunk cost, and does not obligate you to do or not do anything at all. Make your decision as if he originally lived a few blocks away."
posted by davejay at 12:09 PM on August 22, 2012


So let's recap:

He "assigns" chores
He tells her when she should go to bed.
She has to give full details when she leaves the house.
He "punishes" her.
He gets drunk enough to not remeber things.
He moved into her place but made changes to it without her input.
He minimizes her concerns.
Oh, and there is a child involved.

I'm sorry but this sounds very close to the abusive territory. I'd ask her how she would feel if this was happening to a friend of hers and what advice she would give them.

I'd also gather info about DV resources in her area. Sadly, I think chances are decent she might need them.
posted by pointystick at 12:16 PM on August 22, 2012 [11 favorites]


Um. Yeah. This is definitely abusive.

My inclinations in this type of situation is always wrong, so I won't even bother.

Writing because I think you need to re-frame the question. Your sister is in over her head. This guy has moved into her space, so she's stuck with him legally unless she voluntarily abandons her residence, plus she has a minor child in the household??

Seek professional guidance. Don't wait.
posted by jbenben at 12:27 PM on August 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


Woah, she has a kid? That's pretty important.

I would not criticize, but I'd bring up her son's feelings, like "how does your son feel about that?" Some people can't get out of these relationships for themselves, but they can do it for their children's sake.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:31 PM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I see that kind of controlling behavior as abuse, and of the kind that usually escalates.

Ask her what he does when she crosses his will and listen carefully to what she says.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:41 PM on August 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Won't someone think of the child? This is a toxic atmosphere for the child. Are there Assertive Training classes any more? Your sister needs to take control of her life and her home.
posted by Cranberry at 12:48 PM on August 22, 2012


Writing because I think you need to re-frame the question. Your sister is in over her head. This guy has moved into her space, so she's stuck with him legally unless she voluntarily abandons her residence, plus she has a minor child in the household??

Seek professional guidance. Don't wait.


Just a quick bit of info before I run off: he moved out a couple of days ago "for a month," while they try to work things out.
posted by Eolienne at 12:59 PM on August 22, 2012


A different approach: Do not criticize him, instead advocate for her to take better care of herself. Support the idea that she does not need to just do as she is told by this man. Support it very quietly and encourage her to exercise more agency in her life but as much as possible this need to be done in a nonconfrontational, nondefiant manner. Do not intentionally turn it into a power struggle. Very carefully stick to being supportive of your sister and encouraging your sister to take proper care of herself.

One of two things will happen: Either the relationship will gradually change for the better or it will push him into abusive mode faster. The second possibility makes it more likely she can see it for what it is and makes it more likely she will be wiling to leave. Abuse typically escalates gradually and that is part of what keeps the victim trapped. Sudden escalation is more likely to get her out and less likely to get her killed.

I basically used this approach in my marriage -- gradually taking better care of myself and exercising more agency -- and the result was increased freedom and equality for me. He wasn't abusive, he just had old fashioned habits inherited from his parents. (Though I think he could have become more difficult over time if I had handled it differently.) A friend of mine was supportive of her sister and it pushed the abusive husband over the edge. It resulted in an ugly incident that led to divorce. I think she did the right thing.
posted by Michele in California at 1:08 PM on August 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, I did not see the update before posting. This is a great time to advocate for her to take care of herself and suggest he not come back "until" he is really being good to her. If that means he never comes back, it's okay.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 1:14 PM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Put it to her this way: "Read what you sent me, but turn it around—imagine it was me telling you about my own situation. What would you want to say to me?"

If that doesn't elicit the kind of answer you're hoping for, just tell her flat out: "I want what's best for you, and I'm very concerned that this is an unhealthy relationship."
posted by adamrice at 1:36 PM on August 22, 2012


he moved out a couple of days ago "for a month," while they try to work things out.

How can I best support her?

If you can, spend time with/talking to her while he is away. Encourage her to reconnect with healthier activities and people that she would enjoy. Help her reclaim parts of her personality he may have rejected. Maybe its best to encourage her not to communicate with him too much while he is out of the house so she can get some space from the relationship before deciding if its worth continuing.
posted by Golden Eternity at 2:12 PM on August 22, 2012


This is what I would say to her

"So, let me make this statement and you tell me if it sounds fair. He moved to another town to be with you. This gives him the right to treat you poorly."
posted by Foam Pants at 2:30 PM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is there a website that gently points out controlling behavior (plus related behaviors) as concerning? Would that be a bad idea?
posted by Eolienne at 2:30 PM on August 22, 2012


Exactly what Michele in California said. One of my closest friends has a beloved relative in a similar situation, and that's exactly what she's doing - keeping the lines of communication open, making sure that if and when the abusee is ready to split, there's someone for them to go to.
This is really important and not easy, as one aspect of control invariably involves alienating everyone close to the abused party, so they become isolated and dependent on the abuser, losing their perspective on "normal" behavior as they can't talk to anyone about what's going on. Be there for her, make sure she knows you love her and think she's great.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 3:17 PM on August 22, 2012


Say things that support her judgment, in response to things she says.

"well my neck is getting itchy from the birthday present he gave me and he says I'm being a fuss budget but you know how I'm allergic to nickel"
"yeah, he's not being very considerate of your feelings there, but good that he gave you a birthday present! What kind of necklace is it?"
"it's a remote controlled electric shock collar. You know how worried he gets if I stray beyond the fence."
"yeah, he controls situations very strictly"
posted by tel3path at 3:35 PM on August 22, 2012


Is there a website that gently points out controlling behavior (plus related behaviors) as concerning? Would that be a bad idea?

This link may be helpful, if you can send it in a way that shows you are wholly supportive of her and not trying to be judgmental of her choices.
posted by Mchelly at 4:05 PM on August 22, 2012


Do you think you could convince her to describe her situation in her own words and then ask for feedback from AskMe either via your account or by signing up for one herself? It might have less of an impact on your relationship with her if the input is coming from strangers.
posted by alphanerd at 4:23 PM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't know of a website that points out controlling behaviors but I do know something that works: Set the example of being respectful of her boundaries and not controlling.

The hard part about this is saying things like "I don't really like the man but it is your decision. I will respect your decision." And then actually do so. No "I told you so"s and no trying to fast talk or manipulate her into leaving. If she wants feedback, be honest about what you think. But do not have an agenda to get her to do X because you think it is best.

It is extremely common to try to help someone in such a situation by deciding for them what is best. It is hard to not do that when a loved one is clearly being mistreated. But the fundamental problem with abusive relationships is the victim's lack of real agency. You cannot give them agency by substituting your decisions for the abuser's decisions. The thing they need is being empowered to decide for themselves, even if the result is not optimal. Affirming their right to decide for themselves even when you disagree is much more empowering than trying to forcibly remove them against their will from a bad relationship.

When my kids were little and did neurotic shit, my most common reaction was to go take a good long look at the woman in the mirror and wonder what I was doing weird that they were mirroring. Then I worked on me. Giving someone a healthier example is the single most powerful thing I know for fostering voluntary, positive change.

It is so powerful that a casual acquaintance of my sister got divorced in part because my sister treated her better than she had ever previously been treated. My sister was somewhat shocked. She did not know the woman that well. They were not close friends. It had not been a situation where my sister felt seriously burdened. But my sister had been aware that she had been supportive in ways which surprised the woman. My sister felt these were small inconveniences, merely being considerate of the woman's situation. For this woman, it was revolutionary and eye-opening to be on the receiving end and she eventually quit putting up with so much crap from other people, apparently including her husband.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 5:02 PM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


This website has been helpful to me. The writer wrote a book that is very good. The power and control wheel can also be helpful for a point of reference.
posted by Shebear at 8:04 PM on August 22, 2012


I got more details, and it is worse than I thought. On the plus side, she was totally receptive to my own thoughts*, and in fact was looking for some kind of validation that it wasn't just her being a tough person to live with.

He hasn't been successful with his controlling of her because she fights it tooth and nail. It doesn't stop him from relentlessly trying, though, and he's been only too successful with his emotional manipulation.

She can't see him as abusive (I have a hard time with that, too; I guess our view is skewed?), and a lot of the items on those checklists don't match up. I plan on sending her a link about manipulative behavior, though. She hadn't recognized it at all.

She's not ready to end it, but I think she feels stronger in her position now, and that's something.

Thanks so much.

*I was given a strong reason to believe this was actually what she was looking for, or I would have been much less forward about things.
posted by Eolienne at 10:49 PM on August 22, 2012


As for a list - pointystick's is a good, albeit short, one.

Basically, breaking down the actual things he's doing into very short, factual points does a lot to kind of awaken that idea that something's not right.

People don't want to believe they're in an 'abusive' and 'controlling' and 'manipulative' relationship because they're very loaded words that can potentially make people feel shame. They're also very vague and non-concrete - because, yes, what is 'abuse' if you've grown up in a difficult environment?

The other way is to say to your sister, well, what if I(you) was in a relationship with someone who did all of those things pointystick mentions - would you think I should stay in that relationship? If no, well, then why should she stay in a relationship like that?
posted by heyjude at 12:08 AM on August 23, 2012


What Michele in California said. It's all very well for people to be telling you you "deserve better" but you don't learn through words as much as you learn from matching those words to actual *experiences of better treatment*.

If you interact with people who, over a period of time, *don't* have to mistreat you because nobody deserves to be mistreated but you are so unusually annoying that people really can't help it... if there are people who can manage to interact with you for an extended period of time without ill-treating you... that means that ill-treatment *must* be because of the people who are treating you that way, and not just the way people are, or just some inevitable consequence of you being you.
posted by tel3path at 2:00 AM on August 23, 2012


You didn't give any specific examples in your ipdate, but here is a test that works well for me: Believe your eyes over your ears.

It fits well with other sayings like "Actions speak louder than words". And it is possible he has what amounts to a bad habit -- a potentially dangerous bad habit, but still a bad habit. I put up with a lot from my spouse because I was crystal clear he had no malicious intent and genuinely did not understand how problematic some of his behaviors were. He did get better over time. He was not an abuser, just a dumbass about some things (because his parents were dumbasses, and no doubt their parents had been dumbasses).

Basically, you look at patterns of behavior and you analyze things in context rather than on their own. The fraud department of the company I worked for used a similar method, so it is a proven method whether someone is intentionally lying or just clueless about their own behavior.

Example from my marriage: I got told I didn't argue properly. I was too emotional and not logical enough, etc. I spent years learning how to argue properly. Then one day after citing my sources, etc, all properly, he gave me some crap about the worthlessness of studies. It finally was clear to me: The real rule he was operating under was he had to win, at any cost, even at the cost of his marriage. Any other so-called "rules" were just smoke and mirrors. He eventually did admit that the reason he didn't want me to cry and to instead argue "logically" was because if I cried, the fight was over and he was defeated. So he outlawed it.

I don't accept that from men anymore. In a later relationship when some man was trying to tell me I had no right to be upset, he was making a logical point and I was taking it personally, I told him "Look how extremely personal our relationship is. Don't I have the right to take things you say personally?" He dropped it and became conciliatory and never tried to tell me that again.

Best of luck. And a high five for not only wanting to stand by your sister but working at doing so effectively.
posted by Michele in California at 8:05 AM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Do you think you could convince your sister to roll back the engagement rather than leave the relationship?

Also, some websites:

The author of Baggage Reclaim really knows what she's talking about. A good place to start might be this post on code red and code amber behavior, or maybe this post on boundaries.

Heartless Bitches on manipulation and emotional abuse.

This site deals with invalidation.
posted by alphanerd at 10:55 AM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


He hasn't been successful with his controlling of her because she fights it tooth and nail. It doesn't stop him from relentlessly trying, though, and he's been only too successful with his emotional manipulation.

Does he acknowledge his behavior is controlling and manipulative at all? If not, it is hard to see how this fighting tooth and nail would change significantly, without it possibly changing into passive resentment/contempt on his part.
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:04 PM on August 23, 2012


Follow-up for anybody who might be curious: she did eventually break off the engagement, and has moved on.
posted by Eolienne at 7:48 PM on May 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


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