Does supportive always mean silent?
November 19, 2011 10:15 PM   Subscribe

After 4.5 years my sister's partner is asking her to leave him. It could be they are just having a fight, or it could be that this is really the end. Do I tell her my opinion (I've never liked him and never will, and she should run while she can) or do I hold my tongue?

My sister's partner is a bully, while my sister has very low self esteem.

Last night my sister confided in me that her partner hit on a woman in front of her at a party last weekend and has spent the past week telling her to "leave his house". I know they have fights that result in both parties giving the other the 'silent treatment' that can extend for longer than a week, so I'm not entirely sure how serious this argument is.

When we talked last night I suggested that the end of their relationship could result in her finding a man who will have children with her. This is something she desperately wants and something he does not. During our conversation she expressed uncertainty about her future - where will she go, and how will she handle being alone? Her low self esteem impacts on this decision as I think she believes that she is unlovable.

We live in different cities and today I suggested that she move to my city. She revealed that she has often thought about this. She has many friends in this city and close family, as well.

My question is twofold:
I have never told my sister my opinion about her partner, is this the time to do so?
Secondly, should I be campaigning for her to make the move ("Walk out with dignity! Don't let him kick you out! You can find a man who loves you without all the insults!"), or should I give her space and support whatever decision she makes (my usual tactic)?
posted by skauskas to Human Relations (44 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
No - don't express your opinion now. There is a good chance that they will get back together. However, you can still be enthusatic about the idea of her moving to your city. If appropriate you might also suggest that she gives herself a break and come for a visit. That might make the option of moving seem more realistic to her.
posted by metahawk at 10:22 PM on November 19, 2011 [10 favorites]

No, this is not the time to share your opinion, she needs you to help her make/support her in making the decision she needs to make. Putting yourself into the mix could actually result in her defiantly staying with him, in a misguided effort to show her strength. Can she stay with you if she moves? Could she find work where you live? The real prospect of a better life will help more than any anti-boyfriend talk could.
posted by headnsouth at 10:25 PM on November 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ugh. I've known too many people who spoke badly about the crappy SO (or in one case, lent the poor woman money to get out) only to have the whole thing fall apart and the woman stay with the lout. This is not a position you want to be in with your sister.

Gently see if you can get her back to a support system, but don't push too hard. You never know what's happening on the other end, and he may even be telling her that you're trying to split them apart or somesuch thing.
posted by Gilbert at 10:26 PM on November 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have never told my sister my opinion about her partner, is this the time to do so?

Why not? This guy sounds like Grade A asshole. I'm guessing you didn't because your sis would not have been receptive to your criticisms of him, and it might create a rift between you two.

If that IS the case, I'd suggest not doing it. Your sister will not leave him based on your opinions. In fact, if you say this, she *might* (I don't know her) be less willing to leave him.

Hold your tongue, as I don't think it would be useful in this scenario.

SHE has to decide to leave him, not you. I wish her luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:27 PM on November 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

This depends on how blind your sister is/how much she values your opinion/etc. She may be so blinded to his behavior that she will stay with him when you talk badly about him out of some "I must be right about this guy" instinct. This is very common.

If your goal is to get her to leave him, I think focusing more on how "another guy could do _____ thing that he obviously isn't doing/never will do/be." Your focus on how he doesn't want kids and she could find another guy who does want kids is perfect. This is encouragement that she can relate to and understand, and matches up with the problems that she is aware of. Unless she's saying, "he's an asshole," and you're saying, "yes he is, and you can find a guy who isn't," she's probably not realizing he's an asshole.

Also, there's a bit of a mechanism where criticizing somebody's choice in SO is criticizing them (or they feel like it). If you focus on how he is now, as opposed to how he's always been, you keep her focused on what she can see and understand. If you focus her attention on how he was when they first got together, she might remember this differently. She may think he's changed a lot and he was a great guy at first.

It sounds like she realizes to some extent that she needs to leave. You do need her to strengthen this into a firm decision. I think the best way you can do this is by making her confident that you will be there for her unconditionally.
posted by DoubleLune at 10:36 PM on November 19, 2011

My mentor *insists* that I not say anything, that I not express my opinions—which most often means shooting from the hip, blasting away when I'm angered and frustrated—about whatever unless/until the person asks me to. This is quite a difficult discipline but it's the best way, I'm convinced of it.

Let her ask you.

She will.

There will be a time to tell her these things.

This isn't it.
posted by dancestoblue at 10:55 PM on November 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

No, and I'll let Miss Manners explain why:
It is never a good idea to chime in when friends complain about marriages gone wrong. Listen sympathetically, yes. Say vague, comforting words, such as “I feel for you” and “I’m so sorry to see you suffering like this,” yes. But supporting evidence, no.

It is not just the chance of reconciliation that makes this dangerous, although that happens, as you have discovered. It is also the implication that everyone else pitied the innocent party — and slightly scorned him for remaining innocent — at the time when he had considered himself happy.
posted by brainmouse at 10:56 PM on November 19, 2011 [20 favorites]

Don't trash her partner, don't encourage her to leave. Do be supportive, do go over her options with her.

Perhaps invite her to stay with you for a couple weeks? Perhaps with time away from the bully, she'll realize she can be happier without him.
posted by looli at 11:04 PM on November 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Secondly, should I be campaigning for her to make the move ("Walk out with dignity! Don't let him kick you out! You can find a man who loves you without all the insults!"), or should I give her space and support whatever decision she makes (my usual tactic)?

There's space between these options that I think you should explore.

I don't have a sister so I don't really know the dynamic, but if this was a close friend I would tell her that if she ever decided to leave dude that she would be able to stay with me for as long as she needed and I would do everything I could to help her get back on her feet. If it's within your means and something you would want to do you could mention that you'd pay the airfare to your city. Don't push it, just make sure she understands that you mean it then let it go.

I think letting her know that she has a non-judgmental escape option will do a lot more good than telling her that her husband's an asshole which, I'm sure, on some level she already knows.

Thanks for being a great sibling.
posted by auto-correct at 11:13 PM on November 19, 2011 [7 favorites]

I came in here to say what auto-correct said, which is to go in-between those two options. You don't have to trash her partner, but you can let her know that your support goes fairly deep regardless, and let her know her options as far as coming to live nearer to you, etc., are.

Anecdotal, with my mom, I let her know how I felt about her partner (both treatment of myself and my sibling and of my mom) and it resulted in an estrangement that ended when the relationship finally died. I don't think my mom every really forgave me for not supporting her when she decided to stay, but she claims she had no idea that everyone hated her partner and expressed a disappointment that "no one" really said anything to her. But my saying something changed only my relationship with her. So, again anecdotal, another vote for not explicit expressing an opinion on her boyfriend.
posted by sm1tten at 11:34 PM on November 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

No don't tell her you think he's a jerk - but do keep telling her that she should move to where you are and that she will have the opportunity to make a fresh start.
posted by mleigh at 11:51 PM on November 19, 2011

It isn't like this guy is just unlikable. He is abusive. It is less important that you air your displeasure with him than it is that you be there for your sister. Your sister has expressed an interest in moving to your city. Then explicitly offer your place to stay until she gets back on her feet. There is a danger that she will get back together with this abusive asshole, and anything negative you may say will just distance you from your sister. That is why you can't make it about the past and what an abusive piece of shit he was in the past. Make it about the future and the new life she will have in your city.
posted by munchingzombie at 12:01 AM on November 20, 2011

No, not now. I understand the impulse, I really do, and I am sympathetic, but at this point if you point out how useless this guy is your sister will feel worse. She's dealing with a lot, including probably realising how awful this guy is: point that out is a bit like kicking her when she's down, in my opinion. Just support her and be a sounding board and reassure her that this is a good decision and let the rest lie for a bit.

There will probably be a point not so long in the future where you can talk about what a bad time this was and how awful this guy was and it will cement your relationship and bind you together, but I do not think this is the right time.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 12:31 AM on November 20, 2011

Also, good on you for caring and being willing to offer her the option of escape without judgement, no matter how it makes you feel. You are being a good sibling and offering the support that I would hope every sibling would.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 12:33 AM on November 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would relate (not quite so directly and with a lot of love and care) that this isn't and hasn't been within 800,000 miles of being a good relationship, she can and will do a helluva lot better and that you will help her move to your city (assuming you will).

Living with a partner, SO or some such who is repeatedly telling her to leave is horrid.

As an aside, I seem to be the only person who has suggested saying something. I think there are times when people need to hear things and this sounds like one of 'em.
posted by ambient2 at 12:41 AM on November 20, 2011

Generally I would say not to meddle, but she's your sister, and I do think there is a position between telling her what you really think and keeping your mouth shut. Here on AskMe we often discuss "gaslighting" in relationships, and maybe sometimes people (especially people with low self-esteem) need to hear that those nagging doubts, that sensation that something is amiss, isn't just something in their head that can be explained away by self-blame.
You don't have to say "I've always hated that asshole."
How about "what an awful situation. it sounds like he's acting like a jerk. why don't you come stay with me for a week or two and clear your head, I think it would be good for you and I'd love to see you, etc..."
posted by emd3737 at 1:29 AM on November 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

As so many others say, no, don't tell her what you really think of the guy: that'll just backfire. At best, it will just confirm her low opinion of herself, to have her face rubbed in her poor choice of partner. At worst, she might stay with the jerk even longer, out of a misguided sense of "I'll show them how little they know!" Just sympathize and offer your support.

Also, don't phrase it as YOU think she should leave him and move to your city: turn it slightly around, and keep offering support for HER decision to move. It might sound very similar, but one way you're telling her what to do, and the other SHE's the strong one who's making the decision and you're supporting her plans.
posted by easily confused at 2:07 AM on November 20, 2011

I agree that you should not tell her what you think of the guy, at least not now. If she does leave him behind, and once she has gone through the trauma of break-up and regained at least some of her self-esteem, you can still talk about it with her, maybe even with an eye on how to manage future relationships.

For now, the most useful thing would be getting her to come at least for a visit. You could couch the invitation as "at least until things blow over and you feel more at peace". Let her know you'd be really excited to have her there (even if circumstances are unfortunate).

Still, I do think she could benefit from having others validate her feelings and help her think about this (just not that you are the ideal person for this, right now). People in abusive relationships end up not knowing what's up and what's down any more, and having outsiders help you create a perspective can be invaluable). So, if you do manage to convince her to visit, why not direct her to AskMe? Tell her you were looking stuff up, found this website where people share similar stories, give you great advice, where nobody knows her or her SO so she doesn't have to be scared about what she says (so it isn't like airing her dirty laudry with someone else, which is why many people in such situations never seek help) etc. Maybe the simple act of writing things down will be useful to her, and, from what you have told us, I have no doubt that many people here will come to her support and maybe fortify her in her decision to leave. Or at the very least, can recommend her reading material which could have an effect over time.

Sometimes, strangers can be more effective in their support than those who are too close to us. Also, I think it would make this slightly less painful for you - seeing her go though this is really hard now, but imagine if you were to tell her what you think and then she STILL goes back! I've seen some threads in which every commenter clearly saw a DTMFA situation, and the poster was ignoring the advice, and you could see frustration mountain and people trying more and more desperately to convince the poster to leave - and this all from strangers to a stranger. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be for you, once the cat is out of the bag, with the added frustration of knowing she now knows better based on advice coming from you. You'll find it much easier this way - and you need to make things as easy as possible for yourself in order to be able to support her fully. Cause you will suffer too.
posted by miorita at 3:06 AM on November 20, 2011

I always quietly witnessed my sister's relationship issues, but then I was always ready with a van for when she called and told me she had to be out of there right now. I am thankful for having been there when she needed it, because she has been in a great relationship for 23 years now. Good luck.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 3:56 AM on November 20, 2011

During our conversation she expressed uncertainty about her future - where will she go, and how will she handle being alone?

That tack to take is to pick up on this thread, not harp on your opinion of the guy. It sounds like she, also, has a low opinion of the guy, but has an even lower opinion of herself. She doubts her ability to handle being alone and is having trouble envisioning a future without him. You can help make this future visible. YOu can talk about "If you decide to leave, then you and I can look for an apartment together/ you can join my root beer and checkers club / you could finally take up that zither playing hobby you always talked about." In other words, shore up her sense of herself and start pointing out the concrete possibilities of what a better life looks like. Negative words about the partner might only cause her to rush to his defense. Positive words about her future and the things you believe she can do might bypass that reaction and help her see herself as capable of this.

IF you know any people, especially in common, who endured a breakup like this and thrived after, talk about their stories. IT can be really helpful to see proof that someone like you did better after the relationship ended.
posted by Miko at 4:03 AM on November 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

At the very least, you can discuss the relationship with her in a sympathetic way. "This relationship doesn't seem healthy right now." "You know, two people can love each other madly and still not be able to be together. It happens. It doesn't devalue the love. It only means a relationship between them isn't good for either of them."

That way you're not blaming anyone. It's a fact of life type of matter, and that type of phrasing might be easier for your sister to process.

And if it is true, "You know, you can always come stay with me." Knowing she DOES have a place to go should/when things fall apart may make it that much easier for her to leave when/if she decides to.
posted by zizzle at 4:18 AM on November 20, 2011 [12 favorites]

Can I make a strategic suggestion? I think it's totally OK to say "Well, I do think getting out of there would be best for you" but I would put the overwhelmingly vast majority of your time into the practicalities of helping her make plans to do that so she can see it's possible. Where would she live? Can she support herself? How can she cope with being alone, and how alone will she really be with all these friends and family? Help her break down the barriers into steps she can see herself accomplishing so the insurmountable becomes possible.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:27 AM on November 20, 2011 [5 favorites]

If it had not been for the support of my sister, my mom, and my cousin, I would have had a much harder time leaving a relationship in which my partner wasn't willing to step up and be a full partner, and tried to end the relationship by treating me badly instead of acting assertively. This sounds similar to the relationship your sister is in.

If it had not been for the intrusive, judgmental "how can you love him" type comments from a "friend," I might have left sooner. MeFites who have pointed out how insulting this is are correct. In fact, I still seethe over it and I no longer speak to her.

Supportive things that my relatives did that worked for me were:

Treated my ex graciously because they loved me.

In the case of my sis, modeled a healthy relationship that I couldn't help comparing mine to.

Told me I was beautiful and awesome and that if this one didn't work out I would be able to find someone else.

Gently poked fun at my ex's selfish, ridiculous ways (this has to be done carefully, though, when your sister is ready to laugh along with you).

Modeled being strong as a single person (my sister had been alone for several years before meeting her mate).

My mom sent me articles on healthy relationships and abusive relationships. She advised me to read them if I wanted to, and think about them, because they might help me make a better decision.

My family members shared what had worked for them in similar situations. Therapy, prayer, and clergy counseling were among those things. As I am agnostic, I went for secular therapy, and it was helpful.

At no point did anyone come out and say my ex was a jerk until I was ready to say it first. And by the time they revealed how much they had disliked him, it was at a point where I didn't see it as judgmental. Instead, I saw it as very loving and I really appreciated that they had respected my relationship with him enough to hold their tongues at the time.

It's a fine balancing act, but you can do it, and I commend you for it. Your sister will appreciate your support.
posted by xenophile at 6:41 AM on November 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm with those who say don't tell her what you think of him, for reasons listed above and one more: if you say negative things about him to her, if/when they get together she may very well tell him what you said about him. She may use it to shore up her side of an argument (well, skauskas thinks you're being a dick about this too!) or possibly as a misguided attempt to prove her love to him (skauskas thinks you're a dick, but I defended you!)

He may then latch onto this as an excuse to prevent her from seeing you, isolating her further, weakening her support system and making her feel even more dependent on him.

I'd go with one of the more positive supportive approaches above.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 7:02 AM on November 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

should I be campaigning for her to make the move...or should I give her space and support whatever decision she makes (my usual tactic)?

The latter, and make sure "support" includes lots of active listening - simply being there to hear her out, repeating and reflecting back her feelings in a kind way ("Sounds like this has been just awful for you") and being as nonjudgmental as possible as you offer yourself as a sympathetic ear. If she asks you directly what you think of him, don't lie but don't go on a rant, either. "Well, what you just described to me isn't making me like him more," maybe. Unless she asks, please don't volunteer criticism; as others have pointed out above, the potential for it to 1) backfire and 2) deeply hurt her feelings and/or self-esteem is way too high.
posted by mediareport at 7:04 AM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Following up on Miko's comment: You can talk about "If you decide to leave, then you and I can look for an apartment together/ you can join my root beer and checkers club / you could finally take up that zither playing hobby you always talked about...

...Are there some fun, esteem-building, non-relationship-related activities you could start with her now, and that could be continued when/if she lives in your city? Pick a cuisine and have both of you make the same recipe each weekend and compare notes on how it went, getting excited about what you're going to try next week, etc.. Or start a book club with some of the people she knows in your city and have her participate remotely (for now). Or if she's into hiking, start trying out different trails in your city and telling her about them. Same for thrift shops, museums, zither jam bands, etc.. Tell her that you spent the weekend cleaning out all your closets and putting out fresh sheets and flowers and bath stuff and a big robe and now your spare bedroom is, like, a totally awesome retreat for next time she visits.

Give her small but concrete ways to be able to envision herself enjoying life in your city (and some things to talk about other than her relationship, which is probably otherwise completely consuming).

posted by argonauta at 7:33 AM on November 20, 2011

Be neutral but supportive of her. Let her know that moving to your city is something that would make YOU happy--"Ever since we talked about it, I've been thinking how fun it would be to have you closer. I hope you'll consider it." That takes the focus off your judgment of him. If you trash him, she may dig in and defend him--after all, she's invested years of her life into this guy and she's not going to suddenly and cheerfully acknowledge that it was all a huge mistake. People stay in bad relationships because they get something out if--it may be a destructive high, but it's a high nonetheless. If you tell her what to do, she'll (correctly) say you don't understand. So don't even try--just make it about you. The more she hears that there are other people who want her in their lives, the more options she'll see that she has.

Practically speaking, offer to let her stay with you in your city until she finds her own place, offer to let her use your local address for sending out resumes if she needs to find a job, that sort of thing.
posted by elizeh at 8:32 AM on November 20, 2011

It's your sister! She deserves to hear your opinion. Sorry, but fuck Ms Manners and fuck being 'impolite', it sounds like her relationship is a trainwreck.

You're a bad person if you don't tell her your opinion. That said, of course you only get an opinion. She gets a choice. So be prepared to let it go if she doesn't agree. It's her life.
posted by wrok at 9:01 AM on November 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's a tough line. I mistook everyone in my life not saying anything about my horrible relationship as proof that my relationship wasn't as bad as it sometimes seemed. Then, when I'd moved away and was out of the relationship, I suddenly heard how everyone really felt about him.

The part that was most terrifying for me was the idea of having to ask people who, under my assumptions, thought my relationship was great for help to leave. What would have helped me was if my family/friends had said "if you ever need help to start over we are here for you." which it sounds like you are doing.
posted by Zophi at 9:21 AM on November 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Wow, I really, strongly, disagree with almost everyone here. She is your sister. If you have any sort of honest, close relationship with her then you owe her the TRUTH. Contrary to the half-truths (at best) that other posters are suggesting I would advise you to sit down with her, tell her how you feel about him and how he treats her in detail, suggest how you can assist her in getting away from this situation and what her life without him could be, the good and the bad.

Every other mefite in here would suggest you DTMFA in a heartbeat if this was your sister asking advice personally, shouldn't they advise her advisor to give the same advice?

"It is never a good idea to chime in when friends complain about marriages gone wrong. Listen sympathetically, yes. Say vague, comforting words, such as “I feel for you” and “I’m so sorry to see you suffering like this,” yes. But supporting evidence, no."

Yuck, I really hope I don't ever know anyone like Miss Manners.
posted by Cosine at 10:14 AM on November 20, 2011 [7 favorites]

You're a bad person if you don't tell her your opinion.

This is terrible advice that probably feels good to give. But the dynamics of an abusive relationship are complex, and it is almost certainly true that what your sister needs right now most of all is someone to calmly listen and offer support by being there, reflecting back what she's saying so she can hear it coming from someone else, and *not* make her feel bad by saying things like "I never liked him from the start, you know."

Every other mefite in here would suggest you DTMFA in a heartbeat if this was your sister asking advice personally, shouldn't they advise her advisor to give the same advice?

No, actually. Because that wouldn't work as well. This is a practical question above all: how do we get the sister to recognize that she's in a bad situation and needs to leave. The folks suggesting the poster lay off the DTMFA pronouncements and quietly support the sister by being the dear friend she needs most right now, while simultaneously laying the groundwork for the sister to start a new life, are offering by far the most helpful advice. Cosine, we both want the same thing. I just think your way of getting there is much less likely to actually work.
posted by mediareport at 10:38 AM on November 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

Wrong, sorry. This is the kind of crap that keeps people in bad, and worsening, relationships, sometime until it is too late.

Offering "vague, comforting words" and no evidence is terrible advice.

You sit down with her, tell her you love her and need to tell her this because you love her. Then you explain what you feel is unacceptable in how he treats her and how you would be able to help, if requested. I have done this for friends and family before and, without exception, it has been the right thing to do for all parties involved.

Anyone can offer nothing, it's easy.
posted by Cosine at 10:48 AM on November 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

The idea that active listening is "offering nothing" is absurd and a deliberate misreading of the advice being given.

Anyway, if there's a threat of violence in the bullying, skauskus (it's not clear from what you've posted if that's true), then yes, definitely tell your sister you're extremely concerned for her safety, and remind her that what's happening to her is not normal and there's help available. But it's worth mentioning that domestic abuse organizations encourage relatives and friends to be supportive and nonjudgmental as they listen, listen, listen, and none that I know of encourage relatives or friends to tell the abuse victim to just dump the motherfucker already.
posted by mediareport at 10:55 AM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I never said anything about dumping anyone, speaking of deliberate misreading. What I did say was that these same posters would suggest the sister DTMFA, and that there is some hypocracy there.

I said I would listen, explain my issues with his actions and behaviour, and explain what I could offer should she choose to leave.

Not once did I suggest she DTMFA.
posted by Cosine at 11:00 AM on November 20, 2011

Perhaps I can come at this another way. skauskas, I think your framing - "Does supportive always mean silent?" - is something of a false dichotomy, and you should pay closer attention to the folks above who are giving you ways to offer your sister the kind of verbal and physical support most likely to help her sort through *her* feelings - that is, active, nonjudgmental listening and encouragement to start a new life - and less attention to the folks who are saying you should be blunt about *your* feelings about her boyfriend.

It's a blurry area between the two, I'll admit, but spend less time expressing how *you* feel and more time listening and reflecting back how *she* feels and you'll do much more good.
posted by mediareport at 11:13 AM on November 20, 2011

I think you should share your opinion about her jerk of a partner as constructively as possible. Just don't expect it to sink in, or for her to do anything about it, even if she says she agrees with you.
posted by devymetal at 11:53 AM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

When people come here asking for advice about their own relationships, they know enough to expect a DTMFA pile-on. I would never withhold my unexpurgated opinion from someone who is actually asking for it.

The OP's sister isn't asking for advice, the OP is asking how to give advice to the sister. Yelling DTMFA would just be a way of pressuring her and labelling her an idiot for being with the guy in the first place. The sister doesn't need any more pressure and doesn't need to be
made to feel stupid. She already has someone to do that for her. What the sister needs are options and to be made to feel competent to read her situation and make decisions.
posted by tel3path at 1:10 PM on November 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I faced the same decision that you are making now with my best friend and housemate (we are in our mid-twenties). After a particularly painful and overtly rude act that he committed against her in public, she became upset and initiated the "Maybe I should leave him" conversation among friends. I had held my tongue for the entire 1.5 year relationship and throughout the first few days of her thinking about breaking up-- supporting her in whatever decision she chose to make, indicating that "although I don't know him that well, and I know he has made you happy, it seems that things are not working well right now," and other fairly neutral assertions/opinions.

Finally, when she brought him up on the third day of debating a breakup, I told her my opinion: "You know, I think you should break up. You can always get back together after you've had some space, but it seems like you're at a point where that is the next logical decision in this relationship, and I think you will be happier after you spend some time apart and he has some time to mature. However, only you can make this choice, and I'll support you and know that you're making the right decision for you if you decide to stay together."

This advice hurt her. A lot. Ultimately she did choose to break up with him, but I don't think my advice was the kicker-- it was a decision she had to make herself. She later brought up our conversation and told me how much pain I had caused her. I'm proud of her for making the difficult decision to part ways with the guy (and she's now slowly starting something new with someone wonderful-- yay!) but I don't think that I made the right choice-- I caused her a lot of pain, and she counselled me not to give such advice in the future.

And yet... I don't know. I still sit with the guilt of causing her pain, and I know I didn't make up her mind, but I also know that sometimes it helps to have someone else say the painful reality before you think it yourself. Whatever you do, carefully consider how making these comments could affect your relationship with your sister.

Finally, if she does choose to part ways with him, I think you should try to be supportive of her. She will likely receive comments like, "Oh, finally, glad to hear you're done with that dude!" or "He was an ass!" or what-have-you once her acquaintances think they have permission to share their opinion freely. For my friend, this was another kick in the gut-- hearing people she trusted react to her breakup with such comments was harsh, as it seemed like a judgement on both him and her. Remember that he does make her happy, even if he isn't the right guy for her right now.
posted by samthemander at 1:41 PM on November 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

You may think that bashing her spouse is going to make her feel better, or more justified in leaving him -- but I promise, it's just going to make her feel worthless, weak, and more vulnerable to his bullying. Don't do that. Remember: she made a decision to be with her spouse. Bashing him is bashing her decision, and it just reinforces the bullying her spouse has been doing -- namely, that she is incapable of making decisions for whatever reason, that she is somehow less than a full person and that she should not trust herself.

Even if you don't think she's been making good decisions lately, do you believe that she has the capacity to do so? Do you believe that she'll make the right decision eventually? If you don't have faith in her -- if you think she's a pathetic person who can't be trusted to make her own decisions -- then I guarantee you that she senses it, and it is demoralizing her. Try to find a way to think of her as the best version of herself -- as a compentent, self-respecting person -- and address her that way. It'll help her to remember herself as that person if you are reflecting it back to her.

Useful things to say (and believe):
- It sounds like you're feeling [whatever she is expressing]. That's a reasonable way to feel.
- I trust your judgement, and I know you'll figure this out.
- I trust your instincts, and I believe you can trust yourself.
- I know you, and I know you are a strong/good/smart/loving person.
- I think you deserve love/kindness/respect. It sounds like you're not getting that right now.
- I have faith in you.
- I have faith in you.
- I have faith in you.

Ultimately, who gives a shit about the spouse? This is not an argument about the merits of the spouse. This is about her having faith in herself. You can help her do that by treating her like a person that is deserving of that faith.
posted by ourobouros at 2:10 PM on November 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Sorry -- partner, not spouse. But the advice holds all the same.
posted by ourobouros at 2:22 PM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Who owns the house? Sounds like he wants her to be financially limited. She should document any agreements about how expenses would be shared. Now might be a good time for her to make sure she has a credit card in her own name, and some savings she can get to that he is not aware of. Someone I knew used traveler's checks, kept at her work.

Do you believe she's in danger? Get the name and phone number of the Family Violence agency in her area, keep it close by.

If I were you, I would focus on his behavior and how it affects her. Wow, he was really hitting on somebody while you were there? How did you feel? Let her talk. She needs someone to listen while she sorts things out. If he's really rotten to her, the more she tells you about his behavior, the more she has a chance of making a good decision.

Instead of saying He's a jerk. Leave. try saying Do you think he's going to be able to have the life you want? and So, have things overall consistently gotten better with him, or do things just keep getting worse? and Are you ever afraid of him?

She may have internalized his message that she has no worth, and is lucky to have him and no one else would want her. Reassure her that the opposite of those is true. She is terrific, attractive, and would be able to find someone who values and appreciates her. And tell her she deserves love.
posted by theora55 at 3:44 PM on November 20, 2011

I guess what I think is that you shouldn't tell her you've never liked him because she'll wonder why you've never mentioned it, but you can tell her that you don't like his behavior and that she deserves better. It's not either/or. You can disapprove of what he's doing while never, ever really shit-talking him.
posted by pineappleheart at 4:52 PM on November 20, 2011

Man what is with the answers here lately? She's being used and abused, and someone needs to let her know that she is loved and she has a place to go and she deserves to be there and be happy.

I have been in multiple unhealthy relationships where friends were unsure of what to do or say. Even when they witnessed the abuse they said nothing. I felt crazy. Was I the only one getting offended by this? Was this normal behavior? Do I deserve to be treated this way? And then I'd break up with them and it'd be like "Ooh, you finally broke up with that crazy?" "Wow, why did you stay with him for so long?" Even a "We thought about calling the police.. but,"

.. Really guys?

What I wouldn't have given for a friend with a pair of balls and some common sense. Even in samthemander's situation, it was the right thing to do. Some people truly don't see what is best for them, even after the fact, or it has been so long since they've had a glimpse of it.

Find the words, your words, to express how in support you are of her decision to make a move. You don't have to mention him or specifics of his behavior, but let her know that she has options and you would really enjoy seeing her happy and with the family she wants and deserves.
posted by june made him a gemini at 9:48 PM on November 20, 2011

I mistook everyone in my life not saying anything about my horrible relationship as proof that my relationship wasn't as bad as it sometimes seemed.

This, from Zophi, is really, really important. People take their cues from the folks around them, and if you are impeccably studiously neutral, it's pretty likely your sister will interpret that as you implicitly saying the relationship is okay. Because if it wasn't, surely you would care enough about her to tell her.

OTOH, I agree with everyone here who says that telling your sister to dump her husband is likely to backfire and cause her to retrench into the relationship.

So yeah, it's tough. I agree with everyone suggesting active listening and unconditional support. But I also think you should be completely explicit about what you're doing, and what you're not doing. Tell her that you're not expressing your personal opinion, on purpose, because her relationship is her own private business, and she's the expert in it, and this is a decision she gets to make herself. If after that she asks you what you think, then tell her the truth. Don't sugarcoat it but don't be vitriolic or judgemental either -- just say what you think in a few sentences, and then go back to asking how you can support her.

Good luck!
posted by Susan PG at 10:06 PM on November 22, 2011

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