How do you convince someone to leave an abuser?
March 9, 2012 12:56 AM   Subscribe

He says she's crazy, she says she's not. How to help a friend escape an abusive situation?

I happen to have a very good friend who is nearly twice my age (36) who is a very lonely, troubled woman. I met her through my little sister about 4 years ago when she asked to go sledding with her daughter. She values herself as a mentor to other people. She loves to talk to anybody about themselves... she is a perfect friend, a listener, and I listen to her, as well. She has always been rooting for me from the sidelines since I was 16. She understood me. Since I have made a pretty big turn around in leaving and recognizing my own abuse, co-dependency, and defeating patterns, I would like to persuade her to seek help because I think she is on the fast track to self-destruction and nobody is there to prod her.

She has been in a sexless, joyless marriage for about 7 years now. She has one daughter in the first grade and lives in an apartment. Her husband is a pilot who is gone on long trips frequently. They have had sex but one time in five years. If she attempts to socialize, he becomes suspicious. If she reaches out to others, he becomes angry. She believes he cheats, I do as well. If he is home and she is out, he will seek her to come home but he can leave whenever he pleases. He does little to raise his daughter, does not help around the house.

Her daughter was conceived when they were drunk enough to actually become intimate on the floor in their hallway one evening. They got married because her grandmother would take no part in the baby's celebrations because she was unwed. Shortly after, her grandmother died and she went through a horrible period of mourning. He was not supportive and did not show any sympathy. She sunk into depression and she says the only thing that kept her from suicide was her daughter.

She had to be on anti-anxiety medications for panic attacks around this time and she says she has been diagnosed with narcolepsy. Her husband frequently accuses her of pill-popping. He thinks she does drugs. As far as I know, she takes anti-anxiety meds to function in her chaotic relationship at home and sleep aids because she can't get anything off her mind. He took the liberty of calling her entire family and told them she was nuts, addicted to pain killers. The last time I saw her, she was having kidney stones and did not have any painkillers for this. She does not take pain killers. Her family believes him. He wants to put her away in a facility. Granted, she lives in filthy circumstances and in total disarray, I would not say this is because she wants to.

She hasn't had a job in 7 years because she wanted to be home for her daughter and now is struggling on what to do for employment. I was very concerned when I ran into her at a beauty supply shop in our town about a year ago. She had a blackened eye. She told me she "fell out of a pool" but later admitted her husband was drunk and punched her in the face. Among other things, she has trauma from childhood (parents divorce), her best friend died in grade school, and she was raped on a beach at the age of 15. She turned everything away in her life and decided to move away with her husband, and now this is where she is. She disappears for months on end and then becomes social again. She's a recluse. I know she enjoys helping me, mentoring others, but I think what she needs is help for herself. This situation is dangerous. How can I reach through to her and explain the damage she is doing to herself and her daughter and to focus less on others and more on her future? She has said she would leave him for 4 years now.

I think this situation was perpetuated by his cold treatment and neglect, am I right or am I wrong?
posted by Chelsaroo650 to Human Relations (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
They have had sex but one time in five years.... She believes he cheats...

No normal, healthy, heterosexual, adult man has sex one time in five years. If he is not having sex with his wife, he is having it somewhere else. I'm a guy. I've seen it 100 times - at least. This is a stone cold certainty.

Your friend needs to take the bag from her head. Her relationship is already over, her "husband" has already left her, and the sooner she sees that, the better off she'll be.
posted by three blind mice at 1:11 AM on March 9, 2012

She had a blackened eye. She told me she "fell out of a pool" but later admitted her husband was drunk and punched her in the face.

He's abusive. It will not get better. She needs to look into resources for battered women- and the reason she's not is because of shame. You have to understand, she's incredibly, deeply ashamed that her life has fallen apart like this. She probably feels like it's her fault for not attracting him enough, or at least being able to maintain a facade for her friends and neighbors. The best thing you can do for her is let her know that it's nothing to be ashamed of. Talk to her about how much she's helped you in your life, and that everyone needs help sometimes. You shouldn't pressure her- that will only cause her to withdraw and wind up being more isolated. Divorce from such a man is not going to be much easier than marriage to him, and he will probably put her through hell in the process. Support her as best you can until she's ready to leave, but the best thing you can do for her is let her know she has nothing to be ashamed of.
posted by quincunx at 1:26 AM on March 9, 2012 [16 favorites]

When people get into situations like this, it is natural for them to try everything to make it work. Even when it is impossible. Not only that, but there is a lot of friction probably keeping her on the same course. You mentioned that she was deeply impacted by her parent's divorce which is probably keeping her from going through one and having the same perceived effect on her daughter. Furthermore, the power that abusing creates over the victim generally causes the victim to be very attached to the abuser.

Even with all these factors working against her, there is still hope. The best thing for you to realize, however, is that it will probably be a very slow process. Many people resist change, especially people in her situation. Many times consistency is one of the only things the victims have to hold onto and taking that away can be very hard to deal with.

If it were me, I would deal with it in steps. Talk to her about the abuse and how she feels about it. Most victims will justify it so making her realize that there is no justification could be a good first step. Many in these situations will not go to/will not get anything out of abuse counseling if they themselves don't believe they are being abused.

I feel the most positive thing you can do to help her is help her do activities that deal with stress and make her feel better overall. For example, try and make her do yoga with you. Or learn to meditate and do it together. Take up a sport or exercise that you two can do consistently. Or find a calm hobby that is relaxing. Even if you cannot participate all of the time, try and get her interested in doing these types of things. While they do not solve the abuse problem in anyway, these kind of activities will make her stronger and more capable of dealing with separating from him and the resulting chaos. Building a strong foundation having activities she can turn to will make the overall process much less painful.

Now let's talk about if it actually comes to separation. This can get very dicey. Her husband sounds very manipulative which can cause many problems in this stage. He probably will try and do things to screw her over maliciously and in every way he can. I've seen it first hand many times and it is very sad but very common. If it comes to this, she needs very strong family and friend support to help guide her and keep her strong. The last thing she needs is more pain when she is trying to make her life better.

Finally, see if she will let you talk to her family and tell them the situation from your perspective. It is common, in my experience, for an abusive spouse to try and manipulate the victim's family against the victim. If she can gain the support of her family, this will give her a stronger foundation to improve her life.

As I said before, nothing is going to happen overnight. In fact, it probably shouldn't. She needs a strong foundation to weather the inevitable manipulation and malevolence the husband will probably exhibit if she tries to divorce him. It is very sad but also rather common. I wish her all the best and also hope that it doesn't cause too much upheaval in your own life. It can be quite shocking to realize how many people one instance of abuse can affect.
posted by mungaman at 2:26 AM on March 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

Been there, done that, got the scars. Quincunx is right - it's shame that makes it hard to leave. As well as the fact that they destroy your self-esteem so you believe that you can't survive without them because you're worthless, and without them you're nothing. That is why abused partners feel powerless to leave the abuser.

The final straw, the thing that gave me the strength to leave, was when I realised that my daughter was witnessing this. And I realised she would grow up thinking that was a normal relationship, and I was bloody determined that she wouldn't be king-hit from behind by someone who professed to love her.

Others will chime in with much better advice, but I would strongly recommend saying to her, "when he gets abusive/violent - we both know he is abusive/violent so we won't even discuss that - ring me and I'll come pick up your daughter because she doesn't need to witness this'.

I'm not saying you need to put yourself in the middle of this situation, inviting his violence to rain down on you... but I AM saying that pointing out the damage being done to your daughter might be the catalyst for her to leave.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 2:30 AM on March 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

I don't see a whole lot you can do about this. Your friend needs to realize she needs serious help, and be the one who is ready to seek it. About all you can do is encourage her, look into battered women's shelters and resources near you and let her know what is there. She has to be the one to make the move though. If she insists on staying where she is, don't get any more involved in a situation you can't fix that will drag you down as well.
posted by mermayd at 3:07 AM on March 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

She knows her situation and that she should leave. Her friends/family have probably told her they know too and that she should leave. She can make excuses and rationalize staying with these people. What she may need to do is hear it from someone who is supposed to be on her husband's side--someone who'll say "Jack is my brother/friend-of-10-years. I know him. You need to protect yourself and your daughter from him."
posted by K.P. at 4:41 AM on March 9, 2012

Just reflecting on her being twice your age, which makes you 18. It seems like she has confided way too much in you when you are at a vulnerable age and cannot really do anything for her but listen. Just be really careful of this relationship. I got into a situation like this as a young adult, minus the abuse, with the mother of a friend who turned out to be mentally ill herself which I did not realize at the time. It was very upsetting when the things she was saying to me, just a kid, got more and more bizarre and disjointed. Does this woman have friends her own age? If not, that can be a danger signal. It does sound like she is really in an abusive situation, but laying it on you does not seem right either. be supportive but be careful and keep your eyes open.
posted by mermayd at 5:44 AM on March 9, 2012 [36 favorites]

The age thing stuck out for me, too. You've known her from your age 14 to 18 -- she really should not be talking to you about her situation, her sex life, the night her child was conceived, and so on. I'm sure you are very mature for 18, but this is just inappropriate and there's much of life that you haven't experienced yet. If you try to guide her to the right decisions, she will at least mentally dismiss it because you don't understand -- and you really don't.

I'm not saying you're wrong, or you're childish, or whatever. It's hard to understand at 18, but your experiences just aren't as broad as someone in their 30s. That may be hard for an 18 year old to understand, but a 36 year old completely understands this. It feels good for you that an adult is taking you seriously as another adult, but she's using your youthful need for this to fill a need of her own and it throws you into a world of impotent panic. I think the best you can do is to point her to the friends she has that are her age for guidance. Like mermayd, I recommend that even though you care for her and worry for her, you steer clear.
posted by Houstonian at 6:27 AM on March 9, 2012 [10 favorites]

A normal, healthy adult does not confide in someone your age, no matter how mature you are. There is something seriously wrong with her. Please, distance yourself from her.

She is not your problem.

That being said, I will answer your question. You don't. You don't convince anyone to leave an abuser. She is there because that is what is working for her right now. When it stops working for her, then she will leave on her own. If he puts her in a facility then that would probably be a good thing for her. She would get help that she clearly needs.

Please, value yourself enough to stay away from this woman.
posted by myselfasme at 6:40 AM on March 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

I agree that your best hope is to emphasize how the home situation is bad for the daughter. Do you have mutual friends who are also concerned?

A short answer to your question: there is no sure fire way for you to convince her of anything. All you can do is be he voice of reason.

For instance, if her husband wants to have her put away, how does he plan to care for the daughter? Will she ship her off to relatives? Neglect her? Does she feel that her daughter is safe living with a man like this?

Perhaps this is a place where your age is advantage - questions that might sound critical from a peer can be framed as genuine curiosity from a younger woman.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:47 AM on March 9, 2012

From the information you have given that definately sounds like yoru friend is trapped in an abusive relationship, and also that this is a cycle she has been stuck in for a long time.

This can mess with a person's image of self quite deeply.

Two articles which might help your friend reframe her current frame of mind (which is that staying is better for her and her husband than leaving) the first one is this from Captainawkward.comThe comments are good too. Particularly the 'Flowers made of despair' comment at the top of the comments - which bears repeating here in full:

Oh man, it really does feel that ridiculous when you look back on it. You watch one of those horror movies, and the sinister voice says, “LEAVE NOW” and the characters are like “What was that? I’m sure it was the cat. Everything’s cool,” and you’re like HOW CAN YOU BE SO STUPID the house actually told you IN WORDS that it didn’t like you and you’re all me and this house, BFF.
And then you remember your ex-husband who was like, “You’re fat and ugly and I hate you” and you were like “Even though he hates me and told me so, that is just how he shows love. I should live here forever, we are so happy,” and now you can’t make fun of bad movies without thinking about serious social issues.
Of course in this particular horror movie, the cabinets open and shut and the sinister voice says “LEAVE NOW MORTAL” and you’re like, sure, okay, I’m out of here, and then blood comes out of the windows and the house says “WAIT I WAS HAVING A BAD DAY” and you walk back in the house and it says “BECAUSE YOU’RE UGLY” and bees come out of the ceiling, and you leave again and the house is like “NOOOOOO WAS IT THE BEES? I FILLED THE BATHTUB WITH FLOWERS” and you get in the bathtub and the house is like “FLOWERS MADE OF DESPAIR HA HA HA.” Abusive relationships: they are this dumb (in retrospect).

Another article which should ring many many bells of recognition in your friends head is Sick Systems How to Keep Someone with you Forever which illustrates point by point how abusive relationships work with real world examples, and also at the end points out that there IS ESCAPE. "Learned helplessness" can be UN-LEARNT.

I also agree (slightly) with myselfasme the relationship that you have with this woman is slightly.. hinky? I hope she gets help, I hope you can help her get help, but she is not your responsibility. Where I disagree with myselfasme is that people in abused relationships don't always stay in them because 'it's working for them right now'. Some just don't know how to leave. Also perhaps she should stop mentoring other people for a while and take a good long look in the mirror and decide if she can live the way she does for the rest of her life.

I really hope she comes to the realisation that life away from her husband can ONLY be better than it seems to be with him, but only SHE can come to that realisation.

Good luck to you and her.
posted by Faintdreams at 6:56 AM on March 9, 2012 [10 favorites]

Let's all slow down here. We cannot read minds, nor see the future. What needs to happen is that she needs the tools to make her own decision, not for us to just chime in with our certainties and for sures.

I suggest she start with a book called Feeling Good by Dr. David Burns. She should read it and do the exercises for six months.

She needs to learn to fish, not to be provided fish. Until she has the tools she needs, she will not leave or change anything.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:21 AM on March 9, 2012

As a friend, one thing you can do is make sure she has information, like Ironmouth said.

Another resource to give her is domestic violence help line number for your area. Write down the number relevant to her area with a random, non threatening woman's name so it's not obvious and tell her what it is verbally. These numbers will be staffed by knowledgeable and experienced support staff who can talk to your friend wherever she's at on the continuum towards leaving her husband.

Lots of women leave unsafe situations, but it's hard and you can't support her alone.

It's great that you want to help her, it sounds like she doesn't have a lot of people in her life that trust & respect her. Focus on what you can reasonably do and make sure she knows there are others out there who can do more.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 9:03 AM on March 9, 2012

I know her having me as a friend is strange to most, she knows it is and is well-aware. In fact she made jokes all the time... like "you know other adults do this and that, look at how I live!" Or "oh my god I should not be telling you this." She has a best friend her age, who lives in New York. I am 19, a few months from my twentieth birthday. I have heard of sex, I have had sex, I don't see what the crime is in telling me. I've heard things I should not have heard all my life, nothing shocks me. Believe me an angry, rampaging schizophrenic parent was enough of a shock to me. I will admit, I sometimes wonder if she tries to live vicariously through me. Sometimes she posts weird things I can't discern on facebook. I have wondered about the state of her mental health but I think there's more to it than that...
posted by Chelsaroo650 at 9:31 AM on March 9, 2012

Also, I see her as sometimes being much younger than she is. She could kind of be a bad influence on me sometimes, she tried to get me to call into work when we were doing inventory; we all needed to be there, very important. I know I am young but I've seen a lot in my own family dynamic that is cringeworthy. I hardly am able to get ahold of her because she doesn't pick up the phone. So we aren't around each other 24-7.
posted by Chelsaroo650 at 9:35 AM on March 9, 2012

Chelsaroo, the 'age difference problem' people are pointing out isn't about you, it's about her. The issue isn't that you shouldn't be hearing about sex (i think we all know that 18/19 year olds have already heard plenty about sex.) The issue is that when a 36 year old confides in a teenager, they are doing it (probably) in part because they have issues with power balance, and that they are seeking out a friendship where they have the power. (WHich would make sense here - she doesn't have any power at home.) This isn't really fair to you, and even if you don't care or don't see it as unfair, it still is indicative of some kind of problem with her.

Anyways, yes: there is not much you can do. People in abusive relationships need two things:
1) They need friendship and support, so that they can have the courage to leave the abuser.
2) They need to be self motivated to leave.

Continue to be her friend, but maybe make an effort to help her make new friends, or to connect with resources who can more effectively support her.
posted by Kololo at 9:43 AM on March 9, 2012 [11 favorites]

You sound like a wonderful friend and an intelligent and thoughtful young woman, but you can't convince someone to leave an abuser. It's a decision they have to make for themselves, the best you can do is support them. Make sure to give only as much as you are comfortable giving. It's good that you drew a line at lying for her to your work. Don't let someone push you past your boundaries no matter what their situation is.

I understand where you are coming from with your reaction to people voicing concern about the age difference. I dated a 26 year old when I was 16 and I really had no idea why people got so fussy about it. When I turned 26... then it all became VERY clear. Imagine having a friend who is 13 to your almost 20. Would you start unloading your (extremely scary) problems on her? How would you react if she then started making efforts to help you with your (extremely scary) problems?

I'm not saying your friend has any malicious intentions, but her problems are very heavy, and the fact that instead of turning to people who have dealt with similar situations or have experience who could help her, she's coming to someone with very limited resources in this area. It's not an accident. She's 36, she remembers being almost 20. There's a power dynamic between you two she would never get from someone in their 30's.

The 26 year old I date was kind and thoughtful and never did anything to harm me. We know each other as adults in our 30's and I have a better understanding of what drew him to date a 16 year old, and the glossing over of his problems I naturally did at that age (and would not do now) was a large part of it.

Just make sure to take care of yourself. Don't let her problems be your problems.
posted by Dynex at 1:41 PM on March 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

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