How to help a women in an abusive and controlling relationship?
May 29, 2012 2:21 PM   Subscribe

I need advice about how to help a friend in a non-violent yet intensely abusive relationship, and about how worried I should be for her young daughter and what to do for her too. (We're all in a major Canadian city, we're not all Canadian.)

A friend of mine is a divorced mom of 4 year old girl. Her marriage was very problematic and abusive (a violent thieving cheating husband with a drug addiction), and her ex-husband now lives in his home country. She's been separated from him for a few years, the divorce went through recently. She's been seeing a therapist for a few months to deal with some of issues from that marriage, but i think she filters out a lot of the 'current life' issues from those discussions.

This friend, who is from another western country, moved to our city for her job about a year ago, and plans to live here for a couple of years. When she arrived, she had two close friends here (myself and another person), and a few acquaintances, but for the most part she needed to reconstruct a new social life for herself. (For various reasons that aren't very important, she didn't really mesh that well with some of our friends here.)

Very soon after arriving, she met the guy who is now her boyfriend. They've been together for about a year. He is terrible terrible terrible to her. Screams obscenities at her on the street, that she's a whore, a terrible person, an idiot, ugly, a terrible mother. Requires her to give him her phone, ipad and computer on a regular basis so he can monitor her emails, calls, and texts. Makes her take photos of the friends hanging out with her, so he has proof she's not spending time with men. Forced her to send texts or emails to several men (a lifelong friend, a cousin, her daughters' cousin) telling them they were no longer allowed to communicate with her. Forbids her from doing anything - going to church with her daughter, or taking her daughter out of town to visit her immediate family, even - because she's a slut who can't be trusted. He screams at her while they have sex. (Her daughter's nanny is the source of some of this information, some of it she told us directly during one of their many 'breakups'.) She has to lie to him when she spends time with me or our other friend, since we are 'the enemy' (because we hate him.) During each break up (there's been 5 to 7?) he spews the kind of vitriol at her, then she apologizes for provoking him, then he begs her forgiveness via expensive lavish weekends in luxury hotels (while her daughter stays home with the nanny.) So, to summarize the background info: she is in a tremendously controlling, jealous, emotionally abusive relationship, and her 4-year old is alternately a witness to this or is being raised by the nanny. My friend and her abuser don't live together, but he spends enough time at her place that that's sort of a technicality. My friends parents don't live here, so they know the boyfriend exists but not that he's a monster.

THE QUESTION: WHAT THE HELL CAN WE DO? We are a wreck (and honestly, i know this is awful: fed up) trying to help this friend who alternately (and briefly) acknowledges the problem, and then goes back to him for more. (I know that's pretty textbook.) She's pulling away from us (which is exactly the boyfriend's endgame) in part because she's embarrassed, or doesn't want to hear our disapproval, or because her boyfriend just forbids it. I know the best thing to do is to 'be a supportive friend' so that she'll know she has support when she's ready to leave him, but being supportive is starting to get frustrating. It's frustrating to watch her do this over and over and over and over again.

- What can we do to help her get out of this relationship? To either gain the mental/emotional wherewithal, or to... force it?
- How can we be supportive friends when there's so little to SUPPORT? (I try to remember her behaviour is more equivalent to a mental illness than a rationale choice, but it's hard.)
- Should we call her parents and tell them what's going on?
- I'm concerned about the lessons her daughter is learning (about how men treat women, about the value women have), and about how this boyfriends behaviour is affecting her, and about having her mother be, essentially, an absentee parent much of the time (because she needs to focus more on her boyfriend than her daughter, it seems.) What can we do for the daughter, short of getting her taken away (not an option!)? How worried should we be or is she young enough to bounce back?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Holy shit.

This was painful to read and my heart goes out to all of you.

As mefi has often said put your own oxygen mask first. Put a wall between yourself and this unbelievable amount of drama.

You can tell your friend you will drive her to the shelter, support her in whatever way you can but she has to learn to stay the fuck away from these men. It is her gift to learn this or not, not yours. A skilled therapist can help you gain this space and understanding.

TLDR: help, help in any way you can without damaging yourself.Detach emotionally.
posted by By The Grace of God at 2:29 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would 100% tell her parents. The more this is out in the open the better, imho. Plus they are legally in the best position to protect the child.

Not much else you can do other than be there for her. And stay out of the line of fire.
posted by fshgrl at 2:31 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Could you place a call to a child services agency? The behavior you're describing sounds like it would constitute emotional abuse of the child, since this girl is witnessing her mother being degraded. I'd tell her parents, too.
posted by alphanerd at 2:32 PM on May 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

She's pulling away from us

There's nothing you can do. I had to very painfully retreat from a family member who was in a fairly similar situation. She still called me sometimes, mostly whenever they'd broken up yet again. It wasn't until he finally actually physically hit her that she reached her own breaking point and found the resolve to end the relationship. And even then there would be so many weak moments when she'd call me full of excuses and rationalizations, on the verge of trying to reconnect with him.

You're enabling the abuse and drama and undermining the severity of the situation by giving her all this attention. It makes her feel like she has a strong support network that will get her through this tough time. If you back away, she will have to face the reality of relying on him as her sole source of support (which is his ultimate goal).

People can go on like this for years. Let her know that you'll always be there for her when she's ready to get real help, and then step back and wait.

I'm very sorry that you are going through this.
posted by hermitosis at 3:16 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm agreeing that her parents should be notified. They can't save her either, but they should have this information.

If they confront her about it, be prepared for her to deny everything. That's why it would be good for all of you to talk to her together. Yes, you are in intervention territory here: you and all the people in your circle who are aware of what's happening, plus her parents, all in one room. Think about that.
posted by hermitosis at 3:19 PM on May 29, 2012

This is child abuse. Act in the best interest of the child.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 3:42 PM on May 29, 2012 [6 favorites]

And PS I'd be willing to bet there is physical abuse involved. Well hidden but there.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 3:44 PM on May 29, 2012

Don't take St. Alia's bet. Many abusers take years to build up to physical harm, and some never get there. If you start harping on the physical angle and chasing after something that's not really there, it's just going to confuse your message to her -- what's happening right now IS well established, it IS abuse, and it IS harming her child.
posted by hermitosis at 3:48 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't know whether she's rational enough to understand its applicability to her situation, but if she is, maybe share this information about the high incidence of physical and sexual abuse against girls by their mother's partners, where abuse of the mother was present first? The progression from abuse of mother to abuse of children (either by extension, or as a means to hurt the mother) is so common as to be cliche. She needs to get him out of their life for her kid's sake, if not her own.

And by all means call her parents - at least they could get the little girl out of there.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:56 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

The child first: Prepare yourself for the possibility that you may lose her as a friend, and then get in touch with her parents and your version of child protective services. Her parents probably cannot do much, but they should be apprised of the situation so they can support her as things develop. I don't think contacting her parents alone is enough, because people are unpredictable (they may retreat into denial or have an emotionally abusive dynamic themselves), but a social worker is professionally and legally obligated to do a thorough investigation and act in the best interest of the child.

Friendship situation next: This is awful and frustrating. You have to walk that fine line between being supportive enough that she won't retreat from you, but being honest enough that she may eventually see the light. I've been in similar situations before, and it's incredibly difficult because every part of you is screaming "DTMFA!" Honestly, there is very little you can do to force the issue. This is something she will need to come to on her own. Try to frame feedback in a positive way. For example, "you deserve better" vs. "he is such a jerk." The more you blame him, the more she'll feel compelled to defend him, even if she was just complaining about him only moments before. Validate that her feelings for him are genuine but reinforce that he isn't worthy of them as neutrally as possible. For example, "I know you care deeply for him, but you are such an awesome person and deserve to be with someone as awesome as you." Point out when things aren't normal. For example, she describes his latest spewing of vitriol because of something she supposedly did, "I know we all get frustrated, but that seems like an extreme and disproportionate response." I've also found emphasizing that you wouldn't accept this behavior from a friend and, as her boyfriend, they are supposed to have something more than friendship, can help her think about it in a different light. Maybe not in the moment, but it's a thought that will percolate. These examples aren't the greatest, but I think you'll get a sense of what I'm talking about. Also, don't feel guilty if you need to step away from the drama and put some distance between the two of you. I wouldn't necessarily announce it or deliver any ultimatums, but just be less available when you need a breather. Lastly, make sure she knows you will always be there for her and she can always call, no matter what happens or how long it's been. Some very bad stuff may go down, and, if she decides to make a change, she needs to know that even if there is an estrangement, the door is always open to repair the relationship. I will keep you and your friend in my thoughts. Best of luck to you all.
posted by katemcd at 6:01 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

How worried should we be or is she young enough to bounce back?

Very worried. It's hard to imagine a worse first four years for a child than to be dragged from one violent relationship to the next, and on top of that to have Mom bouncing in and out on the whim of a boyfriend who's no relation to the child. At least the nanny seems nice.

The "young enough to bounce back" thing is part of the myth of children's resiliency. Children aren't resilient. They're impressionable. Their first years are not where they're too young to remember much anyway, they're where their senses of security and personhood are formed.

Why is getting her taken away not an option? Her mother is abusing her: by subjecting her to these rages, and also by abandoning her whenever the boyfriend asks it. I'm confused about the nanny overhearing him screaming at her during sex -- does that mean the child is present in the home, too? Children wake up when they hear screaming. This is really the kind of thing where you should be bringing it to child services.
posted by palliser at 7:50 PM on May 29, 2012 [6 favorites]


This is a great metaphor. You should be the tree root that's within reach. Every time she reaches out for you, just be your same solid self -- "oh, that sounds awful," "he did what? you don't deserve that," and so forth. Don't extend to her when she's not reaching out. Don't try to save her. Don't attack him. Don't try to move her from one place to another. Don't judge her. Just be there for her to hold on to when she needs it. Even your continued presence will help. By not attacking him, he won't push you out of her life as quickly. Find a way to be in it for the long haul, rather than supporting her in a way that "uses up" your ability to provide support. Good luck; it isn't easy.
posted by salvia at 9:20 PM on May 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

As a female with a very similar background, I can offer you a bit of advice. All you can do is continue to offer your help. Every now and then bring it up, remind her that whenever she's ready, you and your friends will be there for her with a place to stay and anything else she needs. She could be staying with him for a number of reasons, but there will be a point when she's ready to get out permanently. It could be many more "attempts" until that time, and you'll probably get worn out and fed up with her before it's over. I've had friends tell me they wouldn't help me anymore after one too many phone calls for a ride/place to crash. Just try not to get to let yourself get to that point, because she really needs you.

There's nothing you can say to her to get her to leave him. All you can do is let her know you'll help her when she's ready.
posted by Circumstands at 11:12 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

You call the boyfriend a monster, but your friend has welcomed this hideous behavior into her child's life. Adults can make the most disgusting choices for themselves, but when they force powerless children to endure abuse, they cease to be victims.

I am concerned that your friend, like her daughter, learned this sick shit in the home. So don't hold out too much hope that her parents are going to rescue the grandchild. Tell your friend that she has a brief time window to get the guy out of her life, after which you will call child protective services. Then call them and hope for the best.

Unless you are willing and able to move the child and her nanny into your home until your friend gets her life in order. Are you?
posted by Scram at 5:35 AM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't be so sure about calling her parents for the simple reason that many women who repeatedly get into relationships with abusers come from abusive families. I'm not saying these women want to be abused just that they're drawn to abusers, perhaps at some subconscious level, because they feel familiar- in the usual and in the original sense of the word.
posted by mareli at 5:42 AM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would agree with mareli. Getting too involved in this - by reporting to her parents, could create more problems for your friend (including increased violence from the abuser). Don’t under estimate the power he has over her. Blaming her for 'bad choices' will only further push her away.

The abusers behaviours you are describing is called: The Cycle of Abuse. Sometimes pointing this out to the victim can help her see the patterns and better understand what is going on.

Isolation is a primary strategy of abusers. The more he can isolate her, the more he can control her. Be careful about criticizing his behaviours or actions - generally the more you do, the more she will defend him. Here's a good pamphlet on advice on How to Help a Friend (pdf).

At this stage of the violence, the most important thing you can do is introduce a safety plan. Hot Peaches has a lot of resources (search: safety plan) and information in many languages.

Let her know that you will be there for her. She might just show up at your doorstep one day - asking for help, so prepare your own response. Know where, and how to get her to your local women's shelter.
posted by what's her name at 7:29 AM on May 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

To give some perspective: it is an often repeated statistic (and as far as I know true) that an abused woman leaves her abuser on average 7 to 8 times before she leaves him permanently. Sample article detailing same and cycle of abuse.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:14 AM on May 30, 2012

Please call child protective services. That young girl does not deserve this. I know you don't want to endanger your relationship with your friend, but that girl needs to be taken out of this toxic environment.
posted by diocletian at 10:24 AM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

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