Pull me out of the water? No, that just won't work.
July 13, 2012 12:15 PM   Subscribe

My friend is in an abusive relationship and refuses help. How do I cope?

I realise that the "refuses help" part probably means "nothing for her". How do I deal with this in our friendship? When the subject of the abuse comes up I find it impossible to say nothing, but when I do anything beyond saying "you poor thing" and changing the subject, she takes umbrage.

Despite having moved out of home years ago, her mother remains the final authority in her life. She is frequently yelled at over the phone on any number of issues; I once had coffee with her and she received a call berating her for not having checked in (and I understood the checking in was supposed to happen more than once a day, regardless of whether she was meeting anyone). Things she doesn't want to be harangued about must be kept secret; I don't think her mother has caught wind of any relationships, or she most likely would have been ordered to end them.

Although all of this seems to happen at a distance, she is convinced that if she tried to take any kind of control, it would end up with her mother arriving at her flat, unlocking the door (mother has a copy of the key, this was probably a requirement of her moving out though I haven't asked) and shouting at her in person.

I know all of the advice MeFi would give for helping this person out of the situation, but she doesn't let me say much about it. She doesn't believe that there is a way out, and thinks that her only option is to suck it up and live with it. I find this immensely troubling and struggle with not saying anything every time it comes up in conversation, which is at least twice a month.

So, MeFi, do I just suck it up as well? What else is there for me to do?
posted by fearnothing to Human Relations (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is your friend in any way financially dependent on her mother?
posted by Green With You at 12:20 PM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

she is convinced that if she tried to take any kind of control, it would end up with her mother arriving at her flat, unlocking the door (mother has a copy of the key, this was probably a requirement of her moving out though I haven't asked) and shouting at her in person.

It strikes me that this could be undone by simply suggesting she change the locks on her flat. And if she balks at the price, offer to pay for the locksmith yourself.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:20 PM on July 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

It strikes me that this could be undone by simply suggesting she change the locks on her flat. And if she balks at the price, offer to pay for the locksmith yourself.

If I was worried about my mom letting herself in to yell at me, I think I'd even be more worried about her standing outside screaming if I changed the locks.
posted by ubiquity at 12:22 PM on July 13, 2012

To expand: if your friend gets financial assistance from her mother then she must get herself in a place where she isn't reliant on her. And then I believe her only option is to move, change her phone number, get a restraining order, maybe even change her name. She'll basically have to treat her own mother like a violent stalker. If she won't buy into that, then yes, there's nothing else you can do.
posted by Green With You at 12:26 PM on July 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

Also, how often does this subject come up, exactly? If the nature of your relationship is such that she will bring up Awful Thing Mom Is Doing, you comfort her, and this happens over and over again, I would say that perhaps you should rethink being friends with this person.

(I have a grandmother like this. And by "like this" I mean the first thing I did, in a literal sense, when I moved into my mom's old apartment was change the locks. She stopped trying to drop by after she found that out. Thankfully, I wasn't at home.)
posted by griphus at 12:26 PM on July 13, 2012

If I was worried about my mom letting herself in to yell at me, I think I'd even be more worried about her standing outside screaming if I changed the locks.

That's what the police is for.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 12:33 PM on July 13, 2012 [9 favorites]

Firstly, you are obviously a kind and empathetic friend BUT this is not about you. If you really are a good friend, this is not about you coping with the situation or how much it troubles you, it is about your friend. The only way you are truly going to be helpful to her is if you are framing this as being about her, not you.
Having said that, if you adult friend is in an abusive relationship, and it is not causing her serious physical harm or driving her to the point of throwing herself under a bus, there is not a lot more you can do for her than point out ONCE that the situation is crazy, and then just let her know you will be there for her no matter what happens. I say this as someone who has been in an abusive relationship - been there, done that, got the anti-stalker order to prove it etc. etc. Often people stay in abusive relationships for a long time even when they know they are being abused. It's complicated, it is definitely hard to watch, but at the end of the day she is an adult and has to make her own choices.
Help her by being there for her and modelling what a good, proper, kind relationship is. Show her that it is possible, and that she deserves a lot better than what she is putting up with from her mother right now.
posted by Megami at 12:33 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Guys, the OP isn't looking for suggestions on how to help the friend! So stop asking about her financial situation and telling her to change the locks, call the police, etc. The OP looking for help on how to deal with this aspect of their relationship.

I think Megami is right: there unfortunately isn't much you can do, apart from be there from her. When the subject comes up, you can try to help her, but you cannot make her listen to you. You may need to distance yourself from her a little bit if this is too much for you personally, which would be understandable.
posted by Specklet at 12:43 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Green With You's bit about possible financial dependence. My only other thought is to gently and tactfully express your concerns to her in a non-confrontative, non-judgmental way. Then you gotta let it go. If and when she comes to the realization that she won't tolerate the crappy treatment anymore, then and only then will she make a decision to do something about it. In my experience as an abuse survivor, I only became willing to acknowledge the mistreatment and refuse to let it happen again after I realized it wasn't worth the emotional payoff I was getting for letting it continue.
posted by strelitzia at 12:45 PM on July 13, 2012

Best answer: Ah....yes. I could have written your post, word for word with the exception of the mother unlocking her flat door. With my friend, this type of abuse has also spread to her boyfriends and bosses now that she is older, but still the primary abuser is her mother. It it is a pattern where she was trained at an early age to service her mother's personality disorder and lack of boundaries. She now thinks that any relationship needs to include this kind of violation in order for it to be legitimate, and anything less lacks the necessary drama.

What you are asking is how to handle it when it comes up in conversation, what to say. Well, the fact is, there is really nothing you can say that is the 'right' answer. That has been my experience. Because it is a them against us mentality. Bottom line is your friend is loyal to her mother, and if you criticize the relationship, you are criticizing both the friend AND her mother. Ignoring it will make you miserable. I learned this the hard way, and didn't take my advice, but simply drifted from the friendship after years of listening to the stories. If I had it to do over, this is what I would do.

You say to your friend: "You are in an abusive relationship and I find it upsetting to watch and listen to you telling me about without you taking any action to change it. Therefore, I don't want to hear about it anymore. Period." If she can't do that, then put the friendship on hold, and tell her you are there for her when she is interested in getting help with her situation.
posted by nanook at 12:46 PM on July 13, 2012 [15 favorites]

Best answer: You have to be honest and truthful in your friendship.

"You know, I worry about the abusive relationship that you're in with your mother. You aren't happy and you seem unable to move forward with your life. Your relationship is not normal and it is hurting you. I will do whatever I can to help you, just ask. If you need a strategy, if you want me to go with you to a domestic abuse center for counseling, I will do so, happily. However, I can't sit here and moan with you about it. It's upsetting to me to see how miserably you're being treated and seeing you sit and suffer and do nothing. This is not a permanant situation. You can be free of your mother and her influence. It won't be easy, but it will be worth it. Unless you're ready to make a change, I'm not willing to listen to you complain. I love you and I'll be here for you, but further discussion with no action is not an option."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:50 PM on July 13, 2012 [9 favorites]

In this situation where her physical wellbeing is not at risk (and if your friend is a legal adult and there are no children being abused) yes you have to suck it up. Presumably she knows the situation is awful and abusive and abnormal. I would hazard a guess that the reason she takes umbrage at your offers of advice or assistance is because she is so ashamed of the situation and at the same time so unwilling to do anything about it. It's deeply shaming to have a parent treat you this way as a child or as an adult and it's probably been going on her whole life. Her only option (rather than accepting the abuse) is probably to cut her parent out of her life completely. That's a much bigger, more complex call than ending a bad relationship, and it's her current choice to let it continue.

The best thing you can do is listen without judgment. If it's too much for you, it's ok to say (kindly), "Hey, I can see you need to talk about this but it's really upsetting for me to hear right now, do you mind if we come back to it later?". It's also ok, from time to time, to say, "You know there are things you can do about this if you want to, right?". But you can't push her on it and you can't take any unilateral action. I hope for her sake you find a way to keep being her friend and supporting her. It's a terrible situation to be in and there are no good solutions.
posted by yogalemon at 12:54 PM on July 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

One of my best friends was once in a similar situation about 18 years back. His mom was not just verbally but physically abusive, and since he had been raised in an Eastern culture, he thought he had to be "the good son" and take care of her nevertheless.

My approach was to provide whatever sympathy and emotional support I could, but I strictly avoided offering "solutions" or "suggestions" as to how he should live his life. Instead, every time he told me one of the horrible things his mother had done, I simply made a point to emphasize that the way she was treating him was abusive and (most importantly) that things did not work this way in other families. It took years (and I'm not sure how much of this was my influence and how much was his gradual adoption of American values), but eventually he disowned his mom - as well as a few other family members who were not up to par - and he's so much happier now.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 12:55 PM on July 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

Basically what they said above.

"I'm really sad this keeps happening to you. I'm happy to try and help you fix it, if you want, but I can't be your sounding board anymore. Do you want specific suggestions right now?"

(It helps a lot if you can get everyone to give her the same basic message, by the way. If you know of other friends who have this issue with her, reach out to them. By letting her complain and not take action, you guys are making it weirdly easier for her to stay in the situation.)
posted by SMPA at 1:04 PM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Nanook, your words really hit home with me.

I'd just say to your friend "I don't know how you deal with this. How can I help?" and "If you ever want me to help you cut the cords, I'm here for you" and mostly listen. Your friend is lucky to have you, and I hope she'll find her way to freedom.
posted by theora55 at 2:15 PM on July 13, 2012

"She doesn't believe that there is a way out, and thinks that her only option is to suck it up and live with it."

I know that feeling big time.

I actually think it's harder to break up with an abusive parent. You can get another boyfriend, but you can't get another mom. She's the only mom your friend will ever have. And we have a lot of cultural baggage/attachment to "you must not abandon your family, your family is wonderful, your family will always be there for you and loves you" sort of ideas about parents. And her mother has been installing the buttons on her since birth, so it's even more insidious. That's why she doesn't think there's a way out and all she can do is suck it up. And I don't know the rest of her family situation, but cutting off her mom may mean that cuts off ALL of her family too. It's a hard price to pay.

So what I'm saying is, uh...this is an uphill battle that you cannot really win or do anything about. You can offer her help if she's ever receptive to such a thing, but it's freaking hard to get up the stones to get away from an abusive parent. Maybe your friend needs to "hit bottom" on it (or maybe she just has no bottom and will put up with anything dished out at her), but either way you can't get anywhere with her as long as she is determined to stay in the soup. Or more like, can't see a life raft while she drowns.

It probably wouldn't hurt to tell her stories (or find her stories) of people who have cut off their parents and did just fine, though. I think there's a lot of them on Metafilter.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:29 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's obvious that you care about your friend, and it hurts you to see her enmeshed in this situation.

I've often seen it quoted that statistically, a woman will leave an abusive relationship 5-7 times before she can finally break free. I'm pretty confident something similar is true of abusive family situations - it's hard to pull oneself out of an abusive dynamic, conflicting loyalties and a sense of obligation can lead to terrible guilt at trying to break free, other family members will often try and coerce someone to stay in contact with the toxic relative, society enforces the message that families should stick together through thick & thin, and so on. Your friend seems to have taken one step by moving into her own place, but she'll have to take the rest at her own pace.

If this is hurting you, though, you're entitled to draw boundaries around it. What I'd do is sit down with her on a day that she's not venting about her mother, and ask her what she wants from you when she tells you this stuff - is she looking for a sympathetic ear, someone to vent to, or concrete solutions? It will probably be a sensitive subject even if she's not actively stressed about it, but easier to handle when she's not full of pent-up frustration from something that just happened.

I have a few friends with whom I've explicitly agreed that it's okay to interrupt a rant and clarify whether the person is looking for advice or just wants to vent; it's got to the point where we'll often proactively say "I'm not after answers, I just need to get this off my chest and be heard. Can you listen for a few minutes?" Managing expectations this way makes such conversations less fraught for us.

Alternately, I'd try the standard NVC approach of "When [X] happens, I feel [Y] (because I need [Z]). Can we perhaps [A]?" I'd probably continue to gently point out that she shouldn't have to put up with abusive behaviour, but not offer advice unless asked for it. And you can tell her if you're unable to be the person she vents to - whether that's just for a given day, or forever.

Finally, it could possibly be that your friend is using these venting sessions as a way of psyching herself up to doing something about it. For me, hearing other people say that my parent's actions were abusive or inappropriate was vital to reframing my own perceptions of my situation - I was quick to make excuses for each instance of abusive behaviour, but facing that reaction over and over made it harder to avoid the fact that this was a pattern, not just "a bad day" or "my provoking them" etc. Eventually I came to believe that my friends were right, and I did deserve better - that planted the seed of my decision to enforce boundaries with my abusive parent. This is in no way a given, and you're not obliged to be that support even if it is true for your friend, but it seemed worth mentioning.
posted by Someone Else's Story at 3:57 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

« Older making pith helmet cat ears - advice?   |   how to describe the "hw" sound Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.