How to help a friend escape an abusive relationship...?
January 21, 2013 1:01 AM   Subscribe

Friend stuck in abusive relationship and totally unable to break up.

My friend (late twenties) is in a four-year relationship with a man who, for the last three years, has behaved in a consistently despicable way. He is highly manipulative, controlling and abusive emotionally - the threat (but never the act) of physical abuse has reared its head on a number of occasions. He is also an obnoxious human but it is his treatment of her that most concerns my friends and I. His actions are having a very damaging effect on her life.

This weekend things reached a head and, after several weeks of planning, a group of her friend from quite disparate parts of her life came together, presented her with a letter outlining our concerns and spoke to and supported her for the whole weekend to try to explain the severity of her situation.

After hours and hours of talk, we feel as though we've finally got to the bottom of why - unlike most other people in her situation - she cannot simply break it off with him: she's completely unable to inflict any pain on him whatsoever, and has said she'd rather live this way and put up with the pain he's inflicting on her that hurt him at all. She has always been on the receiving end of break-ups before.

She had a privileged but difficult upbringing (sometimes-volatile father, alcoholic mother) and is very bright (went to the best university in the country), but she is emotionally not up to task here unfortunately.

Has anyone else been in this situation? She has accepted that this is not a good relationship and that it cannot and must not last, which is a step in the right direction, but she finds the idea of causing him pain utterly unthinkable, and whenever she sees him she falls back into the same old patterns of justification.

How might we address this in a sensitive but firm (if necessary) manner? She is already in therapy (which helped her identify this problem) and besides, we really need action sooner rather than later to keep the whole thing from losing momentum.

Very grateful.
posted by fishingforthewhale to Human Relations (32 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Unfortunately you can't really pull an intervention on a relationship. If this worked, people around the world would be convening in living rooms to earnestly convince their friends to DTMFA.

What you can do is be there for her and be ready to help her when she decides she's had enough. You can attempt to convince her that she's worthy of happiness and that you all want her to be happy. Other than that you are treading on thin ice. Deciding to leave her relationship is something she needs to do herself - if you push too hard you may drive her away from you.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 1:19 AM on January 21, 2013 [6 favorites]

Short of giving her Hobson's choice (either she dumps him or you all chip in for hired goons to break his legs) there's really not much you can do. She's an adult and has the right to make her own horrible mistakes.

You might try extracting a rock-solid promise that if he does ever hit her she will come straight to one of you; before doing that you should each find the women's refuge closest to you so know know where to go when it happens.

You might also care to try extracting another rock-solid promise that she will not ever under any circumstances get careless with her contraceptives.
posted by flabdablet at 1:29 AM on January 21, 2013 [7 favorites]

Indeed, pushing too hard may drive her away from you, which is definitely not a desirable outcome (she would be even more under the thumb of her partner; he would have that much less restraint in eventually acting on his physical threats).

Be there for her. That's all you can do. Trust me, I know how hard that is to hear, I've had a couple of friends in similar situations, and I myself have been an abused woman. In my case it took him finally hitting me. That was my breaking point. Your friend's may be different.

Abusers break down a person's sense of self. It gets to the point where the abused person genuinely cannot comprehend that their own friends honestly believe that they deserve better. They're in a space where their partner (sometimes their family as well, if they come from a cruddy one) has taught them that the abuser determines that person's worth. Not the individual themself. And so: "Deserve better? Then what does it say about me that I'm with someone my friends think is so shitty?" is one typical thought to go through their mind. It takes the shittiness finally getting beyond a breaking point, one where the abused person can finally say to themself that pretty much anyone would deserve better.

In time, with support from friends (and hopefully therapy, good to hear your friend has that), the bar of shittiness gets raised, and with plenty of time and recovery, it's no longer "shittiness" but a sense of self that can recognize that everyone can choose what kind of relationship they want. Their partner does not determine their worth; they do.

Support her on that path. A sense of self has to come from oneself; others can encourage it (or abuse it...) but cannot substitute for it.
posted by fraula at 1:36 AM on January 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

Her abuser pressures her severely, so your plan to pressure her severely for action "sooner rather than later" isn't going to help her. Instead, if you want to be sensitive, be patient and wait for her to be ready to take action, which might be later rather than sooner.

You also might take a look at the language you are using when you talk about your friend. "She is emotionally not up to task" for someone of her intellect and upbringing. You stage an intervention and, after "hours and hours", get her to "accept" that her relationship "cannot and must not last" and you finally uncovered that she is staying with him out of spinelessness ("completely unable to inflict any pain on him whatsoever"). He definitely talks down to her, not sure you're doing any better in this respect. So how can she know that what's waiting for her out there is any better than what she's experiencing already?

Also, she's the one with the privileged upbringing and the volatile father and alcoholic mother and controlling boyfriend and so on. It's her life. You have seen it from the outside but she's the one who's lived it and she's the one who knows what it's like to cope with those things. Saying she's "unable to inflict pain on him" is something you present as a nonsense reason because you don't understand it, whereas she has a deep understanding of what that means.
To you, it's just an obstacle in the way of getting to yes. Remember, you are the one who doesn't understand here.

This guy dominates and controls her life, tells her what to think, dominates conversation. A bunch of you got together and did all these things to her for a whole weekend and at the end of it, you're frustrated and asking us how you can most quickly get her to do what you want. That's extremely coercive.

Look, normally I would be thrilled that so many of her friends cared so much and wanted so badly for her to get out that they would band together to offer support. I should be a lot nicer to you in recognition of the fact that you're sick of seeing your friend suffer and you're desperate to get her out. But take a look at the way you've written this. You practically make it sound like you kidnapped her and subjected her to 48 hours of interrogation. If she's resisting you, it's probably because she's not as spineless as you think, and if she's giving you rationalizations that don't make sense, it's probably because she has a mind of her own and isn't willing to substitute your judgement for hers even if deep down she knows you're right. Those are good things, even if they're frustrating for you.

I suggest you get a copy of Lundy Bancroft's "Why Does He Do That?" and read the chapters about how to support an abused woman. You have just spent an entire weekend telling her she's causing herself to be abused, which is exactly what her BF does. You all need to rethink your approach from the bottom up and expect to support her over way longer than a couple of days.
posted by tel3path at 1:39 AM on January 21, 2013 [61 favorites]

Is there some way to convince him to leave? For her good?

Could you convince her to talk to her therapist about having him come in to a session and with the therapist's support break up in the office?
posted by JohnnyGunn at 1:40 AM on January 21, 2013

She is already in therapy (which helped her identify this problem)

When did that start? I'd let her try that for awhile. These things take a long time, unfortunately.
posted by salvia at 1:57 AM on January 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

That's a tough one. I think you have to lead by example here. You cannot force her to break up with this fellow. The best thing you can do is stop enabling her. Normalcy to her may look like him on one side, generating the 'activity', and you on the other, dealing with the consequences. So long as both are in place, there is a homeostatic situation. Whilst it's not good, it seems relatively stable.

I would imagine the best thing you can do is to change the situation by setting a firm boundary:

"I will not be in your life as long as this man is in your life. He is hurting you, and you are hurting yourself by not ending this relationship. I love you and I care about you, and I will be here when you choose to start taking care of yourself."

Her background is relevant-ish. It may explain her rationalisations, but it does not erase the situation as presented.

she'd rather live this way and put up with the pain he's inflicting on her that hurt him at all.

And likewise, you. This relationship is also cause you pain. Not physical pain, but emotional pain. You'd rather live this way and put up with the pain she's inflicting on you than hurt her at all.
posted by nickrussell at 2:40 AM on January 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

"I will not be in your life as long as this man is in your life. He is hurting you, and you are hurting yourself by not ending this relationship. I love you and I care about you, and I will be here when you choose to start taking care of yourself."

Please don't do this. If you do this, her abuser will think all his Christmases have come at once because you'll be isolating her from her friends and leaving her 100% under his influence.

Seriously please don't do the abuser's job for him. Not in other ways, and most of all not in this way.
posted by tel3path at 2:46 AM on January 21, 2013 [42 favorites]

why - unlike most other people in her situation - she cannot simply break it off with him: she's completely unable to inflict any pain on him whatsoever, and has said she'd rather live this way and put up with the pain he's inflicting on her that hurt him at all.

Sadly, that is really not unlike most other people in her situation. "I couldn't bear to hurt him" is a really common refrain (even if it sounds bizarre from the outside), and the abuser is often playing into it too, by making sure the abused party knows that leaving would devastate them. Your friend presumably loves this person, however bad he is to her; leaving someone you love is hard enough anyway without feeling like you'll be responsible for their total emotional ruin and/or suicide.

Women stay in abusive relationships because of this kind of dynamic all the time, and there is some pretty thoughtful writing out there about what's going on. It might help you to read something like this or this to get a grasp of it. It looks simple from the outside - of course the rational decision is to leave! of course it's ridiculous to be concerned about the feelings of your abuser! of course you would have to be severely emotionally damaged or irrational to think otherwise! - but from the inside, it does not look that way. From the inside, I will bet you that the decisions she is making feel like the best decisions she can make.

It is very, very difficult to reason someone out of an abusive relationship, and especially so if you're totally unfamiliar with the dynamic here. That is not because abused people are fundamentally weak or damaged in some way; that is because they understand their situation better than you do, and are unwilling to listen to the advice of someone who clearly doesn't get it. (And I have had friends in abusive relationships, and I have been the friend in an abusive relationship.)

I'm absolutely not staying she's right to stay. She should leave ASAP and it is great that you and her other friends are on her side with that. But I think the best way to be on her side is to believe that she is "up to task here emotionally", despite her rough upbringing. Her abuser will already be telling her that her feelings and judgements and reasoning don't count as much as someone else's (his); let yours be the voice telling her that you know she's tough, loving, and intelligent enough to make good decisions. Tell her you appreciate what a tough position she's in, and how strong she's had to be to make it this far. Make her know you believe that she can trust her own judgement, rather than telling her to substitute your judgement for his as the one she should go with.

And appreciate that these things take time. She might need the abuse to cross a particular boundary before she'll finally snap and end things; she might need a while to process whatever the therapist's said to her before deciding how and when to act on what she's realised. But she needs to get to a point where she knows she should leave, and the best thing you can do is build her up and support her to get her to that point.
posted by Catseye at 2:55 AM on January 21, 2013 [17 favorites]

Contrary opinion here. You have left a lot of information out of this question. What does the following even mean?

the threat (but never the act) of physical abuse has reared its head on a number of occasions
His actions are having a very damaging effect on her life.

This type of question could either be in MYOB territory, or not. It really depends on the details. What sort of life damage is this? Is she productively employed? Does she have a handful of healthy friendships that she spends at least a bit of time on, outside of her relationship? Is she physically healthy? Does she have her own money? Does she have at least one pastime? If so, then this situation wouldn't really strike fear into my heart.

I read your question word for word and nothing you described sounds inherently dangerous to me. It could be a relationship with a D/s dynamic that for whatever reason, both parties prefer. Even if they haven't formalized it as such.

Or it could be actual abuse. IMO, some of the litmus tests of actual abuse are things like a person being or becoming unemployed (or underemployed), not having money, being isolated from their previously important personal friendships or family relationships, self-medicating with alcohol or narcotics where they didnt before, and physical abuse.

If those elements aren't present and you just dont like the guy, the dynamic, the types of fights they have, etc., I'd say it's MYOB territory. This means, share your opinion once as you did, back off afterward, wish her luck, and be around if she fails or asks for help.

If its really abuse, then its probably much the same strategy as above but you might repeatedly point out to her the ways it's abusive.

I say this from personal experience. I had a bf once who people said was 'abusive' but it was more of a D/s thing in retrospect. I was an ultra high acheiver and I was getting something out of not being Ms. Perfect Achievement Responsibility all the time. Strangely enough, despite this 'abusive' relationship, I was thriving in my job and had plenty of friendships, and was really physically healthy. I was inspired enough that I even took up some new pastimes. One of my friends tried to have an intervention, and while I appreciated the effort, that relationship was where I wanted to be. It might have been a mistake, but it was my mistake to make.

You have to have a sort of global perspective. If a person is thriving in the top 3% of society, no physical abuse, no poverty, no hard drugs, no pregnancy, all their teeth, regularly goes to the doctor, etc.... not living in a war zone, not in danger of death or loss of limbs... then sometimes being in a bad relationship is that person's choice to make. You don't have to intervene friends into being a model human who makes no mistakes.

Of course this depends on the details, which as I said were not really clear to me.
posted by kellybird at 3:11 AM on January 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

Patience is what you need here. I wrote this in answer to a similar question.
posted by salvia at 3:11 AM on January 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I second kellybird. Because there aren't many details, it sort of comes off as your friends just don't like this guy, and not that he's some big mean abuser. Do you have any examples of how he is manipulative or emotionally abusing so that answerers can give a more informed response?
posted by WeekendJen at 5:34 AM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

the threat (but never the act) of physical abuse has reared its head on a number of occasions.

What does this mean? It kind of sounds like he has threatened her with violence, but the way you've phrased it make it sound like it could also be just that you're worried he might use violence in the future. Aside from that, everything else in your question is so vague it basically just means you don't like him and don't think he's good for her. That, of course, isn't your decision to make.
posted by John Cohen at 6:10 AM on January 21, 2013

I was your friend, except that by the time I left him I had no friends and had to make a desperate scramble to make new ones fast in order to get support to leave. Man, was I lucky to find a group of stand-up people who all said to me a variation of this:
"It's your decision. It will take however long it takes. You can always come over or call, day or night, if you need help. Here is a key to my house, if you need to just get out of his way for a few hours or days."

My friends made it possible for me to leave. My old friends, the ones I had before the abuse started, loved me so much but did what you did - and what my abuser did. They told me I was wrong, that my decisions about my life were faulty and that I needed to leave him or they would leave me.

I lost all of those friends. After the relationship ended, I contacted them all and they all were thrilled, but my friendships with them will never be the same.

It's ok. I know they were doing their best, that they didn't know what to do. So, my advice is this: be supportive. Realize that she must really love this man to put up with what you recognize is abuse. When she talks about him and his behaviors, ask things that reinforce her autonomy and decision-making like:
- What did you say back?
- How did you feel when that happened?
- What are you going to do now?

Save your totally justified anger for later. She needs support, which includes allowing her to do this on her own timetable. It will be slow. She will probably leave and go back to him multiple times, once it finally happens. Just give her a safe space to talk it out and to run to (if you can) while respecting your own boundaries.

Please try not to cut her off, though. That was what most people did to me, and not only did it not work (it didn't make me leave him) it helped me get further entrenched in the abuse, because I was socially isolated.
posted by sockermom at 6:49 AM on January 21, 2013 [25 favorites]

Seconding the patience and there for her process. It takes time for the scales to fall from eyes, and I'd be willing to be she genuinely loves him. Whether he manipulated that to happen or not is irrelevant - she loves him, she does't want to see him in pain, and most importantly, she probably fears being alone. That's why you can't give her an ultimatum. Right now, he has the upper hand. He can control things on a minutia basis, so he is going to seem more "certain to stay around." If you tell her that it's him or her, all you're going to do is reinforce that you, as friends, will leave her too. That's horrid for someone that fears loneliness.

I know you want the best for her, but as sockermom said, reinforce her agency when it comes up. Tell her that his actions aren't right, and aren't healthy, and ask what she is going to do about it. It won't all happen right away, and do expect him to try and isolate her some more from you when it begins to work. But keep it up. If you reinforce her agency, and her choices, she'll come out the other side in much better shape.
posted by skittlekicks at 7:32 AM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd ask her if she wants to ever have children, and if like 80% of people she says yes, asking her if staying with him is worth giving up on that dream, emphasising that she cannot subject her future children to this abusive relationship.

In other words, she must not have children with this man. Is she prepared to never have children?
posted by DarlingBri at 7:35 AM on January 21, 2013

You can't do a damned thing about it. SHE has to decide to leave. She has to decide that it's so bad and she wants out so bad that she is willing to hurt him if it's necessary. Until then, you are SOL.

Believe me, I've gone through this before (and am still) with people, and as long as she wants to stay on some level, by god, she will stay. He'll make it as difficult as possible for her to leave anyway, and it'll be "easier" for her to stay...let's just say it's an uphill walk in a snowstorm while you're wearing a bikini to leave. And if she isn't absolutely on fire to get the hell out of the relationship, then she isn't motivated enough to go through that hill walk in the snowstorm. Which she isn't.

If the woman is still in the "But I loooooove him" mode-- and "I don't want to hurt him" is along those lines-- then interventions will get you nowhere. She may partly want to leave, but she doesn't 100% want to leave. So she'll stay. And stay and stay and stay, until things get super bad enough for her to hit her limit. But that may take another four years. Or longer. (My friend now has been putting up with hers for 20+ years AND STILL WON'T LEAVE. I truly don't think she ever will unless things get really super severe, and her abuser always takes care to keep it just under the line.)

Also: she had an alcoholic parent and a volatile father? She's used to this dynamic of being abused (dad) and being trapped in a situation that she can't get out of (mom). She grew up with it. It's home to her psyche. As far as her soul knows, this is how life goes. Abusers somehow sniff out the girls who will put up with their abuse like that, unfortunately.

I hear you on the frustration, believe me. I have it going on too. But all you can really do is say, "Let me know if you ever want to leave" and let it be. Don't cut her off, but spend less time with her if it's making you crazy to constantly hear about his abuse that she'll put up with.

I wish I had better advice for this. But there isn't.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:42 AM on January 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'd ask her if she wants to ever have children, and if like 80% of people she says yes, asking her if staying with him is worth giving up on that dream, emphasising that she cannot subject her future children to this abusive relationship.

In other words, she must not have children with this man. Is she prepared to never have children?

Just anecdata, of course, but when we asked a friend this in a similar situation, she panicked and immediately got pregnant her abuser.

Not remotely guaranteed to have the outcome you'd like.
posted by like_a_friend at 7:44 AM on January 21, 2013 [6 favorites]

The people who are calling for patience & for you to hang in there with her know of what they speak. So do I. Be an ear, a shoulder, ensure she knows she can call you anytime (day or night) if she needs to get out - and mean it.

She loves him. Emotional/verbal abusers, IME, didn't get that way by having delightful, loving childhoods. She may feel that she's the only person in the world who sees who he "really" is, underneath the cruelty. I say this because not only do I have friends who've been there, I have been there. And being emotionally/verbally abused reinforces any existing martyr tendencies she may have - her suffering is necessary, so he doesn't lose the one person who really loves him. Getting to the point where her happiness - her survival, emotionally/spiritually - is more important than keeping him company in his misery takes time & patience. Knowing this (and having gotten out of one myself), I'm happy to say that I was able to be there for a friend who needed to get out of a bad relationship. She went back & forth many times, and her family & other friends lost patience, berated her for being weak or stupid (surprise, surprise, things HE also told her she was). She kept talking to me about it, kept faith that perhaps some day she would be able to leave him, and eventually did. It's a process. You don't understand what she's going through. It's like the frog & the pot of boiling water - she didn't jump into this situation, the "heat" got turned up slowly over time. She adjusted, got used to it, accepted it, loved him through it.

I'm a bit put off by kellybird's insinuation that emotional/verbal abuse isn't "real" until he starts hitting her. I can assure you, emotional/verbal abuse is very real and very destructive.
posted by pammeke at 7:46 AM on January 21, 2013 [9 favorites]

I agree with pammeke. For all her accomplishments, her upbringing sounds difficult and that can really warp your view of what a 'healthy' relationship is meant to be. My parents did not get along well - I'll spare the details here, but when I ended up in a relationship that was less than healthy, it took me a very long time, far past the verbal abuse and into serious threats, before I realised that good relationships are not about drama. At the same time, a friend of mine was with a very crap boyfriend who manipulated her whilst sleeping around behind her back when things were long-distance, and the rest of us couldn't believe she hadn't left him yet, but despite the crying and the paying for plane tickets and the hours spent 'consoling him' for having the audacity to spend her mandatory year abroad, she was sure she loved him and things would work out. Neither of us had broken off a relationship before, either.

I'm a bit put off by kellybird's insinuation that emotional/verbal abuse isn't "real" until he starts hitting her. I can assure you, emotional/verbal abuse is very real and very destructive.
It's hard not to realise what's going on when you're in there, and part of that was being frequently told 'well, calling me abusive minimises real abuse that's happening to women' or in other words, stop whining and be a bit nicer to me and maybe I'll be nicer to you. This is possibly what the hurting him thing comes from.

The best thing you can do is be ready and waiting with some strong friends, a spare bedroom if necessary, and a car to help her move out when she decides to leave.
posted by mippy at 8:04 AM on January 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you must tell her anything besides that you care about her and will be there to help if she decides to leave the relationship, tell her that you're concerned for her safety. If she's thinking about leaving you could offer to let her use your computer or phone to do research online so she doesn't have to hide her browser history, or sit with her while she makes phone calls and creates a safety plan. Generally, the most dangerous time for someone in an abusive relationship is when they are leaving and immediately after - your friend may have already realized this.

I'm concerned that you and the rest of the Interventionists think it's so unusual that your friend is having trouble leaving this relationship (it's not), and I hope you do some research before further interactions with her. There are some good links above, and some others you might find useful are below. One caveat - please don't get caught up in whether or not what your friend is experiencing is "really abuse" if he hasn't been physically violent with her; it's all part of the same system:

The Cycle of Violence All abusive relationships don't follow precisely this pattern in this way, but some people find a visual representation helpful.

The Violence Wheel An expansion of the types of violence in relationships (like I said, it's not just physical).

Domestic Violence and Abuse General information, including an expanded Cycle of Violence and helpful definitions.

And finally, possibly the most important:

How to help someone you know who is being abused Lot's of good information on this page & check the sidebar for more.

I'm quite familiar with the frustration you're feeling, but please try to stick it out for your friend - giving her an ultimatum is playing right into this guy's hands.
posted by camyram at 9:35 AM on January 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

tel3path is right and I want to put her comment in front of you one more time for emphasis. And I recommend that if you have never seen this post by Nattie before, that you read it.
posted by cairdeas at 9:39 AM on January 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm a bit put off by kellybird's insinuation that emotional/verbal abuse isn't "real" until he starts hitting her.

Oops, definitely not what I meant. I meant that it's sort of unclear what the actual abuse is, from the description of this question.

I think sockermom's advice above was pretty spot on.
posted by kellybird at 10:13 AM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

The more you criticize him, the more she will have to put distance between you and herself so that he doesn't perceive her as disloyally consorting with one of his vocal critics. She'll only be able to call you when she's prepared to go through the fight that will ensue. Instead, say things that support her (you're smart, you didn't deserve that) or make relatively neutral statements about him (he could've always made a sandwich himself).

she must not have children with this man. Is she prepared to never have children?

If you try this, be prepared to hear that he's changing and things are getting better.
posted by salvia at 10:27 AM on January 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also, please remember that even if your friend is really sweet, mild, and gentle, and hates hurting people, she still has the capacity like everyone to become very angry on the inside. If you're trying to forcefully push her into doing something that scares or upsets her, or she feels like you're trying to take away something very important to her, she could be building up a lot of hidden resentment and anger towards you. If you begin to make disrespectful, presumptuous, and controlling statements towards her, you may anger her, even if she totally accepts disrespect from the person she is in a relationship with. There are a few things that have been suggested here to say to your friend, which I could see your friend replying to with a gigantic "fuck you" in her mind.
posted by cairdeas at 10:37 AM on January 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was once in an emotionally abusive, deeply fucked up relationship. I thought you might like some perspective on this:

...she'd rather live this way and put up with the pain he's inflicting on her than hurt him at all.

Listen to her. She's making a choice. What she's telling you is that the pain he inflicts on her is not as intense as the pain it causes her to break up with him. Unfortunately, that's her choice right now. She's made her choice. She's aware that's it's a shitty choice, but to her it's the lesser of two evils. It's horrible and painful to watch a friend make that choice, but there is absolutely nothing you can do to make that choice for her. One day, this may change, but she has the change her mind. She has to believe that the pain she'd cause herself by causing him pain would be less than the pain he's causing her now.

I'm afraid you have to wait it out. Do your best to love and support her, and make sure her life is awesome and fun and empowering when she's with you. That's the best way to prove to her that life without him will be so wonderful as to tip the scales in favor of enduring the pain it causes to break up with him. Believe in her. She'll get there eventually.

And for the love of all things good and holy, DO NOT cut her out of your life if she stays with him. Don't take away the support she'll need once she decides to get out.
posted by JuliaIglesias at 10:43 AM on January 21, 2013 [6 favorites]

I was in a relationship like this too, and I want to second cairdeas, tel3path, and JuliaIglesias. Please pay attention to them, and to Nattie's linked comment.

What would have really, really helped me, would have been concrete help and, secondly, perspective. So, if you want to help: Let her know she can stay in your spare room. Find her a recommendation for a good therapist. Make things easier in her relationship ("Sure, no problem if you send your package here"). Attempt to understand and really listen. Don't stigmatize her. Be open to hearing anything. Let her know you're there.

Being in an abusive relationship is like being in an invisible prison camp designed for one. No one else knows how you're suffering, and they don't understand what holds you there. And then they laugh when you push against the barbed wire or yell at you when you do your best to appease the guards.

posted by 3491again at 12:19 PM on January 21, 2013 [8 favorites]

You did what you could which is really good of you to care so much. Does her family know of this, of what exactly this man is all about? Ask her to let her family know (i.e. if they care).

All you can do is keep an eye on things. (wondering if this guy has any criminal records? what is his past? quick online check would help)
posted by pakora1 at 1:15 PM on January 21, 2013

One reason people don't leave is that they're in denial about how painful and destructive the relationship is for them. Denial is why sympathy and concern are so powerful. The abused person can brush off the pain, but if you observe that it seems to really hurt her, the pain gains more reality. In her case, you might particularly focus on reflecting back to her when she feels hurt.

Another reason is an illusion of willpower or control. "If I just X he won't Y." "If I love him enough, he'll feel less insecure and not act like this." That is why it's so important to absolve her. Focus on his autonomy and that as an adult, he has as much choice about and responsibility for his behavior as she does. "He did what? why? you didn't deserve that!" "That's not your job." "Well if that makes him upset, okay, but he didn't have to yell. Remember when you were angry, you waited until you were calm then explained how you felt?"

I don't know what to tell you about her desire not to hurt him. I guess over time I'd watch for other accusations that she'd hurt him and start questioning those. Fundamentally, she can't protect him from feeling hurt, and it's likely that he's using this accusation as a way to get what he wants (unconsciously if not deliberately). "He was THAT hurt? Remember when I rescheduled my plans with you? That didn't deeply hurt you, did it? Bob and I reschedule with one another all the time, it's just life." "What about when he forgot your birthday? That hurt you, right? But you got over it." Maybe over time she can come to see that she can't protect him from hurt, and that as an adult it's his job to learn to cope with it.
posted by salvia at 2:58 PM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wondering if this guy has any criminal records? what is his past? quick online check would help

Probably not. Unfortunately, abusers (particularly of the non-battering variety) aren't typically difficult in other ways; although they often share similar personality characteristics, in other walks of life (aside from the romantic relationship) abusers are just typical people. That makes it difficult to spot until you're in the thick of it. They tend to be able to focus their abuse on just one person - their significant other. They act pretty rationally and carefully in their other interactions.

One of the hardest things about being abused - especially emotionally, but all types of abuse - is that the abuser is almost always able to control their behavior with other people. They seem kind, compassionate, and forgiving when it comes to others. That can be really horrifying for the victim - and it makes them feel like it's their fault that the abuser is treating them this way because they deserve it.

That is not so. Abuse is a choice that the abuser makes. They pick significant others that they can inflict their abuse on, and then do it. They are often preying on kindness, compassion, and love - qualities that everyone should have more of, and should always be cultivated. They don't pick on weak people; they pick on compassionate people.
posted by sockermom at 6:47 PM on January 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

To clarify: batterers are often repeat offenders, so they may have a criminal record due to past violent incidents against other women. This guy isn't physically violent, according to the OP. Research on emotional abusers is much harder to track, because it's not typically an arrestable offense (although some victims may take out restraining orders against their abusers).
posted by sockermom at 6:57 PM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Okay, thanks all. If my original post seemed frustrated that's because it was. I didn't want to get into endless snowflakery and was actually quite enjoying being able to be frank (perhaps blunt) about a situation that we'd (of course) been speaking about quite delicately. That's also why I didn't go into details of the abuse - they're not actually that relevant to the question I asked: he simply is abusive.

Thanks for your comments. I'll admit in some cases they've been pretty hard to swallow. I think I/we will change gear slightly and just continue throwing the love and support of the last three years at her. I completely accept (tel3path I think) the point about the substitution of judgement. Whilst she's in no danger of losing any of her friends anytime soon, she's certainly unlikely to benefit from anybody seeming to undermine her capacity to make her own decisions.
posted by fishingforthewhale at 11:15 AM on January 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

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