Supporting a partner in an ongoing, arguably abusive relationship
February 26, 2013 6:36 AM   Subscribe

Looking for resources for supporting a partner (and my own mental health) in an ongoing, possibly abusive relationship with a family member.

I have found myself in a relationship with a wonderful woman who is a great match for me in every way. However, she is in an ongoing relationship with an abusive family member, and I have not been doing a great job of dealing with it.

My partner (20s female; I'm a male in my early 30s) has a family member who has been abusive to her and members of her family for many years - physically, sexually, and emotionally. The physical abuse has stopped, but she has maintained a relationship with this person, and has often had negative emotional reactions to interacting with him. She is currently in therapy, and is recently "out" about the details of this abuse to her therapist and to her mom. However, she has generally not discussed these issues with other people, including the abusive family member. She maintains a relationship with this person, and sees him regularly, but does not discuss it openly.

Fortunately for me, I have no direct experience of abuse. I have dated several people who had experienced abuse previously, but never someone who was in a seemingly unresolved relationship with someone who had abused them. I have had a very difficult time adapting to the situation, and have caused more drama than I would have liked. Specifically, there have been a few challenges that I have struggled with:

- Maintaining the secrets of what happened, and acting cordially with and about this person;
- Ignoring or dealing with the abuser's isolating behaviors (e.g. saying strongly negative things about me behind my back);
- Maintaining secrecy while having some (small, but non-zero) concerns that this person may be abusing specific others;
- Dealing with feelings of anger in a productive way;
- Feeling helpless to stop behavior that seems very wrong to me;
- Reacting to stories from my partner about past AND present problems, without freaking out;
- Dealing with reactions from my partner that seem like defending the abuser, when I react emotionally to some piece of information;
- Dealing with resentful reactions from mom, who thinks I am making this issue all about me, and not supporting my partner;
- Being able to let go of the topic if it comes up, without stewing or going away from my partner.

I'd really appreciate any references to books or other resources that could help in dealing with these issues, specifically in the context of an ongoing relationship as I have described (vs. "survivors" of abuse). I am planning to join in on my partner's therapy session at the end of this week. I think a logical next step from this will be therapy sessions for me alone. However, I am from the school of LET'S RESOLVE THIS ALL RIGHT NOW OK and feel listless without clear next actions.

(posted with my partner's permission, although I asked her not to look at it for now so that I can ask for help without censoring myself)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I understand where you are coming from. You see a problem, the solution seems obvious to you, but the affected person just won't take the necessary steps - how frustrating! This is completely human and everyone does it. But you anxiety about getting this resolved right now is not helping the situation for you or you partner. This is going to be a long journey together and you have to let your partner be the one to set the pace.

You CAN take control of some aspects of the situation. You can choose not to be in social settings where you have to interact with the abuser, your concerns about specific others being abused (physically, sexually and emotionally) is something you SHOULD share with appropriate authorities, ask your partner to not treat you as a therapist (overwhelming you with traumatising stories) and do not discuss this with Mom now you know she is not able to be supportive right now. It is completely okay for you to choose to go away form your partner if the topic comes up and you are unable to deal with it right then and there. Basically, it sounds like your boundaries have gotten confused because if feels like if you were a good partner you could carry their pain and let them talk and talk without expressing any of your own needs. But it is okay for you to have needs to; your partner's past does not trump your needs all the time. She should NOT be tolerating any negative talk about you from her abuser and she really needs to own that problem and solve it herself.

There is a reason therapists (and doctors) do not treat people they are emotionally involved with. To work through her trauma she needs someone who is trained and unbiased and not emotionally involved. She needs her energy to focus on herself and not on you when she is processing the trauma. You should have your own therapist to talk about coping strategies/venting (since i assume you are not able to share with anyone you are close to on your partner's request). I do NOT recommend you go to her therapist appointment with her unless there have been some very clear ground rules and a long discussion beforehand with the therapist about their experience in this specific situation - involving a partner in trauma processing can be deeply traumatic to the partner if not handled sensitively.

On a practical level, get more heavily physical exercise to work off the anger, explore mediation/mindfulness/yoga and spend lots of time together building good memories, refrain from long conversations about her abuse, and live in the present - not in her past.
posted by saucysault at 7:19 AM on February 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

From the OP:
To clarify, my partner is not opposed to the idea of eventually confronting her abuser and changing the relationship. However, this is not something that she is currently prepared to do, and her therapist agrees that changing the situation drastically at this time would do more harm than good. Part of the challenge on my side is to deal with the fact that the situation may not change for a long time, and to be a loving and supportive partner throughout the process.

Oh, and please send anon comments to Thanks everyone.
posted by jessamyn at 7:21 AM on February 26, 2013

Hearing the stories of her past is overwhelming to you and it's not really fair for her to continue to dump this information on you while you still see the abuser and you've had no real way to process this information. While her therapist may feel it isn't healthy for her to change her relationship with the abuser at this time, the same does not go for you. I would do my best not to engage this person. I don't think it's realistic for her to expect you (if indeed she does) to continue to have any sort of relationship with this person. Avoid them if you can.

You're allowed to not be okay with this. You don't have to shoulder her burden. You can be supportive without being overwhelmed. And it's okay for you to acknowledge that you are human and it hurts you to hear details of things. It doesn't mean you're a bad person or partner. It means you're human and it hurts to hear this, doubly so because this person is still a presence in both of your lives.

Get your own therapist as you mention. You definitely need one to process all of this heaviness.
posted by inturnaround at 7:33 AM on February 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

Abusers take away their victims' free will, either by force or through coercion. The best way you can support an abuse survivor, therefore, is by helping her regain her agency and power; and the best way to help someone gain their own agency and power is to LET THEM MAKE THE DECISIONS.

Can you reframe your role from "sitting around and doing nothing" to "actively supporting my partner in making her own decisions and owning her own feelings, even when I disagree with or don't understand her choices and emotions"?

Because what you're doing by showing her that you have confidence that she can make good choices and -- possibly more importantly -- that she's strong enough to deal with any consequences of those decisions -- IS taking an active role.

Maybe think of yourself as her motivator or cheerleader rather than her protector. Focus your behavior on telling and showing her how strong and wonderful she is, rather than on how much an asshole her abuser is. Think about how much of stronger healing message you can give your partner if you reply to stories of the abuse with, "God, you're so strong for having survived that" rather than "God, I want to kill that man."
posted by jaguar at 9:10 AM on February 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

However, this is not something that she is currently prepared to do, and her therapist agrees that changing the situation drastically at this time would do more harm than good.

This situation sounds very complicated – to say the least. Abuse can result in general boundary problems for those that have suffered it. Wondering out loud, is the therapist's point that your partner learn better boundaries? Basically by confronting the abuser in a personal way (not necessarily a public way – public being the family) and reforming personal boundaries?

That sounds like one school of thought. Personally, I am quite surprised that the therapist is advocating an ongoing relationship with the offending party. As mentioned, this is quite a nuanced situation and there's not going to be simple answers. It might be worth your partner speaking with another therapist (second opinion) about this. That is time-consuming, but at the same time, therapists are people too. They're not always right about the courses of treatment they recommend, and in the case of a recommendation such as this – where there is potential to prolong the suffering – it is probably best to ensure that is the best treatment option available.

Part of the challenge on my side is to deal with the fact that the situation may not change for a long time, and to be a loving and supportive partner throughout the process.

As painful as it sounds, this is where your own boundaries come into play. You did not cause the abuse, nor are you a part of the family. If you choose to continue being involved with this woman, you have to think long and hard about what that means. You did not create this problem (neither did she) but you do have a choice in whether or not it is a part of your life (which arguably she does not).

Further, you mention that you have had poor boundaries in accordance with this specific situation in the past:

I have dated several people who had experienced abuse previously, but never someone who was in a seemingly unresolved relationship with someone who had abused them. I have had a very difficult time adapting to the situation, and have caused more drama than I would have liked.

So boundaries are going to be very important for you to maintain. Even to the crux of the question – how do you support a partner in this situation. You're already taking on responsibility for supporting her in the situation.

The first thing is that there is nothing that requires you to be in a relationship with this person. You are actively choosing it. That is very important, for whilst you may feel a responsibility to take care of her, that is always a choice. It is a choice you are making consciously, and therefore you also have a role in shaping what that choice entails.

I was doing a bit of research on psychological boundaries a few years ago and came across something that has continued to stick with me. Specifically, that people with poor boundaries often surround themselves with other people with poor boundaries. If you think about that, it starts to make a lot of sense.

People with healthy boundaries and people with poor boundaries often conflict. In the research this often manifested as the caretaker complex. Someone with poor boundaries will proffer their efforts to someone else – beyond what could be considered reasonable. Someone with healthy boundaries will not reciprocate in the same way that someone with poor boundaries will. And that is the crux of the caretaker complex – expecting that everyone else has the same boundaries as they do.

Thus, if you would like to evaluate your own boundaries, you can begin by evaluating the boundaries of the people around you. That includes family, friends, coworkers, etc. Before you begin wondering how to support her, it probably is worth evaluating your own boundaries and finding out whether those boundaries are healthy (for you, not anyone else) or not. If those boundaries are healthy, then you can think about how to support her. If those boundaries are not heathy, the first step will be to move your boundaries to a place where they are healthy.

Funnily enough, in discussions with quite a few friends about this, I found that our boundaries are malleable and constantly being adjusted. We're doing it all the time – literally in real-time each day.

I mention this because much of what you said is irrelevant to your situation (in my eyes). The reality is that you have chosen a partner, not the history of an abusive family that is now being resolved. Whilst the latter is a condition of the situation you are currently in, you control your own relationship to it.

Finally, your intuition is right. This can be an rough journey to undertake. Primarily because you are riding along on someone else's therapeutic journey. You are not in the driver's seat, so you cannot take the wheel. You are in the passenger seat – so at best, you are adjusting the radio and sometimes reading the map. And whilst this is about love – and you obviously love this person – it's probably worth being really clear about the fact that this is a journey you want to go on. For your sake and also for hers.

There is a cost to this – mainly that your partner is enduring something incredibly personal and probably often difficult. She has to do that, for that is her life. As mentioned, it's probably worth making sure that the process by which she is choosing to help herself is the best for her. But she has to do it nonetheless.

You do not have to do this. You can walk away and this will disappear from your life. And I do not say that lightly. In fact, there is quite a lot of gravitas there. As mentioned, there is a cost to you to go on this journey, thus you need to be very clear that the benefit of being in the relationship is worth it to you. That you get as much out as you are going to have to put in.

And whilst that may sound harsh to say, it is very much the reality. If your needs are not being met in the relationship, it is going to have a limited lifespan. In your previously relationships, perhaps you ignored your needs until the point at which things exploded. I don't know, only you know.

The distillation of this is that you are signing on to go on a life journey with her. You do not get to dictate the terms of that journey, rather you can accept the situation as it is, and be with her. Or you can not accept it and move on. What you do not want to do is say you accept the situation, when you really do not want to accept it. To tell her you are with her on this journey when you are not with her. She needs to do something for herself, and that is what she needs to do. As said, you did not create it, and you do not have to deal with it.

So I guess the answer I have to your question is that you and she need to have a normal relationship, as any two people would. There needs to be something between the two of you that is much bigger than her therapy and previous abuse. The way you can support her is by having your own life, sharing that life with her, and realising that the other part of her life – the abuse part – is something she has to deal with, but not necessarily something you have to deal with.
posted by nickrussell at 9:34 AM on February 26, 2013 [7 favorites]

Nickrussels advice is wonderful. You've dated people with abuse histories in the past. Is there a part of yourself that relates to or is working through issues related to the existence of abuse in the world? Personally I want to work for a world in which there is no abuse. There is no disease. There is not death before old age. There is no poverty, and no entrapment in excessive labor and living conditions that break the soul.

We're not in that world, and having romantic relationships with survivors does not fix the level of pain that abuse creates. Your love can't fix this. It may be that other things can, therapy, time, personal growth. And your support CAN be part of her healing, but it doesn't have to be. You are not the crucial factor in her dealing with this or not. If you think this is THE ONE-- that she will come through this with her love and gifts and romantic feelings for you in tact-- that whatever weight she carries she will counter that with the strength of her love for you and be willing to also nurse your wounds and see your full self and take care of your needs as much as you do for her.... if there are reasons for you to be with her that extend beyond simply "she needs support"-- then you will have a better chance of coming through this WITH her, rather than FOR her. She is probably going to make some mistakes, as people in pain are prone to express their need and pain in ways that don't fully take into account the feelings of others in response to that expression. There is a point of pain in which MOST people will be living out their worst possible self- and how she handles this IS important for you do decide how to proceed in a way that meets your own needs.

While dealing with all of this AND losing a boyfriend would be overwhelming, if you stay simply for that reason, you will carry resentment, you will leave her just as she's getting better (or start carrying out your resentment in other ways)-- and then she will have to put all the pieces back together AGAIN just as she's started to recover.

You can walk away from this-- and if you decide to stay I agree it needs to be with that knowledge in tact. If you can't handle this, you can't handle this. That's ok. She probably can't handle this either but she's stuck in it. You can save yourself from this. If you stay you need to be ready to advocate for you own boundaries and needs in this situation. To be honest, usually when someone is handling this level of trauma and ongoing threat to their person- they aren't in a good place to be a good relationship partner. You can stay with her and wait for her to get better if you think she'll come through it with her love for you in tact-- but people don't get better from things like this on a desirable time scale. Some people don't... ever. It's like dating someone in a coma who might come out and you can resume a romantic relationship at some point...maybe. For an old married couple in which one partner IS HAPPIER sitting and holding their comatose partners hand, the tragic romantic in me can find that sweet, but you sound young. Young and healthy enough that you could have a relationship that actually involves your needs rather than both of you being immersed in a tragedy no one can really fix.

Love is a strange thing, and it may truly be worth it for you to stay. If you do, just remember those reasons that make it worth it. And get some therapy for you. DEFINITELY. And again the reminders to continue eating good food and exercise and meditate and do things you like to clear your head through this are great. This is a hard situation and I'm sorry that both you and she are dealing with it.

If you want to be a white knight-- be a white knight... fight against the forces in society that cause/allow abuse to happen. But don't base your romantic relationships out of that notion (well unless you have a partner that shares your kink for that and is open to communication about the complications of sharing romantic relationships on that premise). I want to save everyone. I have never once had any luck with saving a romantic partner. Or a family member, or friend for that matter. Unfortunately, as many discover, passionate urges to save people usually make things worse. Calm minds, non-attached intentions, big picture thinking-- these kinds of tools help with these things and they are tools that are very hard to access if you are personally involved with a person in need. Caregiving is very valuable and I support people who endeavor to care for people in need in their lives but again mixing that with romantic relationships becomes very messy- because it means you are setting aside your needs in the relationship. Best not to make your romance a charity mission. It's easy enough to do more harm than good with charity even when you have a degree and no personal investment with the people you're trying to assist.

There are plenty of resources you can check out for partners of survivors, but I will preface these links with the fact that myself I have a hard time reading at places like this, it's overwhelming and you'll be knee deep in hearing about tragic abuse left and right. If you want to glean whatever useful advice from them, just be careful with yourself and probably talk to a therapist if possible before you dig too deep into the issues of sexual abuse and what you want your role as a partner to be. You need to get very clear what you feel ok dealing with and providing in this relationship and what you are hoping to receive:
Support for Partners
Pandora's secondary survivor support
List of books for partners of survivors
You can find more support tools by googling "partners of survivors" or "secondary survivors". I will suggest you will get better support with clearing your head and making good choices in this situation from a counselor or therapist than from internet forums or books. I also like reading about transformative justice but what I don't like about transformative justice is that it seems to have a very strong abuser support component and also avoidance of removing freedom from abusers in a permanent way which I find problematic. Finding a way to center survivor needs while providing opportunities for redemption and community acceptance can be very problematic when dealing with people who carried out often lifelong damage to people around them.

Also, you are welcome to call a domestic violence/survivor hotline- most operate with the goal of addressing abuse both for individuals and communities as a whole and they may be able to offer some on the spot advice and also direction with regards to resources. No matter what direction you go with this, you will likely benefit from talking with a counselor or therapist about the issues involved in this because this is a really overwhelming issue to sort through. It's completely reasonable to not want to be around this guy EVER. And to be thinking really hard about what you need right now, whether or not you want to be involved in this, and if so- developing a strategy for how to do so in way that respects your feelings and needs.
posted by xarnop at 10:52 AM on February 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

Abuse survivor here.

I also think your partner requires another opinion from a different therapist.

What is this "confronting your abuser" thing? What a lot of pressure to be dealing with in therapy. I can't imagine. Every therapy journey I participated in was about me. A therapy about "building up the strength" to confront an abuser is at its heart, unfortunately, still about the abuser.

Beyond that, IMHO and my IMHE, you can not help your partner because she is still actively involved with (and being abused/influenced by) this abuser(s).

Your partner is not ready for a primary relationship because she's not free to be in one at this time. Her relationship with her abuser dominates everything else.

- You might encourage her to seek alternative professional opinions on her situation - both via initial meet-ups with potential new therapists AND books with differing perspectives on the situation. (sorry. I have no recommendations there, but I bet if you walk the aisles of your local library, or google self-help blogs and message boards for survivors you will come up with a ton of books.)

- You might encourage her to start a meditation practice, take up yoga or a martial arts practice. Basically, something practical and energizing that she does just for herself. She might naturally find shift and strength within to make the right changes in her life on her own if she goes that route. She'll feel better and more centered, regardless.

I know that you continuing to triangulate with your partner's abuser and dysfunctional family is not helping her.

There isn't a good way forward at this time because the situation is designed to ruin anything good your partner might achieve outside of her dysfunctional family dynamics.

I wish I had more.

You can't really be helpful as long as you go along interacting with dysfunction and abuse as though there is nothing wrong in that. The problem is that pretending just perpetuates her problems, it's more of what lead her to become abused in the first place.

Maybe you can be kind to her, but politely and kindly refuse to participate in family gatherings? Now that they know you and will nag at your partner about your absence, they way they've already nagged at her about other aspects of your relationship... It's like a "no win" thing, isn't it?

At any rate, I hope your partner knows she doesn't have to confront anybody or be validated by her family in order to heal and get past this trauma.

In the meantime, perhaps you might try and stay as neutral as possible concerning the drama coming from within her family?

I'm not sure how you might manage that by joining her in her current therapy sessions with the current focus (that sounds like inflaming the drama) so maybe you and partner can see a separate couples therapist with a focus in this area, instead? I hope she'll consider this option.

As long as your partner believes it is her best interests to stay in relationships with people who prey on her, I'm not sure there is much you can support in that. I think the change needs to come from your partner. I hope she finds the wisdom and inspiration to break free of the current role she's been groomed into by her abusers.

Best to you both.
posted by jbenben at 12:00 PM on February 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

At any rate, I hope your partner knows she doesn't have to confront anybody or be validated by her family in order to heal and get past this trauma.

posted by nickrussell at 2:33 PM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

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