How can I help my mother out of an abusive relationship?
August 15, 2013 7:02 AM   Subscribe

My mother needs help leaving a bad situation. What do I do?

I live several states away from my family and I'm very worried about my mother. She sent me a text saying "Can I come stay with you? I have to get out of here. I have no where else to go". She then followed that text with a picture of a large bruise. I am very concerned and obviously would love for her to come stay and told her as much.

Unfortunately, my mother has a history of not being able to leave abusive relationships. It's taken us years to disengage from my father, even after an event in which he almost accidentally shot my brother. This was even after the years of them fighting, infidelity, abusive "punishments", and general mistreatment. With her current partner my mother texts my younger brother who lives with her to pack his bags and barricade himself in his room until she comes home and they can leave. Then she won't come home, won't answer phone calls, and it's just a nightmare. Eventually she comes home, refuses to talk about the night before, and acts like nothing is wrong.

I don't know what to do. I'm very scared and worried for her and my brothers safety. What can I do to help best? How can I communicate with her the seriousness of her situation and how do I support her if she chooses to stay?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I was in your mom's position a few months ago and I got out with the help of friends and family. I contacted my mom and pretty much said the same thing your mom said to you. That meant that I was ready to get out. It sounds like she's ready. People do change their minds, though. I'll try to help you help your mom stick to her guns.

First, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−SAFE(7233) and tell them what you just told us. They can counsel you in how best to support a victim. They can also help you develop a safety plan that you can send to your mom. A friend of mine did that for me and it was the first step.

Second, don't be afraid to tell your mom that she needs to leave ASAP. This is not the time to back off and let someone make a decision, it's the time to insist on her safety. My friend directly told me, "you need to get out of this relationship because he is abusive and he's not going to change." My mom told me, "I'm worried about you. I'm afraid he's going to kill you." And she cried. My mom is not a drama queen and is very level-headed. My cousin told me, "I don't trust [ex's name] and if you want to leave I will make it happen." None of them judged me or my ex, or said that he was a bad person. The focus was on me and my safety. That was crucial. The consensus was that he's a very sick, possibly dangerous man but that I am the one who is important to them. It was a huge wake-up call.

Abusive partners are already judging their victims. If her support system starts in as well, it gives her the impression that she's a loser and he's the only one who would ever want her. They distort logic and brainwash people. Praise her to the skies for being strong enough to leave. That helped me tremendously.

And then there's the lovely Stockholm Syndrome, otherwise known as the trauma bond. Your mom is almost certainly in a relationship that is tightly bonded through trauma and brainwashing. She's going to need a lot of therapy right away so she won't go back. The YWCA generally offers domestic violence counseling for free. Also, if she can afford EMDR for post-traumatic stress, it is extremely helpful.

Reading about the Cycle of Domestic Violence helped me a lot too. I left him three times before it stuck, because he would always apologize and we'd have a wonderful honeymoon period. It gives the victim the illusion that the relationship is getting stronger and that the "fights" (really attacks) are ways of working things out. It's really just a tightening snare.

It's very hard to break a trauma bond. A book that really helped me is Patrick Carnes' The Betrayal Bond. It resonated with so much of my experience of that relationship. After reading it, I just couldn't see him the same way anymore.

After I had read account after account of abusive men and how they operate, I no longer saw my ex as the special genius he claimed to be, and I no longer saw our relationship as destiny. Have your mom read these.

All of this is a start in having her un-brainwash herself. Please MeFiMail me if you like and I can point you to other resources.
posted by Rainflower at 7:27 AM on August 15, 2013 [31 favorites]

This is very similar to my position in life a couple of decades ago, right down to the gun and the younger brother.

First of all, how old is your younger brother? If he isn't in physical danger -- which he seems to be -- he is definitely suffering emotional trauma and will need help. My own trauma aside, I can see in my brother the effects of these events decades later.

Your mother needs to get in touch with whatever domestic violence support resources are available to her. If you can get a location posted here, we can be more specific. If you're able to have your mother and brother with you, at least on a temporary basis, then yes, do that. If your mother hems and haws, then you should explain to her not only the effect this is having on her and the danger she is in, but the effects, major and subtle, immediate and long-term, that this has on her children. I suggest having this discussion in a calm, slow, soothing tone of voice, point-by-point. The goal here isn't really that she'll see reason, but that her thinking right now is emotion-driven.

Please feel free to MeMail me, or email me at the address in my profile, if you'd like more specifics about my own situation, or help finding local resources.
posted by houseofdanie at 9:09 AM on August 15, 2013

Obviously I don't know your mother, her history, or how she usually interacts with others during periods of stress, but her photographing the bruise and forwarding it to you strikes me as unnecessarily dramatic and a little manipulative. Personally, I would interpret her actions as a desire for attention and sympathy far more so than being suggestive of a genuine motivation to alter her current unfortunate circumstances.

Should this be the case, you can only offer your love and support whichever path she chooses to walk.
posted by Nibiru at 9:17 AM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Can you at least get your brother out of there, and to stay with you? Depending on his age and your mother's frame of mind, perhaps suggesting that he come to stay with you while she works out what she wants to do, or suggest that he come stay with you to enjoy the last few weeks of summer? That would be better for him, and arguably makes it easier for her to leave, since she only has to worry about herself at that point, knowing he is somewhere safe.
posted by Joh at 9:22 AM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just jumping in for the "what if she chooses to stay" part - she may - or in alternative way to look at it, it may take her a long time to get out (which does not mean that she is "staying.").

Given this, self-care likely is extra important for you. Because experiences from your past are being brought to the service. Because you have lived through this before. And because even without that history, this is your mom and she does not seem to be safe right now.

Are you talking to someone supportive (therapist, friends, counselor, clergy, support group at a local DV program)? How will you safely set boundaries for yourself, if you need to? I think these are important things to consider so that you can give what you can to your mother, cleanly and safely, regardless of what she chooses to do. Experiencing trauma - first-hand or vicarious - takes a toll on the human body, mind, and spirit. And in this time of wanting to give to her, knowing that ultimately decisions are up to her, giving a little extra to yourself could bring you the strength you will/may need. Sending good thoughts to you and your family.
posted by anya32 at 11:00 AM on August 15, 2013

There's a wonderful agency in St. Louis called Safe Connections that provides therapy to women that have experienced abuse. They have a 24 hour free crisis hotline. Could be a good place to start even if she lives elsewhere. 314.531.2003.

Details here.
posted by kdern at 11:51 AM on August 15, 2013

Yes, PLEASE call the hotline that Rainflower listed (1-800-799-7233).. Not only can they talk you through your own feelings and help you set up a safety plan for your mom and brother, but they also have an amazingly thorough database which lists programs across the country, so it's possible to find one closer to them. Even people still living with their abusers can still get help from a whole range of programs - support groups, safety planning, etc - that can help give them the tools to take control of their situations.

I would also strongly recommend that your brother call NDVH on his own, and that you encourage him to reach out to a school counselor or someone else. Even if your mom struggles to leave her partner, you and he should take steps to get him out of that household and both of you into some sort of support system. It's great for your mom to have you as a helper, but in the long run all three of you will be better off if you're able to take care of yourself along the way.
posted by theweasel at 12:54 PM on August 15, 2013

Wow, what a nightmare. I am so sorry this is happening to you, OP. Here is the comment where I wrote down what would've helped me when I was in a sucky relationship (nowhere near the physical abuse that you describe), and I agree that the hotlines are the best places to start to find resources, shelters, and information about formulating an escape plan.

Have you just asked her what else she might need and how you could help make it more possible for her to leave? She may have several questions (where to stay, where to work, how to get her monthly paycheck forwarded, how to drive / fly / travel there, what to do with her fish...). Being able to stay at your house may solve one, but you could ask if there are others you could help with.

I am concerned for you that she will disappear for awhile now and pretend she didn't contact you, like she's been doing with your brother. I'd be extremely scared, sad, worried, and upset if my mom sent me a picture like that. I hope you find someone to vent to and to support you in all the feelings that arise.

I also hope that you can maintain some realistic expectations for what she's likely to do and a realistic sense of how much you can actually impact the situation. Obviously, you are a huge help to her, even just by being there. But I'd pace yourself for the long haul, because this will end when she knows this relationship has to end, which may be much later than when you know it has to end.

I think your best bet is to find a way to consistently provide a low level of support, and to let her know that you're always there to help, but to avoid getting your hopes up (and then dashed) in a way that might frustrate you and burn you out. In the end, only your mom can figure out how to leave, and it could take a long time. It sounds like you already know this from before with your dad, but just a friendly reminder and a lot of sympathy. I know it's really awful to worry about someone you love in a relationship like that.
posted by salvia at 9:38 PM on August 15, 2013

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