How can I help a friend in an abusive relationship that she almost left?
February 15, 2014 10:36 PM   Subscribe

My best friend has been seeing someone for about 7-8 months now. Initially, he seemed very nice and friendly. However, as the months have gone by he's turned out to not be right for her. To make things worse, she's being emotionally abused by him on a rather subtle level, to the point where several times she's been crying while talking to me about him. A couple of weeks ago almost broke up with him after talking with me about recent problem, where I got fed up with the crap she was dealing with and told her she should end it. Since I know she tends to listen to me and to trust my thoughts, should I make a bigger effort to convince her to leave this guy?

About my friend: Before she began dating this guy, she dealt with bad anxiety which brought on a lot of stress. She worked part time at her job because it was the only way she could function. At home her family abuses her constantly from almost all her family members and has been since she was young. She's seen a therapist to help her with her anxiety and she made a lot of headway without the need for medication. However, choices she made which were influenced by him caused her to leave her job and need to start taking medication.

As said, when they began dating he was very friendly. It took me a while to trust him, because I knew the kind of people she had dealt with, but eventually I did give him some trust. Shortly after I gave this, things began to get rough. A couple of incidents made her question why she was dating him given that he expected her to be very open with him and share everything with him but he refused to do the same. Any trouble he had he refused to let her try and help him cope, instead pushing her away. This began her feeling like she was nothing more than a thing for him to show off. This feeling continued when aspects of his introverted personality would have him push her away so he could be alone after he had a great deal of social interaction, something that bothered her further.

These feelings of being a trophy and him wanting alone time when she desperately wanted to be around him (a result of her abusive home) continued on, even after she had a talk with him about them (Though the first one was more of a problem. The latter was semi-solved by them hanging out together more often, but they don't talk with one another so it's not exactly fixed), and in some ways were made worse by things like how he wanted her to stay fit and keep going to the gym while he's refused to go to the gym himself. She's been torn on this because she likes going to the gym and keeping fit, but she feels this double standard is bullshit and as such hasn't really been keeping in shape.

I also don't feel like he's right for her because I've come to realize he's a lot like who I was a few years ago to an almost scary degree (I've been able to predict his reaction to things and guess parts of his personality that she's never told me about simply by using myself as a reference), complete with flaws that I've spent years working on wiping away, and personally I wouldn't consider a match for her as I am now let alone someone who has the problems he has (He shows signs of trust issues, he refuses to let people in when he's upset, he turns to alcohol as a coping drink).

Recently two things were said that were the catalyst for why she almost broke up with him. The first was him admitting he "used to be" racist towards Asian people (My friend is Asian) until shortly before they met. At the same time, he admitted that when they met he was surprised she "spoke proper English."), though from what I can tell nothing has really happened to cause such a sudden change (Given he was racist since he was a kid, from what she's told me he said, I don't believe it would just go away without something major happening). I personally don't think he's stopped being racist, because racism can be a lot more subtle.

The second thing he said to her was him basically saying that he would leave her if she stopped sleeping with him. He didn't use such direct words, but that was the message of it.

When she was going to break up with him, he began to say how that was a joke and that he didn't mean it, immediately trying to explain himself (Though at no point did my friend ever think it was a joke before he said this). She now feels like she overreacted even though virtually every female friend I know would've ended the relationship in her position (Which is one of the effect of gaslighting, to make someone think they overreacted to something).

With how her family is and all the obvious abuse she's taken, I'm worried she'll not notice this more subtle abuse. The way his personality is concerns me, because I see a lot of warning flags that he'll continue to hurt her mentally and emotionally and I'm worried that could one day turn physical. She claims she'll leave him if he ever does hit her, but then she also claimed she'd leave him if he kept hurting her the way he was and yet she's not done that. I don't believe any of this is intentional abuse (though I've not ruled out that possibility entirely given the fact that I know he has had racism towards Asian people), but regardless of it being intentional or not it's something she needs to get away from.

I've read other responses about helping people who are in abusive relationships and they amount to "You can't do anything." But given how close she came so very recently to ending it and knowing she actively listens to me and my thoughts, I'm unsure if I should keep silent about it or if I should talk with her. I know there's a risk that trying to talk to her could push her more to him, but at the same time her own family is doing that simply because of how abusive they are to her while he seems warm and inviting despite the crap she feels rather often.

Should I take the risk and rely on the fact that she actively listens to me to try and convince her to leave him (though obviously word it in a way where I admit I don't have control over the situation, that is really is her decision and this is just how I feel about it), or should I let it go in the hopes that either she realizes and just ends it or he gets it together and stops causing her this pain?
posted by hytrack to Human Relations (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Are you male or female?

This woman desperately needs a good job she's competent at in a healthy working environment, rather than a man.
posted by quincunx at 10:45 PM on February 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

You think he is trying to control her, which is bad.

You are asking whether you should try to control her. Your controlling her would not be any better than him controlling her.

You can support her, point out when he's being an asshole, and assure her that you think she's a smart, competent, intelligent person who has the strength and ability to make her own choices. And then let her make her own choices. Especially if she comes from an abusive family, she's more likely to make healthy choices when she feels supported and in control of her life, rather than like everyone in her life is telling her what to do.
posted by jaguar at 10:46 PM on February 15, 2014 [35 favorites]

I also don't feel like he's right for her because I've come to realize he's a lot like who I was a few years ago to an almost scary degree

You've said your piece. Now treat this episode as another opportunity to practice not trying to control other adults. If she asks you what you think she should do, tell her; otherwise leave it alone. Because the last thing a person trying to deal with a controlling partner needs is a controlling best friend.
posted by flabdablet at 10:48 PM on February 15, 2014 [7 favorites]

And I think, on average, it takes six or seven attempts for a person to leave an actively abusive partner. "She considered breaking up with him because he said something mean" may not really be the open door you seem to think it is in this case.
posted by jaguar at 10:50 PM on February 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

One of my best friends used to be in a relationship with a guy that turned out to be an abusive asshole. A bunch of us saw that abuse, and she did too, but she didn't really feel like she was up to leaving him.

We kind of pressured her into doing so. Not so much "if you don't leave him we will stop befriending you" but what we thought was tough love. Thinking we knew what was best for her and urging her to do what we tell her.

She did break up with him. She doesn't regret the breakup (she's since had other relationships) but I did regret pushing her.

It was not my place to decide for her what to do with her relationships. I gave my point of view because she asked and we trusted each other, but it's up to her what she does with the information. What would have been more useful for me to do was to reaffirm that no matter what she chooses, even if she was to marry the guy, I would be there for her no matter what, and that if she needed my help I'll be there. To not go "I told you so". To let her process the relationship on her own terms. To help her when she asked, the way she asked, but to not control her.

You've done your best. Now all you can do is be there. I know it's excruciatingly hard to see your friend suffer and you mean well, but as some people have pointed out, trying to force her to leave would pretty much doing what the boyfriend is doing. You're not leaving her helpless (though it feels like that); you are making yourself available the best way possible.

Maybe you could discuss ways of helping her in case she needs a quick exit or immediate support - such as a codeword she could text you to mean "come get me now"? That may help her in her process of figuring out what she needs to do to end the relationship.
posted by divabat at 11:17 PM on February 15, 2014 [18 favorites]

Don't tell her what you think she should do. Tell her that whatever she decides you are there for her and will be helpful, resourceful, welcoming, kind, trusting no matter what. She doesn't need someone telling her what to do (he's got that covered). She needs to be reminded that there are people on Team Her and that her intuition and needs are valuable. Then when she is ready to leave she will hopefully contact you and maybe you can be of assistance with some of the practical, logistical parts of that.

But please remember the emotional work of coming to the point of deciding to leave and following through is her work to do -and it's not something that you can rush by giving just the right kind of advice or by being persuasive in some particular way. It's not that simple.

Abusers isolate their victims from friends and family because abuse works there is no one on the victim's side. Just be available and open and nonjudgmental and be on her side and don't let her become isolated from you. You will be frustrated to hear about him and his behavior, but don't lose your patience and start telling her "hurry up and leave that asshole already" as a result. That is not going to help.
posted by zdravo at 11:40 PM on February 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

I’m getting a weird vibe from this question. Are you interested in this women romantically?
posted by aviatrix at 11:55 PM on February 15, 2014 [17 favorites]

You seem too invested in running your friend's life.

The things you're writing about are not abuse. They are at worst indicators that he may not be the greatest guy. Some of them aren't even that, they are just potential areas of incompatibility. Wanting different levels of togetherness is a general relationship issue, not abuse! Him possibly wanting a trophy may not make him the nicest guy in the world, but it's not abuse.

So what that he "used to be racist". Do you understand the concept of "used to be"? If you start ruling people out for everything you don't like about their past, there won't be anyone left to date.

He would leave her if she stopped sleeping with him. Um, yes, most people do want sex in their relationship, and many would leave their lover if sex were suddenly taken off the table. This is not abusive. His needs matter too.

It's not your business to run your friends life and make her choices for her. You've already given your opinion, that's enough.

To the extent that you insist on sticking your nose in her business, I think her family and work situations sound like they need more help, so I'd focus on helping her with those and let the boyfriend issue rest.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 12:37 AM on February 16, 2014 [18 favorites]

@jaguar: You're right about that. I apologize. I don't have any intent or desire to control her. Do I want to help her? Yes. Does the situation cause me mental grief? Yes. I have no intent to try and control her but rather just tell her how I feel about the situation. I worded my question poorly. I meant to ask if I should share what I feel about it with her or if I should keep quiet on it.

@aviatrix: A while before she began dating this guy, I did. I have no interest now. She's a very good friend of mine (One of my two best friends) who is in a shitty place (not just with this guy) and I just want to help her as a friend. There are no romantically driven undertones in this, I guarantee you.

@flabdablet @zdravo @divabat: Thank you for the answers. I'm going to stick to the advice you three gave. Not going to tell her what I think she should do unless she asks, though obviously going to tell her how I'll support her no matter what. I'm still unsure if I should share my full opinion with her, but I think I have a much clearer idea on things. Thank you.
posted by hytrack at 1:44 AM on February 16, 2014

This doesn't sound abusive to me, not even emotionally. I mean, this guy sounds perhaps weird, but what you are describing is not abuse or manipulation -- it's just this guy being awkward and maybe kind of selfish.

If your friend, however, is unhappy in the relationship, she should leave him. Abuse or no abuse, if she isn't happy being with him, she shouldn't be with him. But a) it's her decisions. b) It sounds like she has other problems that could be causing her unhappiness, so if you want her to leave him just because you don't like him, you should back off. It sounds like your zeroing on her boyfriend but she may need support in other ways. It may actually be unhelpful to have you telling her to leave her boyfriend if she actually loves him and he treats her well. (Again, he doesn't sound abusive at all and the examples you gave hardly made me think your friend needs saving.) Stop trying to make everything about her boyfriend if it isn't. The best thing you can do is actually listen to her and be supportive wherever she needs it.
posted by AppleTurnover at 2:53 AM on February 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

I too disagree with your diagnosis of this guy being abusive: this seems to be more about a combination of you being convinced he mirrors your own previous abusive behaviors, your feeling justified in running your friend's life, plus you just don't like him. (Or perhaps you resent someone else having influence on "your" friend?)

And the fact that you're trying to control your friend like this --- you know better than she does when it comes to what kind of boyfriend she should have! --- means you've still got a good long ways to go when it comes to cleaning up your own act. Unless and until she asks you for specific advice, you need to back way off and let your friend live her own life, whether it concerns her family, her job, or her love life.

I'm sorry if this isn't the answer you wanted, but the biggest problem with their relationship seems to be you.
posted by easily confused at 4:59 AM on February 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

Since I know she tends to listen to me and to trust my thoughts, should I make a bigger effort to convince her to leave this guy?

That is the last thing you should dream of doing under any circumstances. All you will do is make yourself into a handy scapegoat for the both of them. And that's the good outcome; worst outcome is they break up, she's lonely and miserable, and they still both blame you.

Also, you should seriously butt out because nothing you have said about him sounds that bad; even the racism you're talking about sounds more like a projection on your part. If you want to help your friend, concentrate on bolstering her confidence and her ability to use her own judgement. I mean it's really, really silly not to go to the gym, even though you enjoy it, just because someone else isn't going. Why not simply encourage her to do stuff she enjoys regardless of anyone else? Focusing on this guy's faults as a reason for your friend to be miserable is actually quite dis-empowering.

It's extremely undermining to tell an adult what to do all the time. And actually, so much of your question is guesswork and drama. Perhaps you are both really young?

Summing up: let your friend get on with her life, be there to listen, stop projecting your own stuff onto her relationship; and stop telling her what to do.
posted by glasseyes at 5:16 AM on February 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

You're overinvested in this, and it's not consistent with a friend relationship. You're taking a lot of her inventory for her and deciding how she should feel about it. It's not your life to lead. Detach. You're meddling in her life and trying to direct the course of her affairs. This isn't your work to do. If she asks your opinion, you can tell her outright - but please stop trying to manipulate her into doing what you think is best.

It sounds like it's difficult for you to recognize appropriate boundaries. I'm going to be the one in this thread to say that therapy - for you - could help with that.
posted by Miko at 7:08 AM on February 16, 2014 [13 favorites]

I am another person telling you that you need to check your behaviour. Your actions sound exactly like my abusive ex-boyfriend. He tried to separate me from friends, and then family, and then ultimately was physically abusive. I am lucky I got out before it was really bad. It started like this though -he would tell me how the guy I was with was so bad for me, then it moved on to how he was interested in me, then it moved on to how he could no longer just be friends with me as I "destroyed my life". The behaviour on the part of her current BF does not sound abusive, it sounds like he is a young guy who is socially awkward. Your "she listens to me", "I know what's best", "she can't tell her own mind" thoughts are much more frightening, and she should be a lot more wary of you than the guy she is dating.

This question scares the hell out of me, because of what I have been through. No, you should not try to convince her to bail on this relationship, you should step away from her, and get therapy.
posted by kellyblah at 7:40 AM on February 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Step back. This is not your job. Just be her friend.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:42 AM on February 16, 2014

I reccomend reading Helping Her Get Free: A Guide for Families and Friends of Abused Women and to show her this Ted Talk.
posted by Sophont at 8:29 AM on February 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Her boyfriend sounds like either he's a controlling asshole or super immature. Either way, not a good match for your friend, who both needs to find stability for herself and then find someone else more stable. I have no idea why the fact that you, the poster, were once romantically interested in this girl changes ANYTHING about the boyfriend's behavior-- saying that he'd break up if she stopped sleeping with him, that he *used* to be racist toward Asian people, and that she should keep going to the gym while he does nothing == dumbass jerk.

Now, you shouldn't be "controlling" her either, but it doesn't really sound like you are. You might be too personally invested to really help her here, but that's true in almost every friendship tangent to an abusive relationship. There is no doubt in my mind that the guy she's dating is controlling and at LEAST borderline abusive, but definitely unhealthy for her right now. You have that right. If she asks for your support, give it to her.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:57 AM on February 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I spent a lot of last year trying to convince a friend to leave her extremely abusive husband. All my arguing about how he was wrong for her and how she deserved beetter did exactly zero. In the end, what actually helped -- and this was something I learned from an AskMe thread that I can't find now, as well as from reading Helping Her Get Free (which sophont mentions) -- was finding ways to support her in seeing herself as competent and capable in general. For example, I pointed out what an incredible challenge it had been to put herself through nursing school as a single mom -- and how she and her daughter had not only survived those challenges, but had in fact thrived.

She didn't need to hear what she should do. She needed to hear what she could do.
posted by scody at 11:47 AM on February 16, 2014 [14 favorites]

You're her backup plan. She's playing you, man. Not because she's necessarily a bad person, probably she's not even doing it as part of a huge plan, but there it is. This is classic manipulative behavior. She implies all this horrible stuff and that she can't get away from him so that when/if she (or he) decide(s) to jump ship, your ego will remain intact (after all, he was abusive and she couldn't leave, it's not that she prefers him to you...) and she won't have worry about being alone.

I mean, look, nothing you've said says "abuse" to me. Many, many people might offhandedly imply that if they weren't having sex with someone they'd break up with them, because to most people sex is part of a romantic relationship. The "used to be racist" thing could be a shitty, tactless thing for him to say but abuse is more than being tactless and you kind of dance around what was actually said and whether you actually heard it and the whole thing is not convincing. The gym thing sounds spun quite a bit. He wants her to go to the gym and he's allegedly this controlling guy, and her repsonse--despite liking the gym allegedly--is to not go? It just does not add up, but it does make her look blameless for not going to the gym (an interesting coincidence!) Not that anyone needs to go to the gym anyway...

That doesn't mean that her subjective experience is not that she feels horrible and awful in this relationship. She might feel horrible in this relationship. However, I don't think it's because this guy is awful and she listens to you but can't quite break away...I think it's because she's from a shitty family and has a lot of shitty habits about relating to people that she will eventually mature out of, or get therapy to deal with. But you're not her therapy, you're not her therapist. Don't feel responsible for her.

Meanwhile, she's probably telling this guy that you're controlling her, or bossy, or that you have a thing for her but she feels bad for you or you're controlling so she can't really break off the friendship, etc.'ll note that people here are even thinking poorly of you based on this situation that she has drawn you into! You can't win this one, man.

Look up triangulation and take a big, big step back.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:47 AM on February 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

Triangulation can also be used as a label for a form of "splitting" in which one person plays the third family member against one that he or she is upset about. This is playing the two people against each other, but usually the person doing the splitting will also engage in character assassination, only with both parties.

From the Wikipedia page about triagulation. I would bet you cash money that this is what's going on here. Again, I don't think she's an evil person, I think she has a lot of shit going on that is leading her to rope you into this unhealthy dynamic. Either way, though, you need to take a big step back for your own sake.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:53 AM on February 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I DO think this sounds like the beginnings of a potentially abusive situation. Her vulnerability due to her family situation, the mention of past racism (a veiled threat) hrr quitting the job while she's with him and on and on. Your instincts are probably right. Be supportive. Listen when she needs to talk. Continue to help her build self esshe'steem. Let her know she's a worthwhile person. Good luck and be careful.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 12:16 PM on February 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree that you need to step back and not give advice.

Don't encourage her to leave, but you can tell her if she every feels unsafe, she can call you and you will take her somewhere safe. NOT stay with you!

One thing you can do is encourage her to think critically about her relationship by asking her, "What would you tell someone in your shoes to do in these circumstances? It doesn't matter what I think. It's what you think."

It doesn't matter what you think is best for her. She's an adult and can make her own (good) decisions. Tell her you trust her to do that.
posted by BlueHorse at 2:02 PM on February 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

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