Supporting depressed friend in abusive relationship, and protecting self
February 4, 2017 6:41 AM   Subscribe

Dear friend of many years is in what I would term an emotionally abusive relationship, but whilst she will vent to me about the struggles in her daily life, has no plans to leave it, seek therapy or change the status quo. How can I support her whilst protecting my own sanity, as constantly having the same conversation with varying details of awfulness is wearing me down?

Friend E, a wonderful caring woman full of joie de vivre, met partner B (also female) eight years ago when B was four months' (accidentally) pregnant and in a very vulnerable housing situation. After a whirlwind romance, the two moved in together and have ended up co-parenting B's child.

Mutual friends of the two warned E away from B during the early months of their relationship, however during her pregnancy and when I first was introduced to her, B seemed very caring and the relationship seemed positive.

Since baby M was about six weeks old, B's true personality began to reveal itself and the relationship has lurched from one shit show to the next:

>> B is diagnosed as bipolar, which is not a personal failing, but rejects all forms of therapy and goes off her medication regularly. When not on the meds, she's either glued to the TV or out on alcoholic benders, with no one having any idea where she is. B attempted violent suicide last year, during which she had to be restrained by the police.
>> B is emotionally abusive towards E in my opinion: saying that E only stays in the relationship because of the child (which, unfortunately, has come to have a grain of truth to it) and if they split up then E will never see the child again, belittling E's talents and desires, sabotaging E's friendships, checking up on E constantly, expecting E to run the house and childcare whilst B languishes on the sofa watching sport all day.
>> Baby M is now seven years old and I have seen E perform perhaps 80% of the emotional and physical labour of raising her. E loves this child dearly and would do anything for her. In recently years I have witnessed B subtly 'training' M to disrespect E to the point where the child will no longer listen to her instructions, laughs cruelly at her weight and looks, and, most worryingly, will physically attack E with nails and teeth as well as random implements if E tries to get her to cooperate (e.g. trying to enforce a bedtime before 10pm by physically removing the child's iPad.) These tantrums are happening on a daily basis.

Child behaviourists are involved with M, because of a physical disorder she has which can affect moods, however with strangers and other members of her family M is nice as pie. E is worried that if the authorities find out about the true situation at home then the child may be removed from them and B will attempt suicide again.

I have seen E transform from a happy, wonderful, kind individual with many hopes and dreams into a stressed, anxious, depressed and shouty wreck, who's just holding it together day to day and is always tired. I never dreamed that I would ever see her yell at a child, but the last couple of times I've visited their house she and M have ended up in vicious arguments over M refusing many many gentle requests to put the iPad down, come away from the TV, go to bed, etc etc.

I am the only one of our friends that knows the details of this situation and witnessed it deteriorate over the last seven years. I have been sworn to secrecy. I feel powerless to offer E anything but my support and am trying to maintain a relationship with B and M as well so that the family doesn't end up completely isolated. I have expressed to E many times that the situation is intolerable, that no one would blame her for leaving it, that she has my complete support no matter what she decides to do and that I feel that it is imperative that she seek therapy for herself (which she resists). She says that without me she doesn't know how she'd cope.

I spoke to her on the phone before writing this question and am utterly depressed by the whole tangle. If you've experienced the same issue, supporting someone you love through a time of abuse and powerless to help, all suggestions welcome. Thanks for reading.
posted by doornoise to Human Relations (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Further point: E and B are not married and E has no legal rights relating to the child.
posted by doornoise at 6:53 AM on February 4, 2017

I would say one of the best things you can do is try to bring a bit of joy into her life. If you can get her out of her situation for a bit of time (I know she won't leave her present situation, but she can escape for a few hours with you, maybe?) and let her have some good times here and there. Sometimes, using the good, happy times as stones to cross a terrible, sad river come in very handy.
posted by xingcat at 7:10 AM on February 4, 2017 [5 favorites]

E should consult a lawyer. She might have rights to the child based on the length of time they've been together.
posted by k8t at 7:35 AM on February 4, 2017 [7 favorites]

My wife had a friend in a very similar situation, with a partner who was abusive and emotionally manipulative and just a horror show of a person. Without getting into too many details, the only way forward my wife could see was to simply let that friend go. After years of daily tearful phone calls and going to their house to witness screaming matches and things being thrown and threats being made and worse, she finally decided that her own sanity and peace of mind was more important that being the dumping ground for her friend's relationship problems, especially since her friend flat-out refused all offers of help or assistance to leave the relationship or go to counseling or do... anything.

Doing this was very stressful to her, and very painful to her, because she felt that she was abandoning her friend in her time of need, even though this "time of need" had been going on for nearly a decade. It probably took my wife six months from the time she made the decision to cut her friend out of her life to actually doing it, and she would cry about it and worry about it and question herself about it on a daily basis. Even after the fact, she would still send e-mails once every six weeks or so or try to check in with some mutual friends for any news, but she forced herself to keep her distance.

And you know what? Life went on. The world didn't end. The friend found someone else to dump all her problems on, who also eventually dropped her, and so on, until the friend finally ended the relationship and got help and moved on with her own life.

At the end of the day, no matter how much you care about your friend or want them to be well and happy, there is only so much you can do if they won't do things for themselves or put themselves first. You can't fix this if they won't fix it, and it's not fair that your friend is dumping all this on you, or swearing you to secrecy, or telling you that you are their only coping mechanism. You've been a good friend to this person, and stood by them, but there is only so much that you can do for them. How much of your own life is this pulling you away from? What are you missing out on in your life because of all the stress and anxiety you have about her life? How is that fair to you?

If you don't feel like you can just drop this friendship, maybe try to set some boundaries. Say, "...if you want to talk about X, that's fine, but if you're calling to vent about your relationship, I need to go. We've been over this a million times and if you aren't willing to make a change I can't help you." Maybe that will start to give you some distance and allow you to get a better focus on how you can help yourself, and maybe that will allow you to find a different way to help her or be there for her.
posted by ralan at 8:10 AM on February 4, 2017 [26 favorites]

I totally agree that there's only so much one can do when their friends lean on you for venting, but resist help. Do take care of yourself.

If your friend resists therapy because she's afraid of her partner finding out, could you offer to be the excuse? "Oh, I was out with doornoise." If it's about cost or finding out about therapy through shared finances, could you offer to help pay?
posted by advicepig at 8:24 AM on February 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've been through this with two friends. I held on to one of the friendships and let the other one go. For me, all you can do is remind them that they're worth far more than they have and be prepared for them to not listen. Repeatedly. Try to remember what you can and can't control. At the end of the day, E is a grown woman who has made a choice and even if it's a bad one, it's hers to make. Personally, that was and is really hard for me. I was so sure if my friend would just leave, she would feel better. But that's not up to me.

If I could do it again, I would completely avoid any judgement of the partner and focus on building my friend up. When you judge who she chose, it can and probably will make her feel defensive and protective of B. That's the opposite of what you want. When she complains about what partner is doing, say I wouldn't put up with that from my husband, I'm sorry you're going through this. Tell her if what's she's saying sounds off to you gently and then really listen to what she has to say. She needs to work it out for herself. If you mean it, tell her you're willing to give her a space to go and give her someone to vent to. But if it gets to be too much, it's okay to redirect her to something more neutral. Try to spend as much time with her as you can. Really be prepared to be disappointed, because it's not up to you and E is going through a lot and it's hard to manage even with all of the help in the world.
posted by Bistyfrass at 8:34 AM on February 4, 2017

Maybe for your personal piece of mind, insist on stepping back from the details of all this. Yes, it's awful, and you may be the only one outside the family who is a aware of just how serious the situation is, i.e., she stands to lose access to this vulnerable child. But some of the other details are not essential for you to know in order to offer support. It's just going to wear you down to be absorbed in the details of screen time, bedtimes, medications and things like that. Clearly, you are going to be aware of these issues just by spending time with them, but your friend doesn't need to prove she is in the right, or recruit you to her side, or anything like that. You're on her side. And right now, it sounds like she needs legal advice more than she needs a sounding board. Some of the stuff that is going on, she should probably be documenting rather than venting to you about it.
posted by BibiRose at 8:40 AM on February 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

She says that without me she doesn't know how she'd cope.

That's her problem, not yours. It is perfectly fine to say to her: "you know, I am very tired of having this conversation, and I'm not going to have it anymore." Maybe she'll learn other, better coping skills than just dumping it all on you.
posted by Melismata at 9:00 AM on February 4, 2017 [9 favorites]

You are duty bound to take care of yourself. Two wrecks emerging from this situation would be twice the damage. If you can be her friend and maintain your sang froid, wonderful. But it sounds as if your powerlessness is eating you up. Either find a way to detach your relationship with her from being engaged in her home life-- and that is something you'd have to consciously do and explain and get her buy in on-- or tell her why this friendship has gotten too overwhelming to maintain. I would still offer the big lifeline either way, meaning do tell her that if she is ever able to detach from this toxic setting you are there for her.
posted by bearwife at 10:29 AM on February 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

E's situation sucks, but she's actively contributing to it by deciding to stay. I understand she will argue (and has perhaps convinced you) that she has no choices, but that's just not true here.

She's keeping the situation at home a secret because she's afraid the child might be removed. Think about that. Seriously. The child SHOULD be removed. Staying is definitely not in the best interests of that poor kid.

E is committed to this situation, even if she doesn't realize it, and she's using you as an emotional labor supply (again probably without realizing it).

You need to set your own boundaries. You are not her therapist or a punching bag. She is basically asking you to help carry this enormous, damaging, and unnecessary weight, and refusing to consider the possibility that there is a process by which she can put the weight down.

She's afraid of the change and of facing whatever it is that kept her in a relationship with a nightmare human to the point where she became attached to the kid, and she's asking you to enable her to continue to avoid dealing with that.

The kid deserves a better shot. E's choices are enabling further child abuse. Don't enable E.
posted by schadenfrau at 10:34 AM on February 4, 2017 [12 favorites]

The Friendship Blog might be helpful in addition to all the good advice on this page.
posted by Elsie at 10:35 AM on February 4, 2017

I faced a similar situation with a friend a few years ago and you definitely have my sympathies. In my case what helped was realizing that providing an endless stream of sympathy and emotional support was not only draining me and threatening our friendship, it was keeping her from getting to the point where she recognized the need to make changes.

I finally sat her down and said, "hey, I am always here if you need concrete help to do something, like move out, see a lawyer, or get into therapy. But this person's behaviour is bothering me even more than it seems to be bothering you, or you wouldn't still be in the relationship. I can't be your sounding board on this stuff anymore. I am not going to talk about anymore unless you want to do something real. When we are together, we need to focus on other things." Then, when she started in, I would say"whoa, are you looking for help [to take one of the those measures]? When she said no, I insisted on changing the subject.

It wasn't easy, but it did allow me to keep the connection and my own sanity. I ended a few phone calls and coffee dates abruptly before she accepted that I was serious. But, after a few months, she brought up the subject and did want to do something about it, for real, and later thanked me for the reality check.
posted by rpfields at 10:53 AM on February 4, 2017 [34 favorites]

rpfields' script is brave and true. It may, of course, lead to the end of the friendship, if your only value to E is as a free emotional dumping ground. But if that's true you're better out of it. And if it's not true, you'll be able to focus your friendship on the elements that are mutually positive, rather than the one that sees you pointlessly stressed and depleted.

By the way, she is doing the child no favors by sticking around and helping B model abuse in the home.

[edit: I missed this part at first I have been sworn to secrecy. Are you kidding me. The ONLY time it is ok to be "sworn to secrecy" with regard to relationships is if the secret is a surprise party.]
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:58 AM on February 4, 2017 [14 favorites]

In my twenties I had a friend who did nothing but complain about the abusive relationship she was in. In the end I had to walk away from a six-year friendship because I gradually realized that she treated me like a servant, not only in the way she expected me to have the exact same conversation with her countless times, but in general, i.e., she never listened to me talk about my life any more, when we got together we did only the things she wanted to do, she'd be late meeting me and not apologize and then expect me to listen to her bitch about how other people had been late for her, she kept asking me to help her paint her apartment when she got around to it when meanwhile I was working on the condo I had just bought and she never once offered to help me in any way, she asked me to make her some fancy dresses for her ballroom dancing hobby (which would be many hours of work) in return for a thrift shop jacket that she'd bought for $6 (we had found the jacket in question together and I insisted she take it).

Relationships that are too one-sided are unhealthy and unsustainable. You deserve to get something from the relationship, and enabling your friend's use of you isn't good for her either. You need to take a step back and evaluate this friendship in terms of your own rights and needs. Do you enjoy spending time with her at all? Does she listen to you? Is she ever there for you? If the well is dry, you may need to walk away. If you decide the friendship is worth preserving, you need to think about what you need and what you are and are not willing to do, and set the boundaries accordingly. For instance, you could tell her you're not willing to discuss her relationship with her any more and say that the appropriate thing for her to do is to have those conversations with a therapist instead. If you do that, you can offer to help her get into therapy for her by, say, finding her contact information for a good therapist or acting as her cover for therapy appointments, but you should insist that she respect your refusal to discuss her partner, and if she keeps trying to do it anyway, say firmly that you need to end the telephone call/visit. You can be a good friend by supporting her in constructive, manageable ways, but she needs to be a good friend too. She needs to be companionable. She needs to not waste your time on useless conversations or burden you with her problems to the extent that it's a threat to your mental health.

Good luck. I don't think my friendship was salvageable (we haven't spoken in 15 years, but I google my former friend occasionally to make sure that sociopath she's married to hasn't killed her, and it turns out she's now a Trump supporter who thinks refugees are terrorists and Black Lives Matter is racist), but I do very much regret not having handled things better. I enabled her selfish, dysfunctional behaviour, and now she's a hateful bigot. Maybe if I'd called her out on her behaviour and insisted on her treating me with respect and consideration she would have learned at least a little self-awareness and agency.
posted by orange swan at 12:00 PM on February 4, 2017 [7 favorites]

Here's an old comment from me about what helped when I was in a bad relationship.

But I agree that it's fine to draw a line and say you won't talk about it anymore.

I'd also point out to her that things are getting worse, that you're worried about how she seems less happy and that her own behavior is becoming inappropriate because she's so far across the line of what she can handle. Sometimes people stay in bad relationships because they think they can absorb everything and make things okay, but that's based on a warped sense of one's power and control. Nobody can do that forever. It might help to point out to her that she's overestimating her own abilities and she needs to get help for the child's sake.
posted by salvia at 4:59 PM on February 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would suggest that you strongly encourage E to get counseling to help her figure out how to navigate the really difficult, seemingly no-win situation that she has found herself. (Good) Counseling can help her how to figure out from being a anxious, depressed shouty mess back into true self in whatever way works best for her.

Furthermore, a professional therapist can help her in ways you can't - it is very fair to say "I know this important to you but I'm not a professional and I'm finding hard to listen when I can't help."

Maybe you can sell it as helping her deal with the child and/or improve her relationship with her partner - thing she might be more willing to buy into than getting help for herself.
posted by metahawk at 5:12 PM on February 4, 2017

My friend just couldn't wait to get together with me and "catch up". That meant two hours or more of her getting progressively more intoxicated while telling me how awful her husband treated her. (Our husbands were new, fast friends,) I lasted about two years before I realized that by listening and giving her an outlet, I was actually making the problem worse. She (and they) needed professional counseling, and I am in no way qualified to give it to them. She never took my advice, or took any steps to improve her situation. We had the tough conversation where I set my boundaries, and she did not respect them. At all. Long story, but after the next really bad incident, I just....dropped her. Quit taking her phone calls. And sure enough, she survived just fine. I'm guessing she found a new "best friend" to unload on.

It was really hard for me, I'm not a hard-hearted person. But I felt as if she was "stealing" my peace of mind, and that I cared more about fixing her situation than she did. I just couldn't do it any longer. Many of my friends are in situations like this, too, and it's hard. I've had blowback from others with mental health issues (some here on the green) that they do need support from friends, and there are no easy answers. Just do what you need to do to keep yourself healthy. Good luck.
posted by raisingsand at 6:16 PM on February 4, 2017 [6 favorites]

Thanks for your responses, everyone. To be honest, I can't really face reading or thinking about this situation at the moment, but I'll be coming back to absorb them once I feel ready. Thanks again for your time!
posted by doornoise at 9:04 AM on February 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm in a better state of mind, so returned to take in the advice. Thanks so much all of you. Much food for thought.
posted by doornoise at 10:03 AM on March 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

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