Supporting a friend in abusive marriage
February 14, 2017 4:41 AM   Subscribe

How can I best support a friend in an abusive (same-sex) marriage?

I (female) have been acquaintances/colleagues with Hannah for about three years, but a couple of months ago we learned that we both had similar recent struggles with alcohol. Since then, we’ve been hanging out about once a week, usually attending 12-step meetings together but also going on occasional group outings with other mutual friends. We’ve shared how grateful we both feel to have connected with each other at a time when we each really needed mutual understanding and support.

Hannah and her wife Sarah (whom I’ve not met) have been together for over three years, and got married a little over a year ago. I didn’t know all that much about their relationship until recently but something about the dynamic between them has always made me feel uneasy. Since we’ve become closer friends, Hannah has been opening up to me about just how bad things are. Things are really bad. Some examples (TW):
  • Sarah has never physically assaulted Hannah. However, Sarah frequently (like weekly) throws and breaks things during arguments. Then Hannah ends up calming her down and comforting her and generally capitulating to whatever the argument was about.
  • Hannah had a severe eating disorder for about 15 years. Sarah, who has admitted to being “fat phobic,” monitors everything that Hannah eats and drinks, using Hannah’s alcohol issues as a justification. She harangues Hannah when Sarah thinks she’s not exercising enough or if she gains any weight at all. (Hannah is VERY thin.) When Hannah objects, Sarah tells her she’s being too sensitive.
  • Hannah takes antidepressants. Sarah has been badgering her to stop taking them due to I guess a philosophical objection to the idea of antidepressants and "concerns about long-term effects." Hannah doesn’t want to stop taking them because she’s afraid of becoming depressed again. Sarah keeps badgering her and Hannah’s about ready to just give in.
  • Sarah refuses to take responsibility for any of these things, refuses to consider therapy, and blames her outbursts and anxiety on Hannah.
At first, I intentionally under-reacted to what Hannah was telling me because I wanted her to feel comfortable being honest with me. Eventually, though, I (kindly and supportively, I hope) shared that I thought Sarah’s behavior was unacceptable and dangerous and that I was worried about Hannah’s safety. Hannah actually said she was really grateful to hear that, because she doesn’t have many people to talk to, other than Sarah and Hannah's therapist, who is “very pro-Sarah” (!!!!!). (Apparently Sarah has been pretty awful to Hannah’s other friends and Hannah doesn’t see them very often anymore.) However, she doesn’t feel ready to leave because she’s fully financially dependent on Sarah, who’s paying for her graduate school tuition. She also doubts her ability to function independently without someone like Sarah monitoring her all the time. AND. They just bought a house in Sarah’s hometown across the country (where Hannah knows no one) and plan to move there when Hannah finishes school next December. AND. Sarah (who is in her late 30’s) just started artificial insemination treatments.

A couple of weeks ago, Hannah and I were out late with another friend when Hannah received a very, very long text from Sarah and she basically ran back home. Since then, she’s been less responsive than normal to texts, and has politely declined to attend our usual 12-step meetings. She might just be busy, but I’m worried that something else could be going on and I’m hesitant to ask her about it over text (is it crazy of me to worry that Sarah might be monitoring them??). I don’t want to be pushy or overreact or transgress Hannah’s boundaries, but I also don’t want to abandon her at a time when she really needs a friend (and I need one, too!).

Should I continue to reach out? How much/how often? What’s the best way for me to continue to be a supportive friend without imposing additional pressure on her? Not surprisingly, one of my fears is that Hannah is withdrawing because I reacted too strongly or emotionally to something she told me - how can I not do that, especially when blaring sirens start to go off in my head when I think about Sarah getting pregnant? I'm under no illusions that I can convince Hannah to leave Sarah (especially when her therapist is encouraging her not to (!!!!)), and as long as Hannah stays in the relationship, I don't want anything I say or do to make things worse for her.

Hannah and I have a couple of mutual friends through our shared activity, although she’s been confiding in me the most lately. How much would be appropriate to share with them? Should I ask them to try reaching out as well?

Thank you in advance!!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This is so tough. Thank you for being a caring friend for Hannah. The pattern that you outline from Hannah's words is clear - Sarah is making Hannah's life smaller - one of the classic signs of an abusive relationship. But regardless of our external defining of the situation, what your friend is telling you is that their partner is not treating them with the love and respect that they deserve. The behavior is more important than the definition. Another term that people often use is "coercive control." Physical violence is not a required element of coercive control but clearly receives the greatest attention from the courts and media. Control is a central element. Hannah may feel that something is off, but perhaps does not identify what is happening as abusive because of the lack of physical violence (although I would personally label the breaking of things as threatening) or because many LGBTQ identified people do not believe that "domestic violence" is possible in their communities, or for another reason that you have no information about. People often talk about the fraudulent "lesbian utopia" that is supposed to exist when "women love women." Statistics show that LGBT people have rates of abuse at the same or greater levels than heterosexual women in differently gendered relationships. She clearly does feel that something is off. And as her friend, it is important to remain a non-judgmental listener if you want to be that person in her life.

Yes, it is possible and not over-the-top to think that Sarah may be monitoring Hannah's texts, and potentially her emails and other social media as a form of "tech abuse." If you have the opportunity to speak with Hannah privately, again, and she raises this or you find a natural way to do so, you can share some safety tips with her.

As far as what you can do, keep showing up in the ways that you feel are safe and healthy for you. From what you say, Sarah is already isolating Hannah. Being present, being a non-judgmental open ear, may be one of the few outlets Hannah has, especially now that her electronic communications may be monitored. Even if she cannot attend meetings, having a 12-step connection may help her stay grounded. As far as other friends, you could ask them if they have seen Hannah lately, been hanging out with her. Gather information rather than disclosing if that is something that Hannah would not want.

In terms of the therapist, this may be a poorly trained therapist who is missing the unhealthy dynamic between Hannah and Sarah. But at the same time, and this is one of those pieces that can be so hard to accept, Hannah may be/still be in love with Sarah. She may want it to get better. She may be protecting Sarah in their sessions and may be minimizing her narrative for that purpose. Hannah may be afraid to say things because of the potential repercussions from Hannah. Again, we do not know why this therapist is positioning themselves as they are, but is tough to witness for you without a doubt.

If you want additional, queer/LGBT specific advice in being a support to Hannah, I recommend contacting the following two places (since I do not know where you are). Many "mainstream" DV organizations are wonderful places, but do not always have the training to provide LGBT-specific advice (there are many commonalities across populations of survivors, but also key differences due to power, privilege, oppression - here is one example of an LGBTQ specific power and control wheel that people often use to discuss some of the power dynamics at play in an abusive relationship between similarly-gendered people).

The Northwest Network
The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP)

NCAVP has local members organizations so if you are fortunate enough to be in a state where one is located, you could contact them yourself.

I again want to reiterate self-care for yourself. This is incredibly tough to witness - someone you care about is telling you that they are being hurt and that they feel safe confiding difficult information with you is powerful. Many complicated feelings can arise. Seek out the support and help that you need, too. Decide for yourself what is safe for you.
posted by anya32 at 6:39 AM on February 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

Your local lgbt center may have resources.
posted by brujita at 8:17 AM on February 14, 2017

I do think you could probably send her a "is everything okay? I'd love to catch up" text, but I would assume your communications are being monitored. It sounds like your heart is in the right place and like you have astute instincts about this situation. But if it helps, here's an old comment from me about supporting people in abusive relationships. Also, scroll down there to my other comment about the value of just being friends. I think it's easy to underestimate the value of just doing what it takes to avoid letting the abuse destroy your basic friendship.
posted by salvia at 10:54 AM on February 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Work on being good to her and respectful of her when you do see her.

You need to be the one person in her life that honors her fundamental right to choose. Whether or not she tries to get pregnant is not your decision to make. Whether or not she stays in her marriage is her decision.

You need to treat her well when you are together and be the one person in her life not trying to decide anything for her. You trying to tell her to not get pregnant or not stay with Sarah is the same thing everyone else does to her: It just reinforces the idea that she is too screwed up to make her own decisions and must do what someone else says.

Instead, practice radical acceptance and affirm her at every opportunity. Assume that she has good reasons for her seemingly bad choices. Assume that she chose the things she chose because her other options were far, far worse. Assume she is doing the best she can with the hand life dealt her.

When she says things like "I can't leave because I can't function without someone like Sarah," say something like "It must be very scary to feel that way" or "When faced with a choice between two evils, it is wise to choose the lesser evil." Make no commentary on which path is the lesser evil in your opinion.

I know of someone who got divorced because they had a friend who treated them less shittily than they had ever been treated before. It taught them by example what no words could teach them: That they didn't have to take this shit because not all people will treat you this shittily.

I also was eventually able to get my act together and get divorced. It did not help me to have other people treat me like an idiot for staying. That just deepened my poor self esteem. It was much more valuable to me to have people respect my right to choose even when they didn't understand the choice.
posted by Michele in California at 11:03 AM on February 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

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