Supporting someone in a maybe-abusive relationship
February 14, 2017 4:20 PM   Subscribe

My cousin "Jane" is in a relationship that sets off a lot of red flags for emotional abuse. I want Jane to know that I am there for her, but I am sure that she would distance herself from me if I expressed concern about the relationship. What, if anything, can I do or say?

Jane is in her early 30s, as am I. She is married to someone who may or may not be abusive. Again, I don't know if the relationship is abusive - there are red flags such as Jane becoming more & more isolated from family/friends and Jane seeming subdued in an unhappy way.

I am relatively close to Jane's parents and siblings, though I don't talk to them particularly regularly. I used to be quite close with my Jane (when we were kids), but haven't seen her very frequently for a few years - no one in our family has. I do still see her occasionally, and we are friends on social media.

In general, is there anything I can do or say to Jane that would be supportive / helpful if it is a bad relationship? When a different family member critized Jane's relationship and husband (then boyfriend), it went very poorly - this was years ago and the family member's relationship with Jane has never recovered.

Also, any advice about how I should act toward her husband? No one in Jane's family likes her husband, and they hide that with varying degrees of success. The last time I saw them, I talked to the husband for a while and he seemed to warm up a little to me. I'm not sure if it's better to try and be friends / friendly with him - normally I would, of course, but I definitely wouldn't want Jane to think that I'd take his side in a conflict.

Note: I'm not interested in speculation about whether the relationship is actually abusive. I'm looking for ways to be supportive that are appropriate and helpful either way.
posted by insectosaurus to Human Relations (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
- there are red flags such as Jane becoming more & more isolated
I do still see her occasionally, and we are friends on social media.

The first thing you need to do is just re-establish a connection. You need to be as normal about this as possible. See if you can increase your contact a bit via social media.

Merely reducing the social isolation by saying "hi" and sharing articles or gifs or whatever with her can have value. Abusive relationships follow a slippery slope. Things typically gradually erode until it gets seriously bad. By reaching out to her, you can mitigate that process some.

Without good communication with her, you likely cannot help her. So if you hope to be supportive, just start by being friendly. Don't start by trying to "fix" her or "save" her. Just be friendly and try to increase the amount of communication you have with her in a way that is comfortable for both parties: you and her.

This will likely be a long, slow process. If you actually want to do something healthy for her, that is the best approach anyway.
posted by Michele in California at 4:56 PM on February 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

HECK YES, BE FRIENDS WITH THE HUSBAND if you can. In my experience, abusers want to drive off anyone unsympathetic (seeming) to them. You are correct in reasonably assuming you will get the boot from Jane's life if you say anything. Believe me, if you can pull it off, you want to appear like you get along with him. It's a tricky thing to do and it helps if you come off as nonthreatening (I sure do), but it enables you to still be in Jane's life while she hopefully eventually figures out for herself if she wants in or out.

This is a proceed with caution situation. I would not bad mouth him at this time. Be sympathetic if she says stuff about what he did to her today, but don't be all "Leave! Leave! You can stay at my place!" unless she brings it up herself. Let her bring up issues and say things like, "That sounds really crappy, I'm sorry he's acting like that" (or whatever), but don't condemn. Just kind of gently point out that things don't always have to be that way.

It's a tricky road. I've walked it a few times. Good luck.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:18 PM on February 14, 2017 [6 favorites]

Until you re-establish a relationship, you need to let go of the narrative in your head. My grandmother is convinced this has happened with her children. In reality, she's just terrible at sharing her children with other people. So she's terrible to the spouse and then acts surprised when her children decide to spend more time with the spouse's family.

Jane is getting something out of this relationship. And that's true if he's grooming her for emotional abuse or if he's a great guy who doesn't deserve mistreatment from his in-laws. So if you want to reconnect with Jane, really work to see the appeal for her. Don't judge the relationship or make your own opinions about the spouse. Appreciate that she is getting something out of it and reflect that reality back to her. By knowing that you understand her relationship, she'll feel comfortable confiding in you. I've never confided in someone who dislikes my boyfriend, so be as kind as you can muster.

It will be slow. And if it is an unhealthy relationship, that means you'll hear about behavior that isn't acceptable. But I'd like to caution you against being the savior because abusive relationships have a lot of backsliding. Your support should be unconditional and non-judgemental so that it's still there the fourth time she decides to break it off. (You may realize you can't emotionally be that person, and that's okay. But if the point is to be that person, turn off that instinct to provide advice)
posted by politikitty at 5:29 PM on February 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

All you can do is to connect with Jane. You don't need to criticize him or even have an opinion of him. Jane is her own distinct being, separate from her marriage.

It's troubling, but you don't really know. She could be subdued and distant because she doesn't enjoy hearing her family pick on her spouse. Or this could be the abusive relationship you fear. The only way you'll know is if you're close enough to Jane that she confides in you.

Connect. Really connect - not liking things on Facebook. Phone or visit. Invite for dinner.
posted by 26.2 at 5:37 PM on February 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

I will Nth that there can be lots of different reasons for a person's growing isolation. A really common one: People with health problems often become increasingly isolated due to their health issues. This is not necessarily something they advertise.

Alternately: She may not be as isolated as you think. She may just be running in new circles. If you are intentionally avoiding people because you don't get along with them, it is generally not a good idea to signal that you have a lively social life and are actively and intentionally avoiding them in specific. The "slow fade" is the generally recommended method for arranging that.

So you need to seriously drop your preconceptions here and make a genuine effort to get to know her again. Try to see her as a blank slate or a stranger. Try to not project a bunch of assumptions about her and her life onto the situation.
posted by Michele in California at 5:47 PM on February 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Many things are possible -- including that she might be depressed, and not abused. But it doesn't matter what's causing her to become isolated from family and subdued/unhappy. In any of these cases, it would be great if you reached out.

She's probably feeling alone. I agree that you should take gentle steps to get to know her. Some of your most effective tools can be mirroring and empathy, while advice is way at the bottom of the list. Mirroring is just stating back what she has said to you, perhaps in your own words. If she said, "I had a terrible day," you could say, oh...bad day, huh?" It sounds silly, but it gives an opening to say more. A little later you could tell her you hope tomorrow will be better -- but just leave things open at first.

Empathy might be -- "ugh, when I have a bad day the feelings and be hard to get away from." Sympathy: I'm sorry, that sounds very difficult.

Don't try to cheer her up. It's good to talk about yourself a little, and even to mention A BIT about some bad feelings of your own when the moment seems right...just to show that it's okay to talk about things other than pleasant stuff.

Take your time. Whether she's with a controlling partner, or ill, or anxious/depressed, it will take time for her to feel good about communicating with someone. She might be wary or just wanting to maintain her privacy, which can be hard when one shares info with a relative. You want to help, so take it slow and learn what kind of help she wants or needs.
posted by wryly at 6:57 PM on February 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Nthing the great advice in this thread to simply get to know her as a friend again. That alone can make a huge difference, no matter what's going on.

Talk to her as her. No need to bring her husband into it unless she does and genuinely wants your input.

I too would do my best to get to know her again in real life too, especially if you'd truly like that. Treat it as you would any friendship. See how & where things go from there.

As for more tangential "it could be anything" insight: families can be weird. I come from an abusive family, my younger brother got into a pretty bad relationship, and our abusive parents did not like her. A lot of people thought that meant my parents had realized their own abusiveness, when in fact, on their part, it was jealousy on losing control of my brother to a different controlling person. I've since witnessed maaaaany similar situations. The best you can do is to treat each individual as an individual – of course keeping in mind we're not islands unto ourselves. Assumptions about other relationships we're not privy to are more a reflection of our own relationships and experiences than they may be of actual reality.
posted by fraula at 5:59 AM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

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