How do I help my niece get out of a relationship that's turning abusive?
August 8, 2018 2:55 PM   Subscribe

My niece is 21 and has been known to self-cut and engage in otherwise deliberately self-harming behaviour. However she is now getting involved with a guy who is Bad News personified, and despite acknowledging both privately and publicly that the relationship is abusive, she keeps returning to him in apparent efforts to keep harming herself.

Like I said in the summary above, my niece (let's call her "Simone") has always been somewhat self-destructive. However up until this Spring she had really been turning her life around — great full-time permanent employment, a seemingly healthy long-term relationship, etc.

She began to have anxiety attacks and miss work days. Her doctor had her on a bunch of different drugs attempting to reduce the panic, but the medications were making her feel worse. Through this period Simone broke up with her live-in boyfriend of a few years, and he moved out. She also lost an 18-year old pet that had been her close companion since early childhood. She was brought to a crisis centre multiple times wanting to harm herself. After her boyfriend moved out, a friend-since-kindergarten ("Krista") moved in temporarily to help her pay the rent until the fall.

That's when my niece met "Zach" and shit just went sideways. Within 3 days, he was staying 24/7 at the apartment she shared with Krista and demanded that she change her facebook relationship status to say they were in a relationship. His explanation: he was tired of other guys messaging her because she was single.

Briefly interrupting the narrative for a few side notes about Zach: he has been a drug dealer and is affiliated somehow with a local gang. he is on probation/parole after recent time in jail — I haven't been able to ascertain whether drug dealing was the crime he did time for, but the public provincial Justice listings show that his release conditions include a curfew and no access to weapons. about a week before he met Simone, he got fired from his job and kicked out of his parents' house, so he is essentially homeless with no income.

Simone's mom, brother and I were a tad alarmed at the quickness of the relationship status change, but that changed to disgust when Zach posted a meme publicly on facebook and tagged Simone with the caption "textbook description of Simone." It talked about how this bitch gives great head, cooks, cleans, etc... just really classy stuff to read about one's niece.

Krista, the roommate who had dropped everything to go live in Simone's place and help pay the rent, began to be frustrated by Zach and his lowlife friends coming around all hours of the day and night, getting high and being loud/messy. She demanded that he stop staying there or she would have to leave. Simone made her choice and the guy fricken stayed. At this point, it had been exactly one week to the day since Simone and Zach met. Krista, a friend of 15+ years, packed her shit and moved out.

All of this was about a month ago now, and there's no way to really encapsulate the escalation of the situation in text form, but here goes my attempt.

My sister (Simone's mom) made her feelings about the relationship, and her concern for Simone's wellbeing, very well-known but Simone threw it back at her, reminding her of the things my sister had f-cked up over the years, and demanding that she allow Simone to make her own mistakes. She promised that she wasn't on any drugs (besides pot) and said her mom just had to trust her. All fair enough. Even as an over-protective uncle, at this point I could almost understand her p.o.v.

Then Simone tweeted that she was in an abusive relationship and felt completely f-cked up and didn't know what to do. I read that call-for-help tweet and contacted her by DM. I let her know I'd seen the tweet and would come help her anytime, day or night. Shortly thereafter she deleted her tweet and told me that she'd had a long talk with Zach and felt she had misinterpreted things. She begged me not to tell her mother or anybody else. I told her I would not, because I trusted her to do the right thing.

Over the couple weeks that followed, she claims she repeatedly attempted to break up with him but he refused to leave and eventually things would calm down again. He still regularly posts disgusting photos of himself cupping her ass and treating her like a total whore. His peeps are at the apartment all the time - Simone has lost track of day and night, she hasn't been at work in a month now (using anxiety as the medical reason).

She has repeatedly cancelled plans with other members of the family - ostensibly because she is sleeping during the day and up all night, but.... well anybody with a passing knowledge of Coercive Control, emotional abuse, the Helen Titchener story, etc. knows that playbook tactic #1 of coercive control is insidiously separating the victim from their family and friends.

The other day she showed up at my sister's house at 8:30am, smelling like a distillery and high on cocaine. She had to fess up about the coke because it was obvious she wasn't just drunk and high on weed.

Recently attempts have been made to have Simone's brother accompany her to the apartment to kick Zach out, but she always reneges on the idea at the last minute, says he made promises, he said things he's never said before, etc. There was even a time in these circumstances that Zach said "You can't make me leave." Like who the f-ck says that to someone they've known for under a month?!

She posts things on social media about how she's never laughed so hard in her life as she does with him, and that he's seen her through the good and the bad over all their time together (note: they'd known each other 3 weeks at the time of that particular masterpiece of a post). When confronted about that, she claimed that he "makes her" post those things. When asked how he makes her post things, she gets quiet or says I don't know.

Other desperate attempts were made by my sister and nephew to convince Simone to see sense and do the right thing. Yesterday my sister even got as far as hearing Simone say that she knows this is wrong and he's a bad guy but that she deserves to suffer through all this for being a horrible person.

Finally today is when I became desperate to deal with it, because my sister has actually begun to back off. She is at a point where she feels if she pushes any harder Simone will cut her out entirely, and then she won't be able to help at all.

I personally don't care right now - if I have to take actions that will make Simone disown me as her uncle in order to break her free of the guy, I will do so.

Searches of Zach's name on justice database shows not only his parole/probation, but also a protection order filed against him in 2015 by an ex-girlfriend. I looked up the ex-girlfriend on facebook and contacted her and this was our exchange:

ME: hi R______, you don't know me but i saw your name on the Justice website. my niece recently got involved with Zach L______, and I am afraid for her safety. when searching his name on the Justice website, i noticed that in 2014/2015, you requested a protection order from Zach. i realize this is none of my business, and if you don't wish to respond i will understand. i am just trying to help my niece and grasp what kind of danger she has put herself in. take care.

R: What’s your nieces name?

ME: simone. i don't even need details, just tell me if you think she'll be ok. i might not need to be worried at all.

R: Yeah. Well long story short I’m re-filling for the protection order. He is really messed up
He beat me for over a year, broke my foot, pulled a knife on myself and son and he’s been to jail on multiple occasions. He’s a drug dealer, alcoholic and is very manipulative and doesn’t respect women to say the least. I’d tell her to stay clear of him

ME: i'm very sorry 😞 and i appreciate you taking the time to respond. her mom and i are trying all we can to get her away.

R: Yeah he’s insane , I hope she doesn’t stick around him. Not good news. Has he hurt her?

ME: not that we know of, but he's using her apartment as a base for him and his friends, and keeps saying really possessive creepy things, so i want him gone yesterday.

R: Yes that sounds like him. He will control her and cut her off from everyone, I went through that for 3 years. He’s on parole as far as I know so a call to the police if he’s selling/doing anything illegal there may help.
His friends are bad news too.

ME: you are very lucky to have gotten out of that situation

R: Yes luckily. Myself and son

So what are my next steps? I don't feel like I have enough to go to the cops with — I can't prove he's dealing, only that he still hangs out with lowlifes. If anything I might get my niece in trouble instead of him.

My sister has also identified the concern that even if I could somehow get him locked back up, being involved with gangs, he might send someone after Simone (or any of us) in retribution.

I'm posting this here half to exorcise all the feelings, but also in hopes someone can respond who has either been through a similar experience or has knowledge about the psychological and legal (Canada) issues involved.

Love to all.
posted by isaacq to Human Relations (15 answers total)
You say: "despite acknowledging both privately and publicly that the relationship is abusive, she keeps returning to him in apparent efforts to keep harming herself."

I know that you and your family care deeply for Simone and are feeling desperate. The thing about abusive relationships is that they fuck with your mind, and it's going to probably take her many, many tries to finally get out. She doesn't want to be abused but has internalized it so much that it now feels like she deserves it. As someone who has been in abusive relationships before as well as someone who's been in your shoes, my heart goes out to her and you, too.

You also say: "Finally today is when I became desperate to deal with it, because my sister has actually begun to back off. She is at a point where she feels if she pushes any harder Simone will cut her out entirely, and then she won't be able to help at all.

I personally don't care right now - if I have to take actions that will make Simone disown me as her uncle in order to break her free of the guy, I will do so."

It's a bit of a two-pronged approach. Her mom backing off right now and your stepping up is probably a good thing because the old strategy wasn't working. Simone is an adult so the only thing that is going to get her away from him is help her feel empowered and, therefore, strong enough to leave on her own. As I said, it will probably take her many tries; the time someone leaves an abuser is also the most dangerous, unfortunately. You can help by telling her it isn't her fault every time she blames herself, that his behavior is bad, and that she's strong and can get away if and when she's ready. It gives her a break but also a chance to try herself, for herself. She's in power and you're the back-up! That you will pick up her any time of the day or night, and that she can always come to you. And that you love her so much because she is -- and always has been -- a wonderful person deserving of love and respect, and your very special niece. Perhaps you could offer to take her on a trip for a bit so she can have a change of scenery or even help her move completely far away. Ask her what SHE wants. She's probably hasn't been able to think of that for a long time, between this guy abusing her and her mom telling her what to do; both situations feel very disempowering, even if the former is bad and the latter has the best intentions.

It's about being positive to her and less than it is about being negative about him. She already knows that: she just needs to get her strength and that's how you can help best. Others can share more specific strategies but the bottom line is love and acceptance and soooooo much of it.
posted by smorgasbord at 3:10 PM on August 8, 2018 [11 favorites]

This is more of an immediate and practical thing and doesn't do much about your niece's underlying problems, and maybe someone who knows more about it will chime in with why this will or will not help, but I might try to find his parole officer and make sure that they know where he is. Your niece got cocaine somewhere, after all.
posted by sockasm at 3:54 PM on August 8, 2018 [11 favorites]

I would get in touch with your local DV orgs too
posted by brujita at 3:55 PM on August 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

The MeFi There is Help Wiki lists DV helplines around the world - the one it lists for Canada has this page about how to help loved ones who are suffering domestic abuse and this map which should link you to local resources - you can call your local DV shelter or helpline and they'll be able to give you expert advice. It's worth asking the experts to make sure you don't make things worse, I think.

The Wiki also has this list of links to previous Asks, including many about helping people who are suffering domestic abuse.
posted by penguin pie at 4:12 PM on August 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

Since his friends are hanging out there can you spend some time just hanging out? Choose a board game, maybe a bit of food for her and you and have a “visit”? One that goes on way too long but reminds her how adults behave when they visit. It may discourage his friends from hanging there. If Zach says he is going out and insists she come, you suggest you stay to catch up again when she returns home. He probably won’t want you to be unsupervised in the apartment. But, if he does, you again are there to be calm and offer her an out. Do this for as many days as you can stand. You have to be calm though, not picking fights with anyone, and willing to witness a lot of abuse first-hand. If you are lucky, you will witness (film surreptitiously?) obvious drug dealing that you can report to the police/parole officer.

Also, read the Gift of Fear as preparation, and if you are not a naturally calm person maybe the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense about having difficult conversations without having arguments.
posted by saucysault at 4:51 PM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is a very tough situation and you are doing your best. If she’s calling out of work right now and is the only person paying rent, this might all sort itself out when she inevitably gets fired and can’t provide him with a free place to stay anymore. Then it is up to your sister to draw boundaries, offer her a home, but not give her rent money or put up the boyfriend.
posted by cakelite at 4:58 PM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite] is a very good website (focused more on teens but still extremely useful) that has resources for all parties involved
posted by raccoon409 at 7:25 PM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

"I personally don't care right now - if I have to take actions that will make Simone disown me as her uncle in order to break her free of the guy, I will do so."

The thing is, there are no such actions. You don't have control over the outcome here. There isn't anything you can do that will make her decisively leave him once and for all. If you are responsible for getting him sent to jail, he may become the suffering martyr in her eyes, and that may make her stick with him all the more. You don't know. You cannot control your niece's relationship. You can't control what she thinks of him. It's not up to you.

Your sister is right, though: the one thing you do have some control over is your relationship with your niece. You can stay in her good graces so she has someone to turn to when she wants to talk. The last thing you want to do is alienate her in a failed bid (because it will be failed) to dictate the outcome here.

"Other desperate attempts were made by my sister and nephew to convince Simone to see sense and do the right thing. "

The best chance you guys have to help her see that she needs to get out is to stop trying to persuade her of that. Start listening, really listening, when she speaks to you about him. Don't fight it when she says something nice about him. These are real things too. Let HER come to the decision to be done with him. Right now she is reflexively fighting back against the idea of leaving him in part because of the people trying to strong arm her to do so. You guys have been trying that. It's not working.

This is much like when someone is suicidal, and everyone tells them their life is worth living, they shouldn't do it, etc. That does zero to change their feelings, in fact it makes them feel more alone in their feelings because they haven't been heard. When your niece expresses feelings you don't like, recognize that they are her feelings and you can't change them; you can only hear them and validate them or argue against them and alienate yourself from her. Telling her she shouldn't feel some way she does in fact feel (for example, she loves him, or she feels worthless) will NOT change her feelings, it will just make her less likely to share next time.

Try stepping back, reminding yourself that your niece is an adult and is ultimately allowed to make decisions about her own life whether you like them or not, and acknowledge your own powerlessness in this situation. Express your love for her but stop trying to control her.
posted by nirblegee at 8:15 PM on August 8, 2018 [7 favorites]

It's not like other people with family members in abusive relationships failed to get them out because they just didn't try hard enough. There isn't anything you can say to Simone or do to make her ready to get out.

What you can do is call his parole officer. And you should.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:12 AM on August 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

hearing Simone say that she knows this is wrong and he's a bad guy but that she deserves to suffer through all this for being a horrible person

I think the most helpful way to respond to something like this is to tell her how you feel (not what you think she should do, but how you feel about her) and let her tell you how she feels. So if she says she deserves it because she is horrible, just saying something like "I don't see you that way now, and neither do family members X and Y. We see you as good in A B C ways." And when she is talking about Zach, saying "does it bother you when he does things like that?" So, letting her lead, but not just accepting her vision of herself and her relationship without offering a different perspective, without giving advice.

A friend of mine recently left a bad relationship after a conversation like that, but when I had a similar talk a few years ago with her she became very angry with me. At that point she was still invested. I've stuck with her through these years and saw my role as giving her the support and respect and love she deserves. What I didn't do was accept her partner treating me poorly. I ignored him, walked away, or just told him to cut it out. Standing up for myself both because I needed to and because I wanted her to see it.
posted by Emmy Rae at 7:02 AM on August 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Finally today is when I became desperate to deal with it, because my sister has actually begun to back off. She is at a point where she feels if she pushes any harder Simone will cut her out entirely, and then she won't be able to help at all.

I personally don't care right now - if I have to take actions that will make Simone disown me as her uncle in order to break her free of the guy, I will do so.

Your sister is right. It is not possible for you to force this guy out, it will backfire. And I'm sorry, but your willingness to sacrifice your relationship with your niece is exactly wrong-headed. You cannot swoop in and fix her life for her so that she behaves in a way that everyone agrees is better. If you want her to eventually come around, you have to show her that you will keep being her uncle even when she's messed up, to reinforce that she's worth something to you and that she has something to come home to.

Try to meet her where she's at emotionally, CERTAINLY express opinions and try to encourage her to protect herself and understand her options for changing her life, remind her that she's stronger than she thinks, and above all maintain a connection to her. This lowlife is taking advantage of her and it's incredibly frustrating to witness her complicity in it, but you loved her before this lowlife came around, and you'll love her when he moves on. That's what's going to save your niece.

I'm sorry, Simone's situation is going to be very hard and worrisome for you guys to cope with, and this may go on for awhile. She may have to hit rock bottom a few times. I'm in a very, VERY similar situation with my niece, and after two years I finally have hope that she's ready to break away.
posted by desuetude at 7:29 AM on August 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

other people have suggested dv resources which i'd check out as first step. my personal suggestion from having experiencing something similar (in terms of how new it is, the way he's moved in so fast and his history of physical violence) would be also to provide as many options of practical material assistance to her in a pro-active way that still respects her as an autonomous adult who is doing her best.

what jumps out to me is housing- he's basically taken over her living space and so it's really possible she has no breathing room at all and is under constant stress which is putting everything into crisis mode and making it feel very difficult to get away. i don't know what you've done already but if at all possible, i'd suggest if you let her know how you can support her to have somewhere else to stay for a while if she needs it with no blame and no questions asked, depending on your resources and what she wants that could be a room with you, space with friends in another city, a hotel, or your support in accessing dv housing services. that's just one suggestion, there might be other stuff that's materially important to her in other ways. discussing this might take time, and it's likely she won't take it up straight away but might remember it later. i would have found it so useful to be told in clear concrete ways what material support was available that i might not have thought of or wouldn't have felt able to ask for.
posted by mosswinter at 8:25 AM on August 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

I can't remember where I heard this, but I believe it was true, at least for me, that a person will endure abuse up to the point they think they deserve it. So the more damaged a person's opinion of their worth and value is, the longer and more serious the abuse they put up with. I think the best thing you can do is to remind your niece that you love her and that you will support her as best you can. Show her that others value her. Also know that there are most likely things in her life, factors in this situation, at play that you are not aware of. I dont want to pressure or frighten you, but I dont know if you are aware that abusers often threaten to hurt people or animals that the victim loves. Your niece may well believe she can not accept offers of help from her family for fear this guy will retaliate against them (whether he would or not who knows). Please do yourself, and your niece a favor by becoming as informed as possible about domestic violence/abuse. Your sister too, should be working to educate herself as much as she can about it. Call the DV hotlines linked here and get reccomendations for reasources to help you learn about what's going on, and what's at stake in situations like this. Don't underestimate the gravity of this. Its not a game, or a powerplay between your family and the boyfriend.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 2:03 PM on August 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

N'thing that the more you talk to her from this view you have of her that she is an "abused woman" the more you reinforce her identity to herself as the "abused woman", and the harder it is to leave (because what would she leave for? She will still be an abused woman in her, and your, eyes).

You REALLY need to have happy times together, ask her for advice, talk about current events, movies, or whatever topic that is really part of her identity. Judgement, shame, blame; all of these WILL make her retreat (and they themselves are abusive behaviours, so if you are thinking of using them, maybe you have more in common with her boyfriend then you comfortably want to admit. An unsettling truth, but once that must be faced in order to avoid the behaviours).

You want to think of her as a smart, strong capable woman who makes her own choices and treat her accordingly. People meet your expectations.
posted by saucysault at 6:52 PM on August 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

I personally don't care right now - if I have to take actions that will make Simone disown me as her uncle in order to break her free of the guy, I will do so.

in my experience actions of this form lead to both disowning and the abusive relationship continuing, because anything that alienates the person from anyone else draws her further into the isolation that an abuser seeks. I don't know that there is any no good solution or set of steps to take to get someone out of an abusive relationship that they want to be in, short of a crisis point (parole officer intervention, ER visit, etc). literally the best thing you can do for her is to wait, and be there when she needs you.
posted by ahundredjarsofsky at 8:29 PM on August 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

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