How do I help a friend who might be in an abusive relationship?
July 22, 2019 12:23 PM   Subscribe

An old friend who lives far from me might be in an abusive relationship. She has left her family and career behind. I will be seeing her in person soon for the first time in years. What, if anything, can I do to help her?

We were once very close. We now have one of those typical adult relationships where we don't see one another for years at a time, and we speak maybe a couple times a year, but when we do, it feels like no time has passed.

She has always been shy, quiet, introspective, and somewhat insecure. Long story short, she was unhappy in grad school. She met a man of whom her parents disapproved. I recently learned that he convinced her to drop out of grad school in her sixth and final year, and she moved in with him and his mom in an unfamiliar rural area. She has cut off contact with her parents. He runs some scammy-sounding stock trading scheme. She now works in retail. He criticizes her a lot for not making enough money while seemingly holding her back from pursuing any type of meaningful career. She admits that this impacts her self-esteem.

She was quite inexperienced in relationships when they met. He was her first real boyfriend. I think that she is being emotionally abused and controlled. I don't think she is being physically abused, but I am not 100% sure.

She doesn't seem to see red flags, and she has faith that he's making good money. I worry that she's totally isolated and has virtually no support structure out there. I can't help but feel like all of this was by design, and it makes me wonder if he has a predatory role, engendering her isolation and then feeding off of it. At the same time, I'm not there, and I'm sure I don't know all the details. I know that she's a grown adult and has to make her own decisions. I'm not even sure if this is any of my business.

My questions are:
1) First of all, am I way out of line?
2) If I'm not, then are there questions I should ask her to help her determine if this relationship is healthy for her? I have asked somewhat pointed questions about her situation but haven't directly stated my concerns to her.
3) I will be seeing her in person soon, just to catch up. Her boyfriend won't be there. Is there anything I should or should NOT do, say, ask?

Thank you all for your help, advice, and perspective.
posted by aquamvidam to Human Relations (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This is a delicate situation because if you push too hard, you might push her away.

If you are open to taking a more active role in her life, you should try to establish yourself as someone she can count on or reach out to if she decides she is ready to leave. Let her know that she can stay with you or visit you, for example.

You can also help boost her self esteem. I don't know exactly what that would look like because it depends on your friend dynamic but it might include talking about topics she knows a lot about, or complimenting her good personal qualities.
posted by mai at 12:28 PM on July 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

Don’t push her to leave him.

Give your your name and phone number (perhaps email and physical address) but let her know what you’re always there for her, day or night and she’s be welcome to stay with you
posted by raccoon409 at 12:31 PM on July 22, 2019 [7 favorites]

I think at this stage all you can do is express mild unscary alarm at what seems to you like isolation. Ask if she's okay, accept her answer but say your door is always open if she needs anything. Then just be friendly and non-judgmental, catch up with her as best you can, and try to maintain the connection as best you can. Give her time, be there if she needs it and reaches out.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:47 PM on July 22, 2019 [10 favorites]

She might get put on the defensive if you push her to leave. Do let her know she can call you, but be prepared for him to try and cut off contact with you (or any form of outside support, such as her parents already have been).

I had a friend who got married to a guy that we all thought was a jerk. He bought a house 1 hour away from where our social circle hung out, effectively cutting her off from her mother, sister, and friends. Then they had a baby together, and she was tied down at home. He didn't want her working. Saw her once or twice a year, but she called every day when he was at work, with some new horror story about his jerkiness. There was lots of financial abuse, withholding money, criticizing for spending $8 on a used snow suit for the baby, then blowing $$ on fancy cars and coke for his nose, putting her down, not even wanting her to make money doing crafts -- by this time, she was so desperate for cash, she was making figurines out of bread and salt dough, baking them, and painting them. She kept them in the trunk of her old car so he wouldn't find them and trash them.

Just tell her you're there if she ever needs to call and chat (if you are willing to be that person). I wouldn't do email, as he might find a way to read her emails. My ex was always criticizing my friends, and of course, I didn't make enough money to support him in the fashion he deemed himself worthy of, so I got a lot of flack about that. I'd owned a house when we met, and he wanted to apparently move in with me, but I sold it as part of my divorce, so he then turned on me because of it. Abuse comes in many forms, the psychological part is the worst, because no one can see it.

Talk to her as if she is your peer, just as you used to before she met him. Don't be too probing, if she is troubled, she might come out and tell you, but the more you push, the more she might just be inclined to say nothing, as she has probably heard it from her parents already.

It was agonizing for me to watch my friend go through what she did, but eventually, she got a clue and headed for Splitzville. Then she took some training class and got a high paying temp job at a big company, going toward permanent employment. Before she met this guy, she was a divorced single mother, and feeling vulnerable, and that's how this 2nd guy, the cokehead was able to get her to date him.

People also sometimes don't want to admit they made a mistake. They are embarrassed and the man often plays into their shame and beats them over the head psychologically, until they get worn down and believe it's true. Maybe if she sits with a peer who treats her normally, she will remember her old self.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 1:10 PM on July 22, 2019 [6 favorites]

I've struggled with a similar issue, but with a much closer friend. See my question history if you want the long and gruesome details.

Long story short, I did the very best I could to support my friend through thick and thin (mostly thin) but as a decade went by I felt more and more like an unpaid therapist, plus I felt she was increasingly falling into patterns of thinking that reflected her partner's extremely cynical outlook on the world. I found it increasingly difficult to be around them without getting annoyed with the partner, which festered and brewed up into a shouting match one evening over something completely trivial that I felt represented the partner's disrespect of my friend.

After a couple of times when she brushed off some issues I was experiencing in my life in a very unempathetic manner, I realised we'd both moved in different directions in our lives. I see her rarely now and when I do there's a new sense of distance between us. She knows that I think her partner is emotionally abusive (she disagrees - it's the one real argument we've ever had) and she also knows that if she needs me I'll be here, but I no longer think of her as my closest friend.

It's sad, but sometimes you have to accept that people will make their own choices, and sometimes a relationship that seems like a disaster to everyone else can have elements that the people in it find personally fulfilling, for example, codependency and victim/saviour complexes.

Questions you can ask? Since you're not 100% on the situation, I'd begin by focusing on how she is feeling after this big move. Let her lead the conversation, don't jump in with unasked for solutions, DON'T express your dislike of the partner and at all turns emphasise that she has agency. Perhaps invite her to come and stay with you in the near future and make sure to say that she'd always be welcome?

For reading, this is useful. There are a lot of resources online for people supporting those that they know or suspect to be in an abusive relationship.

If she leans on you for support, make sure that you have some way to work through your feelings. Secondary or vicarious trauma is a thing. Also, if this situation continues then you should be aware of compassion fatigue.

It may be that there's some larger issue going on here, in that she's jumped on this boyfriend "opportunity" as a way to escape from potentially controlling parents and a hellish grad school experience, and this might be a transitional period into a new life of independence, once she gets her parent-free bearings. I hope this interlude with the strange guy and his mother will be something you laugh about in the future. Best wishes.
posted by doornoise at 5:14 PM on July 22, 2019 [3 favorites]

You can't really do anything, only she can. I would highly recommend not bad mouthing him because odds are high he will find out, you will become The Enemy, she will cut you off too, etc. You can gently ask how things are going and gently point out that such-and-such doesn't sound too good, but that might be about it. What Lyn Never said.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:40 PM on July 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

Your way forward really depends so much on your friend's temperament. But when I was stuck in an emotionally abusive situation, I knew it, deep down, on some barely accessible level of my psyche. A friend sat me down and reminded me of who I used to be, before him. She also described my former face, clothes, and demeanor and how they'd changed (all true). It brought me a level closer to accessing that flame of doubt I'd been suppressing. Essentially, she reminded me of myself.

Mitigating factors: I was young and impressionable, and my friend is someone who is highly skilled at reading people and it seems she knew exactly what to say. Somehow her intelligent read of me was able to surpass my ex's more brutish control.

So, YMMV but maybe sharing memories the two of you had before him—and your memories of her before him is a gentle way to employ this same strategy. No need to even mention his name.
posted by gold bridges at 6:23 AM on July 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

« Older Help me leave this job, completely   |   A week in Northern California with nothing planned... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.