How to best support new boyfriend through abuse?
September 17, 2022 10:42 PM   Subscribe

(CW abuse). My new bf is recently separated from a longtime girlfriend with whom he has two kids that he adores. He moved away to escape her (emotional) abuse, but she still regularly abuses him through texting and he can't disentangle from her because he still wants to be in his kids' lives. I've never been around someone who's suffering through this kind of behaviour that they can't just get away from.

Every so often he says he's had bad day, and shows me a text she's sent. They're often unbelievably vile, but common themes include her accusing him of being an untrustworthy person, hated by others, a deadbeat dad (he's none of those things).
I'm not really sure what to say or what to do to help him. All I can think of is to refute whatever she's saying and reassure him that he's the opposite and tell him how much he's loved and how good a person he is, and give him a choice of talk it out/help take his mind off it/let him be alone. He doesn't tend to say bad things about others so I don't think me trash-talking her would help him feel better.

He's also a lot more advanced at relationships than me. In the short while I've known him I've learnt so much about how to be a support and a good friend to another person. About every week or so there'll be a moment where he does or says something and I think, 'oh, that's how you're meant to respond when someone says/does that'. I'm a bit paranoid that he's expecting me to show up for him in a way that I haven't grasped or hadn't seen modeled before that I can emulate. I'd love some scripts or things to do that would help him. We seem like we'll be in each other's lives long term (if not romantically then as friends), so short term and long terms things to think about are all appreciated. TIA
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total)
Perhaps you could help him find better ways to communicate with her - there are co-parenting apps that are designed to help people do the interactions they need to do about their kids while decreasing the amount of angry involved in the situation.

From what I can read, OurFamilyWizard is a reasonable app for this purpose.

I hope things get better for your boyfriend, his ex and their kids. It is a hard situation for everyone involved.
posted by sciencegeek at 12:00 AM on September 18 [4 favorites]

It sounds like you’re already doing a great job of listening and being supportive. It’s hard to know what exactly he needs from afar, but I think calmly acknowledging and naming the abuse for what it is will be important and helpful. Often people who are abused wonder if they deserve the abuse, or if there is some core of truth.

If he is talking about this with other people, he may run into people that don’t believe the abuse is real, or who try to minimize and doubt his experiences. This is especially common for male victims of abuse (not that it’s uncommon for women). By being in his corner and reinforcing the things you know about him, you can help.

You may find an abuse or domestic violence hotline helpful (emotional abuse can be a form of domestic violence). The only one I’m familiar with (my mom was a founding member) is Call To Safety here in Oregon, USA (I think they can be called from anywhere in the US).

I wish I had better and more specific advice for you. Good luck.
posted by danielparks at 12:29 AM on September 18 [2 favorites]

Does he have any other friends in his life who can help provide support? I don’t know how long you two have been together, but I think one really important role for you here could be encouraging him to reach out and get support from other friends and family in his life (in addition to you).

It sounds like you’re doing a lot of the right things with respect to reassuring him, AND it’s also the case that that type of reassurance tends to mean even more the longer you’ve known someone — so (re)connecting with long-time friends could be really healing for him.
posted by mekily at 6:51 AM on September 18 [7 favorites]

I had a similar situation albeit without kids and I could not block them. I found turning off notifications and only checking my messages certain times a day did wonder for mental health. I'd be out doing something and feel the need to respond immediately. Just knowing "Oh it is two o'clock it is now time to deal with this" did wonders for my mental health.

Having kids in the situation and being requested to answer NOW is probably a form of abuse in itself so I'd ask a professional obviously if this is a viable option but I for one love living life not beholden to responding immediately at anytime.
posted by geoff. at 6:54 AM on September 18 [1 favorite]

Could he use help navigating the legal systems he needs to ensure access to his children? Offering that kind of support may be useful.
posted by metasarah at 7:59 AM on September 18 [3 favorites]

I've been the recipient of similar abuse from an ex with whom I have a kid. We needed to coordinate and sometimes that involved abusive texts. Sometimes the abuse came out of the blue because she was venting at me. What helped me most was learning how to set boundaries firmly, without anger, and without retaliation (which meant a bunch of therapy to learn how to do that).

"it's not okay to talk to me like that"
"let's only message about logistics"
"I'm going to block you if this continues" (which i had to do sometimes and could safely do because in the end we needed to work together and I needed to make it clear my ex had crossed a line)

Sometime going grey rock or ignoring messages is all that can be done. He should know this probably has little to do with him and her anger is her problem. He happens to be the target but it's not about him.

Taking this approach might make her angrier at first because she's no longer getting under his skin or in his head. It took years for me, but we finally got past it to a place where we're at least cordial if even friendly.
posted by kokaku at 8:02 AM on September 18 [1 favorite]

Also... document document document.

There were a couple of times where I had to get my divorce lawyer involved (as in my lawyer talked to her lawyer talked to her about how it's not okay and how we need to stick to our agreements).

Maybe lawyers aren't involved, but it would be helpful if he ever needs to get court support.

Finally, seconding what someone else said about finding other support (friends, family, therapy). It takes a toll on a relationship if you're the only support (which i learned the hard way).
posted by kokaku at 8:06 AM on September 18 [4 favorites]

This is going to be a process and it's going to be difficult. No matter how skilled someone is at relationships or logically aware of what's going on, the reality of it tends to be really hard to face.

Grey rocking is great advice. This is going to take a lot of practice. Your friend is going to need to work hard on not letting the abuse work as intended.

Refuting the messages is kind, but they really need to be able to do that on their own and not internalize / accept the abuse in the first place. When they receive messages that are abusive they can:

1) Remind themselves that the abuser is not talking to them in good faith. By definition, they are looking to hurt your friend.
2) Standard "tactics" of response won't be effective here. By that I mean, if you have a co-worker who's generally a good person but prone to being pissy sometimes - "tactics" can turn that around. They won't work here.
3) Grey rock, grey rock, grey rock. No matter what they want to say in response, they need to practice the most bland, boring and unsatisfying responses to their exes messages.

As kokaku noted, there will a spike in behavior. Given the kids this may never fully abate, but there will definitely be an "extinction burst" of bad behavior where the ex tries to amp up the nasty to get the response they want.

And, preserve everything. If there's ever a legal issue you want a trail of evidence of this person's bad behavior and your friend's measured, reasonable, bland responses in kind.

They should also have a plan in place if this spills over to the kids, because that's a very real possibility.
posted by jzb at 8:15 AM on September 18 [2 favorites]

I will say this: I’m a little worried about you. This man is pulling you into his incredibly complicated drama while positioning himself as a life coach and relationship expert. You sound super caring and awesome and I’m worried you are extra vulnerable. Men absolutely can and do get abused by women so I’m not debating that. It’s super isolating and they deserve love and support. But some men will use situations like this to manipulate women, especially younger and less experienced partners. I know he may have limited funds but he should be assembling a team of support people, not just you. If he’s reaching out and building that, great! But if he’s isolated himself and is starting to isolate you, I am very concerned.
posted by smorgasbord at 12:53 PM on September 18 [28 favorites]

since he's such a new boyfriend and so very advanced at relationships, you won't have been introduced to his children yet or seen them interact with him. so while you can certainly be sympathetic to his feelings and try to make him feel better, you are not in a position to judge his parenting skills and should resist the urge to try. perhaps I am reading too much into your report that he moved "away" rather than simply "out". by all means trust him and think the best of him. but your knowledge of what kind of boyfriend he is does not translate into knowledge of what kind of father he is.

similarly, while I don't think it's necessarily bad behavior under the circumstances to show you ex-texts, it's not great either. this is an area where you may choose to be understanding, but not one where you should take him as a role model.

if he has a satisfactory custody agreement in place, he can in fact avoid a lot of unwanted contact from his ex. he will need expert legal advice on how to go about this, and if he does not already have such advice, he should be actively pursuing it. I am sure there are extenuating circumstances surrounding whatever delays there may be. still, even as you maintain a high level of affection and sympathy, you may wish to mute your admiration somewhat.
posted by queenofbithynia at 5:17 PM on September 19 [5 favorites]

(to be just slightly more clear: broadly speaking, people who leave vulnerable children alone with known abusers are rarely adored or respected by anyone who knows what they've done. so I am more than a little taken aback by your attitude of adoration and respect towards someone who has done just that.

there are certainly times in some abusive relationships when your life and health are in danger and you have no choice but to get out and pray that your children will stay safe until you are able to go back and get them. you have to take a big risk, do everything by the book, play a long game. so on and so forth. but in those cases, all your energy is bent towards rescuing them. you spend less time being sad about mean texts directed at you and more time being frantic about the health and safety of your minor children and how to protect and rescue them.

and all you mention about that is that he wants to "be in their lives." that is shocking. frankly I am amazed he has the emotional wherewithal to start a serious relationship when he must be constantly terrified for his unprotected children and trying to plan out how to care for them.)
posted by queenofbithynia at 5:36 PM on September 19 [6 favorites]

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