One of my closest friends has been in an incredibly emotionally and mentally abusive relationship for over three years. This person essentially controls every single aspect of her life–from how she spends her time, to who her friends are, to the way in which she views her own self-worth.
It’s heartbreaking to see someone I care about go through this, and I feel as though our other friends and I have done everything we can to help her, but nothing is working. I know that the want to leave has to come from her, but my greatest fear at this point is that before she finds the strength to leave, they’ll move in together and eventually get married. I can see her hurting and suffering, but I just don’t know what to do. How can I help her???
This is one of the most difficult positons to be in—as a friend, a parent, even for a child. You are able to look in on her life and see so clearly that she is being abused, but her world has gotten incredibly small, meaning she goes day to day, incident to incident, and doesn’t have the psychological mobility to stand back and see the big picture—if she could, she might be able to come to terms with the reality of her situation. At this point, I imagine she has lost the ability to experience herself as separate from him—abuse enmeshes us with the toxic energy of the abuser, and this is one reason it is so difficult to help someone who is being abused—it’s a desperate/addictive dynamic she has with him, and like any addiction, very difficult to break.
Because being involved with someone who is abusive functions much like any other addiction, you will need to make peace with the idea that you will not be able to rescue her—you can be a light, a reality check, you can be compassionate, and you can be present, but your words are not likely to pierce the bubble she is in. Having said that, I have a number of suggestions, but only you can gauge which ones may or may not work, as you know her best, and as your letter suggests, you’ve already made some attempts to help her.
Your priority is to stay in her life, and to remain loving and supportive—remember, at this point she is psychologically broken down, and her self-worth is likely at zero. You did not speak about whether he is physically abusive toward her, but my guess is he doesn’t need to be—the goal of an abuser is power and control, and it sounds like he has that. She is literally a prisoner of her own feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, feelings that she likely doesn’t feel per se, because they consume her—she is those feelings. All he needs to do is offer some “love” every now and again, and she will remain hooked. There is no linear logic at play when one is being abused—just as logic doesn’t work with an alcoholic, placing the evidence on the table for her to see her situation won’t work either.
Don’t give her ultimatums, such as “if you don’t leave him, I just can’t stand by and watch this any longer…” or “how could you let this go on—you need to leave him now…” This young woman is already under the control of her boyfriend, so the last thing she needs is to feel that sort of pressure or coercion from her friend(s). Stay available and caring, and stay honest—when she shares with you that he did “x” or said “y,” don’t hesitate to name the behavior as abusive, but don’t attack him. Remember, she loves him.
Does her family know what’s going on? She is likely hiding the abuse from her parent(s) or minimizing it or lying about it. If you think her family matters to her and that she would welcome their care, and if you think they’d be receptive to you, then reach out. Be prepared for your friend to feel betrayed and to be angry with you—let her have her feelings. In time, she will come to understand why you did what you did.
It seems your friend doesn’t keep secrets from you about the abuse, so she may be open to this suggestion: encourage her to keep a journal—maybe even give her one as a gift. Encourage her to write in it when she needs to “vent.” Hopefully she will be recording any number of instances of abuse. She may be hesitant to keep the journal if he invades her personal space. In that case, encourage her to find a really safe space to keep it. If there isn’t one, and his reading her journal could expose her to abuse, then this is not an option for her.
Keeping a journal when you are in an abusive relationship serves two purposes:
- When we are being abused, we lose our big picture vision. It is relatively easy to justify a single incident: “I hate that he called me a slut, but he is so afraid he’ll lose me. He just needs to find a way to say what he feels rather than name call…he controls where I go because he has a hard time trusting, given his childhood background…” etc. But when we look back on our journal, when we read incident after incident, it suddenly becomes clear that we are involved with an abusive person, which is a painful, eye opening, and potentially useful experience. Of course it is also possible to review our journal, slip into a deeper denial and throw the journal away. You cannot control this.
- Because abuse in an intimate relationship is seldom witnessed by anyone else, and because abusive men are often so charming in public, if the day comes that she does leave him, and if any sort of legal action needs to be taken, any evidence of prior incidents of abuse can be helpful, and a handwritten journal can provide that.
One thing you can do is keep a journal of the incidents she shares with you or that you witness. If you’re on the phone, and she mentions “he screamed at me for hours and called me horrible names” when you hang up, just jot down the date/time/means of communication, and what she told you, in as much detail as possible. Your log may be helpful as well. Voicemails, Instant messages, texts, social media posts etc. that demonstrate his abusive or controlling behavior are important to save as well. If she is up to it, she could forward these to you to keep track of.
**For those who may be reading this who share children with their abuser: Keeping a record of the incidents of abuse is essential, because when the day comes that you leave him, you will likely not look any different than any other couple divorcing, and in fact, after years with him, you might be on shaky ground while he comes off entirely composed. He will no doubt promise you that he’ll get full custody because you’re crazy and unfit to be anyone’s parent, and the moment you speak about his abuse and have your children speak to a guardian ad litem, he will accuse you of trying to poison the children against him. At best, with no evidence, you will be given joint custody, which means 50% of the time your children will be someone who is abusive (a reason many women choose to stay with their abuser). But if you have a log of incidents, if you have a friend who has also been supportive and kept a log, and if you reach out to a domestic violence support center in your community, you are in a much better position to have the truth heard. Because he is abusive, you must be strategic.
Give her the book: Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft.
Suggest she read my column on Struggling to Heal After an Abusive Relationship as well as the one on Sexual Abuse. She may see herself in the experiences of her peers, which may help her both de-personalize his abuse as well as find strength.
Affirm her strengths to her—she loves him, and she is likely assuming blame when he abuses her—you want to give her genuine love and a reality check—if he says “you’ll be a terrible mother” let her know why you disagree, and shine a light on her gifts.
Include her as part of a group of friends – this will help remind her that she has a life and “love” outside of her relationship with her boyfriend.
Plant seeds: Many women are not good at protecting themselves, but they’re great at protecting others. Ask her, “if your daughter/sister was in a relationship with “Bill,” how would you feel? If you had a son with “Bill,” do you think “Bill” would be a good role model for how a man should act? Would you want your daughter to model her marriage after the relationship you and “Bill” have? You want this to be a gentle, spontaneous conversation, not an interrogation.
Whatever you do, don’t cut her off (even if she cuts you off, because if she does, it’s not personal—it’s just another sign she is a victim) and if she does break up with him, be there for her in the most comforting way imaginable. Love her, have her back, name her strengths out loud, be honest about your feelings, but without judgment. Only she can choose to end it, but when she does, she is going to need her good friends behind her to help her put her life back in order.
And finally, if you are ever witness to a crime, that is, he assaults her, restrains her from leaving someplace, breaks her phone when she is attempting to call for help, threatens her, etc., then you need to call the police and report the incident. Again—she will resent the hell out of you, but when she is well again, she will understand and be grateful.
You are a good friend. If you are comfortable doing so, would you please follow up and let me know if you were able to help your friend in any way? I’m worried about her.