How do you help a friend who's in an abusive relationship?

Message Bookmarked
Bookmark Removed

My cousin, who's been my closest friend since we were kids, has been in a relationship for the past two years with a man who is emotionally abusive and very, very scary. He hasn't been hitting her, as far as I know, but he's verbally abusive, he threatens her, he throws things at her, he's broken her phone, set fire to a pile of her clothes, once started to burn down her house and then thought better of it (because he realized he'd sent her threatening texts and would be caught.) He's also intermittently suicidal, so she's afraid to break up with him partly because of what he might do to her and partly because of what he might do to himself. And he's mentally ill, a vet with severe PTSD, and a heroin and meth addict, so his behavior is unpredictable even outside of the abuse.

The problem is, she's got that weird abusive-relationship alternate-reality thing going on where she lets him gaslight her, thinks he means well and he's just screwed up, makes excuses for him, and even the things she tells me about him, she tells me in this weird sideways way where she's just barely letting it slip out. Like, she'll say, "I have strawberry milk in my hair because of ____." So I ask, "How did ____ get strawberry milk in your hair?" And then she'll say, "Well, ____ was mad, and he threw the strawberry milk, and some of it splashed on my hair."

And the thing is - and I know this is hard to believe - my cousin is very smart, very well-read, very feminist, minored in women's studies. She knows exactly what this shit is when she sees it happen to someone else, but this relationship has done something to her brain.

So what do I do? She says she knows she needs to leave, but she never actually does, and I don't know how she can leave safely. Meanwhile I'm terrified she's going to get murdered one day. I tried to get her out of town last year, and it worked for a while, but then the pandemic hit and she wasn't in a great place to lock down, so she went home and it started up again. I think she should leave town unexpectedly and permanently, but she doesn't see that as an option because she loves her hometown, owns her house, and doesn't have a lot of savings or career prospects. I'm not in the same town as her so I'm trying to help her through this shit at long distance, and I'm pretty sure I'm her only confidant about how bad this is. I've been starting to tell other members of the family about it, with her knowledge - for a while I was afraid I'd lose her confidence if I did, but now she's letting me tell them. But they're as clueless about how to help as I am.

So what the fuck do I do? Does anyone have any insight about this?

Lily Dale, Tuesday, 12 January 2021 06:12 (one week ago) link

This happened to one of my best friends while we were living together (with her ex). Very similar behavior from the guy and your description of your friend fits mine pretty closely. He didn't hit her, and that was the hard line, and when he crossed it, we (me and my other roommate) distracted the guy while she ran out to a mutual friend who was waiting outside, who she stayed with for a few days while the guy moved out. That was how we dealt with it as close friends. I could go on but it's obviously a very sensitive subject. Things worked out in the end. Message me if you want to talk more. Get her out of there by any means necessary, and don't wait. Just be smart about how you do it.

flappy bird, Tuesday, 12 January 2021 07:02 (one week ago) link

Thanks, flappy bird. I'm glad you were able to help your friend. It sounds like you and your roommate handled it really well.

I guess I'm just trying to figure out if there's a means I haven't tried already. My main fear - and hers, I think - is that the guy won't just move out, or if he does, he'll come back and hurt or kill her. I don't think a restraining order would do any good with someone as unstable as him; he's threatened suicide by cop before, so if he wants to kill her, a restraining order wouldn't stop him. It's hard to think of a really safe way out of this for her, other than just leaving town unexpectedly and never coming back, and I don't know how to get a woman in her late thirties to leave a town in which she has roots.

Lily Dale, Tuesday, 12 January 2021 07:23 (one week ago) link

That I don't have any experience with--the guy in question was never enough of a threat to bring about a restraining order, though it was considered. Things got better, but we were in our early 20s. Other than total escape, which looks like it's not an option, I don't know--I'd say go official, get restraining order, find a safe house/place/area for her, but if the dude is truly psycho and could be really violent, who knows... but then again, what else are you going to do? You get the restraining order, if he violates it, it'll be a lot harder next time, if there is one. Because it seems like he's going to be a stalking threat regardless, so just get the RO and figure out a new safe routine and place.

I really hope everything works out for her.

flappy bird, Tuesday, 12 January 2021 07:37 (one week ago) link

Do you have any local shelters/organizations? They would be a good source of info.

Notes on Scampo (tokyo rosemary), Tuesday, 12 January 2021 07:55 (one week ago) link

You're right, I should call them, or a domestic violence hotline. I haven't yet because I know she'd never go to a shelter, but it would be good to talk to someone who deals with this stuff for a living. I'm sorry for asking you all a question that's pretty much unanswerable; I don't really expect anyone to have a magic solution for "how do you get a brainwashed adult human to leave a dangerous relationship when she doesn't even have a good place to go?" Just kind of wanted to talk about it. It's wearing on me being her sole confidant.

Lily Dale, Tuesday, 12 January 2021 08:29 (one week ago) link

please look into orgs that can get her help (women's aid in the uk) and also be aware that women are most at risk from being killed or seriously harmed when they leave or are placing to leave, so tread carefully.

kinder, Tuesday, 12 January 2021 08:43 (one week ago) link

when I was 18 my mother left a long-term partner who was abusive towards her and me. Not anything to the extent of what you're describing, but occasionally physically violent and consistently verbally/emotionally abusive. As expected, he did not take it well and there were a few months where it was rough.

some things I would suggest thinking about:

1) having a place to go. I don't mean a spare room or a couch with a friend, where he will inevitably come looking. She needs a place where he won't find her so she can have peace of mind while she figures out the logistics of eg selling her house or pressing charges against him. Similarly, if she can trade her car for something else - an effort, yes, but much easier to remain incognito when he's looking for one model/colour and she is using a different one. My stepfather found us after he spotted the family car and followed it to our new address.

2) rehearsed scripts. She needs to be confident that if he comes into her work or approaches her family that people won't give out anything she doesn't want known. "I'm sorry but you need to check with [X] on that, I cannot help you." She will understandably feel embarassed asking colleagues to be aware of what is going on, but the alternative - a public confrontation where he's trying to escalate as she's trying to escape - isn't just more embarassing but is potentially dangerous, and any half-decent person will understand that this is a preventative measure rather than drama. It doesn't even need to be explained as an escape from domestic abuse, it can be as simple as "I have some issues with some people and I need them to not be able to contact me for my own well-being, I assume you are happy to be complicit in that."

3) when he does inevitably find her she needs to be firm in what she wants the outcome to be of that encounter. When I was found by him, I was waiting at a bus stop, panicked and didn't know what to do. If it happened again I would now know to loudly tell him to leave me alone and start making physical distance until I could flag a taxi. But I was so unprepared that I froze and it was a disaster: I stood and took verbal abuse, I was so close to being physically attacked and when I managed to get away I was a wreck for days afterwards.

4) reframing his suicidal idealisation as Not Her Problem. She is not responsible for his choices, he is. A good thing for her to keep in mind is that you cannot reason with unreasonable people, and there is nothing more unreasonable than thinking taking your own life is a good idea. In the unlikely event he were to go through with it - because these men, they never do, it's a weapon of emotional leverage - it would not be her fault.

Talking to people at shelters are a good idea. Getting the police involved is a good idea too. A restraining order won't make a difference if he turns up at her door with a knife. But if he's been talked to by law enforcement and he feels they're keeping an eye on his behaviour it means he has to shape his behaviour different.

All of this is moot though if she isn't ready to move on. This is the hardest part. For years my mother knew he was a bad bastard, but maybe things will change, he's had a lot to deal with, he's got grief and trauma and underneath it all he just needs help and love support. Maybe all that was true, but why should she or your cousin have to endure a life of threats and abuse and fear to placate the feelings of someone else? Keep being a friend to her. Build up her self-esteem. Help her come to see for herself that this isn't the life she deserves, get her to believe it rather than just know it.

I would be cautious when talking to her to criticise only his behaviours and not *him* himself, because if she leaves and returns to him, she won't feel comfortable telling you what he's doing/saying to her, and it's safer for her to have someone she feels she can talk to than not being able to let anyone know what's going on. He is an awful human being for doing this to her, but she doesn't need to know you think that, she just needs you to understand that how he treats her is not acceptable and she shouldn't put up with it, and come to her own conclusions later about who this man actually is when she's no longer involved with him.

good luck to you and to her.

boxedjoy, Tuesday, 12 January 2021 13:00 (one week ago) link

Echoing everyone else who said, get your cousin to speak to a domestic violence counsellor, and make a Safety Plan. Like, seriously, this is one of those situations where speaking to an expert and making a plan can make the difference regarding safety.

Captain Awkward has a number of great posts, around how to actually get the help getting out of an abusive relationship with a scary, violent person, and unlike most communities, the comments are actually even more helpful than the advice itself? Here are the most recent posts on the subject, but the archives contain many more, that may be more relevant to your cousin's situation:

https://captainawkward.com/2018/08/30/1142-my-husband-is-great-except-for-the-times-he-yells-at-me-for-looking-at-a-sticker-on-the-side-of-the-road-among-other-things/

https://captainawkward.com/2018/09/06/1143-talking-about-emotional-abuse-and-leaving-my-marriage-with-my-potential-support-network/

^^^ this one contains many, many excerpts from the book Why Does He Do That by Lundy Bancroft - a book I cannot recommend hard enough. Both for victims of abuse understanding what is happening to them (sending this book to a friend in a bad place was actually the final straw that made her realise she was being abused, and gave her the spur to get out) and for friends who feel powerless and want to help but can't understand or see how.

It's really difficult trying to support someone who is being actively gaslit by an abuser. You really do need to provide a voice of sanity, of "this is not normal" and "what is happening to you is not right" - but at the same time balance that against understanding, in an abuser dynamic, that often being actively negative towards the abuser reinforces the abusers "all of your friends are against me" dynamic, and drives them further into defending the abusive partner and the relationship. Keeping the lines of communication open with your friend, so that she has a safe person to confide in; is often more important than the understandable impulse to go full "fuck this abusive arsehole! get out now!!!" (Often it's not safe to get out at a particular moment! Getting out is the most physically dangerous thing you can do - hence the need for Safety Plans to get out.) Maintain those lines of communication and keep them open - because abusers often work by trying to shut them down.

Even if she is not willing to talk to a domestic violence counsellor herself yet, speaking to one yourself will almost certainly provide *you* with ways to provide better support.

I'm so sorry your friend is going through this. Speaking of someone who is also a well-read, aware feminist, who nonetheless got ensnared by an abusive relationship - honestly, that stuff does not protect you at all (I sometimes wonder if it makes you more vulnerable, to consider yourself "smarter than that" because you think you're too smart to be sucked into an abusive situation, when it's not a question of smarts, but of being emotionally manipulated?)

But read Lundy Bancroft. The things that abusers do are not just random cruelty, it is a kind of deliberate manipulation with specific aims in mind.

Good luck to your friend.

Branwell with an N, Tuesday, 12 January 2021 15:15 (one week ago) link

This is one for specifically supporting a friend with an abusive partner. Again, the advice column itself may not be relevant to your friend's case, but the comments are a goldmine of support and valuable advice:

https://captainawkward.com/2017/06/22/981-watching-from-the-sidelines-in-horror-how-do-i-be-a-supportive-friend-to-my-friend-whos-involved-with-tfg/

Branwell with an N, Tuesday, 12 January 2021 15:18 (one week ago) link

the book Why Does He Do That by Lundy Bancroft - a book I cannot recommend hard enough. Both for victims of abuse understanding what is happening to them (sending this book to a friend in a bad place was actually the final straw that made her realise she was being abused, and gave her the spur to get out) and for friends who feel powerless and want to help but can't understand or see how.
seconded - was going to recommend it earlier but hesitated as it was one of the things I researched to help a friend who ultimately got the hell out before I learned enough to help her (this was not an extremely dangerous situation such as this one though - so I'm not advocating a "wait and see" approach here)

kinder, Tuesday, 12 January 2021 16:21 (one week ago) link

Thank you all very much; the suggestions you've made and the resources you've shared are very helpful, and it's good to have support and encouragement to try to do something about the situation. I really appreciate your kindness and openness in sharing your own experiences with this.

Lily Dale, Tuesday, 12 January 2021 16:50 (one week ago) link

Branwell, thank you so much for those Captain Awkward posts and for recommending the Bancroft book. I read my cousin some of the excerpts in that second post, and I wasn't sure how she'd react, but she was really interested and wanted to hear more. So I'm sending her the posts and I'll find a safe way to get the book to her as well.

Again, I'm just so appreciative of all the responses here; I was feeling really stuck in the mud and out of ideas, and this is helping a lot.

Lily Dale, Wednesday, 13 January 2021 05:09 (one week ago) link

I might be wrong but the book may be available as a pdf somewhere? Not sure how readable?

kinder, Wednesday, 13 January 2021 09:25 (one week ago) link

Yeah, the book is very easily findable online as a PDF - many, many people share it for this specific reason!

She can download it and read it on her phone, if that is not compromised?

Branwell with an N, Wednesday, 13 January 2021 11:26 (one week ago) link

Oh, that's good! Her phone is compromised, but she says email is safe because she logs out of it and doesn't have her password saved on her computer. So I'll email it to her and just remind her to erase her browsing history.

Lily Dale, Wednesday, 13 January 2021 18:55 (one week ago) link

One thing to add...

also be aware that women are most at risk from being killed or seriously harmed when they leave or are placing to leave, so tread carefully.

...and if she does manage to leave (or to get him to leave), she really shouldn't meet up alone, in private, with him again under any circumstance. Because this

I'm terrified she's going to get murdered one day

is sadly a thing that happens even if the man hasn't been physically abusive before, even if the victim manages to get out, even if she has all the support in the world, even if she has a safety plan. All it takes is a single encounter. I've been sitting on posting this line for about half an hour, because I don't want to come off as overly dramatic or fear-mongering or fishing for sympathy, but: this is exactly what happened to my mom. I don't want it to happen to anyone else.

Balthazar Picsou, Wednesday, 13 January 2021 22:50 (one week ago) link

All of this is moot though if she isn't ready to move on.

This is the hardest part.

One of my close friends is (still) in a situation that is similar to what you've described, lily dale. For the last year-and-a-half, my ex and I have been horrified at descriptions of our friend's partner's behaviour. She has left, several times, but keeps coming back. I've even spoken to her partner, several times-- it's been excruciating to have to listen to him monologue for 45 minutes straight, asserting and re-asserting how much he "loves" her, and "would never hurt her", and talk about how his behaviour is meant to help her "get out of her rut", and so forth.

When you experience trauma bonds, you can be at a place where you're admitting to yourself, and others, "this person is abusing me", and yet you simultaneously-- and, in fact, as a direct response to the abuse-- have an overwhelming desire for the abusive person to apologize, to improve, for things to normalize. This (along with domestic and economic factors) is what keeps a person in this situation, the addiction to crumbs of normalcy, to apologies (when they're given), to small gestures of kindness that feel oversized.

I don't know how to convince a person to leave a situation such as this, my own efforts have not been successful. My therapist advised me to have the escape resources on hand when she does decide to leave. Also: to "plant seeds of doubt" without fully demonizing her partner. (I cannot attest to the efficacy of the latter.)

My mother, who provides legal representation to abusive individuals, abused individuals, and children, said that the most effective method in her experience is to attempt to persuade the woman to, at the very least, attend women's support groups. That in being a group with other individuals who may be in similar situations may provide clarity to her own situation, and may prepare her mentally to exit.

flamboyant goon tie included, Wednesday, 13 January 2021 23:15 (one week ago) link

Balthazar, so genuinely sorry to hear that. I can't imagine.

kinder, Wednesday, 13 January 2021 23:31 (one week ago) link

Balthazar, I'm so sorry.

Lily Dale, Thursday, 14 January 2021 00:56 (one week ago) link

I talked to her last night and urged her to sit down with her counselor and come up with an escape plan. She's been very reluctant to make a plan, I think mostly because she's not ready to leave, but also because she knows she won't like any of the options for how to escape. I told her that having a plan doesn't mean she has to use it, that she can think of it as an emergency plan to keep herself and her family safe if things escalate and she has to move quickly. I don't think I convinced her but I'll keep working on it. Just posting this so you know I'm taking the danger to her seriously and doing my best to get her to take it seriously as well.

Lily Dale, Thursday, 14 January 2021 02:06 (one week ago) link

you are a very good friend, lily dale

Respectfully Yours, (Aimless), Thursday, 14 January 2021 02:26 (one week ago) link

Thank you, Aimless, that's very kind.

Lily Dale, Thursday, 14 January 2021 02:50 (one week ago) link

When you experience trauma bonds, you can be at a place where you're admitting to yourself, and others, "this person is abusing me", and yet you simultaneously-- and, in fact, as a direct response to the abuse-- have an overwhelming desire for the abusive person to apologize, to improve, for things to normalize. This (along with domestic and economic factors) is what keeps a person in this situation, the addiction to crumbs of normalcy, to apologies (when they're given), to small gestures of kindness that feel oversized.

This is so succinct and insightful; I think I'll try reading it to her and see if she recognizes what you're describing. Thanks, fgti, and I'm sorry to hear that your friend is going through this as well.

Lily Dale, Thursday, 14 January 2021 04:02 (one week ago) link


You must be logged in to post. Please either login here, or if you are not registered, you may register here.