Sunday, September 12, 2010

Femonomics crowd-sourcing: Helping a friend in an abusive relationship

Scenario: You have a friend.  Maybe you've just met.  Maybe you've known her for a long time.  Either way, she trusts you, and you care about her.  One night--maybe it's the alcohol, maybe it's that she's tired of waiting for his calls--she opens up to you.  She tells you a story so heartbreaking, that your tears flow just as freely as hers.  Her boyfriend hits her.  He's put her in the hospital.  He's left her by the side of the road with no money for a bus home.  He dictates who she talks to and when.  She's been cut off from her friends.  It's making her sick.  Maybe you know the guy--maybe he even seems like a perfect gentleman--or maybe you don't, but you've never even seen a hint of what she's telling you before tonight.  Looking into her tear-stained face, you know why she's telling you.  She's worried if she doesn't get away now, he will kill her.  And you know it too.  So together, you make a plan.  You engineer her escape.  You tell her it's going to be hard, it's going to hurt, that she'll want to go back.  She says she knows all this.  She's ready.  You turn off her phone, together you pack a bag, maybe you take her to a friend's house, maybe she stays with you, maybe you find a hotel.  I'm helping her, you think.  I can save this girl.  She looks at you, grateful.  Together, you feel strong.

And then, suddenly, just like flipping a switch, she changes her mind.  Maybe it's the next day, maybe it's only an hour later.  Maybe she's talked to him, heard his apologies.  She wants to go back.  She needs him.  She tells you nothing she told you is true.  He doesn't hit her, she says.  They just fight sometimes.  He's flawed, but she loves him.  She wants her phone, she wants to go.  Don't block her way.  You look her in the eye.  Tell me he's never hit you, you say.  He's never hit me.  Tell me he's never left you by the side of the road.  Never.  Put you in the hospital?  Never.  Told you who you can talk to?  Never.  I just wanted attention, she says.  Thanks for your concern.  Now let me leave.

You want to shake her.  You want to yell at her and scream at her.  (What has this turned you into?) He's going to kill you, you say.  How badly does he need to hurt you for you to leave?  Will a broken bone be enough?  A permanent scar?  You want to run her life for her, to just take over.  But then wouldn't you be just like him?
I'm an adult, she says.  I'll leave him when I'm ready.  Now let me pass.  She's a junkie*, you realize.  Addicted to something that's much stronger than you.  She knows it hurts her, she knows it makes her feel badly, but without it, she feels like nothing.  She thinks there's a way she can get her fix without the crash.  That it will be different this time.

You've read the books.  You know the stats.  And yet you thought you were stronger than it.  You are powerless.  And you're angry at him, yes.  But, incredibly, you're more angry at her.  How could she be so stupid?  So immature?  You stop yourself.  It's him who's done this.  You take a deep breath, and try again.  Pedantically, you explain to her that abuse is cyclical because part of what an abuser does is break down her self-esteem, cut her ties with the world around her, and convince her that she needs him.  Abuse isn't just physical, you preach, it's emotional.  That's what he's done to you.  I feel fine, she says.  And she's gone.

This story might sound familiar to anyone who's tried to help a friend in an abusive relationship.  One minute, she wants your help desperately, and you're sure that you can save her, and the next, you're the enemy because you're keeping her from him.  In economic terms, I call the psychological component of abuse a lowering of the victim's outside option.  By convincing her she's nothing without him, he ensures she'll come back when the bruises fade.  That's why abusers so often use language like "Who else would want you?" and "Nobody will ever love you but me."  In some cases, this lowering of the outside option is realized physically as brutal maiming designed to make the victim feel as undesirable as she's constantly being told that she is.

So the question is, if you're on the outside looking in, how do you help?  I think the first answer to that is that it's somewhat naive to believe we can help, at least without some major backup.  If a friend needed to break a heroin addiction, few of us would think we could just sit up with them all night and then go to work the next day with a shiny savior halo.  (Although, I know people who've tried to stop an addict themselves, too, so maybe we always tend to overestimate our own abilities to help.)  A friend trying to kick a long-time drug habit likely needs intensive rehab, not a shoulder to cry on.  When someone comes to the realization that they need out, it may be best to seize on that moment to get them linked up with professional resources that can provide them specialized counseling of the kind we, for all our good intentions, are not qualified to give.  But beyond that, I don't really know what the answer is.  Can good friends help a person to leave an abusive relationship, or can we only serve as reinforcements once that person is ready to get out on their own?  If we have to wait for them to want to change, how can we keep our own mental health through the inevitable hot-and-cold? 

My best answer to these questions right now is that a good friend can try to connect someone with specialized resources when they decide they need help, can support and reinforce their decision to leave, providing shelter and even money if asked, and can keep ties even if they change their mind and go back, so that they'll have someone to turn to when it once again becomes too much to bear.  But there's something about that very rational game-plan that seems so unsatisfying when you know your friend is in imminent physical danger.  As much as we might know the limits of our own power, it seems a galaxy away when you're staring into her glistening eyes and you honestly believe that--if you just try hard enough--you can reach her.

Readers, what do you think?  Have you tried to help a friend leave an abusive relationship?  Have you ever had to end a friendship because you had tried to help someone who then pushed you away and went back? 

*Note: I do not mean at all to displace blame onto victims of domestic violence for remaining in violent relationships.  The desire to stay, to go back, are consequences of physical and emotional abuse.  I only want to illustrate the incredible frustration an outsider can feel trying to do battle with an abuser's psychological hold on the victim. 


  1. Honestly, if she's absorbing his evil energy, she's passing it onto you. This is a dangerous situation for you. If you're asking her what she needs to leave him and she's not telling you, then drop her. She's already given up on herself so all you need to do is jump on the bandwagon.

    Breaking up with someone you love because they're doing things that hurt you is what people with self-respect do. Teach by example! She's taking his abuse, that she's not able to handle, and then she's transferring that pain to you. Don't you get it? YOU are in an abusive relationship with her as well! Protect yourself. Don't just drop her, you need to be really clear what you're reasons are so she's able to know when she can be friends with you again.

    Also, please don't contribute to the erroneous belief that women who are abused should be ashamed of it. A worm in the apple doesn't make it a bad apple. Don't feel you need to protect her or cover for her reputation. When you "protect" her, you're actually covering for him. The sooner she realizes her part in creating the abusive relationship, the sooner she can realize that she DOES have the power to get out of it.

    I was in an abusive relationship for three years. Never again.

  2. Hi Muffin, While I get what you're saying, I'm not quite willing to describe the friendship described in the post as an "abusive" one. I'm also not sure whether the answer is "drop her," either in the situation above, or even after the lather-rinse-repeat that might follow. The reason being that if you care about this person, and actually think you can help, it might be worth a little personal sacrifice (given you know your own limits and can avoid real harm to yourself). I'm not sure about whether one CAN help in this situation, though, and also where, ethically, one should draw the line between personal comfort and a friend's safety. How far should one go before reaching the "drop her" threshold?

    Also, I certainly didn't say anywhere that I think women who are abused should be ashamed, or anything that might imply that! I do think you raise a good point, though, that helping her cover up the fact that she's being abused, which a friend of an abuse victim might find themselves asked to do, is actually covering for HIM. So if she begs you to keep quiet, to not tell her family, sister, other friends, there's another ethical dilemma: By respecting her wishes, you may make it easier for him to hurt her.
    Other readers?

  3. I suppose I don't really know what's going on with your friend. Either she's being hurt, or she's not. And she told you both were true. What is going on with her, really? Why is she lying to you?

    If you think she's being hurt, you need to get help. You need to bring this situation into the open. How would you feel if something bad did happen to her and her family finds out you knew all along and did nothing because you wanted to respect her wishes?

    It might be hard to wrap your mind around this, but if your friend is okay with her boyfriend hitting her, that implies she's mentally ill. Normal, psychologically healthy people do not tolerate any form of abuse, especially from a romantic partner. I am not implying that she is mentally defective, she can get better with lots of love and therapy, but her brain and mental health has the sniffles right now.

    The reason I suggested that you and your friend are in an abusive relationship is because she's asking you to do something you know is not right. Is it right to stand up for someone who is being hurt? It's not as complicated as you think. Remember, she's not mentally fit right now. Her boyfriend has probably done some serious damage to her self-esteem.

    If your friend likes the abuse, if she likes wallowing around in self-pity, why do you want to be friends with her? Find someone else that's cool that isn't going to make you act in ways that feel wrong.

    She needs to take responsibility for the actions she is making RIGHT NOW. She's not being very nice to you by revealing she's being harmed and expecting you not to do anything about it. What if she were a child confessing to her teacher that mommy and daddy spanks her really hard and that it makes her sad but not to alert the authorities because she loves mommy and daddy? If you think your friend's self-esteem is so damaged she can't think straight, then why give her the same respect afforded those who are mentally well?

    She's trouble.

    Oh, some other advice: The longer she's in the relationship, the harder it will be for her to leave. By enabling her to stay in the relationship by giving her a shoulder to cry on when she needs it, are you giving her just enough strength to go back to him? She won't leave him until she's hit rock bottom, wherever that is for her. If they get into a fight and she hits him, he will be able to call the cops on HER. This is a dangerous, manipulative man your friend has chosen. If I were you, I would stay away from people like that.

    It's up to you how much nonsense you have patience for. I am very protective of my life. I am careful to allow people into my world. Mentally ill people like your friend who are unwilling to get help drain my energy. It's hard for me to bounce back from that, so I only keep positive people in my life. My friends do have troubles, and they do come to me for support, but my friends also understand that I respect myself and I will always do the right thing. Ethical dilemma's aren't hard for me anymore because I always do what's right. I'm careful, I consider other opinions and options and consequences of my actions, but I always do what is right and what I feel would make my higher power proud of me to the best of my ability.

    When I was in an abusive relationship, it took me a long time to realize how much danger I was in and how much it harmed me. I thought that since he never hit me like they do on Monday night Lifetime movies of the week, I wasn't really being abused. Now I realize that anyone who doesn't consider my feelings, or who upsets me unnecessarily, who doesn't show me respect, these people are also abusive and I stay away.

    I grieve for your friend. Because I did not respect myself and I kept harmful people in my life, I wound up in a situation where everyone -save a couple friends- was abusive and disrespectful towards me. My abusive boyfriend was just the tip of the iceberg.

    Best of luck.


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