Sunday, September 12, 2010
Femonomics crowd-sourcing: Helping a friend in an abusive relationship
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.