“How do I help a friend in an abusive relationship?”

I have this chick friend who is in a dysfunctional relationship. Her live-in boyfriend is very controlling, belittling, condescending, rude and generally obnoxious to her. She is passive, accommodating, co-dependent, spineless and without out balls. (I love her though.)

Part of her problem is that she has broken up with him and told him either she is going to move out or he is. He has done every thing he can to further alienate her and ruin any chances for reconciliation by fervently denying her request for him to move out, or allow her to move out (thereby either breaking the lease or leaving him with the whole of rent). In fact, he has even said, “I’m not going to make this easy on you…” He has lived up to that threat.

She has spent the night a few times at my place because he, an alcoholic, is verbally/emotionally abusive to her. I tell her that she’s better off away from that crap. A few nights ago, she called me in tears because he came home and caught her on the phone talking to a guy friend who he has been jealous of for quite some time. He startled her, she got up from her chair, he stuck his leg out to trip her and she fell, according to my friend. Then, he began to yell at her and at some point during the altercation, pushed her up against the stove (which, thankfully, wasn’t on). She said that he has never been physical before and that she would be OK now that is was over — “he’s totally ignoring me now…” I told her to “get [her] ass over to my place” because she should be MORE scared that he’s never done it before but that makes him unpredictable now. That was about all the convincing she needed to come over.

When she got to my place, she exhibited a kind of textbook ‘beaten wife’ syndrome: embarrassed about having to come over, made excuses for him saying that she really did make him mad, and that he’s never done it before, etc. It makes me sick to hear her talk like that about him and the situation.

My question is: Should I continue to give her a place to go when she needs to get away from the verbal abuse (potential physical abuse), or should I let her deal with it on her own without giving her a way to escape her problems? Because she’s so passive, I wonder if she’s not standing up for herself and being more assertive because she doesn’t really have to — she has a place to escape to. Or, am I just being there for a friend in need, and I should continue to let her come over as needed? To me this seems a little like a relationship addiction on both of their parts. And typically when someone is an addict, you don’t help them in their addiction. But, I have been ‘in need’ before and understand the value of having a safe haven. On a side note, I have repeatedly told her that she NEEDS… MUST get professional help — counseling as soon as possible. She’s dragging her feet, of course. Thanks!

Wow. That’s intense. Man.

OK, your instincts are right that these are textbook domestic abuse patterns. He has already become violent. There is no maybe, or question of future likelihood anymore. The future is now.

Remember, abusers aren’t born, they are made. One is an abusive boyfriend before he can become an abusive husband. Your friend is training him how to be an abuser in the same way he is training her to be a victim. This is not a cycle non-participants can really understand, but you can do your best to slow it down and help your friend get out.

This is not the same as enabling addiction. You can go cold turkey on a drug easier than changing your whole psyche. It has taken time to get here, it will take time to get out.

If you are able, I urge you to continue to provide her with shelter whenever she needs it. Don’t isolate her. Do not give her a key, as you don’t want him to take it, but hide it on your property so she can always get in. Encourage her to leave a change of work-appropriate clothes (toothbrush, makeup, whatever) at your place just in case she has to come over spontaneously.

You MUST continue to encourage her to seek help. Does she have family she can draw on? I’m guessing no, as a solid family net would not create a psyche that would allow abuse to take root. She needs money and shelter, stat.

The financial obligation is a red herring, an excuse. If she really wants out, she could get out, money be damned.

For example, discuss these ideas with her:

Of COURSE he’s not going to move!!! By saying he should, she’s essentially giving permission for this situation to remain and perhaps escalate.

SHE needs to get out of that house asap, and be prepared to honor the rent from remote if legally obligated. Can she talk to her landlord privately about terminating the rental agreement with a small penalty, rather than the entire amount? Landlords know that ugly domestic situations happen and I guarantee you they would rather be apprised (basics only) of pending problems and maybe get partial payment rather than take tenants to court. Etc.

Failing that, can she get a loan from relatives? Her bank? Debt is nothing compared to a broken arm. Can she move in with someone rent free so she can transfer the rent money for a few months? If she has to, she can send her portion of the remaining due rent directly to the landlord, notarized, delivery confirmed, etc. rather than handing it to the boyfriend.

She needs to create a network. You need to remind her that a network is hers for the making. Abusers succeed because they isolate their victims and make them feel powerless, helpless, hopeless, and incompetent.

The best thing you can do for your friend is tell her FREQUENTLY that she is capable, smart, strong, lovable and likeable. Tell her she’s pretty, too, but emphasize her abilities to care for herself. She has clearly forgotten and become dependent on this drama.

Talk to her as often as you can, even between incidents. The boyfriend will demonize you and other friends for keepign in touch with her. Prepare for that, and warn her it will happen. He will get very angry if she starts showing independence, because he’s dependent on what he gets from her, too.

Be patient, beyond any patience you’ve ever had before. Listening to her litany of abuse may frustrate you, but you have to demonstrate that you are going to be there for her long-term. She is vulnerable — do not abandon her or make her feel crazy or stupid. This is an illness, she needs help.

Get some domestic abuse literature. Make her read it, in front of you. Tell her that’s a requirement for staying at your house.

Counseling may not a requirement, but get impatient with her if she continues to refuse. Point out that talking to a counselor can’t possibly make things worse and can only improve things, so she has nothing to lose at all. She should also contact a lawyer, many of whom work pro bono for domestic abuse cases. She may need to make a police report or get an order of protection in place before she does anything that may set him off dramatically.

I recommend she stash irreplaceable items at your house or a relative’s. Photo albums, jewelry, etc., just in case he decides to get ideas about hurting her by destroying or selling her treasures.

When she’s ready to move out, she should assemble a crew (network again!) and sweep in when you know for a fact he’ll be away. You will need at least two strong men for this. Bullies, being cowards, respect intimidating physicality. If he shows up mid-move, you’ll need bodyguards.

She can Google “domestic abuse women counseling” etc. plus your city for resources.

You need support too, and professional advice. I urge you to seek it out. If you take on this role, you must be educated. My advice is HARDLY sufficient! You don’t have to tell her everything you know, but as she makes steps you must be prepared to continue to help her along the way.

Best of luck to you all.


About amywinns

Semi-snarky, semi-sincere, occasionally ranting, always paying attention. Feminist who can work a skirt and crack a joke. Grammar nerd who is also fun at parties. Mid-career writer/editor with 15 years’ experience in newspapers & magazines who now helps developers at a major media corporation communicate with the suits who write the checks. Pro-women, pro-family, pro-choice, pro-workingclass, pro-entrepreneur, pro-farmer. Like every other bourgeois Brooklynite, I choose local/organic/raw food — mostly vegetables — whenever possible/reasonable/affordable but I’m not a smug asshole about it. Hometown: Atlanta. Weird hobby: lindy hop. No pets, no kids, no thanks.
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