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Feminist Advice Friday: How do I help my friend in an abusive marriage?
A reader wonders what she can do to support friends in unhealthy relationships.
A reader asks…
I am in a happy marriage. I work full time; my husband does not. He takes care of most of the chores, daily grind, childcare etc. This works for us. It works well. If a man did the amount of chores and housework that I do, he would be labeled a hero, yet I feel like I have it easy. Still this is beside the point.
My two best friends are/have been in awful marriages. Coercive abusive, controlling, serious lack of help around the house (obvs these things go hand in hand), all the awfulness that you post about. How do I help them? I have listened and been there for them for 5 years or so, since they have become aware and are trying to leave.
They both have children.
One friend has separated but jumped from one bad man straight to another.
The other is preparing to say she wants to divorce but isn't strong enough without support because she is afraid of him (I live 100s of miles away from her). I am at a point where I am exhausted helping them, and I feel like a bad friend. I have run out of ideas and am completely stuck, because it feels endless, and I feel I need a reset on my empathy, hence why I write to you.
Simply, perhaps asking your following what they would ask from a friend? And what is reasonable and expected. Especially from my position, where I have a supportive husband. How do I supply great friendship, without enabling their own demons in this dance.
I hope that makes sense.
I spend most of my time counseling women in abusive relationships. It can be exhausting. You think you’re making progress, then all of a sudden they come out with a new excuse and it becomes clear how deep the pathology runs. So you have my empathy.
Leaving a bad marriage when you have kids is one of the scariest things a person can do. It is very likely that the husband will get some custody, and it’s possible that he will weaponize the court system for years to come. If he is wealthy, there is a distant possibility that he could take her kids altogether. So while to outsiders, it might seem as simple as “just leave,” the story is always more complicated—especially once your friend recognizes that she is indeed being abused.
So I’m going to throw out a ton of suggestions, some of which might not be relevant. I invite readers to also share what would have helped them leave sooner, or made leaving easier.
Push back against excuses
An uncomfortable truth about abuse is that abuse victims love their abusers, and they want their abusers to love them. They’ll latch onto any sliver of hope, and eagerly lap up the crumbs of fake love the abuser gives them.
Push back on these excuses:
“He’s really sorry.” No he’s not. Normal people don’t abuse their partners, and if he were sorry he would stop.
“He’s so sweet most of the time.” That’s true of all abusers. The kindness is an important part of the cycle of abuse.
“He says I did something terrible to cause him to snap.” Literally all abusers say this. Normal people don’t become abusive, even if their partners mistreat them. The fact that he justifies the abuse will mean there’s more of it.
“He’s a really good dad.” No he’s not. Good dads don’t abuse their children’s mother.
“It wasn’t physical.” Physical abuse isn’t the only type of abuse, or the only abuse that matters. All physical abuse begins as emotional abuse.
“He says he’s going to take the kids or bankrupt me or take the house.” Don’t take legal advice from someone who wants to hurt you. Tell her to talk to a lawyer instead.
Trust her as an expert on her own life
Ultimately, you have to trust that your friend knows her abuser best. If she says it’s not safe to leave, believe her. Don’t make her feel stupid or naive for doing what she thinks is right. Her abuser is already doing that.
Help with safety planning
Although your friend is the expert on her own life, there may be paths out she doesn’t know about. I talk in more detail about that here. Work with her to develop a safety plan.
Encourage her to quiet quit
Your friend can emotionally leave her marriage before she physically does. She can also begin cultivating independence, get a job, and stockpile money. Encourage her to quiet quit now, so she can preserve some safe space in her brain and begin planning for a better, freer future.
Offer material support
Can you provide a place for your friend to stay? Offer a car to help her move? Visit her and pack up her stuff? Often the most valuable support is material support.
Corroborate her story
Eventually, she’ll have to tell someone she was abused, especially if there is a custody dispute. Be prepared to testify on her behalf. But also, encourage her to corroborate her own story by reporting to a doctor, therapist, or even the police. Many abuse survivors are reluctant to get a protective order, but the protective order may be the only thing that a court takes seriously as evidence that her partner is a danger to her children.
Don’t abandon her
Watching your friend get abused year after year is exhausting. People often resort to victim-blaming when they experience the vicarious trauma of seeing a loved one abused. Don’t do this. Trust that things are harder for her than they seem, and that she would leave if she could. Your presence in her life offers her assurance that she matters, and temporary respite from the abuse.
When she finally does leave, stand beside her. Show up in court. Don’t let fear deter you from helping. She’s a lot more afraid than you are, and she’s pushing through. Support her by pushing through with her.
What about future abuse?
Regarding your friend who jumps from bad man to bad man, you can’t stop her. Abuse becomes comfortable and normal, and abuse survivors may be attracted to the very same abusive qualities in the next partner that drew them to the last. I encourage women to educate themselves about red and green flags, because men aren’t changing their bullshit anytime soon.
What you can do is avoid normalizing her choices. Women often feel pressured to chime in when others complain about men, make jokes about abusive behavior, or share terrible stories about their partners. Don’t do this. Make clear that the behavior is not normal. Some scripts to try include:
It seems like he has a lot of the same attributes as your abuser.
That’s not something a normal or healthy man would do.
I don’t think those are good reasons to enter a relationship with someone.
My partner would do [x] instead. Modeling a healthy relationship can be really powerful.
I’m worried that you’re ignoring red flags.
Good men don’t need you to make excuses for them.
Thank you for caring about your friend. We devalue friendship in this culture, probably because friends are such a powerful protective force in women’s lives.
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