Emotional Abuse Is Still Abuse: How to Help a Friend Who Is in an Unhealthy Relationship

The definition for domestic violence is – a pattern of behavior in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner.

I’m a certified domestic violence crisis advocate through Laura’s House, which means that I fully understand how abusive relationships work and how difficult it is for women to leave them. I was trained to properly handle calls from women seeking to leave their abusive relationship (usually their kids, too) and possibly enroll in a women’s shelter for domestic violence victims.

Even though I’m not formally volunteering with Laura’s House anymore (I still donate clothes, magazines and other supplies to the shelter), I feel fortunate to know as much as I do about abusive relationships and how to spot the warning signs of an unhealthy relationship.

Staying calm, cool and collected is much easier when you’re engaging in practice calls or domestic violence advocate training. It’s a whole other story when it’s your friend calling to tell you she’s getting back together with her emotionally abusive and manipulative husband.

As a domestic violence crisis hotline volunteer, we’re taught to get as much information about the person’s situation as possible. If they just need to talk things through, we let them talk. We provide a supportive, safe environment where we make sure these women know their concerns and fears are valid. We reinforce that we believe in them and that they are still wonderful, competent women. (Most of these women’s self-esteems are barely existent.) Most important, we are taught to never belittle or scold a woman for staying in the abusive relationship and never tell her what to do.

In fact, here’s how Laura’s House recommends you help a friend or family member who is in an abusive relationship.

Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship

Now, when my friend called, I already knew her situation. In early 2008, she moved to a new state where she didn’t know anyone to take a job at a law firm. Within three months, she met the man that would become her husband. He hadn’t finished his divorce when she met him. She helped him finalize the divorce and arrange custody agreements for his children.

In the midst of the divorce saga, my friend and her boyfriend got married.

My friend also helped pay for her husband’s outstanding bills on his jet ski, which he bought during his previous marriage. When he said he wanted a house, she worked with her mother to help buy a house.

After the first six months or so of marriage, my friend confided that she was pretty sure he had cheated on her. “Why stay?” I asked at that time. “Because I love him, and I love the kids.”

Then, early in the summer, after the divorce, jet ski and house had been paid for by my friend, the husband decided he was finished. He would leave in October after the kids had left and file for divorce in the new state he would be moving to where it was easier and faster to complete.

So all summer, they played happy family while the two young kids visited from Idaho, even though he had made it clear he was finished with the relationship. In the meantime, he wasn’t leaving their home and neither was she.

At various points, he threatened her with never seeing the kids again. He told her how miserable he could and would make her life if she tried to get messy with the divorce. He insulted her, screamed at her and, at one point, scared her enough that she almost called the cops.

Then, a month or so ago, when the possibility emerged that she might start dating someone else, her husband was immediately back on the scene, begging for forgiveness.

He bought her flowers, gifts, and cards. He told her how deeply sorry he was and professed his love for her. He even started going to therapy and promised things would change.

And so, to the deep regret of all her family and her friends, she took him back.

What NOT to Say to Someone in an Abusive Relationship

After she told me her decision, I told her no, she needed to leave him. I mean, she knew she was being manipulated right? I told her that he was a horrible, manipulative sociopath. Wasn’t the disapproval of her entire family and all her friends enough to make her reconsider her decision to re-enter a clearly unhealthy relationship?

I basically discredited her feelings and told her what to do.

So much for all my training.

She maintains that he is genuinely sorry and something like this won’t happen again. Now granted, obviously, there has been no physical violence in this relationship. However, there’s been plenty of emotional abuse and manipulation, which still makes for an extremely unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship.

Manipulation, emotional or verbal abuse is still abuse and no one deserves that.

In fact, here’s the cycle of domestic violence, according to the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence:

The Cycle of Domestic Violence

Tension – This feels like walking on eggshells. Nothing is right. There is no way to predict what the abuser wants. While there may not be physical violence (or at least physical violence is minimal), there is emotional abuse, intimidation and threats. Fear of violence is often as coercive as violence itself.

Violence – This is the actual violent episode. It includes physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. A crime is committed.

The “Honeymoon” – Abusers act differently after violent episodes. Some ignore or deny the violence. Some blame their “anger” on something you said or did. Some fear losing you and act genuinely sorry. This is often called the “honeymoon.” The abuser will try to make up for his violence. He may act sorry, send cards, buy flowers, buy presents, help around the house, spend time with the kids, go to church, get counseling, or make promises. The abuser may seek pity. It’s important to realize that this phase is an attempt to draw you back into the relationship. This phase is never a real “honeymoon.”

The more times the cycle is completed, the less time it takes to complete. As the cycle is repeated, the violence usually increases in frequency and severity.

No matter what, I will continue to support my friend. If you know someone who is in an emotionally abusive or physically abusive relationship, please don’t give up on them.

For more information, call the national domestic violence national hotline at 866-498-1511.

To be continued…

If you have any advice for me or my friend, I’d love to hear it. Thanks.

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4 Responses to Emotional Abuse Is Still Abuse: How to Help a Friend Who Is in an Unhealthy Relationship

  1. I am in the same boat as you. Someone very, very, very close to me is in a mentally/emotionally abusive marriage and I have repeatedly made her feel like it’s her fault for not leaving. I don’t mean to do it, but it just happens because we’re so close and I love and care about her so much. But you’re right. Telling them what they’re doing wrong isn’t helping. So now when she complains to me about her husband’s behavior, I just try to tell her–only you can make things change (by leaving). It’s your choice.

    I don’t really have any advice, just wanted to share that I know where you’re coming from and I totally understand.

  2. Laura Lee Bloor says:

    Aw, I’m really sorry to hear that. However, I think that shows that situations like these are much more common than we would like to admit. Good luck to you and your friend/family member. I’ll be publishing more information on abusive relationships because it could use more attention. Also, not a lot of information is available about emotional/mental/verbal abuse, so I’m trying to get that out there more that yes, that’s definitely still abuse.

  3. leeann says:

    Laura Lee,
    This scenario is very close to my heart for I have personally experienced the type of relationship you are speaking of. My little brother and I grew up in a household with a mentally and physically abusive parent, we were always promised someday things would get better. 30+ years later and after all the fights were done the only thing that remained were those broken promises and a waste of many years and tears. This being said, I have children of my own and to even dream that they would be caught up in an abusive relationship is more than I can bear. I only hope I have given my children the self-esteem to know their own worth and be able to walk away because it would kill me to live it again through them. So…Mommies remember to instill value in your babies and if you love your friend lift her up and let her realize how great she is and that the behavior experienced is intolerable for both you as her friend and definately to her mother, wherever she may be.

  4. Laura Lee Bloor says:

    Leann,
    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I know I said it before, but you coming forward with your experience reveals that these situations are much more common than anyone wants to admit.

    I am doing my best to show my friend how amazing she is. She is so smart and talented with such a strong work ethic that there’s nothing she can’t do if she wanted. She certainly does not deserve the treatment she’s received. I will pass along your comments to her, too. And believe me, her mother (and family and friends) is not happy that she’s still in this unhealthy marriage.

    It sounds as if you have a strong head on your shoulders though and have done your best to instill healthy self-esteems in your kids. They are lucky for that. Thanks again for sharing; I really appreciate it and know it will help others.

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