Dear 100 Hour Board,
Someone I care about is in a committed relationship with an emotionally abusive spouse. I don’t know if my loved one sees the relationship this way, but it’s very clear to me and others based on the way the two of them interact in public. It’s so bad that I can only imagine how much worse it might be when they are alone at home. As far as I know, physical violence is not a factor, but I’m still very concerned about my loved one’s well-being. Others close to this person are equally concerned, but I don’t feel like it’s my place to speak up about it. What can I do?
I, unfortunately, have been in the same situation that you are in. I know of someone who is still currently married to an emotionally and verbally abusive spouse. Early in the relationship, I and some others tried to talk to her about our concerns. She began to pull away from us, as she truly loved her (now) husband in spite of how he treated her. Our only choice is to keep contact with her in any way possible. We are staying as close to her and as informed as possible. They are now married with children, and as far as I know, his treatment of her has not changed or escalated. We just want to make sure she knows we love her and are there for her, no matter what happens. She has recently been able to convince her husband to attend couple's counseling, which we all hope will improve things. There's not much we can do, as she does not want to leave him.
You just need to let your loved one know that they will always have you and your support. Abusers often convince their victims that they are alone in the world and that no one else cares about them. Make sure they know that isn't true and that you love them unconditionally.
If you're looking for more information on how to help, consider reading Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft. I recently read it, and it's very helpful to understand how to deal with abusers and how to protect and support your loved ones that have been affected by abuse. You can find a PDF of the entire book here.
This is such a heartbreaking situation to experience from any angle, and I'm so sorry you have to go through it. Unfortunately, I've had both a sister and a sister-in-law go through abusive marriages, so I understand the pain you're feeling right now. I reached out to my sister for her advice as someone who has gone through it, and her answer is far better than mine would be, so here's what she said:
This is a tough situation and a tough question. Thank you for caring about your loved one, and for wanting to help. For convenience, I'll use "her" and "she" to refer to the victim, but if it's the other way around, just mentally substitute. I will start by providing my "credentials:" I left an extremely abusive relationship eleven months ago after nine years of marriage. When I was with my ex, apparently several people in my life had serious concerns about the way he talked to and treated me in front of them, but I only found this out after I had recognized and named the abuse myself. I'll also be pulling heavily from Lundy Bancroft's Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, which is an excellent resource for anyone dealing with an abusive relationship or with a loved one dealing with an abusive relationship.I'll start by addressing your concern that it's not your place to speak up about it. Please do. Bring it up gently, bring it up tactfully, don't tell your loved one what to do, but do bring it up. I would recommend saying something like "I don't like the way you're being treated, and you deserve better." One of the most significant factors that led to me staying in an abusive relationship for as long as I did was that my ex successfully gaslighted me into believing that the abuse was my own fault and that it was normal. This belief was bolstered by the fact that for years, when he would insult me, call me names, or even "jokingly" threaten physical harm in front of other people, nobody ever called him out or told me that they were concerned. This left me feeling like I was the only person who had any issues with the way he treated me, and that I must be oversensitive or overreacting. I understand that the situation is difficult and unfamiliar for most people and it can feel awkward to insert yourself into someone else's relationship, and I don't blame my loved ones for not saying anything, but at the same time I really wish somebody had spoken up and helped me feel validated, loved, and valuable at a time when I was not feeling any of those.Next, I want to list some of the most helpful things my family and friends did for me when I was recognizing the abuse and trying to decide what to do about it.1) Provide validation and believe her. Emotional abuse can really damage a person's sense of self, and even their confidence in their own sanity and memory. If she tells you about something that was hard or scary, confirm that she didn't deserve it and that you believe her. Don't act shocked, although I'm sure this can be difficult sometimes. She is probably used to managing other people's feelings, and if you can be a safe place where she can accurately describe what's going on in her life without having to feel like she needs to avoid hard truths to protect you, that is really valuable.2) Don't pressure her to make any particular decision. I remember telling my therapist that I couldn't tell anyone how my ex was treating me because they would tell me to leave him. This actually didn't turn out to be true, but it was a real fear that I had. My therapist gave me the space to talk about what was happening and try to come up with ways to keep myself safe within the relationship before it became clear that I could never be safe until I completely left that environment. Once I gained the confidence to talk to other people about it, I got that same kind of nonjudgmental support from my family, and it meant the world to me.3) Don't downplay the abuse. As a survival and coping mechanism, I minimized the abuse to myself and to others. At one point, I was texting a friend that my ex was screaming at me and that he had earlier in the day bruised my arms. She asked if I wanted her to call the police for me. I declined, but knowing that another person thought that what was going on might warrant calling the police helped me find the strength to get out.4) Be kind to her. For years, my ex contradicted every compliment I received from anyone, and it really did a number on my self-esteem. After I left, my siblings gave me a book containing happy memories and things they like about me, and it made me cry and I still like to read it. Knowing that other people care about and actually like me has been huge.Here's a quote from Lundy Bancroft that I think encapsulates the most important thing about helping victims of abuse: "Your goal is to be the complete opposite of what the abuser is." The abuser treats her as a lesser human. He pressures her severely, acts like he knows what's good for her better than she does, dominates conversations, and treats her like an idiot. This means you should be patient, treat her as an equal, listen more and talk less, and respect her. Tell her you love her and you think she is a good person. Try to spend time with her, or talk to her on the phone or text her (unless she asks you not to). Note that many abusers keep close tabs on their victims and punish them verbally or physically for spending too much time with friends or family, so if she does ask you not to contact her, please respect that.You may also want to offer her specific resources, such as Why Does He Do That? and The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans. Note that these would be books she would likely not be safe to purchase or bring into her home, so if you can obtain them for her and help her think of a safe place to read them where her husband won't find out, that would probably be ideal. You can also suggest that she contact the advocates at thehotline.org, just to talk. It's free and anonymous and they are professionally trained and SO helpful in providing support and reality checks, and can eventually provide support in leaving if she chooses to go that route. They are also a great resource for you, and can help you brainstorm ways to support your loved one in her specific situation.Last thoughts: Some things not to do. Please don't suggest marriage counseling. Marriage counseling in an abusive situation was one of the most harmful things that has ever happened to me. This is well-supported by victims' advocates and domestic violence organizations (see here, here, here, and here).Please be careful with your language and don't imply that the abuse is in any way your loved one's fault, even partially, regardless of whether she stays or tries to leave, or how she responds to the abuse, or whether she does things like keep the house perfectly clean or cooks healthy meals, or whatever other expectations you have for people in a relationship. This doesn't mean abuse victims are perfect. They are human beings, so they have flaws and problems, and many develop unhealthy coping mechanisms for dealing with the abuse. However, the abuser is already telling the victim that the abuse is her fault, and she likely believes him and nothing a victim does can justify or excuse or cause abuse. Just recently, after almost a year of separation from my ex, a meme on Facebook about how you shouldn't blame everything on the other person and should accept personal responsibility for your relationship problems sent me spiraling for four days wondering if I had somehow contributed to my own abuse. Again, please be gentle and carefully avoid victim-blaming.P.S. I mentioned be patient, but I want to emphasize that again. It took me five months after identifying the abuse to feel ready to tell any friends or family, then another five months before I was ready to decide to leave, then another four months to make plans to leave safely. If your loved one decides to leave, they will be changing everything about their life, which is not an easy thing to do in the best of circumstances. It takes time and effort, which are often precious commodities for people dealing with abuse.