Navigating a potential minefield
I often get requests to provide therapy for family members who want to help loved ones in emotionally abusive relationships. Their previous rescue attempts resulted in frustration, anger, and estrangement.
There are ways to help. But first helpers must consider that abuse victims could be struggling with psychological conditions that obstruct another’s good intentions to help them. Understanding these conditions can mean the difference between helping and contributing to the difficulties.
The acronym “habit” explains some of the underlying dynamics of abuse. The word “habit” has significant meaning because victims commonly have deep-seated beliefs and obsessions that result in habitual behaviors. Consequently, their relationships become habits that are hard to break.
A second acronym – “help” -provides a more effective approach to helping that will reduce the risk of hurt feelings and creating distance from loved ones.
Hope: Victims are hooked on hope that their relationships will get better even though there is no evidence of lasting improvements. Conversely, they may have given up hope and tolerate the abuse in exchange for an intact family, financial security, status, a luxurious lifestyle, or other benefits.
Avoidance and denial: The abused may feel stuck or deny the fact that they are in abusive relationships. They must work through Awareness, Acceptance, and Action (the 3 A’s) to move forward. Awareness is admitting a partner is abusive. Acceptance is realizing the effects of the abuse and that something must be done or the abuse will continue. Action is getting help for both victim and perpetrator.
Beliefs: Victims may have deep-seated negative beliefs about themselves and others. They believe their abusive partners truly love them, or that they deserve the treatment because they are defective in some way.
Irrational fear: The abused fear leaving for a variety of reasons, such as inability to survive or take care of their children, being ostracized by their communities, being seen as a failure, never “finding love” again, or going against religious beliefs. What they should fear is the harm they and their children are suffering on a daily basis. Abusers use tactics that erode their partner’s self-esteem for better control. Learned helplessness can result. Children are at a higher risk of becoming abusers or abuse victims.
Traumatic bonding: Victims can develop powerful bonds with their abusers. Some signs are: 1) believing that being treated badly is normal 2) fighting all the time with no resolution 3) complaining about spouses, but defending them in public 4) loss of free will (knowing it’s important to leave, but being unwilling to make any changes) 5) being in love with fantasy and not facing reality 6) continued attempts to change an abusive spouse with no significant results.
Once helpers understand the psychological conditions present in their abused loved ones, they can use the “help” acronym to remember more practical ways to help:
Hold loved ones accountable, but don’t judge or shame them as their partners have done. Helpers might provide books, articles, or community resources that educate victims on emotional abuse.
Don’t enable loved ones. Be direct and be honest. You can say, “It must have been hard for you when Alice put you down at the family dinner last night. I noticed that she does that a lot.” However, be careful about dwelling on the abuse. Focus on the enjoyable aspects of your relationship with your loved one.
Listen and reflect what victims tell you in realistic terms. You can say, “I believe that you believe Robert is not abusive to you, but I see things differently.” Only give advice when asked for it.
Adult victims tolerate abuse and allow the problem to continue. The power to change is in their hands. Give them a safe place to confide experiences and express feelings. You can say, “I see that you’re going through some difficulties in your relationship. I love you and I’m here for you if you want to talk about it or need help.” If the victim wants to talk, ask them questions instead of making statements that could be perceived as accusations or blaming. You can say, “Are you happy in your relationship?” or “Is everything okay?”
One of the most difficult challenges in having loved ones in abusive relationships is knowing when to let go. Continuing attempts to help that are unheard and unwelcome can damage relationships and cause shame, anguish, and despair for everyone involved. Putting pressure on victims to leave their abusers can also create power struggles and strengthen their resolve to stay. A more effective approach is unconditional love and support within healthy boundaries that may eventually lead victims to gain more confidence and make better decisions.
In my next article, I will discuss the effects of abuse on victims and common ways they unintentionally contribute to their own abuse.