A woman who has contacted me before recently sent me the following letter:
“I have a sister I’ve been working hard to support as she struggles with how to handle her abusive husband. I’ve been glad to be there for her, and it’s been a nice role-reversal because she’s older than I am, my ‘big sister’. At times I’ve felt that I was really helping, and all of those hours on the phone and email seemed worth it. She finally separated from him a couple of months ago, which was a huge step. She was proud and I felt proud for her.
"But here’s what I’m writing about: Recently I found out from other relatives that she’s gone back to seeing her husband and is thinking about moving back in with him; she’s been lying about it to me, continuing to say how good she feels about staying away from him and what a mean, selfish, intimidating asshole he is.
“So one issue is that I feel betrayed. But even more than that, I just don’t get why she would do that. I start to feel like she just doesn’t have the same level of desire that I do to live away from abuse. She’s already said that she knows he isn’t going to change. I just don’t get it. Any thoughts you have would be good to hear. I’m discouraged… Best to you, Renee.”
Here is my response:
I've been thinking about your letter about your sister.
First, I really appreciate how hard you have worked to be there for her. It can feel like a heavy load supporting a woman who isn’t ready to end contact with her partner – but she really needs that support. I believe that in some ways the worse the man has treated the woman, the harder it can be to leave him, precisely because of all the harm he has done. This is especially true if the man is of the style that turns nice (or seems to turn nice) for substantial periods of time, then goes back to being abusive. The confusion and drama that this kind of man can create is overwhelming. Many of these men have the power to create an endless nightmare through the custody process and through turning the children against their mother, and I don't blame someone who isn't ready to pay that price. Some guys get more dangerous when the woman leaves than they were before, so the physical risks are high. Some women are so badly shaken by the abuse that they don't believe they'll ever find a love that's better, and they'd rather have intermittent love than no love at all. Some abusers do change, and even though they are very few, the fact that the possibility exists is very tantalizing. The impacts of abuse-related trauma are huge, and we are only beginning to grasp their depth.
And these are just a few of the reasons why it is so hard to break away. There are many, many more. We live in a society that makes it very difficult for women to get away from guys that treat them badly, and then we turn around and blame her for having so much trouble breaking free. I know it can be frustrating to support a woman who isn't ready to permanently end things, or who simply can't (because the costs of doing so would be too high to her and to her children). I think the best thing you can do as the helper is to go to someone else to get support for yourself about how hard it is for you to be there for a woman who is caught in that trap.
A wonderful book that I recommend is called Helping Her Get Free (former title: “To Be An Anchor in the Storm”) by Susan Brewster. It has great advice about supporting an abused woman, including supporting her through the decision not to leave (or at least not to leave yet). It’s the only book I’ve seen that recognizes how hard it can be to be the one in the helper role, and that speaks to the helper with compassion. The woman you are helping deserves understanding, but so do you.
And I understand why it’s upsetting to find that she isn’t being truthful with you. The thing is, she’s been so torn down by her husband that she is desperate for praise and approval from other people. So she is trying to tell you what she thinks you want to hear, so that you’ll be warm and kind with her. She needs, therefore, to discover that you are going to be warm and supportive with her unconditionally; that will help her climb up out of the shame (which her abusive partner has caused) enough to feel able to tell you the truth about things, during both the ups and the downs.
Thank you for being so thoughtful and concerned about your sister. She really needs you to hang in there with her.
Best to you,