Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Helping A Loved One Who Isn't Ready to Leave

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:

Hi Renee,

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,

Lundy B.


  1. Lovely, lovely response. I know all too well how rare it is to find someone who is willing and able to be that "helper".

  2. It's amazing that someone who hasn't been through the abuse being described can articulate it so well for those of use who have lived it.

    I had a sister who gave up trying to hint or interfere with my abusive relationship. When I was more ready to leave, I asked her for her opinion and got a barrage of forthright and insensitive comments questioning the state of my mind for obliging the abuser. So I shut her right off because I really didn't need to be told that I couldn't think straight.

    In the end, it took just one person who believed in me and encouraged me without being pushy or condescending about it, that helped me get free. Even now, I second-guess myself and feel an invisible cord that tugs at me. The rational part of me says I'm doing OK, but the feelings say that I am crazy, I should support him, he is trying so hard and doesn't deserve this, was it that bad (despite a criminal charge), etc.

    Of course, if I do return, I will feel my children's wrath but if I don't, I will feel the Court's wrath for restricting his access to the kids.

    People can glibly ask, "What makes her stay?" when they don't realize it is impossible to leave without support and support is extremely hard to find. I had to secretly seek out an abused womens group and an abuse counselor, then secretly go to engage their services (most don't do phone counseling, and even the phone conversations I had, had to be done furtively from hidden corners of the house). I always thought it was so unfair that an injured person lying in the gutter not only couldn't get any help to get to hospital, she was expected to climb Mount Everest by herself. Finally I decided not to see myself as a victim and that if I had to climb Mt Everest for my kids, then I would.

    It took an enormous amount of effort to break free, and an equally amount of hard work to stay free. I wonder if those people who so easily criticize abused women would themselves have done the almost unsurmountable task of leaving the person who has a hold on your mind.

  3. What do you do when you've been trying to leave for 11 years but can't, because your ex- and his associates control the entire town, state, and even federal legal and justice system? Don't believe me?--take a look at my blog at I'm now trying to find help outside the U.S., because it's clear I'm never going to get any here!

    People who work with victims should be extremely concerned about what's being done to me, my children, and many others here, all only about an hour away from the headquarters of the National Domestic Violence Hotline in Austin. For information on the larger view of what's going on here, see especially the post entitled "Empire Builders".

    Any advice or suggestions from you or your readers would be greatly appreciated and possibly lifesaving!

  4. Hello Mr. Bancroft,
    I'm reading your book now "Why Does He Do That". I was recently involved with a man who just was so destructive to me emotionally. It isn't until I started to get informed that I realized his emotional and verbal abuse. I felt ashamed and disappointed in myself because my mother was a victim of all aspects of domestic violence. I witnessed it growing up.
    You would think I would know better? Not! In the throws of reading your book, I'm now realizing that I should not blame myself. So much light you have cast on my understanding.


  5. Mr. Bancroft,

    My inquiry is a bit of non-sequitur, but is there a Spanish translation of your book, Why Does He Do That? If not, is there a Spanish translation in the works? I am desperate to send a Spanish version to my friend in Valencia, Spain. Please reply. Thanks.

  6. Your book " Why Does He Do That" has helped me so much! I truly dont know where I would be without it. I am trying to blog about my experiences so my family and friends can start to understand. After my husband got arrested IM the one who felt like a lepor. Thank you soo much...

  7. MUM (second commenter above) I loved everything you said. Good on you!

    And ML, I have yet to read your blog but I believe you fully and send you my very best wishes and encouragement from the other side of the world (australia). If you want some moral support, don't hesitate to contact me, though I can only provide words and emotional support from this distance. My contact details are on my main website

  8. Saved as a favorite, I really like your website!
    Take a look at my site : Relationship Therapist