It is its own painful process to watch someone you care about experience and submit to abusive and controlling behavior. Sometimes, we have higher standards for what we want someone we love to tolerate than we have for what we are willing to tolerate for ourselves.
I remember one time, sitting around a table with some friends from law school, and a woman at the table was talking about buying a plane ticket to visit her boyfriend in another state. Two of the men at the table freaked out and were telling her that it was unacceptable for her to pay for the full ticket. One of the guys was constantly telling women they were stupid, and the other was constantly cheating on his girlfriends, so it was a moment of irony. You never want to be the guy throwing stones from glass houses. But, at the same time, if you see concerning behavior, do you stay silent?
Here are 5 practical steps to take if you are concerned someone you love is experiencing abusive or controlling behavior:
1. Know your own perspective. We often think that we are intervening in someone else's relationship out of pure, selfless kindness. That isn't true, but the fact that isn't true doesn't mean you are doing something wrong. You think someone else's relationship should be different than it is, and that causes you stress. Fighting with reality always causes stress and suffering. You want to escape that stress by changing the person you love. Instead, it is important to look at your own story and your own fight with reality. You will be better able to help if you are coming from a place of love, not a place of anxiety and suffering.
2. Show respect to the person you love. Accepting that the person you love is choosing this relationship doesn't mean that you think she deserves abuse. It means you respect her. Be curious about her perspective and hold space for her.
3. Show respect to the abuser. What?! Okay, hear me out. Being respectful is not about the person you are encountering; it is about you. If the person you love has a choice between listening to two disrespectful people (her abuser and you), why would she make a change? Be an example of something different. When she leaves him, she may go back. Your disrespect to him while she's gone, it is much more difficult to be a support when she goes back.
4. Focus on your relationship with her. Her relationship with other people is none of your business, even if you are her mom or sister. Establishing a healthy relationship with her, unconditionally loving her, respecting her opinions, and being available as a support is the most important thing you can do. She is not causing his abuse, but she may believe she is. She may also use your relationship as evidence that there is something wrong with her. You can help her unlock her power and confidence through your relationship, and it does not need to have anything to do with him. If you believe that she can't take care of herself or make good decisions, why should she think anything different? She can take care of her self. She can make good decisions. Be a mirror that shows her that through your relationship. Sometimes, this means saying "no" to her if what she wants is not something healthy and good for you. If you can't say "no" to her, there is no reason to expect her to be able to say "no" to him.
5. Set healthy boundaries with her. Setting a boundary does not mean telling her that she needs to change her life or relationship so that you can stop feeling worried. Setting a boundary is always something you do to take care of yourself, not to change her. For example, it is not setting a boundary to say, "If you don't break up with him, I can't hang out with you." Her relationship with him does not violate your space or ability to care for yourself. It would be setting a boundary, though, to say, "He is not welcome in my home because he breaks things, but I love you and you are always welcome." Sometimes, we want to give someone a lecture, and we pretend that it is setting a boundary. So, know the difference. You don't need to tell her he's not welcome in your home unless she wants to bring him there or he shows up at your door. She gets to do what she wants, but you get to take care of yourself.
Loving someone who is experiencing abuse or control can be as painful as being in the relationship yourself. Her experience has the opportunity to teach you so much about yourself and your experiences. If you would like help, I'm here for you!