Supporting a friend or loved one who is experiencing intimate partner abuse

It can be so hard to watch someone that you love being treated badly by their partner, and harder still to understand why they stay. You may find yourself frustrated, sad, angry, depressed, irritated and feeling powerless.

The truth is, they also may not understand why they stay. Or, they may be torn, caught between loving their partner, but also hating the way that they are sometimes (or frequently) treated. They may be financially dependent, or had their self-esteem chipped away little by little so they have no strength to leave, or they may truly struggle to believe that they can make it on their own.

So, my first principle is: Meet them where they are at

By this, I mean: let them be where they are. If they want to leave, support that. If they want to make it work, accept that too. You don’t have to like it, but if you can, try to support them in their decisions as best as you are able.

Abuse is essentially a relational power-grab; their partner is likely to be undermining and controlling, and so, although it may seem counterintuitive to support them in their decision to stay, you need to behave differently to the abuser.

Trust them. Allow them space to make their own decisions. Be supportive. But be careful not to step into the role of rescuer. It’s a fine line, but an important one.

My second is: Be genuine

This may seem to contradict the above point, but I mean; you don’t need to lie about your concern for them.

In fact, it may be really important for you to express your genuine misgivings about the way that they are being treated. In this way, you can help provide a barometer of what is normal and healthy behaviour in a relationship.

Do be careful not to be too vocal in your condemnation of their partner though; a good rule of thumb is to comment on their behaviour, not them as a person.

Understand that they will likely have positive feelings for their partner

It is likely that they experience both positive and negative feelings for their partner. This can be really hard to tolerate, but if you shut out their positive feelings they may find it harder to talk to you.

Be a positive, loving force

Don’t feel that you need to talk about ‘the problem’ all the time. You can be a space for them to breathe, to laugh, to be free. It might be really important for you to provide some much needed relief from what they are dealing with at home.

The relationship is about you too, allow yourself to be as free and authentically you as you can be with them.

Keep yourself safe

Depending how dangerous their partner is, you may need to think about your own safety. If you witness an act of violence, absolutely call the police.

It is also important for you to look after your emotional needs too; you are not responsible for your loved one*, so it is fine for you to engage as much or as little as you are comfortable with and if it becomes too much, it really is fine for you to back away.

Your presence may itself threaten the abuser’s control

One tactic abusers use frequently is isolating their victims from sources of support in order to better keep control. Therefore, be aware that your presence in your loved one’s life may undermine the control over the abuser, which may in turn cause them to try to undermine your relationship. This may make it tricky for your loved one to see you.

They may never leave

As much as you would like them to, sometimes people never leave their abusive relationships; or they may leave, only to return again. This can be sad and painful, and difficult to see, but it doesn’t make your presence any less important in their life. In fact, your very presence holds a door to the outside world open, and may even make it more likely that they end the relationship in time.

If they are thinking about leaving

Encourage your loved one to seek specialist advice; leaving, and the months immediately afterwards is known to be the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship. Seeking expert advice will help  them to plan for a safer exit.

Look after yourself

Keep a focus on your life, the activities and people that bring you joy and that give your existence meaning and vitality. Tend to your affairs. You need to be steady before you can be someone else’s rock.

If you find yourself struggling to deal with your anxiety for your friend or loved one, there’s no shame in seeking support for yourself. There are plenty of professionals out there who will be able to support you, which may in turn make it easier for you to support your loved one.

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* Unless they are a child or a ‘vulnerable’ adult due to learning difficulties or severe mental health problems, in which case I would recommend seeking specialist advice around safeguarding.

Why abuse isn’t an ‘anger’ issue

The terms victim and abuser are very imperfect, and I acknowledge that. You may also note that I tend to define the abuser as male and the victim as female. I use these terms for readability, but please do substitute your own language if this doesn’t fit with your preference or experience.

It is a common misunderstanding that abuse is an issue with anger, and if an abuser could gain control of their anger, they would no longer be abusive. However, this explanation misses something crucial;

Abusers have abusive expectations, and then they get angry when these expectations are not met.

Anger, acted out in an abusive relationship, can therefore be more usefully understood as a problem of entitlement rather than a problem of anger.

Anger in this context can be displayed in two ways: passive aggressively, or aggressively. It is often easier to spot the more obvious displays of anger; violence, threats, destroying possessions and yelling, to name a few. Harder to spot are the subtler displays of anger; the criticism ‘for your own good’, the sulking, the mess left ‘accidentally on purpose’, and the kids who have not been put to bed yet, even though it’s well past your bedtime.

Aggressive or violent displays of anger

If my partner punches me because I have not done the washing up to his standards, it might seem that he lacks control of his anger (indeed, he may actively encourage me to think this), however:

  • His anger arises from the ‘abusive expectation’ that he should be the one who decides how the washing up needs to be done.
  • His belief (conscious or not) that he is entitled to use force / violence / coercive tactics to get me to do what he wants.
  • A wider relational dynamic where he believes he is entitled to be in charge, or that I need to be controlled.
  • That it is my responsibility to prioritise his feelings (in this instance, his wish to have a clean kitchen) at the expense of my needs and rights within the relationship (in this instance, my personal autonomy, and my human right to live a life free from violence and fear).

Passive aggressive / emotionally abusive displays of anger

They may display their anger in a variety of ways: sulking, manipulation (drawing on your empathy, making you feel sorry for them), pressure, love-bombing, stalking, harrassment, or punishing you in a variety of other ways.

If we take the example of a man who doesn’t want his partner to go out (jealousy is common in abusive relationships); he might tell her he’s fine with it, but his behaviour will demonstrate otherwise: he might tell you he doesn’t like your friends, they’re not good enough for you, come back in drunk the next night to punish you because he knows you don’t like it, ‘have’ to work late on the day when you share a car so you can’t go without him being home, text you incessantly when you finally get out, and then sulk for days afterwards but deny that he is sulking.

What makes it a problem of entitlement is the following:

  • His ‘abusive expectation’ that he should be the one to decide where you go, who you see, and what you do
  • The idea that he is entitled to use underhand & coercive tactics to achieve his aims
  • A wider relational dynamic where he feels entitled to be in charge, and;
  • That it is your responsibility to look after his feelings (in this instance, jealousy) at the expense of your needs and rights within the relationship (in this instance, personal freedom)

I use the example of an intimate partner relationship, but obviously abuse can take place in all sorts of other relationships too. For example, issue of entitlement can be complicated in the case of parent-to-child abuse where the parent’s ordinary responsibility for taking care of, ensuring the safety of, and disciplining their child can sometimes be hard to separate from coercive control and abusive expectations. However, at the heart of all abusive relationships is the issue of power and control; abusers try to dominate their victims using a variety of methods, including manipulation, violence, aggression, blackmail, criticism, gaslighting and (faux-)kindness. In contrast, to use a Winnicottian phrase, ‘Good enough’ parents try to take into account their children’s desires, needs and feelings and do their best to act from a place of empathy when they have to set boundaries, rather than use blame and criticism (although they certainly don’t always get it right).

Therefore, displays of anger can be both understood in the context of the wider use of abusive tactics, and also as arising out of inappropriate expectations of the other.

Some abusers really do have hair trigger tempers, and could usefully engage with anger management techniques, but this would need to be within the context of a specialist Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programme and not an anger management course. (Anger Management course can actually escalate abusers’ behaviour because of their emphasis on shared responsibility for conflict.)

Controlling, but not taking responsibility for their feelings

Interestingly, where abusers so often take control within relationships, they usually also don’t take responsibility for their abuse or their anger. A common justification that an abuser will use is ‘I just saw red’ or ‘I couldn’t help it, my jealously was so strong’. Or they will blame their victim ‘you shouldn’t have gone out / talked to that man / looked up from the floor’.

This reallocates the responsibility towards the victim for managing the abuser’s feelings, while keeping the locus of control firmly in the abuser’s hands. So, they have the control but none of the responsibility, and the victim is left looking to the abuser for how she should think, act, feel and behave.

In contrast, for an abuser to have a meaningful recovery from being abusive, there must be a consistent, repeated attempt to take responsibility for one’s own actions while letting go of their control over their victim’s thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviour. Most abusers are very good at saying sorry;  meaning it, and undertaking a consistent and sustained change in their behaviour is usually another matter entirely.

If you are in an abusive relationship, as ever, focus on your safety first. The National Domestic Abuse Helpline can be contacted on 0808 2000 247, they should be able to point you in the direction of some suitable help if you are in an abusive relationship or struggling with the after effects.

Good luck, and take good care of yourself.

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Please do note that violence does not need to be a part of an abusive relationship. Emotionally and psychologically abusive relationships can be extremely damaging in and of themselves. Seek appropriate help if you are struggling, therapy can be a useful resource, the internet can be a good source of information and enable you to find online and offline support networks.

 

Fall in love with yourself

So many people come to therapy full of judgements and criticisms about themselves, ranging from shame and a squirmy discomfort with parts of the self, to out and out self-loathing.

If this resonates, there will likely be very good reasons why you find parts, or all, of yourself unacceptable. Usually it is a family legacy; some families don’t do sadness, or are shamebound, and obviously some are abusive which has its own complicated legacy.

While it is often important in therapy to go into those vulnerable, painful places, the practice of healthy self-love (not the self-aggrandisement of narcissism) can be an valuable tool as well. Sitting with the good in us can be as important as sitting with the painful stuff.

What would happen if you could not only drop the judgements, but if you could see yourself as a loved one sees you? (Past or present.) Maybe it’s your lover, your mother, your friend, your therapist. Maybe it’s your God, if you have one.

Can you allow yourself to step into their skin and see yourself through their eyes. Not just the tally of your best assets, but the particular constellation of things that makes you uniquely you. Can you allow yourself to see the very best in you?

If this is too sweeping and vague, try to find just one thing from the last week that you have done that you like, or that someone else might pick out. See if you can appreciate yourself for whatever it was. Don’t discount it; try not to sweep away the positive with rationalisations or reasons why parts of you (or all of you) is not acceptable.

Let it in. Like the sun on a summer’s day, bathe in it, soak in it, let it sink into all the corners of your being. It may feel strange, uncomfortable, maybe even wrong, but that’s okay. Give it time. You’re worth it.

Brainspotting for trauma

“Where we look affects how we feel”

Developed in 2003 by David Grand, Ph.D, Brainspotting (BSP) makes use of eye positions to access and process unresolved trauma and difficult emotions held in the body and in the brain. While the process cannot ever erase the troubling events and situations, it can make them less distressing and change your response to them.

Sometimes used in conjunction with musical bilateral stimulation, this can be a powerful and effective way of processing distressing memories or feelings.

For more information, please see the links below:

https://brainspotting.com/

http://www.bspuk.co.uk/