How to be a friend to someone in an abusive relationship
Updated: Feb 21
I have a friend whose cousin is in an abusive relationship. My friend has been through three years of ups and downs and she's recently decided to take a break. In other words, she told her cousin she can't help anymore. It sounds harsh, especially since my friend has been in abusive relationships herself. You think she'd have more compassion. But she grew weary anyway. And now she's taking a lot of heat from family members for bailing.
I’ve been on both sides of this, and in her defense, here’s what actually happens.
I had a friend who was in a bad relationship for years. I listened to her, I advised her, I cried with her. I ignored him for her and I embraced him all the same. By a few years in, I was exhausted. It was affecting my emotional health.
That may sound strange since it wasn’t my relationship, but never knowing what mood your friend will be in from day to day (and in this case, my roommate, so there was no escape) and going through hours of consoling and analyzing things with her, for her to keep going back and expect you to get on board again, is absolutely exhausting.
It’s not easy to get out of emotionally abusive relationships. In fact, most of the time, people don’t even realize they are in one. And that’s the rub.
If you are wholly there for your friend, and you love them, then you are naturally absorbing some of their emotions. Your support means you mimic their needs: Up when they’re up and down when they’re down.
At one point, I thought she had finally rid him. It had been a while and I thought we were in the clear. But one day I came home to find him in our living room. They ended up sitting on the couch, hand in hand, while I assumed a parental role and was standing in front of them demanding answers.
I was mad. Really mad! Part of it was because I knew my best friend was about to make another mistake and I was very worried about her. And part of it was because I was simply exhausted with her relationship.
I remember saying, quite sternly, that if they were getting back together, I couldn’t be a part of it. I couldn’t hang out with them and I wouldn’t be there for her to cry with when he treats her badly again.
I broke up with my best friend’s relationship.
Maybe she wasn’t done. But I was. I was uneducated on the topic of abusive relationships.
Thankfully, eventually she was able to break away on her own. And she ended up marrying the nicest guy on earth.
Fast forward many years and I found myself in an abusive relationship. The thing is, I didn’t realize it. I mean, I knew my ex was a big jerk, but I hadn’t realized quite how bad until I divorced him. He treated me terribly. Just terribly. But for some reason, I didn’t see it.
When you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship, they first shower you with love and kindness, so when they behave badly, you’re confused. And when it gets really bad, you sit them down and have a talk. And then they go into a period of good behavior. You forgive. You relax. But the cycle continues.
So, it takes a long time before you start adding it all up and figure out your life sucks. Meanwhile, my friend…the one whom I told those years ago I couldn’t deal with her relationship, dropped me. She hated my guy so much that she simply faded away. I mean, we were still friends, but our contacts were very few and far between. And total aside? But my ex loved this. An abuser will isolate you. And he was very good at it. My best friend was drifting away and he was alienating me from my sister as well. They do that. They're good at it.
But when she caught wind (from my sister) that my relationship had gotten really bad (and it had), she came to my rescue. She hung in there and kept encouraging me to leave. She sent me articles and articles about abuse and arrests of wives whose husbands were selling marijuana underground (he was, and was pressuring me for thousands of dollars from my 401K to grow his business).
The point is, if it weren’t for her and my sister, I might still be with him. They kept on me. They were very gentle. They never lost their temper or cut me off.
I wish I had been that good to her all those years ago.
If you want to help your friend, understand these things:
They probably have no idea how bad it is.
They need gentleness and love, not tempers and attitude.
They will go back and forth many times because there’s a psychological attachment thing happening that only they can work through. Remember, it’s not a normal relationship.
They are almost certainly dealing with low self-esteem and low confidence. And when you question everything you do, it becomes very difficult to make any big moves. But your friend may not realize she’s suffering in these ways, because when she started the relationship, she was a confident person. But an abuser will consistently put you down until eventually you start to believe it. She still thinks she’s the person who walked into the relationship. She is not. Not by a long shot.
Pressure will not work. Use phrases like, “I’m concerned for you when…” They need to do this on their own. In fact, as much as my sister was trying to pull me out, it was when she was out of the country and I hadn’t talked to her all week that I pulled the plug. I think I just needed some time to think on my own, and then everything sunk in. I ended things before she returned and she was shocked.
The best thing my friend can do for her cousin would be to keep saying, “I’m here when you need a hand out.” If she put on a clinical hat and did some research and reading, she'd understand more about the relationship traps -- as well her own past! It's never too late to understand what happened.
She'd realize she doesn’t need to become emotionally invested in her cousin’s relationship. Read about abusive patterns and understand them. Approach it intellectually and compassionately.
And honestly? I think these are good friend actions even if your friend is in a normal relationship that just isn’t working anymore. Our friends aren’t staying in bad relationships just to piss us off. Don’t take it personally. And as hard as it is, don’t get mad or cut them off. Take a breather. And let your friend know you’ve still got her back.