As Liz shared in her guest post, watching a partner in an abusive relationship is horrid. It can create feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, do severe damage to your relationship, and, depending on how entwined you and your partner are, have a significant impact on your daily life.
Many people, when they see someone they love in an abusive relationship, immediately want to rescue them. Convince them the relationship is unhealthy and get them out of there. Unfortunately, that almost never works. Our partners are grown-ups capable of making their own decisions, not damsels in distress waiting for us to ride to their rescue. Whether or not they have recognized their relationships are abusive, they definitely know that the relationship is not making them happy. If they are still in the relationship, they have a reason.
So what can you do?
Communicate Your Concern
The first and most important thing to do is let your partner know you are worried about them. Tell them what you are seeing and why you think it is unhealthy. Tell them that you know they love this person, but you are also afraid for them.
“Abuse” is a very loaded word. You may want to avoid using it the first time you talk with your partner. Some people will stop listening when you mention abuse, unable to believe that they would be in an abusive relationship. If you think your partner might react that way, don’t use “abuse.” Instead, say that you think their SO is trying to control them and that isn’t healthy.
If your partner is already aware of the abuse, they may say things like, “I know, but I need to stay because XYZ.” If they aren’t aware, they may deny it, “No, you’re wrong, they’re just insecure and need me to help them through this.” Or, if they aren’t aware, they may listen, “I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right. I don’t like when they do XYZ, but I don’t know what to do about it.”
However they respond, your next step is the same.
Your goal is to be there for your partner. You can’t help them by making them feel defensive of their SO or by getting in a disagreement about whether or not the relationship is abusive.
Ask them what they want and how you can help. Do they want out but feel like they can’t leave? Do they want to fix their relationship? Do they feel like they are the one who is ruining the relationship by not being good enough/smart enough/etc.? With a certain kind of abuser, that last response is very common.
Tell them that you love them and want them to be happy. That you will support whatever they decide to do, even though you don’t think the relationship they are in is healthy.
You may be able to give them tools to help them make their decision. Tell them about vectors of control. If they are convinced that their SO can’t be abusive b/c they really love them, talk about the roots of abuse and how not all abusers are evil bastards, many just don’t know how to have a healthy relationship.
Perhaps most importantly:
You can’t help your partner unless you help yourself first. That means protecting yourself, and (to the extent you can) protecting your relationship with them.
It is very important to set boundaries. All too often your partner’s abusive relationship will spill over onto your relationship. This can be anything from your time with your partner turning into endless counseling sessions (hint: being supportive does not mean turning into an unpaid therapist), to constant cancellations and intrusions on your time with your partner, to you being dragooned into actively doing things for the abusive SO.
Here are a few boundaries you might consider setting:
1. I am not willing to talk about SO on our date nights.
2. I will not remain in this relationship if SO keeps intruding on our time together.
3. I am not involved with SO, I will not help you meet his requests or demands.
Have Your Own Support
You will be dealing with your own stress and emotional strain from watching your partner deal with the abuse. You need to have ways to deal with that stress and strain, as well as people you trust to advise you when you are getting in too deep. Ways to deal with stress can be meditation, long walks, sparring practice, beating up zombies in your favorite computer game, or a bunch of other things. People to talk with can be friends, family, other partners. If the stress and strain get really bad you might consider getting yourself to a counselor or therapist. Sometimes that outside perspective can really help.
You May Need to Stop Being Supportive
If the abuse is really bad, or if nothing changes for a long time, you may need to withdraw your support. “I love you, and I don’t want to tell you what to do, but I can’t stand watching the way they are hurting you.” When they are ready to get out of the abusive relationship, or take the steps needed to change it, you will be glad to help. Until then, you don’t want to hear anything about their SO or the problems in their relationship.
Depending on how great a hold the abuser has, the steps you take to protect yourself and you relationship may lead to your relationship ending. Obviously, that isn’t what you want to happen and isn’t an easy thing to do. But sometimes it is necessary. In a way, it is a less extreme version of the choice your partner is making. Have compassion for them making their choice, and make your own choice the choice that is best for you.
This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series.