How Can I Help a Loved One who is In an Abusive Relationship?

A reader named “Sister-In-Law” recently submitted a spiritual conundrum in which she describes the situation of her husband’s brother, “John” (not his real name), who is married to a woman who abuses him verbally and physically. The woman has a child from a previous marriage. The two of them also have one child together, and another one on the way.

Here are a few of the relevant pieces of information based on Sister-In-Law’s account:

  • John’s wife puts heavy pressure on him to make poor financial decisions and to leave his well-paying job, although she herself is not gainfully employed.
  • She is also distant and cruel to their children, and in general is not a good mother to them.
  • John is a great guy, but he does have a domestic violence charge against him from his high school years.

Not a pretty picture. But unfortunately, an all-too-common one. Whether it’s a man or a woman dishing out the abuse in a relationship, the result is a lot of terrible pain and suffering, and emotional scars that can last a lifetime.

Based on the situation she describes, here are Sister-In-Law’s questions:

My spiritual conundrum is this: HOW can I convince John, a macho guy who refuses to let anyone help him on small things, that he needs to get help for his marriage, his children, and himself? What can I say to him? How can I pray for them? The last is my biggest hurdle, because these things make me so angry every time I think about them that all I can do is ask God why this is happening. John is a great guy and deserves much, much better than this.

Let’s dig into these questions.

Helping someone in an abusive relationship: a crash course

Here’s the short version:

  1. You probably cannot convince him to get help, to leave, or whatever you think it is he should do—and the more pressure you put on him about it, the more harm it will do in the long run.
  2. You can avoid talking negatively about his wife, while still not approving or condoning the hurtful and wrong things she says and does. Focus on the actions, not on the person.
  3. You can tell your brother-in-law that you love him and care about him, that you think he is a good, capable, and worthy person, and that you will support him whatever decisions he makes, even if you don’t agree with them.
  4. You can trust that God is aware of this situation, and is doing everything possible to bring about a good outcome for the long term. You can pray for the strength to love and care about everyone in this toxic situation, and to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem.
  5. You can educate yourself about the realities of abusive relationships and domestic violence so that you will better understand what is going on and why, and will be more able to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Why can’t we just go in and fix it?

Some of these points may seem counterintuitive or even counterproductive. You may find yourself rebelling against them, wanting to assert yourself, to fix a problem that so obviously needs fixing.

The first thing to do is: Slow down, take a deep breath, and step back.

It is extremely painful to see those we love suffering. We want to help them, to fix their problems so they don’t have to suffer anymore.

And yet, many of the things we say and do intending to “fix” things actually make them worse.

There are reasons for this.

Domestic violence and abusive relationships are not simple problems, and there are no simple solutions. Looking from the outside, we can’t know all of the issues and factors involved. Only the people involved are in a position to make the necessary choices—and they must make those choices for themselves. We can support them and help them, but we cannot tell them what to do, because we’re not in their shoes.

Also, even if we were to “successfully” intervene, and pull someone we love out of an abusive relationship, the factors that led to that relationship would not have changed. Our loved one would be the same person, and would very likely either go right back to the former abusive relationship, or start another equally abusive relationship.

No one ever “deserves” to be abused. The abuse is not the victim’s fault, no matter how much the abuser may claim it is. Abusers are responsible for their own actions, and for the pain and suffering they cause.

However, the only lasting solution for the victims of abuse and domestic violence is for them to make their own choice whether, when, and how to exit their destructive relationships and begin a new and healthier life for themselves.

Ironically, if we decide that we are going to sweep in and “fix” their problem for them, we actually make it harder for them to escape from the cycle of violence and abuse.

Why?

Because we become yet another person who is telling them that they cannot help themselves, that they are deficient, incompetent human beings, and that they must let others take care of them and run their lives.

This is precisely what their abusers are telling them.

And it is precisely this low opinion of themselves that they must escape from in order to leave the cycle of violence and abuse behind for good.

In short, in order to escape the cycle of violence, victims of domestic abuse and violence must gain confidence in themselves as worthy, valid, strong, and competent people who can make their own decisions about how they will live their lives.

We cannot do it for them. They must come to that conclusion and that decision themselves. And though we can offer our help and support, we ourselves must develop the excruciating patience of watching them struggle to take those excruciatingly difficult steps in their lives.

We can’t make birds hatch, or humans grow

Here’s an image that may help:

A chick breaking out of its egg

A chick breaking out of its egg

Have you ever watched a chicken hatch from an egg? Have you ever had the urge to help it out? To break the shell for it so that it can get out faster and not have to struggle so much?

If you do, unless you are very experienced and know exactly what you are doing, you may be signing that baby bird’s death warrant.

The struggle to break out of the shell is necessary for the hatchling to get its biological systems ramped up and ready to take on its new life in the outside world. And hatching birds go through a definite process that must go step-by-step for the best chance at a healthy chick. If you break it out if its shell prematurely, it may die because of your “help.”

It’s the same for us human beings on a psychological level.

The struggle to overcome destructive and oppressive situations gives us the strength to move on to a new and better life. And there are definite emotional and spiritual steps we must take along the way.

If we reach into someone else’s life and try to push them along and fight their battles for them, they may never develop the strength within themselves to break away from their old life and build a new one. That is why, as painful as it can be to watch, we must let our loved ones fight their own battles, and make their own decisions about the abusive relationships they are stuck in.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of the points above.

Pressuring loved ones to get help or to leave will not help

Let’s take a look at John’s situation. He is a “macho guy.” He doesn’t want your help. He figures he can run his own life, thank you very much!

How will it feel to him if you try to convince him to get help or to leave?

You may have the best of intentions.

But what he will hear is, “She thinks I’m a failure as a man, and I can’t handle my own life.”

He needs to find a way to respect himself as a man. Being rescued by family members will make him feel like a chump, not like a man.

From the story you tell, it sounds like he has a constant barrage of pressure from his wife that tears down his ability to make his own financial and personal decisions, and run his own life. That’s bad enough. Does he really need you telling him from the other side that he can’t handle his life, and needs to get help?

No, he doesn’t. Putting that kind of pressure on him will only make him feel worse about himself. It will make him less likely to get the help you think he needs. In order to protect his own sense of masculinity and self-worth, he will even more stubbornly insist that he can handle it by himself, and he doesn’t need any help.

It is embarrassing for men to be abused by their wives and girlfriends. Admitting that they have a problem and may need help is a painful process that often comes with a lot of self-doubt, and sometimes even self-loathing. Your brother-in-law needs to come to that point of realization and decision on his own.

Unfortunately, this may mean that the situation will get worse before it gets better. Before there can be any real change for the better, he may have to reach the point where his current situation is so intolerable that he can no longer stand it, and decides that he must take action to change it. Then he may be ready to ask for your help, if he feels he needs it.

In short: John must develop the strength to take his life into his own hands, make his own decisions, and determine what he is going to do about his marriage, his children, his career, and his finances.

Trash-talking the abusive partner will not help

It’s tempting to tell a loved one what a loser he’s married to, and how much better he could do.

But that will most likely not have the effect you are hoping for.

Instead, he’ll likely get defensive, start talking about her good qualities, and get angry at you for attacking his wife.

Why did he marry her in the first place? There must be something about her that he is attracted to, and that caused him to feel that he is in love with her and wants to be with her.

He probably still has a dream that he can have a good and happy life with her. He may be desperately doing everything he can to try to make that happen.

And then, some well-meaning friend or relative comes along and tells him he made a big mistake, she’s a worthless person, and he should dump her.

That’s not what he wants to hear. And it doesn’t help. By extension, he’s being told that he is a loser for marrying that loser.

The process of separating from an abusive lover is often a long and painful one. The feelings of love with which we entered the relationship must be broken, and we must untangle our loves, our feelings, our hopes, and our dreams from the one we had entwined them with. That can take months, years, or even decades of discovering gradually, incident after incident, that this relationship is not and never will be what we hope and dream it will be.

If he’s still with her, he probably still has some love and affection for her. He is hoping she will change. If she does change, and the relationship improves, he will feel that it was all worth it, and that he was right to stick with her through all those terrible times.

But the fact is, he has no control over her, and he cannot make her change. And another fact is that abusive partners rarely do change.

However, he will have to come to that conclusion himself, in his own time.

Meanwhile, the more that friends and family trash-talk his partner, the more he will jump to her defense, and the longer it will take for him to make his own decision about whether to stay and attempt to heal the relationship, or to recognize that his relationship is irreparably broken.

Offering love, support, and respect will help

You can’t fight his battles for him. But you can let him know that you care about him and you’re behind him. You can let him know that you respect him as a person.

You can tell him that you know he’s in a difficult situation, but that you trust him to be able to make the best decisions for his own life. You can give him your own opinions if you want. But then tell him that in the end, he’s the only one who can decide what’s best for him to do.

You’re not in his shoes. And you don’t have all the information he does about the relationship.

For one thing, your information comes mostly from your own observations and those of your own family and friends. Both you and they are naturally going to see things in a way that is more favorable to your brother-in-law.

There may be issues and factors on the other side of the question that you either don’t know about or are resistant to seeing. For example, if your brother-in-law has a strike against him on domestic violence issues, has he fully changed and overcome his urge to strike out against those he loves? There may be things going on in his relationship that you don’t know about.

Yes, you love your brother-in-law. But there is an approximately 100% chance that he is not perfect, and has some if his own issues to work out about how he treats others.

The main point is, you’re looking at things from the outside, while he’s looking at things from the inside. He’s probably aware of some of his own failings—and that will also affect his ability to make changes for the better.

What he needs from you is your love, support, and understanding. He needs to know that there are people who care about him, who respect him, and who wish the best for him. And he needs to know that if he makes a decision you don’t agree with, you won’t reject him and throw him under the bus.

It may be a long, hard road for him either to achieve healing in his relationship with his wife or to make the painful decision to end that relationship. Knowing you’re behind him for the long haul is the best help you can give him.

Bringing God into the picture will help

And your biggest hurdle: How can you pray for them when you are so angry at the situation and the injustice of it? Isn’t God paying attention?

If God actually is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful as the great religions of the world say, then God is fully aware of the situation your brother-in-law is in, and is doing everything possible to bring about a good result for everyone involved.

Unfortunately, we humans are a stubborn bunch. We often do our best to resist and foil God’s efforts to move us to a better place emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.

So the first person to pray for is yourself.

As long as you are thinking and acting from anger and frustration, you will not be able to help your brother-in-law in any truly constructive way. You can pray to God to soften your anger, and help you to gain more patience, understanding, and compassion for everyone caught in this toxic situation.

Yes, in addition to your compassion for John and for the children, you can be most helpful if you also develop some compassion for his wife—even if you find her words and actions wrong and destructive.

It is likely that John cares very much for his wife and for their children. He wants good things for all of them. He wants them to be happy. He may or may not be able to accomplish that. But if he feels that you wish well to all of the people he loves, he may begin to think that you can understand how difficult and painful his situation is, and why it is such a struggle for him. He needs you to understand why he is with this woman. Only then can he feel your support in the difficult and painful decisions he must make going forward.

You can also pray for God to be with John, with his wife, and with their children. Of course, God is ready, able, and willing to use every bit of divine power to help. When we pray, we do not change God. Rather, we help to open up new pathways by which God can flow into situations that are resisting and pushing away God’s love, understanding, and power.

God loves everyone involved in this situation fully, deeply, and with an eternal love. God wants all of them to turn away from destructive desires, thoughts, words, and actions, and turn toward more thoughtful and loving ways of living. And God has a special concern to provide for the eternal wellbeing of the children involved. Our mindful and loving prayers can help widen the channels by which God is able to accomplish these things.

Learning about abusive relationships will help

Many well-meaning people try to help friends and family members who are caught in abusive relationships. But without an understanding of the patterns and causes of domestic abuse and violence, those friends and family often do more harm than good.

There is a solution for that.

The solution is to educate yourself about domestic violence and abusive relationships.

There is plenty of good information out there. There’s also some bad information out there.

Here are a few quick pointers:

  • Avoid approaches that emphasize “anger management” as a solution to domestic violence and abusive relationships. Anger management programs have their place. But abusive relationships are not about anger.
  • Look for approaches that get at the root of the problem: a desire for dominance and control on the part of the abusive partner.
  • Look for approaches that emphasize personal responsibility both on the part of the abuser and on the part of the abused partner.
  • Look for organizations and agencies in your own area that offer materials and classes about domestic violence and abusive relationships.

One good place to start is the “Emerge” program, headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If you explore its site, you will find some good basic information, and links to many organizations that have further information.

The more you can learn about the realities and dynamics of abusive relationships, the more you will be able to help your loved ones who are caught in the cycle of domestic violence and abuse.

What about the children?

So far my response to your spiritual conundrum has focused mostly on the adults.

When there are children involved, it becomes far more complicated. It’s hard enough for victims of abuse to extricate themselves from that destructive situation. If they have children together with their partner, there is a whole new layer that must be taken into account.

Unlike adults, young children cannot come to a decision to leave a situation in which they are abused. Sometimes outside intervention is necessary to save them from violence and abuse.

If you believe that the children are being physically abused, or severely emotionally abused, then you can no longer stand on the sidelines offering your moral support. You must let the local authorities know. The lives of the children may depend on it.

Yes, this is a difficult decision. You will have to weigh the damage and danger to the children, and come to some conclusion about whether they’re actually being abused. And then it is time to take action.

No easy answers

Once again, abusive relationships and domestic violence are some of the most painful, complicated, difficult, and destructive situations we humans face. There simply are no easy answers, and no magic bullets that can fix everything and take away all the pain and suffering.

However, if we are willing to put out the effort to educate ourselves, to care, to love, to support, to respect, to pray, and to take action where necessary, we can be a force for positive change in the lives of those we love.

Our thoughts and prayers are with you as you face this difficult and painful challenge.

For related posts, see:

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in Pain and Suffering, Sex, Marriage, Relationships
6 comments on “How Can I Help a Loved One who is In an Abusive Relationship?
  1. giorge thomas says:

    Ugh. Have a similar situation going on myself. Not actual physical abuse, but emotional abuse. When things are bad we are able to talk to the person in question openly, and he sees with clear eyes all the problems in his relationship. Yet his partner manages in some way to manipulate him into thinking things are fine, and he just goes back to the same old same old, thinking things are fine.

    In every scenario, it’s hard to find the right way to deal with things. I look from personal experience. Basically, be supportive. Say nothing as nothing you say will help the situation – unfortunately you just have to wait for the person in question to make the decision to leave.

    • Lee says:

      Hi giorge,

      Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, that’s about the size of it! As much as we want to help, and as obvious as the problem seems to be from the outside, ultimately those caught in abusive relationships have to make their own decisions.

      Of course, this whole article assumes that the victim is not suffering severe physical abuse. Assault and battery should be reported to the authorities regardless of whether it occurs in people’s homes or out in public.

  2. Sister-in-law says:

    Thank you for this. A lot of these things were very eye opening, particularly that I should say nothing and get along with her during family events. I had been doing that to avoid making more trouble for my brother in law, but I felt like it was a cop out of sorts and I wasn’t doing enough. Thank you for advising me in this hard situation! This post also opened my eyes to the fact that my own childhood experience of growing up in a home filled with arguing, petty, controlling adults had me more upset about this than someone without that background might have been. I really appreciate the depth and candor of your response. Thank you.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Sister-in-law,

      You’re welcome. I’m glad this response was helpful to you. Of course, as always, these are complex situations. You’ll have to use your best judgment as events unfold in your brother-in-law’s marriage.

      And yes, we tend to be especially sensitive to those hurts and wrongs that we ourselves suffered growing up. That’s a great insight!

  3. Doug Webber says:

    Here is a story for you: I was in a church and a man decided to approach me about his family problem. His wife of over 10 years had been mentally, verbally, and physically been abusing him to such a point that he filed for not only divorce but successfully filed a restraining order against her. He had to go to a different church to avoid contact with here, but the complication is they have a daughter who now “hates his guts” because apparently she has started to poison her mind against him. And here is the odd thing: the court ordered that the daughter spend more time with him than the mother. Normally children spend more time with the mother, as far as I know.

    I really pressed him on the restraining order, that he should remove that, that was probably
    going too far. Door should be left open for reconciliation. He said no, it was necessary. He then explained she had psychiatric issues, which got worse after her father committed suicide. The divorce happened after she refused to get any more psychiatric help, up until that time he was dealing with it.

    So my final point to him: in these matters, it does not matter who is “right or wrong.” In the end, when one goes through a divorce, it is the children who suffer. I said what is happening now is going to have a long term adverse affect on his daughter. I dont know the full situation, but my suggestion was that he should have held out a little longer for the sake of his daughter, until she was older.

    In America, divorce is made too easy, in other countries both parties must agree before the court will grant a divorce.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Doug,

      Thanks for your comment. To be honest, I used to hold views similar to the ones you express here. Now that I’ve seen more of life, I see things differently.

      If you have not been through a divorce, you are a lucky man. But those who have not been through a divorce generally have little idea of just how difficult and painful it is. No one gets a divorce lightly. People whose marriages are on the rocks will often put on a good face to the world and hide just how bad the situation is. As a result, to outside eyes the divorce often looks sudden and unnecessary. But once you start seeing divorces from the inside, a very different picture emerges. If there is abuse involved, it is an even more terrible situation.

      I would suggest simply supporting your friend and being a listening ear. The fact that he turned to you suggests that he thinks of you as someone he can talk to. He is not making any of these decisions lightly. And the idea that it would have been better for his daughter for the marriage to continue is almost certainly an illusion. While the tension of the marriage may be hidden from outside eyes, the children of a bad marriage live in that atmosphere day in and day out. Living in a house with hostile, fighting parents does terrible damage to children. Divorce is never pleasant, and does damage of its own. But your friend has seen the situation from the inside when he was together with his wife. I expect that he took that into account in getting the divorce and considering what was best for his daughter.

      Unfortunately, it is very common for one parent to turn the children against the other. If one of the parents has been abusive, she or he will almost certainly attempt to do so, and may very well succeed. But that would have already been going on within the household, while they were still married. It is not caused by the divorce. It is caused by the same thing that caused the divorce: the disrespect and abuse of one partner directed at the other. The most common cause for this is a desire on the part of the abusive partner to dominate and control the other. This is not something that can be counseled out of a person. In religious terms, it can be corrected only by genuine repentance on the part of the abusive person. And that is quite rare among abusers. There is nothing your friend could have done to fix the situation with his wife and his marriage. It was only going to get worse.

      Where abuse is involved, it is almost always necessary to enforce no contact against the abusive partner. When there are children from the relationship, this becomes very difficult. For your friend, the hope is that as his daughter gets older, she will come to understand the situation better. If her father is a decent man, most likely she will eventually come to realize that–at least in her adulthood, if not before–and from a better relationship with him.

      Quite honestly, from what you have said, I think your friend is probably handling a very difficult and painful situation about as well as it can be handled.

      In U.S. courts, mothers no longer automatically get the children in a divorce. Instead, courts will generally attempt to evaluate both parents, and do their best to give primary custody to the parent whom they think is most likely to provide the healthiest and most stable environment for the children. If that is clearly the father rather than the mother, they will give the children to the father. Of course, the system is not perfect. Courts often fail miserably, either because the judge doesn’t care or because it can be very difficult to determine what’s really going on in the highly conflicted “he says, she says” atmosphere of contested divorce proceedings. However, the system is generally much more flexible these days, and the primary concern is supposed to be for the welfare of the children.

      About divorce being too easy, consider this: As Swedenborg describes it, in the world of spirits, where people first arrive and live for a time after they die (see What Happens To Us When We Die?), married couples who are incompatible separate from one another, either mutually or by the decision of one or the other of the partners. They then find new partners who are a spiritual match for them.

      While there have been many social reasons in the past that divorce could not be easy–primarily to protect women in cultures in which a divorced woman is in serious trouble–in western countries today the social situation is very different. I believe that as the New Jerusalem descends upon this earth, we are moving more and more toward doing things the way they are done in the spiritual world. There, marriage and divorce are not governed by social, financial, or political considerations, but by spiritual compatibility or lack thereof.

      However, this is a very complicated issue, and there are no easy solutions here on earth. In general, I have come to believe that it is best to allow people to make their own decisions not only about whether and whom they will marry, but about whether they will remain in or leave the marriage that they are in. For marriages to be genuine, they must exist in an atmosphere of freedom.

      For more on marriage, divorce, and abuse, see the article:
      “God Hates Divorce” vs. “Do Not Be Unfaithful to the Wife of Your Youth”

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

Lee & Annette Woofenden

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Earlier Posts
Lee Woofenden speaking at Fryeburg New Church Assembly, Fryeburg, Maine, August 2012

Lee Woofenden speaking at Fryeburg New Church Assembly

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