Help! My Friend Is in an Abusive Relationship

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

My best friend is in a nasty relationship. She never spends time with her friends anymore, because her man throws a jealous fit if she’s paying attention to anyone but him. When we all have double dates, he gets INCREDIBLY passive aggressive, always cracking jokes about her weight or her voice. My husband tried defending her once, only to get accused of flirting with her.

My friend used to be little miss sunshine, but now she’s miserable all the time. She’s always putting herself down, repeating her boyfriend’s insults. I’m worried she’s going to hurt herself if something doesn’t change.

I’ve told my friend she needs to get the heck out, but she won’t listen. She thinks she can still save the relationship. It doesn’t help that she lives in his house. I’ve offered to let her crash at my place—my boy’s in college now, she could have his whole room to herself—but she just gets angry and offended. Once, she even threatened to stop talking to me.

I don’t want to ruin our friendship, but I can’t stand to see my friend get hurt like this. I miss the happy, confident woman I used to know. Isn’t there anything I can do? —Frustrated Friend

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Dear Frustrated,

Thank you for your message. Boy oh boy, it sounds like your friend has picked one humdinger of a boyfriend. He sounds as much fun as a mosh pit full of Dobermans. I can understand your sense of shock, dismay, maybe even loss, since your friend seems to have vanished into a hostage situation. Your desire to rescue her is also understandable.

I have seen many people in therapy stuck somewhere on the spectrum of abusive relationships, from moderate to severe. Your friend’s situation sounds emotionally abusive, plus who knows what is happening behind the scenes. I have also counseled those outside a relationship looking in, wondering what they can do, if anything.

First, let me describe a little bit of what might be happening with your friend, based on my clinical observations over the years—keeping in mind everyone is different and I can only speculate.

My intuition is your friend has, at one time or another (perhaps in childhood), experienced some kind of abuse, neglect, abandonment, or some/all of the above. The self-esteem that is being injured now by these not-so-passive aggressive cracks had, I suspect, already suffered injury long before Mr. Wonderful arrived. It’s possible no one, including yourself, detected this self-loathing or merciless self-criticism beneath the surface.

One thing I have learned is that becoming entrapped in such a hostile relationship has nothing to do with a person’s intelligence or strength. It has everything to do with a person’s psychological and emotional history. On some level, consciously or not, your friend may not believe she deserves better. At some point, she may have learned that one must tolerate such behavior to maintain close connection.

In this situation, the only thing you can control is your own behavior. You have the difficult task of deciding whether to spend time around this man. You may decide his behavior is too painful to witness repeatedly, and so you might tell your friend you miss “girl time” with her and you would like to see her one on one at least occasionally. If she cannot or will not agree—if the man of the hour must also attend—then you can decide if it’s simply too much for you.

In other words, there may be toxic core shame she has lived with for some time, secretly undermining another’s esteem and caring. I am sure it is impossible for you to imagine why she would put up with such treatment. Perhaps you are thinking, “Where is my best friend and how can I get her back?”

But here’s the rub: what you are trying isn’t working. The reason—if, again, I had to guess why—is she is probably, consciously or not, deeply ashamed of her situation; the fellow in question continues to weaken her ability to set boundaries, appropriately assert herself, and act with the esteem we are born with but that trauma, such as abandonment or abuse or neglect, has a way of eroding.

She may be, in short, reliving or enacting some kind of childhood (or later) trauma right in front of you. It is distressing because you are clearly a sensitive, rational person. These situations are deeply frustrating because they play out with such obvious wrongness and we feel helpless to stop them—rather like watching a loved one get run over by the same car again and again.

The reason your well-intentioned attempts are not working has nothing to do with you. Your friend is probably pushing you away to protect her own brittle self-esteem. I would bet she suspects you are right, but remains too debilitated to kick him to the curb.

I have a few practical suggestions regarding your friend, and then one for you.

In this situation, the only thing you can control is your own behavior. You have the difficult task of deciding whether to spend time around this man. You may decide his behavior is too painful to witness repeatedly, and so you might tell your friend you miss “girl time” with her and you would like to see her one on one at least occasionally. If she cannot or will not agree—if the man of the hour must also attend—then you can decide if it’s simply too much for you.

This is a difficult situation and there is no clear-cut “right” solution. The upside regarding the above idea is that it sets an example for her—it models, if you will, the healthy boundaries she has yet to set. The downside is you may have to struggle with some guilt or sense of abandoning her. I am not suggesting you cut her out of your life, just that you either restrict or eliminate social time with the two of them and stay in touch with her online or via phone.

You could also decide to see them together and set your own boundary with him if he gets out of line. You might say, “Listen, you may think this is funny, but I really don’t, so could you please not joke like that while we’re all together?” If he gets unpleasant, you can decide if you want to stay.

Again, though, this is a boundary around socializing, not a hard line about keeping her in your life. She may well need you at some point if she decides she wants out—and even then, there may be several false starts, with her returning to him and leaving before she finally makes the break.

Here’s a counterintuitive suggestion for you: seek counseling for yourself for this, or talk to a trusted friend or spiritual/emotional adviser about your own pain and discomfort. These situations are traumatic enough that they become a kind of emotional black hole to those in the vicinity.

I detect some persistent turmoil going on within your psyche—some understandable anger, disappointment, or fear regarding your friend’s apparent “abandonment” of you, to shack up with a jerk. Someone in the constellation of souls here has to try something different; finding your own support may sooner or later impact your friend, as you two are closely connected.

Whenever anyone in a relational system (or family of sorts) makes a change, everyone is affected. Who knows? You might even invite your friend to attend a session with you, with you leading the way. It may even reduce the shame your friend feels, since you are working on your challenge, not seeing her or the man she has invested in as the problem. Besides, I would not be surprised if there are parallels—even subtle ones—of previous experiences in your life that this touches on. This may or may not be the case, but I can hear how this has shaken you, and whatever support you can find will show your friend how seriously you are taking this.

I hope this is helpful. Thanks again for writing, and I truly hope your friend finds her way clear of this distressing situation.

Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • 3 comments
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  • been there too

    been there too

    March 22nd, 2018 at 2:13 PM

    She is not alone
    lots of us have been stuck in abusive relationship
    seems like it should be easy to leave – wish it was for real

  • Dani

    Dani

    March 27th, 2018 at 7:24 PM

    I feel your pain don’t give up on her!

  • stupid girl

    stupid girl

    March 27th, 2018 at 9:05 PM

    Wow. I don’t think there is anything in the response that I can’t identify with as the abused. I’ve cried myself to sleep the past two nights wondering what is wrong with me that my boyfriend keeps getting so mad at me and keeps pushing me away. And I keep trying to tell myself that this isn’t right, that I don’t serve this, but then I look around and I have no friends or anyone else really. So maybe he’s not wrong?

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