‘Love Letters’ is a Petal + Sass blog feature that regularly asks a group of diverse women in their 20’s and 30’s about their experiences with health, sex, emotional wellness, body image, college, careers – and what they wish they had known themselves as teenagers. Visit the ‘Love Letters’ To My Former Self page to learn more about the contributors.
Question Posed: What would you advise a girl who found herself in a dangerous relationship – either physically or emotionally abusive? How would you advise her friends to better support her in this situation?
Miss Rosebud: This is hard to give advice on since it’s so situation and fact dependent. Sadly, though, it’s an all too common problem. I don’t know many women who haven’t been in a situation that isn’t compromising in some way or other.
Physical violence is in a way easier to advise on – get out, NOW. If your friend doesn’t get out of the situation, seek help for her, whether it’s from her parents, the guidance counselor, or someone else you trust. I know it feels like you’re betraying her, but trust me, you’re not. You’re betraying her by not insisting she get help.
If it’s emotional, it’s a little more complicated. In severe situations, see above. But most of the time, it isn’t so obvious. Maybe he is controlling, condescending, or manipulative, but sometimes really sweet. Try and talk her through it. Support her, give her confidence boosts, encourage her to realize that he’s simply not worth the time. She may not listen, but continue to support her. Sometimes that’s all you can do. Something I didn’t realize when I was younger is that love isn’t enough. The relationship also has to make you feel good the vast majority of the time. And if it never has (the honeymoon period doesn’t count), it never will.
Miss CallaLilly: As a young person, it’s easy to protect yourself by believing that you are invincible. As a strong person, it is easy to convince yourself that you are meant to be in a uniquely challenging relationship because you can withstand “what would seem painful to a weak person.” Unfortunately, if you are young or strong; or even worse – both – you can be particularly susceptible to maintaining a toxic relationship without noticing.
Here is the truth: which ever romantic relationship you choose to be in is your choice. And if it is the right relationship, you will be loved and feel safe enough to make the decision to remain with your partner over any other option every morning when you wake up.
You can be 15 years old or 45 years old. It doesn’t matter. Once you make the choice to exit an abusive relationship, you will be surprised at how easily you may find an airbag of friends and family waiting to ease the transition out.
Miss Peony: Abusive relationships can be a challenging minefield for friends to navigate. It can be really hard to sit back and watch your friend get hurt, but the number one most important thing is to make sure your friend knows she can turn to you if she ever decides to get out of the relationship. Abusers will try really hard to cut their victims off from their friends. As a friend, when you judge, yell at, or give ultimatums to a victim, you are almost making the abuser’s job easier. That kind of action can make your friend feel embarrassed to talk to you about her abuse, or can make her feel isolated and as if her only option is to stay with her abuser.
I have seen it from both sides. My high school friends basically cut me off when I kept getting back together with my controlling boyfriend. It made me feel more alone than ever, and like if I left him I’d be all on my own. When I finally did leave him in college, it wasn’t because my (new) friends convinced me to; it was because I got pregnant. I left when I was ready. That’s really it – people leave abusive relationships when they’re ready, not typically because of anything their friends can do or say to them. That can be tough to hear, but it’s a common scenario.
When my friend was in a dangerous relationship in college, we noticed that when we started being judgmental or offering advice, or even hating on the guy, she would stop confiding in us and start being sketchy – meeting him without telling us, hiding stuff from us, avoiding us, etc. So, we decided as a group to sit back and let it play out without offering advice or being judgmental. We just listened and were there for her. When she was finally ready to leave him – after about three years of dating – we were there to give her the support she needed.
It was definitely really hard for us to keep our opinions to ourselves as we watched her get hurt over and over, but in my 27 years on this planet, I’ve learned that there’s nothing a friend can do to get a girl to leave a guy without damaging the friendship, often times irreparably. And if you damage the friendship and she stays with the abuser, then you’re just helping the abuser isolate his victim – and that’s the most dangerous thing you can do.
Miss Bluebells: As someone who was once in a dangerously abusive relationship and has come out alive, I have a sadly real perspective on how difficult it can be to help a friend who is being abused. In college, I tried to keep so much of the violence and psychological abuse I was experiencing a secret (which is incredibly difficult in a tiny tin-can of a dorm room). I was seemingly in control of every aspect of my life except this one, and I didn’t want anyone to know because a.) I loved this person and thought I could help him learn how to love and trust someone, since he had been abused as a child, and b.) I was embarrassed: I was a confident, smart, funny, no-nonsense feminist. This went against everything I believed in and the life I had built for myself (as an aside, I am now a firm believer that absolutely anyone can be sucked into an abusive relationship when they come across the wrong person at the right time to be manipulated. It. Can. Happen. To. Anyone.)
It became increasingly difficult to hide the bruises or the fact that my personality would shrink – so as not to accidentally offend him – when we were around other people. The times I tried to leave, he threatened to drop out of college or kill himself. It soon became easier just to avoid interacting with my friends at all. This reality always happens slowly, but it eventually does happen. I remember that the only friend I did eventually tell, I told her because I knew she would do nothing to help me. I knew I wasn’t ready to leave, and I had no plan to do so safely, but I wanted my secret to be known somewhere. When I finally knew I had to get out or could possibly be killed, I finally told a friend who I knew would help me without judgement. And it ended that night. I thank god I had a friend like that.
Bottom line: You can’t make a friend leave an abuser, you can simply be there for her, judgement free and ready to support her – even if it’s by offering name of a counselor or safe adult she can talk to. A person has to realize herself that she must leave an abusive relationship, and it doesn’t happen overnight no matter how strong the logic may be or how severe the abuse. All you can do is check in, tell her that she is worth more, help her to develop a safety plan if she ever needs to get away, and try to keep a relationship with her that is about you and her, not about her and him. When your friend finally needs someone on that night she tries to get away, she will know where to find you.
Some advice I’d like to offer to those who may be in an abusive relationship: when you do decide to leave the relationship, talk to a guidance counselor or therapist to help you get through this difficult transition. It’s truly helpful. You can begin to understand how you ended up in an abusive relationship, and learn how to find a healthy, happy relationship in the future. You don’t want a cycle to continue.
If you are currently in an abusive relationship, know that help is available and you can get out of the relationship and find happiness again. Visit LoveIsRespect.org for more information. If you would like to know how you can better support a friend or family who is currently being abused, find an action plan here.