Emotional abuse by partners – a real-life example

emotional abuse by partners

I think my friend’s husband is emotionally abusing her. Should I talk to her about it?

We’ve written a lot about narcissistic abuse, coercive control, and emotional abuse by partners. This letter to an advice column highlights a real-life example of emotional abuse by partners, raised by someone with deep concerns about her friend’s situation. The advice reflects the information we have shared in the past: the position of a friend or family member is complicated and they must proceed very carefully to avoid being pushed away completely or causing the friend more unwelcome control.

Reprinted from the Guardian, by Annalisa Barbieri – 2022-11-04

Standing by, or with, someone you think is being abused is very difficult. So tread with care, and make sure you look after yourself too.

I have known her for many years. She has always had quite a self-deprecating style of humour, but since moving in with her now-husband, her comments have become very extreme and are no longer said in a humorous context. Lately, if I ask her for any sort of advice or suggestions (even on very unimportant matters), she will apologise for how stupid she is and call herself all sorts of awful names. Recently, when I met the couple for dinner, she used the wrong word for something, he corrected her quite sharply, and she very quickly apologised to a degree disproportionate to the “wrong” she had done.

She is self-employed while her husband has a steady job and a more well-off family, so while I don’t see any evidence of financial abuse, it worries me that this may be a factor keeping her in the relationship.

I don’t know if I should bring something up with her, or how to go about it. Part of me worries that I am completely off-base and being skewed by my personal dislike of her husband (we disagree on fundamental things), and that bringing anything up would be the end of our friendship. I also know that abusers often manipulate their victims to believe their friends and family are trying to ruin their relationship, and are clever at getting their victims to fall out with those close to them in an effort to isolate them. So I worry about bringing it up with her from that perspective too. I am not in touch with her family, but I doubt they would support her leaving him.

It’s great you are so attentive to your friend, and also seem to understand about domestic abuse. We don’t know, of course, if she’s being abused, but the fact you’ve known her for a long time, and have witnessed her changing since she’s moved in with her partner, is worthy of note. Abuse can often start once a couple move in together, or they get married, or get pregnan

I went to psychotherapist Erene Hadjiioannou (psychotherapy.org.uk), who has extensive experience working with women in abusive situations. As you naturally sense, how you bring this up is important, so as not to alienate her or play into a narrative her partner may have fed her.

Although some survivors of abuse retrospectively say they wish someone had asked them outright if it was happening, for many it can be too direct a question, causing panic and defensiveness. So the language used is important. Hadjiioannou advised finding a time you feel you can talk to your friend safely, starting with something like, “I’ve noticed you’re a bit quieter/stressed recently”, that might lead into a [wider] conversation. If your friend says she is stupid, Hadjiioannou suggests something like: “I don’t see you like that, actually I see you like this…” to introject a positive sense of self when this might not be happening elsewhere. When you’re meeting up with her, Hadjiioannou also suggests saying: “What do you feel like doing today?” Abuse is disempowering and if your friend isn’t experiencing freedom of choice and personal power at home, this might encourage her to get a little of what she needs wherever possible.

The other thing to remember is, if she’s being abused, don’t expect her to tell you about it all in one conversation; your friend is likely be very confused about what’s happening and be trying to “make it all right” for herself in her head. Standing by (I like to think of it as “standing with”) when you think someone is being abused is very difficult – so make sure you look after yourself too. But it’s important to keep the friendship going if you can, even if at times you don’t agree with her choices.

“Silence is huge in perpetrating lots of different types of abuse,” says Hadjiioannou, “and lots of survivors internalise that experience as shame. So thinking ‘How can I empower the person [being abused]’ is a good idea, and sometimes that means keeping the door open on a relationship where they can learn that they can say anything, at their own pace.”

Regarding the financial situation, that may indeed be keeping her there, but abusers are also very clever at making their partners think nobody else will want them or that the abuse is their fault. What keeps victims and survivors of abuse with their partners is very, very complicated.

As you probably know, but it’s worth repeating, telling her to “just leave him” isn’t an easy option for people experiencing abuse. If it were, they’d have done it. Also, a woman is most at risk at the point of leaving, so if it comes to it, this too needs careful planning.

Help is at hand

If this situation is familiar to you, you may think leaving is impossible, but help is at hand. There are organisations that provide support to women who have suffered emotional abuse by partners. That support ranges from a safe place to stay to legal assistance. The Reeva Rebecca Steenkamp Foundation is one such organisation and there are many others.

SD Law is a firm of family attorneys in Cape Town with deep experience of helping women escape emotional abuse by partners and find peace and dignity in a new life. We can serve a protection order on a controlling partner and help you initiate divorce proceedings, if appropriate. We will connect you to relevant support services and make sure you and your children are safe. At Cape Town Divorce Attorneys, we understand how deeply distressing coercive control can be. Contact Simon on 086 099 5146 or email sdippenaar@sdlaw.co.za for a confidential discussion.

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The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.

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