Few things are so heartbreaking as the sight of a beautiful, happy girl transformed into a fragile mess by her abusive partner. Sadly, it is surprisingly common. And parents often find themselves reduced to helpless bystanders.
When your daughter arrives home covered in bruises, or her boyfriend yells at her during a family meal, your first instinct is to leap to her defense. Before you do, however, be sure you understand what’s going on. It is never acceptable for a man to hit a woman, and it is never ok for someone to make their partner unhappy, but there may be more to the situation than you realize.
For example, at first your son-in-law was sweet and kind and your daughter seemed happy. The last time you visited, however, she had been crying. A few days later a neighbor tells you that she saw your son-in-law yelling at her in the street. You convince yourself she is being abused and angrily confront him. Later, however, you discover that she has had an affair and her husband is heartbroken.
Of course, in many instances girls really are abused. And this abuse can take many forms. Being in a committed relationship does not prevent sexual abuse, for example. He may be addicted to bizarre and extreme forms of pornography, which he is pressuring your child to imitate. Some people can be incredibly devious and manipulative. He may convince her, for example, that she is too uptight, dull and unadventurous. He may even threaten to leave if she does not do what he wants.
Then of course there is simple violence. This is something that needs to be stopped immediately. Any police officer will tell you that physical abuse usually escalates. Men who swear they’ll never do it again, that it was just a heat of the moment thing, etc., frequently do – whether they mean to or not. The police are often astonished by the number of women who return to abusive partners. Indeed, cycles of abuse and reconciliation can become addictive. As with sexual abuse, he may convince her that this is normal, even an expression of love.
Of course, abuse isn’t always physical. Many people abuse their partners in sneaky, subtle ways. Often, the other person doesn’t realize she is being abused. A few months or years after the relationship ends, she then looks back in disbelief that she didn’t leave earlier. The reason may be that her partner broke her self-esteem. In trying to understand what’s going on, you need to understand why men abuse women. Often, fear is at the heart of it. A man who was abandoned by his mother, for example, or whose previous partner cheated on him, lives in terror of the same thing happening again. This is not an excuse, by the way, merely an explanation. He may have very low self-esteem himself.
Others are controlling by nature. A certain type of man yearns for power, authority and status. When the outside world denies these to him, he becomes a little tyrant in his own home. Men who abuse animals, for example, often get a kick out of the power they hold. What they call “disciplining” or “training” a dog is really just bullying. No one in the real world listens or obeys, but behind the doors of his suburban home his dog, children and girlfriend live in fear. Abuse, in other words, may be nothing less than an ego trip – a way of boosting one’s sense of power and status.
Men control women in all sorts of ways. Some beat, bully and threaten their partner. Others, though they seem to be kind and loving, gradually break their partner’s self-esteem, convincing her that she cannot cope on her own. Often, they will take over the household chores. To an outsider, he seems the perfect man. Her girlfriends joke that they’d like to hire him, and complain that their boyfriends are too lazy to wash the dishes or mow the lawn.
In fact, this is a form of control. Gradually, she begins to believe that she needs taking care of, that she is helpless and incompetent, that she could not survive without him. Some men even become “feeders,” encouraging their partner to put on weight so other men do not find her attractive. They may also discourage her from wearing fashionable clothes, visiting a hair stylist or using make-up. And they want to know exactly where she is going, what time she will return, and so on. Such men frequently check their partner’s phone and social media accounts and fly into a rage if they see her chatting to another man as she leaves work. Others get their partner addicted to drugs, or convince her she is ill. Whatever form the abuse takes, its roots usually lie in a fear of abandonment, desire for power and control – or both.
Others form co-abusive relationships. Be realistic. You know your child. Is she provoking him? Maybe she is inflicting as well as receiving abuse. Women can and do abuse a male partner. She may also be in a co-dependent relationship, each feeding the other’s addiction, mental illness or dysfunctional behavior. Finally, be wary of exaggeration. Some young people, fed on a diet of trash TV and lowbrow magazines, begin to see themselves as characters in a drama. Is she being melodramatic? Rather than abusive, her boyfriend may just be immature, irritable and exhausted by work.
Your first priority must be to maintain good relations with your child. An abusive boyfriend will do all he can to distance his partner from her family. Never underestimate the hold such men can exert. Abused women often talk of being “addicted” or “under his spell.” You do not want her forced to choose between abuser and family. Many parents do force such a choice and are then appalled to see her disappear from their life. This may mean tolerating the abuser himself. For a father that can be torture. His first instinct may be to physically attack the man, but that is just what the abuser wants. He can then portray himself as the victim. Remember, if he lives with your daughter he has more opportunity to speak to her. If he is persuasive, or she is besotted, he may convince her that you damaged and ill-treated her and that he is her rescuer.
Whether she realises it or not, she needs you in her life. First, you offer support and love. But you also provide a different perspective. Any psychologist will tell you not to underestimate how malleable and suggestible human beings can be. You only have to look at the madness of a religious cult to see what charisma and narcissism can achieve. If your marriage is stable and happy, you also offer an alternative model of what a relationship could be like. When she visits, be careful to address your partner in a loving and respectful manner.
If she is coming to dinner, invite another happy couple to come as well. Again, this will show her what a relationship could and should be like. As has already been pointed out, abusive men like to keep their partners isolated. They don’t want her reminded of what she has lost, nor what she is missing. When your daughter sits at the table with her sister and her loving boyfriend, plus your neighbor and her husband, the contrast may come like a revelation.
Next, keep in touch with her friends. A young, romantic girl is more likely to listen to her friends than her parents. But be careful. If your daughter suspects that you and her friends have been secretly discussing her, she may feel manipulated and betrayed. Her boyfriend is sure to exploit this. If your daughter is young and naive, the idea of a doomed or tragic love may be appealing. The fact that no one approves is romantic. Even the worst relationships have their good times. Parents of abused daughters often hear this sort of thing: “you never gave him a chance. He can be so loving and so sweet. I’m the only one who really understands him. He’d never survive without me.”
When you do try and discuss things with your child, be careful how you approach the matter. Victims of abuse tend to feel embarrassed and ashamed. Being beaten and humiliated by your partner is a kind of rejection. The abuse, whether physical or psychological, may have left her feeling worthless. The last thing she needs, therefore, is for her mother to smugly say “I told you so,” or to make her feel like a silly little girl. Be careful not to patronize her. If she opens up, talk as you would talk with an intelligent and much loved friend.
Also, make it absolutely clear that there is a place for her with you. She needs to know that the door is always open. Should she decide to leave him, you will provide her with all the financial and emotional support you can. If the situation is really bad, and she wants to leave but is too frightened, you could help her start again in another part of the city or country. Do keep one thing in mind, however. An abusive man is most dangerous when he feels his control slipping away. If she tells you she has decided to leave and is going home to tell him, be wary. At no point is she more likely to be assaulted than when she walks out of the door with her bags packed.
If your child decides to stay, you need to be honest. Don’t pretend to like him, but don’t cut your daughter out of your life either. If you pretend, your relationship with your child will become strained and fake. Make it clear that you don’t like the way he treats her. But always emphasize his behavior rather than attacking his personality. She needs to feel that you disapprove for the right reasons. In other words, that you dislike his bullying and sarcasm, not his accent, lack of education or low-status job. If she feels that snobbery and embarrassment are at the root of your dislike, she will cease to listen. Assure her that you’d rather see her with an illiterate ex-criminal if he loved her and made her happy.
In many ways, helping someone who is being abused is like trying to save an alcoholic or drug user. Abusive relationships can be addictive, which is something outsiders struggle to understand. Abusers also exploit this. Never underestimate how ruthless and manipulative they can be. If you are going to help your child, you may have to be just as cunning and false.