As companions who deeply care about, treasure and appreciate our friends, seeing one of them go through a physically or emotionally abusive relationship is the last thing we want to experience. It’s cruel, it’s painful and most of the time, it’s frustrating: We really want to cut in and end the relationship right then and there in order to achieve what’s best for our buddy.
However, as some of us who have gone through the agonizing experience of witnessing a friend victimized by an abusive relationship have learned, there is a limit to what we can do — in the end, it is the victim’s choice to end the relationship or not. This isn’t to say that we should remain passive and allow the feelings of hopelessness to overwhelm us: The greatest asset an abused friend needs is unconditional love and support, and sometimes, this requires us to be patient and respect their decisions.
Here are the stories and lessons of two Highlander writers who lived and learned through this grueling situation.
Note: There are times when intervention is appropriate, such as when the abuse turns physical or sexual or when the abuser displays signs of violence, whether to themselves or another individual. If this is the case, the best decision is to reach out for help (with or without the consent of your friend), which can be found at The National Domestic Violence Hotline’s website at http://www.thehotline.org or their number at 1-800-799-7233(SAFE).
Author: Cydney Contreras, SSW
I still don’t entirely understand why she stayed with him all those years. I have tried to use my own experience with heartbreak as a way to understand why she went back to him time and again, but it still eludes me. To be honest, I don’t think Erin even understands why she stayed with him. He was charming, sure, but anyone could see that he was holding her back. She was the swim team captain, member of the debate team and had a cumulative 4.0 GPA. He had one of those gross Jedi braids for, like, all of high school and was a total hipster, not the good kind though. The annoying kind that would be like, “Bon Iver is totally overrated,” even though they raved about “Skinny Love” three weeks before.
I can’t summarize the full story of their relationship. They were together for nearly four tumultuous years, with countless fights, breakups and reunions. It would be like trying to explain all parts of “The Godfather” in five minutes. You simply can’t. That being said, what I can do is describe Erin and why she exemplified the vulnerable victim in an abusive relationship.
For one, she is the most determined, loving, smart and passionate person you will ever meet. So when she fell in love with him, she fell hard. She put her heart and soul into making sure he was happy and that she never disappointed him. He was a hard person to please, though. He had his own problems that even a shrink couldn’t solve in one year. His demands on her were impossible. He expected her to erase her past mistakes and to be the smart girl he fell in love with and also the therapist he needed. And when she didn’t meet those expectations, he snapped.
So many times I sat with her while she cried about how he yelled at her for something petty or called her a “bitch” or “slut.” There were times when I wanted to wring his neck for touching her without her permission. He manipulated and controlled everything she did. But while I saw how miserable he made her, I also saw how she lit up when he walked into the room. I saw how well they got along when their relationship was going well and how, because of him, she pushed herself to get into Berkeley so she could be close to him during college. He brought out the best and worst in her.
Toward the end of their relationship, I had given up. For so long I had tried to get her to dump him, cheat on him or just do anything to get her out of the vicious cycle she had gotten herself into. But every time she went back to him. I was tired of it. There were times when I wanted to give up on her and tell her that if he was more important than me, her best friend, then she clearly didn’t need me anymore. I couldn’t bring myself to say that, though. I couldn’t understand what she felt, and I never would. So I kept my mouth shut. I stopped making it harder for her. It wouldn’t help to make her choose between me or him; it would just make it easier for him to control her. She had to make the decision to leave him on her own.
And she did. It took some time, but she eventually saw that she deserved better.
Trust me, I know it is hard to stand by while your friend’s heart is breaking, but sometimes that is the best we can do.
What I learned:
I will never understand what she felt for him. I have accepted that. I used to blame myself for not doing more to stop him from hurting her, but I am not Erin. I couldn’t fight her battles, as much as I wanted to. She had to win that battle on her own. And I now know that I would have never forgiven myself if I had given up on her. She has always been the strong, resilient person I thought she could be; she just needed everyone to support her while she figured out how to be that person on her own. If I lost the opportunity to see her bloom into the beautiful person she is today, then it would have been because I didn’t have faith in how strong she was.
It’s not the same story for everyone. Maybe your friend needs you to tell them, “Hey, wake up, you’re wasting your time on this person.” But if that doesn’t work, then chances are that they just need you to hold their hand. We all fall in love and we all make mistakes, but the last thing we need is a million people telling us what to do. Trust me, I know it is hard to stand by while your friend’s heart is breaking, but sometimes that is the best we can do. They will thank you in the end.
Author: Edward Dave, CW
In high school, one of my closest friends was the victim of a toxic relationship. Like every relationship, it started with a lot of promise. Sporadic dates in downtown San Diego by the beautiful coast, crafty monthly anniversary gifts and a social media presence that made everyone gawk in envy at their bond. No one anticipated the slowly brewing issues that were making their way to the surface. Her boyfriend was a student athlete who maintained great grades and was a key part of the football team. His social image was spotless.
As he was heralded as one of the best players on the field, he began to show his true colors in his relationship. The jock mentality began to swell his ego as he began to spend more time with his football pals than his actual girlfriend. The amount of parties he went to increased, and so did his carelessness. After awhile, he began to treat my friend differently as he developed his own separate world. His girlfriend was holding on to the remnant of the guy he used to be before the popularity.
It was small infractions at first. He would punch walls and other inanimate objects in order to take out his anger. Then, he began to pull her hair and man-handle her so that his wrath was directly felt. Toward the end of senior year, the violence escalated and he slapped her on their way to the graduation ceremony. The longer she stayed, the more control he felt he had over her.
Through the distress, she remained as positive as she could, still making an effort to hang out with friends and do makeup as a hobby. However, during her 18th birthday debut, she received news that he had recently been unfaithful to her. It was all too much to bear for her. She broke down in the bathroom at a party of one of our mutual friends and we sat for two hours talking about some changes that would benefit her. It was in that moment she decided that she wouldn’t be a victim anymore. She was going to take charge of her future.
PEOPLE FEEL AS THOUGH TOUGH LOVE IS A MEANS OF LETTING THEM KNOW WHAT THE STAKES ARE, BUT IN MANY CASES, IT ONLY CREATES MORE FRICTION IN THE VICTIM’S LIFE.
She slowly began to distance herself from him by dedicating herself to her passions and friends. She’s a makeup enthusiast, so naturally she honed her skills in that craft in order to take her mind off of the pain. Also, our close-knit group of friends hung out extensively the summer after senior year so that we could occupy her time with fun events. Even though she kept running back at times, week after week, she was building confidence as she experienced the world as a single lady. Flash forward to now: She’s with someone who is incredibly gracious to her and has introduced her to fitness, which has been an amazing stress reliever for her. She finally met someone who treats her like his everything instead of an object.
I learned that victims of abuse are often conditioned to feel helpless, which is a prominent reason for why they stay. The dependency and need to have someone there is so strong that it overrides their desire for safety. That’s why physically and emotionally abusive relationships are toxic. They put the victim in this cycle that is exceedingly hard to break out of. Being a constant wealth of support and a shoulder to lean on is a good way to let your friend know that you support them through thick and thin.
What I learned:
Be patient with people who are enduring abuse. People feel as though tough love is a means of letting them know what the stakes are, but in many cases, it only creates more friction in the victim’s life. Hold their hand every step of the way, and let them deal with things at their own pace. Ultimately, it is their ordeal to sort through, meaning that they will have to handle things as they see fit. Just provide encouragement and constructive advice on what they can do to lead healthier lives. Sometimes when I pushed my friend too hard to prematurely end things, it made her gravitate away from me and back into the heart of the problem. Patience is a virtue in situations like this. Handling abusive situations can be tricky, but as long as you remain a loyal and supportive friend to those suffering through these hardships, light at the end of the tunnel can be found.