How We Can Help Support Others in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

This was offered by Marion Langford in the comments of one of my posts about how we can “be the village” in supporting the boundaries of people who find themselves in challenging and potentially abusive relationships. It was so good it felt worth sharing as a separate post...

Ideas for the village:

1) Offer to be a witness. So much of emotional abuse is private, and so often the recipient of that experience doubts their experience (which is part of the insidiousness of why it's so difficult to grapple with). You can witness firsthand or listen to a surreptitiously captured recording. (Simply turning a phone face down and press video - may let the person capture something safely.) The person experiencing the abuse may not be able to listen again, but you can, and you can say things like...a loving person would have said this to you. Holding up a mirror of what love sounds like is a very powerful reality check. It puts a different voice into the conversation. So, let's practice speaking with love.

2) Name the behavior, not the person whose behavior is abusive. Labeling someone an "abuser" when a relationship is an intimate partnership or family member, only exacerbates the stress for the person who is the target of the behavior, and increases their distress (i.e. what does it say about me?). Further, most emotional abuse relies on labeling as a means of control. When you want to help, don't repeat the same behavior. It also leaves the person in question with the problem of a "victim" identity - another label. Let's not label people, just behaviors.

3) Offer to stand with or even to step up when needed. Speaking personally now, my sister stepped in and handled an over-the-top temper tantrum from my partner while I shook uncontrollably in another room. Another friend offered to be one booth over in a restaurant. In these instances, these people had access to fiery, well-defined boundaries that I didn't possess at that time. Shine your fire, if you've got it, like a wall that loans some strength and shelter.

4) Become educated about emotional abuse. The rules for discourse are different, and the person experiencing the abuse may benefit from some simple tools or phrases.

5) Don't push someone in an emotionally abusive relationship to have better boundaries. Pushing someone who is in an active emotionally abusive relationship to have better boundaries is to deny the inherent wisdom of not having them. Any form of boundary usually leads to the "abuser" doubling their efforts (i.e. the situation becomes so much worse)vs. waiting for it to run its course. It's a form of surviving in the moment. Don't take that away, or suggest they should do better until there is a safe way to do so.

My bottom line?

If it weren't for very few others who helped me name it, understand how it worked, and who saw me as whole - worthy to be cared for no matter what I was doing or not doing - I don't know where I would be. Three therapists missed it, but my life coach and two good friends didn't! It took people who had been through something like this and/or well-educated in abusive behavior, plus my own slow journey of coming to terms with the fact that the person I loved was also this. As one friend said, if they were like that 100% of the time, the decision would be easy. But that is never the case.

Hope and the desire to be loved are very powerful forces to be reckoned with, and after all, are the very heart of being human. We can all become better villagers.

All My Best,


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