DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: When my wife and I divorced a year ago, I very quickly began a long distance relationship with an old flame. We saw each other a few times, sexted, and stayed in touch, although there were plenty of fights that probably wouldn’t have happened if we were in the same city. You know, a long distance relationship.
This past summer, she revealed that her alcoholic husband had been getting drunk and physically abusing her, pretty regularly, but she always played it down and changed the subject (although she’s the one who brought it up). I’ve tried to respect her wishes and not talk about it, and then she’d talk about it and do everything she could to convince me that he’s not a bad guy.
This came to a head the other day, when she announced that her husband had asked her to move out. While discussing that, she texted that he was punching her in the ribs and wouldn’t stop, and she sent me a video where the camera was pointed at the floor, his voice was drunkenly belittling her, and she was screaming for him to stop. So I called the police in her city and explained the situation. The police called me back, said she was uncooperative (she wouldn’t even confirm her name with them), intoxicated, and completely unmarked. She chewed me out over text for doing that and making things worse, but the next day, she told me that her husband was so drunk that he doesn’t even remember hitting her.
I have rebuilt my life after a devastating divorce. I have a handful of friends, a new job, a great apartment, and exciting prospects creatively. I am battling bipolar 2, which means epic depressive episodes if I’m not careful. I don’t want to abandon Flame, but I can’t rescue her. I don’t even know what she’s hoping to accomplish by telling me and sending me these videos. I just know that she is in this situation, and even though he’s beating her and throwing her out of her home, she’s still on his side. I don’t want that in my life. She’s bad for my health. But again, I don’t want to abandon her.
And in case it needs a little more flair, this whole abuse thing might be fake. She has, in the past, demonstrated that she’s willing to exaggerate something and lie to make a point. The video she sent made me suspicious for various reasons. I haven’t seen any evidence that supports her abuse, I’m just taking it on face value. I won’t assume she is faking it, and I will never accuse her of that, but it is still a possibility that sits in my head as I ponder all of this.
I don’t know what to do. She needs help. I can’t give it to her. I don’t want her in my life anymore, but I can’t leave her alone like this. Your input would be greatly appreciated.
I’m So Very, Very Tired
DEAR I’M SO VERY VERY TIRED: I don’t think you need me to tell you that this is a bad scene, ISVVT, no matter whether she’s exaggerating things or not.
First, we should talk a little about domestic abuse and the seemingly eternal question of “why don’t victims leave?”
(Which, incidentally, is the wrong question; the right question is: “why do abusers abuse their victims, and how do we prevent that from happening?”)
Domestic abuse and domestic violence can be thorny issues for folks on the outside because it seems so very cut and dried: you’re being abused, even physically assaulted, so why don’t you GET THE F
k OUT? But the actual dynamics of it all for the people dealing with being abused is difficult. First there’s the psychological aspects that may cause someone to stay. The first and trickiest is the question of “is this actually worth labeling ‘abuse’?” Slapping the “abuse” label on behavior in a relationship can seem like a point of no return, and people can be understandably loathe to do so. There’s always the feeling that this behavior may not reach the standard necessary for being called “abuse” and worrying that they may be defining it down. Are arguments and raised voices abuse or not? What about someone who gets heated and says things they don’t mean because they tend to lash out when they’re angry?
Similarly, some people may not recognize abusive behavior, even when it happens to them. I’ve lost track of how many letters I’ve gotten from people who’ve been asking for a third party judgement about whether or not they were being abused by their partner. While it seems like it would be a clear cut, binary yes or no answer from the outside, when you’re the one living with it, suddenly there’re shades of gray that blur the whole thing into incomprehensibility. Even things that would seem obvious to someone on the outside looking in can feel like “this is just how our relationship is” to the person experiencing it.
And there are plenty of folks who don’t think that it deserves to be called “abuse” if it doesn’t involve physical violence… even though most forms of domestic abuse are emotional and psychological, not physical.
Then there’s the fact that a lot of people don’t want to think of themselves as being someone who’d let themselves be abused. That whole question of “Why don’t they just leave?” becomes the very reason why people don’t want to believe that they’re being abused. To admit to being victim of relationship abuse would mean admitting to being one of those people who didn’t know enough to GTFO at speed, and that’s a very hard thing to accept about yourself. It’s made worse when you worry that other people wouldn’t accept the idea that you’re being abused. Part of the reason why male victims of abuse and sexual assault are loathe to come forward stems from the idea that other people would never believe that a man could be abused or raped… especially by a female partner.
Of course, there’s always the fact that many abusers are skillful manipulators, who’ll often put a whammy on their victims and convince them that this is all their fault. If they wouldn’t make them mad, if they would just do what they were told, if they weren’t deficient in some way, none of this would happen. And again: it’s very easy to say “well duh, that’s obviously abuse tactics,” from the perspective of someone who isn’t there… it’s not as though the abuser springs this out of the blue. Abusive relationships almost always start with an intense honeymoon period where everything is perfect. The abuse tends to start slowly, ramping up until it feels like a natural part of the relationship, not some moment where the abuser snaps and starts screaming and hurling things.
Nor is it constant. Abusers frequently will have times where they vocally, emphatically insist that they’re sorry, this will never happen again… and then go back to doing the exact same behaviors. Or they’ll use a form of intermittent reinforcement, where they love-bomb their victim for having done something right or convince them that this was just a passing issue, a stormy moment that’s finally passed.
And then there’s the fact that for many people, leaving is literally impossible. The abuser may be threatening their friends, their family, even their pets. The abuser may have control over their finances and left them with no means to escape. Or — as absurd as it may seem — it may be safer to stay with the abuser than it would be to try to leave. When you have no resources and no place to go, living on the street can be worse and potentially more dangerous than living with an abuser.
With all that in mind, let’s get back to your situation with Old Flame. Because, honestly? I’ve got questions. A lot of them.
My stance when it comes to claims of abuse is simple: believe victims, because society as a whole tends to blame victims by default. But that doesn’t mean blindly believing people, especially when some of what they’re doing seems… odd. On the one hand, a lot of what you describe sounds very much like the behavior of someone in an abusive relationship. Bringing the issue up before downplaying it, complaining to people who tried to help that they made it worse, refusing to talk to the cops… these are all distressingly common behaviors of someone who’s dealing with an abusive relationship. The cops dismissing things is also — unfortunately — incredibly common; a lot of police officers have no or minimal training in how to recognize or deal with a domestic abuse situation. Hell, you can look at all the times when Nicole Brown Simpson called the cops on OJ, even being found mostly naked and beaten within an inch of her life… and the cops did nothing.
All of that tracks.
Other things though, strike me as being weird. The way you describe her text, for example, makes it sound as though he were punching her in the ribs AS she was sending the text which… look if that’s what was going on, I can picture how it might be theoretically possible, but it’s kind of implausible. Similarly her surreptitiously broadcasting video of his screaming at her while she begs him to stop is something I could easily see a victim doing as a way of trying to get help, trying to send a message without their abuser recognizing it and making things worse. But going by the apparent timeline in your letter this was on the same day that he was pounding her ribs? And apparently afterwards? I dunno.
All that being said: to me, this sounds like a f
ked up and abusive situation. I think you did the right thing by calling the cops at at a time when you had every reason to believe that she was in physical danger. If she’s exaggerating things or acting out in a way to keep you involved, well one would hope that the cops showing up at her door would be a valuable lesson in why she shouldn’t play these sorts of games.
But you’re also correct: you can’t rescue her. If she’s exaggerating things or even making them up, there’s nothing to rescue her from. If she’s telling you the God’s honest truth… well, you still can’t rescue her. As frustrating as it can be for the friends and loved ones of abuse victims, the only person who can save them is themselves. You can’t forcibly pull someone out of that situation until they’re ready to leave. And even then, it can take multiple attempts before a victim is able to get out of an abusive relationship and make it stick. What you can do is provide support and resources and the knowledge that if and when she’s ready to make the escape, you’ll be there to help. You can help her develop an escape plan, you can help her by connecting her with people who can listen and provide assistance… but you can’t save her.
However, you also have a responsibility to yourself and your own health and destroying yourself — especially when you can’t do much for her — isn’t the answer either. You’re right: your own emotional resources are limited and you have to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping someone else with theirs.
This is a time when you may need to pass the responsibility on to people who are in a position to help. If you know your ex’s friends or family, then give them the heads up that this is happening. Tell them what’s going on, send them the video that she sent you and apprise them about what you know. The more people in her life who know — especially people who know her well and are close to her — the better. Even if this is a call for attention, not abuse.
And in the meantime, you may want to call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline: at 1-800-799-7233 and talk to the people there. They can help you decide the best course of action to support your friend when she needs it.
Good luck. And write back to let us know how you’re doing.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org