How can I be a friend to a man in an abusive relationship?

Should I try to intervene or just keep my mouth shut?

Published August 25, 2006 11:34AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am confused about how to be a good friend to a man who is in an abusive relationship. It is breaking my heart to watch the slow destruction of his soul, and to hear the constant and increasingly exhausting justifications and confusion.

All the evidence is there; none of his friends can stand her, everyone is concerned about him, no one can be honest with him (increasing isolation), weight gain and loss of vitality, memory problems, depression, what he has described as an inability to feel joy. It's really not even a question to me whether it's emotional abuse, it's so blatant. He does have moments of cognizance. He's talked about feeling like he's being brainwashed. But then the next day he'll go back into his sanctity of marriage spiel. That's also making it difficult for me to know what to say. It's like he's jumping around from reality to reality. From day to day. One day she's a bitch from hell, the next day ... well, he made his choice.

What disturbs me is the feeling of losing my voice in the friendship. Not being able to be honest with someone I care about.

I was in an abusive situation and lost myself, and honestly, I wish one of my friends had cared enough to step in. I know the fear though, because I was exactly like him and gave off the "Don't say anything!" vibe.

The worst part is, I know this is his pain and his issue, but I'm starting to let it affect me. It just bums me out and I don't want to be around that kind of dysfunction and darkness and yuck, since I was in it. I don't know how much longer I can be a good "listener" without just completely freaking out.

Why do I keep quiet? And should I? I'm so completely confused. A therapist told me that I have to respect where he's at. Another therapist told me I should be honest and not abandon and talk down to him.

What is the right thing to do?

Dear What,

If all his friends sat him down and told him that they genuinely believed he's in danger, and that if he leaves this relationship they will support him, he might realize that he really can leave the relationship.

You can't force him to choose. But you can make it clear that he does have choices.

I sense that he is trying to do the right thing. He may feel that leaving his wife would bring great shame on him. That is where the people around him may be able to help. If he felt that his move was supported by others, he might be more likely to act.

And he still might not do anything. That is a possibility you have to accept. Besides, you do not know for certain that leaving is the best thing. It may be that for him the best thing to do is to sacrifice his own happiness in order to live by his code. It's not for us to say.

But feeling as strong about this as you do, I think it is within your rights to do something.

Some people will feel quite angry about this. They will say it is wrong to interfere in someone's marriage. They will say we should stay out of people's private lives.

It's tricky. I think this is an area of cultural taboo. Something deep inside us says we should not interfere in a marriage. In fact, the very idea of talking to him about this situation may fill you with fear.

Remember: Most of us ourselves, quite obviously, are children of marriages, once-tiny people who stood in awe of giants who held over us the very power of life and death, and thus we carry into adulthood a deep old fear that what goes on between these two powerful, sometimes frightening people must not be touched, must be left alone, must not be viewed or questioned, lest their wrath descend upon us. Is that the source of the social taboo against interfering in others' marriages? I wonder.

And besides its source, what is the function of the taboo today? Is it to preserve patriarchal power? Or is it to protect our own fragile psyches? Does such a taboo aid society's interest in seeing marriages last? Does it contribute to silent acquiescence in abuse? I don't know. Perhaps it is a bit of all those things.

At what point spousal abuse becomes a crime is fairly clear. At what point, short of being a crime, it is an issue for outsiders to take up is less clear. But I do think the possible good outweighs the bad if a group of his friends were to confront this man and tell him that you consider his plight to be grave but not hopeless -- that you think he deserves a better, happier life and can achieve it without fearing that it would be a shameful act.

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