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Survive, Transform, Soar! - Issue #87
How to Help When Your Loved One Is In A Toxic Relationship
Article by: Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD in SurviveTransformSoar.com | Friday, November 9, 2018
Most people have a hard time knowing how to help friends or relatives who are abused in a long-term toxic relationship. It is easy to abandon them when our help is needed most. This reinforces the abuser’s messages that there is something wrong with the victim.

As a toxic relationship survivor, you know better than anyone how valuable it is to have a trusted, non-judgmental supporter who stands with you over time. As a victor over abuse, I hope this article will encourage you to provide support for someone you know in a similar situation. You can be their best hope for escape.

Even if you are no longer in an abusive relationship, you may be isolated and still need support and understanding yourself to help you avoid going back. Perhaps sharing this article may be able to help someone close to you understand your needs and become better able to provide the support you want.

What Is Coercive Control?
Do you have a friend or family member who is controlled by a spouse or partner — isolated, degraded and micromanaged? Whether or not the relationship includes physical violence, he or she may be a victim of a type of abuse that is called “coercive control."
People in or recently out of a toxic relationship often don't know how to ask for help or have given up. That doesn't mean they don't need it--when it's hardest to ask may be the time they need it most.
This is a common tactic of partners in pathological love relationships, including those with Cluster B personality disorders like narcissism, anti-social and borderline, as well as other types of psychopathology.

It is hard to watch someone you care about suffer at the hands of a controlling partner or ex-partner. You may feel like rescuing them. You may feel like killing the abuser. You may get so frustrated that you want to walk away. It may make you weep with anger or sadness.

Don’t Give Up
Long-term patterns of abuse and control usually require long-term patterns of assistance before the target can escape.

Isolation poses the greatest risk in coercive control. Simply staying connected and spending time together or speaking on the phone helps isolated victims feel better about themselves. Connections with people outside the abusive relationship help them feel valued, capable and less alone, counteracting some of the abusers’ messages.

Controlling relationships have their ups and downs. Abused partners will be more willing to discuss the problems openly — and think about making changes — during a phase when they feel the tension building or immediately after they have suffered through a particularly bad episode.

On the other hand, during times when controlling partners use acts of love as a way to bolster the relationship, their partners are less likely to want to discuss problems or think about leaving. The victim may love the abusive partner deeply and be focused on pleasing them above all else. Remember, their self-esteem has probably been hurt by the abuse and the isolation.
Being available and reaching out with companionship will help a lot, even if they can't always respond.
Perhaps there is a greater risk of physical danger than you realize. The victim’s conversations, movements and electronic communications may be monitored. You cannot “make” your friend or family member break free. To do so might put both of you at risk.

What Can You Do?
• Let your friend or family member know your concerns in a nonjudgmental way. Over time, if you are close enough and you are sure your conversation is not being monitored, describe what makes you concerned.

• Ask what you can do to help, but do not take over. Especially when children are present in the home, an abused parent often worries about how they will manage alone if the relationship ends. If you can offer concrete help — such as lodging, babysitting, or money — let them know. Do not commit to more than you can actually take on. Ask what you can do that would make their life easier and give them strength.

• Avoid telling them what to do. Remember, people are the experts on their own situations. They can assess their own safety better than anyone else.

• Listen to what your friend or family member wants to tell you and resist asking too many questions. Some parts of the story may feel too shameful to share until months or years have gone by.

• Give them materials to read about coercive control relationships…if he or she has a safe place to keep them. If it feels comfortable, gently share your impressions.

• Allow them to express a range of feelings without criticism. They may still love and miss their partner or ex-partner and believe the person loves them. They may wonder how they could ever survive without their partner. They may be worried about the partner’s well-being.

Reassure them that all these feelings are normal and will sort themselves out over time. Even if you think the abuser is simply a jerk, do not criticize too harshly or your friend may be ashamed to tell you about the ways they still feel attached. They may resent you for harshly criticizing someone they still love. Remember, they might return to the abuser. If they do, you want them to feel comfortable staying in touch with you.
An understanding, consistent and supportive group of friends or family can make the difference that enables survival and a flourishing future.
• Be careful about the advice you give. Advocates who work with controlling and abusive toxic relationships every day will be able to offer the best advice about safety planning. For example, many well-meaning people tell their friends to obtain a restraining order. For some people, this is highly dangerous and leads to increased violence. 

• Encourage your friend to seek professional support. Even if the person has not been a victim of physical violence, an appointment with a domestic violence advocate can help them stay safe. Escort them to their first appointment if they wish, but allow them to meet with the advocate alone.

They may also benefit from the help of a counselor or psychotherapist who understands controlling relationships and who has training and experience with the dramatic and erratic personality disorders. If they are physically afraid, they may need to call the police. These choices are theirs to make.

When loved ones are completely under their partner’s control, there may not be much you can do other than to stay connected and gently help them see those times when the abuser’s words and actions do not match. Controlling, toxic relationships are psychological torture: a torture in which the people victimized often end up blaming themselves. Don't give up; eventually your loyalty and support will make a big difference.


AUTHOR'S NOTE: Most coercive control relationships involve a man dominating a woman. This article uses gender-neutral language to acknowledge coercive control in same sex relationships and in those less common situations where a woman dominates a man in this way.
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Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD, teaches at the University Without Walls at the University of Massachusetts. She has worked as a family, individual and group psychotherapist and is the author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship.
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