I honestly believe that my sister is and has been a victim of a domestic violence.
She lives with a head case, who I don’t believe is beating her up, but is emotionally, economically and psychologically abusive. For an example, she is not allowed to see our parents or talk to them, even though they live only ten miles away. She has never been able to have a job, because he would not allow her –he wants to have someone to greet him at home with a dinner when he comes back from his job. When they were just dating years ago, she started college, got her first exam back with an A, and then quit the college after she told him the news and he hated it.
She lives literally thousands of miles away from me, in a foreign country (where we both grew up) and I can not talk to her to see if she would even consider accepting any sort of help. I think that she is in an abuse cycle. They have two high school age kids, and a two year old.
My question is should I get involved? Or, to what extent should I get involved? Should I call an institution where she lives and report him? Is she going to hate my guts if I do?
This is awful. There is very little that is worse than domestic violence –it is so intimate and so brutal. And it it one of the things that is hardest to understand from an outside perspective. So I am so sorry for your sister, but I am sorry for you too. It is just terrible to watch someone you love get hurt, and it is always painful to feel powerless in the face of that.
Unfortunately, it is all too common to be in the position you are in. In a recent study, the World Health Organization points out that “Violence against women is a universal phenomenon that persists in all countries of the world, and the perpetrators of that violence are often well known to their victims. Domestic violence, in particular, continues to be frighteningly common and to be accepted as “normal” within too many societies. ” The National Domestic Violence Hotline reports that in the US, “one in three women is physically or sexually abused by her partner at some point in her life. That means that for most of us, someone we know – our mother, sister, friend or neighbor – is a victim of domestic violence.” And the statistics are even more appalling in many countries (perhaps the one you are from?).
You know that what is happening to your sister is suspicious at best.
But it is important to be completely clear on this point: abusive and controlling relationships are not okay.
Abuse and control of one’s intimate partner is criminal, immoral, and detrimental to the abused and the abuser. Though it is not uncommon, it is not “normal,” and there are ways of loving and being loved that are free from manipulation and violence. A person does not have to be physically hurt in order to be a victim of domestic violence. Emotional, financial, sexual, or verbal abuse can be as psychologically dangerous as being hit.
In fact, I used to work at a domestic violence shelter for a while, and some of the most harrowing stories were those of non-physical abuse. Worse than the story of the woman who was shot in the leg by her partner and had a wound that would never heal and continually wept puss, was the story of the woman who woke up one morning to find that her husband has placed sharpened bowie knives all around her on the bed in the outline of her body because he didn’t approve of the way she had looked at another man the night before. As horrifying as the stories of women pushed from moving cars and endlessly in the emergency room were the stories of women raped by their partners, women forced to watch as their partner beat the children, women who were so isolated they thought they could never leave –told repeatedly that they were worthless, and kept from families and jobs and friends, they believed that their abuser was right about them. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a pamphlet called “No Matter What I Do I’m Never Right,” and that was exactly how I thought of those women: the women who, in their own family, and too often in their own minds, could never be right.
And it never ends for these women. Unless they get out.
You are already involved. You love your sister, you are concerned for her, and you know about her partner’s controlling behavior. Stay involved with your sister as much as she can, so that you can be supportive of her, but not supportive of her relationship.
I imagine that you are heartbroken, scared, and frustrated for your sister. I imagine you have had a recurring fantasy wherein you swoop down to your sister’s hometown, steal a machine gun from the local militia, and abscond with her to safety and hiding. I’m not sure that’s practicable, but I can’t in good conscious tell you not to plan it out.
You can’t fix your sister and her life any more than she can fix her husband. It is often stated that victims of domestic violence stay with their abusive partner out of fear. What is less-often talked about is that many victims of domestic violence stay with their abusive partner because they love him. If you’re going to help your sister you have to understand this. It took me a long time to learn this, but one of the most helpful things I think I ever said to women at the shelter where I worked, and I ended up saying it over and over again, was that they are allowed to love their partner. It is okay to love someone who is abusive and controlling. And no one can take that love away. But it is not okay to stay with that person. I used to say: “you can love him from over here where he can’t get at you.”
Once you are clear on that, you can try to help your sister see that she need not be ashamed, and that she does have options. You say you cannot talk to her, so this is hard and may not be possible. But if there is any way you can get in touch with her, you should. Perhaps you could get another relative near her to get a message to her. Perhaps she could call you from a pay phone. Perhaps she could set up a secret email account at an internet cafe.
If you can talk to her, try first to provide a sympathetic ear.
Just let her talk, and don’t respond by verbally attacking her partner. Your criticism of him may just make her defensive and more entrenched. Don’t say that her husband is a bad dude; rather, tell her you are worried about her. Tell her that she should not be kept from her family, that she should not be forced to stay home and away from school or work. And let her know that there are better options for her. Find out what services are available near her, and pass on that information to her. Show her she and her children could come stay with you, or another member your family. Show her that there are resources for the many people like her: places she can get transportation, safe housing, food and money and childcare and opportunities. Be a resource and an option for her. Let her know how much you care about her and that you don’t think she should live with so much anxiety, fear, and sadness. Make it about her children: tell her how worried you are for them, living under this kind of control.
If the abuse is primarily emotional, financial or verbal, it may not be easy to report. The police are pretty hard pressed to prove that a woman is being kept out of college by pressure from her partner. But if you find out that the man has done anything at all illegal, don’t stay quiet. Put in a call to the authorities at that point. Your sister might hate you for it, but better that she is alive and able to make up her own damn mind to hate you than dead or brainwashed forever.
But be careful, too.
Remember that the danger to women who are experiencing intimate partner violence is often greater if the abusive partner finds out that the woman is seeking help. Don’t endanger your sister by being indiscrete, and don’t endager yourself if there is any way the asshole man could get to you.
Make sure you take care of yourself.
It’s hard to watch a loved-one suffer, especially when we feel like there’s nothing we can do about it. Talk to friends about how this makes you feel, and get a therapist if you’re too stressed-out by the situation. It might help you to get involved with others who are concerned about domestic violence, and to that end, you could do some volunteering to get educated and help others in situations like your sister, even if you can’t help her. Know that you love your sister and it is not at all your fault that she is in this circumstance. Know that you’re doing the best you can, and that it is up to her, in the end, to change her life.
Got a question? Or a conundrum? Or maybe you just want to complain about the modern world or my column? Email smartpeopleonbaddays (at) gmail.com! I can’t wait to hear from you.