How to Help a Parent in an Abusive Relationship
Ever since I was a little girl, my mother has been my idol, my number one fan, and my fiercest defender. She was always the one I could go to when I needed advice–problems at school, concerns about a relationship, fears about my future–nothing was ever off-limits, and I left every conversation feeling better about whatever it is I’d come to her for advice about in the first place. When I was a teenager, we started talking a lot more about relationships. My mother had me when she was young, and when I was growing up, she always stressed how important it was that I find someone who treated me like gold. Someone who I could live and grow with. Someone who would never hurt me. She taught me that I had value and never to let anyone tear that down. I held on to that. Then I grew up, I got into college, and I moved away.
The thing about having a parent in an abusive relationship is that things don’t start out bad. When my mom first met her abuser, she seemed happier than I had seen her in a long time. He even called me once just to introduce himself (I was in college in another state and hadn’t gotten the chance to come down to meet him yet). During that phone call, he talked about how amazing and beautiful my mom was and how lucky he was to be with her. I agreed with him. My mom is amazing. She is beautiful, I said, and you certainly are lucky. I came away from the phone call thinking that it was about time my mom found a guy who would spoil her a little bit. I looked forward to meeting him on my next break from school.
Then they got married. It was sudden and unexpected–as most sudden things are–and we didn’t really find out until after it happened. At the time, all I can remember is being a little confused. My mom wasn’t usually the type to make snap decisions and I knew that, but I pushed that thought to the back of my mind because she was happy. I never really had any indication that she wasn’t anything but over-the-moon until I finally went down to visit at the end of the semester.
It’s hard to confront the idea that your parent is in an abusive relationship. For me, it was a bit of a shock at first. This strong, independent, beautiful woman who I had known my entire life suddenly seemed different to me. It didn’t take me long to figure it out, but the journey between realizing what was happening and realizing that I could help was a difficult one. It’s hard to say that there’s any one way to do things when you have a parent in a situation like this. It’s an uncertain time fraught with fear and self-doubt. What if I’m misinterpreting what I’m seeing? Did he really just grab her arm? Maybe there’s something else going on. Surely she’s brought it up? Still, I know this isn’t okay. But what do I do?
So… What do you do?
Talk to your parent
Ask questions. Let them know that you are concerned. In my case, this was hard to do sometimes. When I was away at school, I couldn’t sit down with my mother face-to-face. This seems like a simple step, but it can be a hard one. I know that because I’ve been there. It took me a while to process that something was wrong. Something was wrong and I was scared for my mom, but I couldn’t understand why she was sticking around when this guy who had once hung the stars for her was a completely different person. Even now, I don’t completely understand, but opening up that dialogue between the two of us let her know that I recognized that something was wrong. It let her know that I was there for her to talk to if she needed me. Many abusers will do their best to try and cut their victim off from friends and loved ones. Suddenly, they’re spending less time with friends, or not answering the phone. They never seem to be alone. Isolation is one of the biggest red flags there is, but talk as much as you can to your parent. If they’re in a bad situation, they’re not isolating themselves on purpose. It’s a symptom of the abuse. Stay in contact.
Let me be clear: I’m not talking about putting yourself in the middle of the situation. That can be dangerous and can make things worse. What you can safely do, however, is try and find local resources for your parent. There are many groups across the nation much like BTS that are geared towards helping individuals experiencing domestic violence. Churches are another resource. Do what you can to make sure that your parent knows that they can have help when they are ready.
Recognize that change will not happen overnight
My mother’s emancipation from her abuser took a while. Statistically, many domestic violence survivors will return to their abuser several times. This isn’t because they don’t recognize that the situation is bad and that they need out. A lot of times, it’s because they’ve been isolated for so long and dealing with the abuse for so long that they fear what might happen when they leave. Rates of homicide in domestic abuse increase drastically when the victim leaves, so try not to be too judgmental with your parent. Continue to talk to them, let them know that you are there for them, but don’t expect that the process of them leaving is going to be as easy as you pointing out the abuse, because it often goes much deeper than that. Domestic abuse is much more than a physical affliction. It’s social, psychological, and leaving isn’t often as easy as simply knowing that you need to go. If you get angry, if you cut that parent out, the abuser wins. They want to isolate their victim as much as possible, so don’t give up. They need you more than you’ll understand.
Help your parent when they need you most. Abuse changes a person. I still will never fully know or understand everything that my mother went through. I will never know what it feels like to be her, but I can tell you this: starting over is hard for anyone. It’s even harder for a victim of domestic abuse. When they leave, they often leave with very little of what they had from their life before. They’re scared and they often have to rebuild their lives from the ground up. I never imagined that my mother would tolerate some of the things that went on with her abuser. It wasn’t until she finally left him that I realized just how much the abuse had changed her. But after a while, with the love and support of her family, she started to regain her confidence. She started to smile more. She made new friends, went out, spoiled herself a little–all of the things she couldn’t do when she was with her abuser. She’s growing and changing and becoming an even more amazing woman every day. Be there for them. Just like when I needed my mom when I was being bullied in school as a little girl, my mom needed me when she got away from her bully.
Domestic violence survivors are vastly misunderstood. There’s a stereotype that often accompanies them. They must be uneducated, or come from a bad background. They must have done something to deserve it. The truth of the matter is that anyone from any background can be a victim of domestic violence. Talk with your local law enforcement, your government officials, local shelters. Volunteer. Help spread the word that domestic violence is not okay. Be a voice of change in any way that you can.
The one thing to take away from this is that everyone’s experience is different. It’s scary to see your parent go through something like that, and often times the things that seem the simplest aren’t always the easiest. I can’t tell anyone that they have to do anything, but the one thing I can tell you is that you can’t look away. If you turn your head, nothing is going to change. I’ve been there. I used to lay awake at night wondering if the last time I talked to my mom would be the last time. I used to dream up the most fantastical scenarios in my head. For a while, every time the caller ID showed an unfamiliar number, I had to fight back a moment of panic before I answered it because I was afraid it would be that call. But I didn’t give up, and neither did my mom. If you’re reading this and your parent is in an abusive relationship, first of all, I’m so sorry. Secondly, know this: It can get better. It does. Just hang in there. Don’t give up on them, don’t cut them out, and never stop fighting for change.