How To Save a Friend from a Bad Relationship

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S1: Hey, listeners, just a quick heads up that today’s episode will include some descriptions of domestic violence,

S2: and she just kind of kept saying like, he hurt me and he hurt me and her daughter seemed OK at the time. Kind of normal. It’s just heartbreaking in itself.

S1: You’re listening to how to the show where we help you through some of life’s trickiest situations. I’m Amanda Ripley. This week’s listener who were calling Elaine, has been holding onto a secret that is tearing her up inside.

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S2: So a few months ago, I received a call. I was at home and I was kind of surprised I was from a coworker and we’re friendly, but we haven’t hung out too much, so it’s definitely unexpected. And I picked up the phone and she was crying and she was obviously distressed, and she said she was driving to a hotel. And that’s when I kind of was like, Oh, this might be something at home than

S1: with a million concerns racing through her mind. Elaine jumped in her car to go meet her coworker, who were calling Sarah,

S2: and that’s how I came to find out that my coworker, Sarah was being abused. So I showed up at the hotel where she was and when I knocked her child answered the door.

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S1: That was Sarah’s middle school age daughter whom are calling Rachel.

S2: So Sarah came up to me and she was crying as she was holding her head and her. She said he had hit her and it was very swollen on the back. And I was immediately concerned and I was like, We’re going to have to go to the hospital. And she kind of knew that she definitely knew she needed help.

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S1: After they arrived at the E.R., Sarah reached out to her extended family, and Elaine explained to them what had happened.

S2: So I was texting them on my phone and they had let me know that this had happened before many times, and that’s actually why they don’t really have contact with her anymore. And the last time they had seen her was five years ago because he doesn’t let her see them anymore.

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S1: The police came and filed a report. Then the hospital discharge. Sarah and Elaine drove her back to the hotel.

S2: I. Was distressed that she was at the hotel room because her husband actually knew which hotel she was at. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have let her leave with the child. And I begged her if we could go to a different hotel. I told her I’d pay for it. I told her it would be better. It’s kind of a small town, but she she wouldn’t have it. I offered to stay there with her. But she said she just kind of wanted to sleep. She said she wanted to sleep because she hasn’t slept in a bed in a while. Um, so

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S1: Elaine, how are you doing? Telling us the story

S2: that’s bringing up emotions for sure. Yeah. So she let me know this was like, I think she’s had like the eighth time she had kind of left him the worst time her family told me because they asked me to check her neck to see if there were any handprints, fingerprints around her neck, and I didn’t see any. So I think that was the previous Worst time was strangling her.

S1: We know that one in five women in the U.S. and one in seven men will experience severe violence in their relationships during their lifetimes. We also know it can be very hard to leave those relationships.

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S2: They’ve talked about divorce a lot, but he definitely had financial power over her with how much she makes that her job versus how much he makes at his job. She had a better job now, so she was she had been saving and she already had separated her finances, so she was excited. She seemed very determined. She said this was it. And, you know, I asked her like, You’re going to stay away, you deserve better. And she really seemed to know that. No, that she deserved better.

S1: Sarah tried to find other living arrangements she could afford, but there weren’t any apartments available for a few months. Elaine didn’t hear from her. She wasn’t sure what was happening. And then suddenly one day she saw Sarah back at the office.

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S2: She just kind of walked quickly past our our desks that way. She wouldn’t really say anything, and I would overhear conversations because I sat somewhat near her and, you know, I would hear we and us and family and. And so she’s she’s back home with him.

S1: Hmm. How has this experience affected you?

S2: I think about it a lot. Whenever she walks by, I wonder she works from home once a week or so. And I wonder if there’s a bad incident. That’s how she’s working from home.

S1: On today’s show. What should you do if someone you know is in an abusive relationship? There are a million questions about if you should intervene and if so, how without risking the safety of your friend or yourself. So we’re bringing in someone who is immensely qualified.

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S3: My name is Suzanne debuts and I am the CEO of the Jenny Geiger Crisis Center located in Massachusetts, and I’ve been doing this work for nearly 30 years.

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S1: Suzanne is a survivor herself, so she knows firsthand the best ways to lend support to someone in a really precarious situation. I hope you’ll never need this advice, but odds are you might. And it’s a problem we all need to talk about more. Or it’ll never get better. Stay with us. Like a lot of people in this situation, Elaine never saw it coming.

S2: Actually, my partner and I went to their house once for a double date and had had dinner. That was my first time meeting her husband. And I mean, he was great. Like, you know, he complimented his wife’s cooking. You know, that had a very nice house.

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S1: Did he seem angry like the angry type?

S2: Now, I know they’re really into sports, and so like you kind of like talks like trash talk with like sports and stuff, but I mean, lots of men are like that. Mm-Hmm.

S1: Did she tell you that she stays home sometimes because of the abuse?

S2: So the week or two prior, she had worked from home for three days around her birthday, and she said she worked from home because she she couldn’t come in. She goes to soar and people would have known.

S3: So Elaine, this is Suzanne. First of all, I want to say to you, Elaine, that you did a beautiful job, not just by being an empathetic, caring friend, but you also did a great job of trying to make sure that Sarah got the care that she needed, that that she went to a hospital, that you immediately began to try to figure out who her people are. Who is her community, who are her family and friends. And and that’s so important because he has been doing a fair share of isolating her from outside resources for this very reason. So you did a beautiful job.

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S2: Thank you.

S3: I think the other thing that I always try to talk to people about is how hard it is to be on the perimeter of a domestic violence situation and to know that someone that you love or care about is in harm’s way because it takes a toll on you to that that not only are you witnessing this, you’re also second guessing yourself like, am I doing enough? What? What should I be doing? And then you also I say you, but I mean me too. Because even though I’ve been doing this work for a while, I still hear stories that will wake me up in the middle of the night. And I all of a sudden worry, Wow, I haven’t heard about. I haven’t heard from that person in a couple of days. I hope everything is OK and it’s living with that fear. And so in our world, we talk a lot about vicarious trauma that those of us who are on the perimeter feel as well and how important it is to take care of yourself so that you can take help take care of them.

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S2: There are a lot of nights, especially at the beginning. I just kind of lay awake. I was like, Are there things I can do? And then I start analyzing the relationships of other people around me, like, are they going through that because I didn’t know about her? Do I not know about other people’s? So. Hmm.

S3: Mm hmm. You know, domestic violence, to me, feels like one of those issues that when you know, you know, and that we so often can kind of go through life not being aware because victims of domestic violence are taught. You never tell anybody what’s happening at home that if you know what’s good for you, if you threaten this Apple Card, you will pay the price. So when survivors don’t tell their stories, those of us around them can’t possibly know what’s happening. So it does feel jarring and like you’re ripping the, you know, the the bandages off your eyes and seeing the world in a different way.

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S1: Right? Because you think if I didn’t know about this, what else don’t I know, right? I’m curious, Suzanne, if we could ask, could you tell us a little bit about your own story

S3: as a young woman in my early 20s? I didn’t have a lot of experience in relationships, and I gravitated toward this kind of like manly man. And I was tending bar at a small restaurant in New Hampshire, and I met and fell in love with my first husband.

S1: Within a few months, Suzanne, her husband, moved from New England away from their families to a remote part of Southern California. Isolating themselves in more ways than one.

S3: We also moved to the top of this mountain. It was a seasonal house. We had no utilities. We had no electricity. Wow. We had no phone. So you’re like,

S1: we have literally isolated,

S3: super isolated and it was a seasonal community and we were virtually the only people that lived there. Lots of empty houses. It was very scary to the. Yes. Well, just do a poorer version of The Shining after the isolation started. The insult started and he began to denigrate my family. He began to. Really not threaten me, but say that if I were going to love him, I needed to choose him and I needed to follow his lead at all times, which I did because I became very dependent on him. And I was just frightened. I was frightened and I was alone. I finally got a job, talked him into letting me get a job as a fast food assistant manager at a fast food restaurant, so he would drive me to my job every day and pick me up. And then on Fridays, magically, he would show up when paychecks were delivered and take mine and I would have to sign my paycheck over to him.

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S1: Over time, her husband’s abuse turned more physical.

S3: He splintered my jaw. I lost my hearing in one of my ears for a good long time. It just kept escalating and I wrote my grandmother a letter and I told her what was going on. And there was a small country store at the top of this mountain top and the woman noticed that something was wrong. And I went in there one time and she said, If there’s ever anything you need, I’m here. And I had no idea what she was talking about and I didn’t want to know what she was talking about. I was too scared to lift up that rock. And so I asked this woman that my grandmother was going to be sending me a letter and could I give her the address of the store? And she said yes. And my grandmother sent me a cheque for one hundred and eighty dollars to get a bus ticket to go from Southern California to Louisiana, which is where she lived. And that’s that was the first time I escaped.

S1: Suzanne would eventually come back, then leave and then come back again.

S3: And this went on for two or three more years. So very much the way Elaine has described this era has come and gone back and come out and gone back. And it’s a very familiar pattern. And I think sometimes, you know, as I watch the squirrels in my backyard gathering their little acorns, I think that that is a metaphor for what domestic violence victims often do is that they get some information about what the next step is. And then they they sit on that for a bit. They they gather their acorns until it’s time and it’s safe and they’re ready to leave.

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S1: And how many times would you estimate that you tried to leave before you left for good?

S3: I would say it was probably four or five times. You know, there is a well-known statistic that on average, it takes women, particularly women with children, seven times to leave. And you know, I always feel like my job at the organization that I run is to shorten that in any way that we can.

S1: Here’s our next insight. It can be incredibly frustrating as an outside observer to see someone you love, take a step towards freedom and then turn back seven attempts is a lot, but we can’t lose sight of the many, many obstacles which might be invisible to us. As we heard, there’s often isolation, economic and social dependency, physical threats, eroded self-worth. And on top of it, all, women often have a hard time even admitting to themselves that they’re being abused. One day on her way to work in the midst of her husband’s abuse, Suzanne heard an interview on a local radio station.

S3: She was talking about this as a shelter for battered women, and I’m listening to it. I had never heard the phrase battered women, and I remember thinking to myself, That’s so great that someone is doing that and but never once seen myself there, never once feeling, Oh wow, that was me.

S1: It wasn’t until Suzanne started volunteering with the crisis center. Years after she’d finally left her husband that she realized what had happened to her.

S3: That’s when I began to think, you know, maybe all this compartmentalization of how I handled my first marriage was not a healthy thing, but that it still lived in my body, is still lived in my soul, is still lived in my heart, and there was work for me to do.

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S1: Wow, it is amazing, isn’t it? How we can put things away in a little box in our brain?

S3: It’s scary. It’s scary how good we are. But, you know, domestic violence also teaches victims to be very good at yeah, well, it’s a survival skill for a while. Absolutely.

S1: Elaine, I’m curious. What are you thinking hearing Suzanne’s story?

S2: It’s fine, it’s very similar to Sarah’s, and that apparently she’s left multiple times. I remember when she called me and when I first started to think that it was maybe domestic violence, I was like, it didn’t even make sense to me that there would be more than once.

S1: When we come back, we’re going to give you a plan of action if you ever find yourself in Elaine’s shoes. That’s right, after this quick break. We’re back with our listener Lane and our expert, Susan debuts. Elaine is in this in-between place where she’s involved and yet not, she’s trying to figure out what her responsibility should be. Should she take more action? And if so, how Suzanne did. Did you have a friend like Elaine during all of this?

S3: When I was working at the fast food restaurant, there was this wonderful other worker and her name was Nancy. The police actually dropped me off at her house one night after my husband really beat me up and they were called to the apartment by a neighbor and they dropped me off on her front stairs and left. And so I just sat there for a couple of hours until she got home. And then I had to explain. Yeah, OK. So then I I was Sarah, and I was explaining to Elaine what was going on in my life, and I slept on her couch for the next three nights. She didn’t know what to do, and she didn’t know how to talk to me, and it was a secret we kept between us. Hmm.

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S1: What would you have liked her to say or do?

S3: Honestly, I think to. To have let me know that it was OK to tell her the story about what was happening when someone listens with an open heart and in and with no judgment to someone’s reality. It is a true gift.

S1: So here your action steps. First, listen without judgment and don’t give up on people. Second, offered to connect the person to services. Remember that you cannot be the only line of support. This person needs a team who can advocate on their behalf, who understands local laws, how to find housing and how to navigate the system.

S2: Suzanne, do you remember? Did you work at that fast food place long after that incident with your co-worker, Dancy?

S3: Or did you did?

S2: And how was it? How was your interaction?

S3: I think she was always someone that I could have gone to if I needed to stay at her couch, but it was awkward. I. How is it for you?

S2: It’s it was definitely awkward at first. It’s gotten better. Am I am I allowed or supposed to ask her how her husband’s treating her? I am. Am I supposed to ask about that if I want

S3: something that you could say, you know, when the time in the space is right, but you could say, you know, Hey, I think about you, I care about you, and I’m not going to press you for any information that you don’t want to share. I just want you to know that I’m here. If you need me, you know, that may be a little embarrassing that she knows she may not, you know, look you in the eye when you say that, but she will hear that. Not asking her questions, but more. Just letting her know that you were here in the wings for her whenever she needs you.

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S2: OK, I can. I can do that.

S1: Try to have this conversation in person. One on one. You don’t want to send text messages or leave any kind of paper trail that might get the person in trouble with the abuser. Whatever you do, make sure you’re protecting yourself and those on the periphery. How does the presence of a child affect that calculus?

S3: Suzanne, the presence of the child is always a game changer. Oftentimes, domestic violence victims really are hoping and praying and keeping their fingers crossed to the point where they believe that their kids don’t really know what’s going on. And in my experience, every time we’ve talked to children, they have always known what’s going on.

S2: I I think about Rachel a lot, and I I think about her future and how she might impact this on practice one day in therapy. Hmm. What’s she going to think about me and how I I knew things?

S3: If there is a way that you could have a conversation with Sara somewhere down the road? You know, are there any services for Rachel that she would like to have? Like, could Rachel have a school counselor? Maybe she would like to help brainstorm ways that Rachel could could get help while Sara is continuing to build whatever future plan she is building. I hate that I don’t have a better answer. I just acknowledge that it’s really hard.

S1: It sounds about right. Is there a point? When is there any bright line, when you’re like, OK, you should call 9-1-1?

S3: So I think anytime there’s a physical assault, the one thing that only in front of you that you witness here. And one of the things that you said that is particularly scary is we know that any time there’s an attempted strangulation or a strangulation, that’s really dangerous and it’s really so close to a homicide strategy. And it’s when we are working with high risk victims. It’s one of the things that we’re really looking for is, you know, have you ever been strangled? And the fact that he has strangled her before, that’s worrisome to me, and I wonder what Rachel has seen.

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S2: Yeah, she’s told me that he’s he’s never hurt, Rachel, and I believe that I mean. And I know that night she she called for Rachel because she knew if Rachel came in the room that he would stop.

S3: So, yeah, sometimes it is worth just letting Sarah know, I’m scared for you. I care about you and I’m scared for you and some of the things you shared with me a few months ago. Just continue to haunt me. And I’m scared for you. I’m scared for Rachel. And sometimes just being as clear about your own feelings, not projecting them onto her, but just letting her know that this is how you felt that that what she shared with you isn’t normal, right? It’s it’s not part of a normal loving relationship and sometimes victims. I was so accustomed to the way I was treated that when someone said something, I defended him and I rationalized it and I brushed it aside, and I was better at that than anybody. And it’s it’s part of being human and being scared and being overwhelmed. But sometimes you need someone who cares about you to be honest about what they see.

S1: The heartbreak here is that people on the outside looking in like Elaine can’t make decisions for the victims,

S3: reminding yourself that that ultimately this is her life to live, that you provide yourself as an option and as as a helper in her world and then make peace with her timing. And I, it’s so unsatisfactory, but there are a lot of people that come into the center and say, Listen, I don’t really need to be here, but I promise my best friend I’d come and at least talk to somebody, and that happens more often than than not.

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S1: Suzanne Centre is unusual because not only will they help anyone who comes in the door who’s a victim, but they actually have an innovative program for the abuser.

S3: Most guys who come to this program really want to be better fathers, better partners or better partners. And so how to help give get them the tools they need to do that.

S1: That makes so much sense to me. I’ve always felt like we have to also address this further upstream, right? I mean, isn’t it true that most? Violent abusers.

S2: Experienced violence as a kid.

S3: Yes, and I remember going to a training years ago where they described adolescent adolescent males who were violent in dating relationships, they used to call them perpetrator victims. And it was this idea that these are young men who don’t have a lot of relationship experience but have a lot of negative modeling who have seen some abuse and really have not learned another way to be in relationships. And you know, I’m not saying that what they’ve done isn’t terrible. It’s terrible, and they need to be held accountable for the crimes that they’ve committed and for the abuse that they’ve perpetrated. And we’re not going to help anyone change if all we’re doing is shaking our fingers at them and scolding them.

S1: Well, that work is being done on the institutional level. We want to leave you with something you can do right now.

S2: If I didn’t receive that call, Suzanne, what might be some of the signs to look for in and people?

S3: That’s an excellent question. So some of the things that we look at is, are they changing the way they dress? Are they hiding bruises or scratches? Aside from those kinds of physical clues, sometimes you can hear that nuance. You can hear when someone says, Oh, well, my husband, you know, he you know, he’s rough. If I don’t do things like he wants me to. Oh boy, do I hear it? But you know, I would keep it as as light as possible and just ask, Hey, everything OK there? And maybe that welcomes someone to actually fill in more detail and file away that you might be someone that they could call at another time.

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S1: One thing I know for sure is that it’s important that we talk more about this as as much as we can with people who understand it. And so I’m really grateful that you that you reached out to us because it is more common than it feels, right, until you witness it up close.

S3: You know, when I started this job nearly 30 years ago, I figured, Well, if we just do the right thing and provide the right services, we’re going to be out of business pretty quick. And nothing could be further from the truth.

S1: Thank you to Elaine for coming to us with this really tough and important question. And to Suzanne debuts for all of her hard earned wisdom. We’ll link to her work at the Jenny Geiger Crisis Center in the show notes. And if you or anyone you know is struggling with intimate partner violence, physical, emotional, any kind. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a great place to start. That number is one 800 799 safe or go to the Hotline morgue. Do you have a problem that needs solving? Send us a note at how to at Slate.com or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. And we’d love to have you on the show. And if you like what you heard today, please give us a rating on Apple or Spotify, which is now accepting ratings as well and tell a friend that helps us help more people. Also, for a limited time, we’ve got a special holiday sale on our annual Slate Plus membership $25 off for your first year. Again, we’re giving you $25 off your first year as a member through December 29th. So sign up now at Slate.com Slash How to plus how TOS executive producer is Derek John Rosemary Belson produces the show. Our theme music is by Hannah Brown, remixed by Mayor Jacob, our technical director. Special thanks to Amber Smith and Kevin Bendis. Charles Duhigg created the show. I’m Amanda Ripley. Thanks for listening.