That’s the question I want to tackle today. Every Monday I take a stab at answering a reader question, and this one is a really sad one. A reader writes:
My family and I are very concerned about my baby sister. She’s 15 yrs younger than I, married for over a decade. I’ll call her Sister1. We saw signs of this going in, but recently she moved closer to us, to be nearer to her family. However, she rarely replies to our emails, always has an excuse as to why she can’t get together with us, and once sent Sister2 away at the door because Sister1 had forgotten to tell her husband Sister 2 was coming. We’ve tried to address this with her, but again, she becomes defensive and evasive. We love her and her family very much.
We think that Sister 1’s husband is monitoring her email and other social media, maybe deleting some especially if it contains stuff he doesn’t want her to see or respond to. We don’t see any signs of physical abuse, but when we do see her without Hubby along, she is a very different person (as was her daughter, notably).
How do we handle this? I think she has a warped sense of what it means to be submissive.
Abuse is a very serious issue, and I can just imagine how heartbreaking it is to feel as if someone you love is being controlled or abused, when there’s so little you can do to help.
I’m not an abuse specialist, but I want to give some general thoughts today. I know many of my readers know more about this than I do, so if you can leave specific places for help in the comments that would be great!
Controlling Behaviour Usually is Accompanied by Abuse (and can be abusive in and of itself)
I know many people will read this letter and say, “but you don’t know if she’s being abused!”, and to a certain extent that’s true. One of the characteristics of abuse is that you are always trying to appease the person and walking on eggshells around them. It does sound like this is happening here. She is scared of him for some reason.
Controlling behaviour–limiting someone’s access to friends and family, monitoring their communications–is a sign of abuse and is abusive in and of itself. It isn’t treating someone as a human being with the right to make decisions. It’s treating someone as your chattel, and that is wrong.
Such controlling behaviour is usually accompanied by other negative behaviours, whether it’s physical abuse or consistent verbal or emotional abuse, and that is dangerous.
No, we don’t know if she’s being beaten to a pulp obviously (I’m just already anticipating what some of the comments will be to this), but I would still be very concerned. Controlling behaviour is a HUGE red flag.
That being said, here are some thoughts I have on where to go from here:
1. You Can’t Force Someone to Leave an Abuser
Here’s the hard part: you can’t make someone leave, and often you can’t convince someone to leave, either. It has to be their own decision. If you coerce someone or put a lot of pressure on them to leave before they’re ready, chances are they will end up going back with the abuser. Even more than that, when someone is in an abusive situation, all their ability to make decisions for themselves is taken from them. Don’t add to that. Allow her to have her own agency, even if it’s difficult for you.
Thus, in this case the main job should be keeping the lines of communication open and letting the sister know that you will always be there to help her leave–not to pressure her to leave or to manipulate her into leaving.
However–and this is a BIG however–there is not just the sister involved. It’s clear from this email that there is also a daughter (and there could be other kids), and that daughter can’t be more than about 14 (given the length of the marriage). So she’s really young. If you ever suspect that a child is being abused, you simply must call children’s services. In this case, the sister has never seen any signs of physical abuse, but if there ever are any, you don’t have a choice. Call.
The same thing is true for the sister. If you ever see any bruises, call the police. Sometimes getting the authorities involved can also show the sister that this is something serious.
2. Tell Your Sister You are Always There for Her
Let your sister know that no matter what happens, you are there for her. You love her, and you will stand by her. And this is hard: that means standing by her now, even if she decides to stay. If you condemn her for that and get in a big fight, she may not feel that she’s able to trust you in the future. Let her know that you love her and you are worried for her.
3. Talk Up Your Sister’s Good Points
If you fear your sister is being abused, your tendency will be to talk about how awful her husband is and all the things you see that are red flags. To a certain extent you do need to mention these. But I would spend more time saying to her, “you are a strong woman”, “you are a godly woman”, “you are so kind and so generous”, and telling her examples of each of these things.
When a woman is being controlled or emotionally abused, one of the key weapons an abuser uses is to totally demoralize the person so they feel they don’t have the ability to leave. They’re too stupid, too weak, too vulnerable. If you can continue to tell her the truth–that she is capable, that she is smart, that she is strong–that may be a better message to give her.
4. Get A Nest Egg Together for Her
When I asked on Facebook what the sister should do, one commenter wrote, “start saving up money so she can leave”, and that’s actually an excellent idea. Money (or lack thereof) is often what keeps someone in an abusive/controlling relationship. Tell your sister that you have money put aside for her, and you are adding to it all the time, so that if she ever does need to leave, you can help her get set up somewhere.
5. Have your Husband Talk to Her
In this case, it sounds like part of the reason for staying may be incorrect theology. Many men believe that the wife must obey, and they don’t try to build oneness in marriage. They try to build a very dominant/submissive relationship, thinking this is what Christ wants (though I can’t remember Christ ever being dominant like that). If this is what she believes about marriage, she may think that even if she’s miserable, God wants her miserable.
If a man she respects can come alongside her and say, “God doesn’t want a husband to treat his wife that way”, this may actually go further than a woman saying the same thing.
6. Talk to the Daughter
As much as possible, keep the lines of communication open with the kids in this family. In fact, these children would be my primary concern, simply because they are minors. Talk to them as much as you can, and have them visit as much as the parents will allow. Try to be a big influence in their lives. Let the kids know that if they ever need you, you will be there, and make sure that the children know how to contact you in a hurry, and have a means to contact you in a hurry.
7. Pray a Lot and Let it Go
And now here’s the hard part. Once you’ve done all of this, you need to pray and put it in God’s hands. You can’t force the situation. And the longer I walk with God the more I realize that His timing is much better than mine. Even though I want things done immediately, often they take much longer. And it’s that delay that helps people solidify their decision and often get closer with God.
It’s agony to watch someone you love become a shell of who they were in a controlling or abusive relationship. But you can’t force anyone to do anything, and they have a right to choose that (as long as their children are still safe). Love on them, keep the door open, and talk, but then you must try to let it go and leave it with God. Don’t let it sap all of your emotional energy.
Now, if anyone has anything I should add, please do so in the comments. And if anyone has any tips on how to “let it go”, please leave that in the comments, too, because I can only imagine how agonizing this would be. Thank you!