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How I Helped My Friend Leave an Abusive Relationship

Photograph by Twenty20

From the outside, my friend Dana’s* yearlong relationship with Carl looked close to perfect. He was attentive—picking her up and dropping her off at work, taking her to lunch on his days off and, on other days, arriving early to wait for her to finish her shift. They spent every weekend together, to the point that her friends joked that they were joined at the hip. Even girls’ nights included Carl. He bought her gifts, including more clothes than I had in my closet, and proposed to her on their one-year anniversary. I couldn’t understand why my friend wasn’t happier.

One night, when Carl was out of town, Dana and I went out alone for the first time in months. After a couple glasses of wine, she confided in me that Carl wasn’t attentive, he was controlling. The steady stream of gifts were apologies for times when he was “mean” to her—either verbally or, yes, physically. The new wardrobe was because he’d told her she was getting fat, and when she started crying, he ripped up her clothes and threw them away. He’d also thrown away her birth control pills because he thought they were the cause of her weight gain. She admitted she thought he wanted her to get pregnant so that she would never leave him.

I was shocked by her stories because Carl had seemed like such a nice guy. Sure, he wasn’t particularly friendly to me or any of her other friends, but she’d told us when we met him that he was shy and would come around. Now that I had a better idea of the real situation, I was mad at myself for not picking up on the cues.

Dana said she’d tried to break up with him more than once, and he cried and threatened to kill himself. Then he got angry and put holes in the walls of the apartment they shared. She told me she was afraid he would kill her if she left. It seemed overly dramatic at the time because I was only just starting to understand who he was. Sure, he was an abusive jerk, but if she really wanted to leave, she could. Right? That’s what I wanted to believe.

Sure, he was an abusive jerk, but if she really wanted to leave, she could. Right? That’s what I wanted to believe.

Fueled by liquid courage, we came up with a plan that night. I told her it would all be over in a few days, but it was actually another year before she was truly free of him. Every small step she took to break away resulted in him pulling her closer and isolating her more. He saw me as a threat, maybe because I had such a hard time hiding my contempt whenever I saw him, so he forbade her from talking to me except at work.

I wanted Dana to just walk out, but she made it clear that it wouldn’t be that easy. He’d become friends with her mother, a religiously conservative woman who didn’t like that her unmarried daughter was living with a man. His proposal had meant the world to her, and Dana was reluctant to ruin her mother’s dream. I told her she should tell her mother what was going on, but for a long time she was too ashamed and embarrassed to tell anyone but me.

A pregnancy scare was the final straw. Dana took a sick day, and I helped her pack while Carl was at work. She stayed with me for a little while, then moved in with family he didn’t know. She used up all of her sick days to avoid seeing him at work and told our supervisor what was going on so she could be escorted to her car when she got off work. Carl would sometimes be waiting for her, and she’d start crying as soon as he told her he loved her. She still had feelings for him, feelings she couldn’t understand, given how toxic the relationship was. Sometimes they’d sit in the parking lot talking for hours, and I was afraid she’d go back to him. But it was all part of the process of breaking free.

After a few weeks, Carl’s tears and pleading turned to anger when it became clear she wasn’t going back home with him. He keyed her car in the parking lot at work and tried to follow her home several times. Dana was afraid to call the police, for fear they wouldn’t do anything and it would only make Carl more angry. So, she moved around every few weeks, sleeping on couches and in guest rooms, swapping shifts at work so her schedule was less predictable. Eventually, she asked for a job transfer and begged everyone she worked with not to tell him where she’d gone.

Carl started showing up during my shifts, trying to charm me into telling him where she lived and worked now, then vaguely threatening me for “ruining his life.” Though I wasn’t his primary target, it was still terrifying to know he at least partially blamed me for Dana leaving him.

After a few months of being shut out by everyone who knew Dana, Carl seemed to give up. It took much longer for Dana to stop worrying that he would show up at her house or work. I saw him at the movie theater with another woman a year or so after Dana left him. His arm was slung protectively over the woman’s shoulder as I’d seen him do so many times with Dana, and I wondered if he was repeating the same pattern with his new girlfriend. I wanted to warn her, but I didn’t know how to do it without him knowing and without her thinking I was crazy.

From Dana’s experience, I learned to recognize the signs of toxic or abusive situations and to find ways to offer my help to friends without pushing them into something before they're ready. I know now that leaving an abusive relationship is a process that can take months or years to accomplish and that taking steps to leave can be just as dangerous—or even more dangerous—than staying. Being a friend to someone in an abusive relationship means being there when the call comes and being willing to support them in whatever way they need.

Truth? I didn’t feel as if I did enough for Dana. I pushed her to leave him, but I couldn’t make her go when she wasn’t ready. (And she wasn’t ready because she knew better than I did how dangerous it might be.) I wanted to do more, but I didn’t know if I’d be helping or hurting.

Later, when I asked Dana what I could have done, she said that just knowing I was there for her was enough.

*Names have been changed.

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