Before you defend your significant other, listen
Q: I've been divorced for a year from an emotional abuser. I was married to him for 21 years. I am now dating a wonderful man who treats me like a queen, and I'm very happy. My question concerns my daughter. She is 20 and in a fairly new relationship. I just met the guy, and was alarmed to see behavior very similar to my ex's. I was polite, but during the conversation afterward about what I thought, I was honest with her. I said I had huge reservations, that he reminded me of her father at that age. She demanded examples and I gave her a few. Of course she defended him, denied everything, and told him I hated him after I asked her not to.
I am now in a messy situation. I continue to see the alarming behaviors, such as picking on her beyond the point of humor, showing possessiveness in public, "refusing" to allow her to hang up during a phone argument, criticism of countless trivial things. All followed by charming or flattering her. It disgusts me.
How can I help? She is an honors student at a top university. She is not dumb. She IS naive, at a vulnerable point in her life, and has low self-esteem (thanks to her father). She has had counseling in the past, but refuses it now. She will not listen to a thing I say.
I am praying you can tell me some way to reach her. It will break my heart to see her make the same mistakes I did.
A Distraught Mom
A: I am hoping you can reach her, and other people like her, yourself:
I have changed some of the identifying details of your letter, and left others intact. Maybe I changed the sexes, maybe I didn't; maybe I changed the age or the time you were married or the time since your divorce, and maybe I didn't.
This way, anyone who reads this and feels a twinge of recognition will be able to think, is this me? Or, more important, won't be able to say, "That's not me."
Once people allow that it's possible you're talking about them, then that's an opening for their reasoning-dominoes to start falling: "Well, my parents' messed-up marriage was my primary emotional template"; "I do struggle with low confidence"; "I do feel like I need to prove that I'm not damaged goods and can make healthy decisions"; "This new person I'm seeing is kind of possessive/critical/moody"; "I am very defensive when people question my relationship."
Admitting even one of these is admitting a red flag — and admitting a red flag brings a person just that much closer to admitting the possibility of an abusive relationship.
That's no small thing. There's still widespread belief you have to be weak/blind/misguided to get sucked in by an abuser (which is not true, of course; abusers exploit vulnerabilities, and everyone has plenty of those). Accordingly, people's egos get invested in proving they're not victims — and so when someone challenges their relationships, they get defensive.
So, to anyone reading this who gets defensive about a boyfriend or girlfriend: You may have your reasons for tuning out your distraught parent/sibling/friend, but it can't hurt just to hear this one out.