Doctor’s Note: today’s letter includes discussions and descriptions of emotional and verbal abuse.
I’m not sure if this is the kind of question to take on, because it’s not about me specifically, but about my brother (30) and his girlfriend (29). They’ve been in a relationship for about five years and to be blunt about it, my brother is a horrible person. I really like his GF, she’s cute and funny and a great cook. But my brother’s relationship with her is terrible, he clearly has no feelings for her, and instead only wants somebody to bully / cook and clean for him / have sex with.
One of the most concerning things that has happened recently was a short (2-3 day) breakup due to the fact she is putting on weight. I think it is important to state up front that my brother is a weightlifter / bodybuilder and he works hard and is very vain about his own looks. He boasts about how easy it is for him to up or down his weight at will. The girlfriend is not incredibly overweight, maybe a little chubby and she dresses well and always looks cute. Not long after his break-up, get-back-together routine, we spent a weekend together soon after at my mother’s house and I couldn’t stand watching the way he was controlling her life in relation to her weight. We all went out for a coffee and it was brought out with a cookie on the saucer. He took it away from her and gave it to somebody else. Whenever we went out to eat, he dictates what she orders, and throughout the trip he forced her to go on walks. A few years ago a mutual friend of ours had bariatric surgery and for dinner they’d only eat a can of tuna. He once told her to start eating a single can of tuna for dinner too, stating “If they can do it, why can’t you?”
Another thing which was concerning during the trip was the constant negging. If me and my mother complemented her, he’d tell us (in front of her) not to, so we don’t give her an ego. If something ever went wrong (he didn’t pack a jacket for the trip) he’d blame her (even though he’s working at home and she’s working onsite). He’d constantly be ridiculing her and putting her down – it was an incredibly difficult thing to watch.
Not long ago, I looked after his cat and he said that his GF would cook me something to thank me. I told her that ‘despite what he says, that wasn’t necessary’. But she went and snitched on me, and I got a message from him that said something like “She’ll do what I tell her to do.”
I honestly don’t know what to do. I’m afraid that if I approach her again about it, I’ll get a similar result as last time, and I may end up burning my relationship with him. But they’re starting to talk about marriage and to be frank – she deserves better. How do you think I should approach this?
You know, TW, you mention that one of the possible consequences of getting involved in this mess is that you’ll burn your relationship with your brother. But if I’m being perfectly honest, I’m not entirely sure why this is a bad thing. Yes, he’s your brother. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years — especially recently — it’s that family isn’t about blood, it’s about choice. Just because someone shares some DNA with you doesn’t mean that you’re obligated to have them in your life. And frankly, you’re right: your brother sounds like an awful person. He’s not directing it at you, but as many, many people point out: the true test of someone’s character is how they threat others. The guy who’s sweet to his date but is rude to waitstaff or store employees is revealing who he actually is. And in this case we have someone who may be ok with his family, but treats his girlfriend abominably.
But let’s talk about what you can do about this.
Unfortunately, the short answer is: not much.
One of the most frustrating — even maddening — truths about toxic and abusive relationships is that there’s very little people on the outside can do about it that’s actually effective. The problem is that, as an outsider, you have an entirely different perspective than the person who’s in the relationship. This is part of why we have the constant, wrong-headed discussions about “why don’t people leave their abusers?”
(This is the wrong question to ask. The right question to ask is “how do we learn to recognize abusers and abusive relationships, and how do we prevent them in the first place”.)
From an outsider’s perspective, it seems incredibly clear cut: this is horrific, grab your shit and get the hell out. But what’s crystal clear to people on the outside looks vastly different to people who are in the relationship, and that’s where things get murky, confusing and difficult. To start with, there’s the fact that they may disagree that this is actually abuse. A lot of people — including people who are in abusive relationships — picture abusers as cartoon villains. Their concept of an abuser looks like Sensei Kreese in The Karate Kid and Cobra Kai — a thuggish, violent bully who just lives to inflict pain on everyone at the drop of a hat. Their concept of an abusive relationship means plethora of physical violence — smacking somebody around, for example. And while there are plenty of abusive relationships that are exactly like that, abuse is often subtle and insidious. Many forms of abuse are strictly emotional and psychological… constantly belittling someone, controlling them and dominating every aspect of their lives.
Such as, say, what your brother is doing.
It’s often hard for people to recognize that this is a form of abuse because it doesn’t line up with what they picture as abuse. Worse, because it’s emotional and not physical, it’s much easier for abusers to gaslight their victims into thinking that “it’s not so bad”, that “they’re overreacting” or even that their abusers care, they’re just “doing this for their own good”. And honestly… it’s distressingly easy to see how somebody could buy into that. It’s all too easy to see someone saying “wait, all he does is yell at you about your weight? And you’re calling that abuse?” If you combine that with the fact that some people deal with physical abuse and someone can get caught up in what’s known as the Fallacy of Relative Privation. This is when somebody compares something to a worst-case scenario in order to diminish the the thing being compared. An example might be: “My father used to get drunk and beat me with a broomstick, so what you’re going through isn’t abuse”. But the fact that other people were physically abused — or faced other forms of abuse — doesn’t change the fact that the victim of emotional abuse is still being abused.
Another common difficulty is that people often don’t want to believe they’re being abused. Just as we have that mental image of abusers, we also have ideas of what victims of abuse look like. This is where the “why don’t they just leave” discourse gets extremely troubling; because it seems so obvious to us that someone is being abused, there’s a tendency to see victims of abuse as being stupid, weak-willed or just so beaten down and pathetic that they no longer have any agency of their own. Not only is that actively insulting to people who’ve survived and escaped abusive relationships, but it also causes people who are being abused to deny that they’re being abused. They don’t want to believe that they’re someone who could be abused, that they’re not like the mental image of a victim of abuse that they carry around in their head. And since they don’t want to believe they could be someone who would “let” that happen to them, what they’re experiencing can’t possibly be abuse.
It’s also incredibly important to recognize that abusers make it very hard for their victims to be able to leave. Many people who are in abusive relationships stay, not because they don’t recognize what’s going on or because they want to stay but because they can’t. Their abuser may have restricted their access to finances or resources that they’d need to leave — not just money, but transportation, medication, even things most people take for granted like driver’s licenses or identification. They may stay because their abuser has threatened to harm someone else, like a child or a pet. Hell, some abusers will threaten to harm themselves, making subtle or even overt threats of self-harm or suicide if their victim leaves them.
At the end of the day, a victim of abuse is only going to leave when they’re ready and able to do so, not before. And unfortunately, there’s no way for concerned friends and family members to make that happen before they’re ready.
Now all of this sounds like I’m saying to leave it alone. And I’m not. What you can do is help create the circumstances that will empower your brother’s girlfriend to be ready to leave.
To start with: talk to her. One of the worst things about being a victim of abuse is the sense of isolation. Abusers are excellent at convincing their victims that they’re alone and that nobody will help or believe them. Talking to her and saying “you know, you don’t deserve to be treated the way that he treats you” and “The way he talks to you is unacceptable,” let her know that you see what’s going on, that you recognize it for what it is and reaffirms that what he’s doing is wrong. Affirming her situation, that it’s real, that it’s wrong, and that she’s not alone is hugely important. So, for that matter, does acknowledging that this is abuse. Having someone else affirm that yes, it is bad enough to call it abuse, can often be what starts them on the path of getting out.
But you want to be careful in how you phrase and frame things. Saying something like “why do you let him treat you like this” can inadvertently reinforce the idea that she’s helpless or weak. This could cause her to get defensive — “I’m not weak” — or humiliate her by implying she should be doing things differently. By putting the emphasis on his actions — “he’s treating you abominably” — you’re telling her that you recognize and acknowledge what she’s going through. You’re not putting blame, however unintentional, on her. You also have to be careful to be non-judgmental and to avoid criticizing her choices. This can trigger feelings of shame and guilt and make her retreat from you, instead of him. What she needs is affirmation, support and someone to listen. Being the person who says “I’m ready to listen to you” is huge.
Similarly, encourage her to reach out to her friends and family for support. One of the things that helps somebody decide they’re ready to leave a toxic or abusive relationship is knowing that they have a network of support that they can turn to. And that network is important. If there’s only one person in her corner — you — then there’s also a single point of failure. It’s easy to cut someone off from one source of support; it’s much harder to cut them off from multiple sources.
I would also recommend putting her in contact with other resources that can help her. The National Domestic Abuse Hotline (1-800-799-7233) has a number of ways that she can reach out to them. They have trained volunteers who are ready to listen and to help, whether via live chat, a free 800 number or texting. If she’s not comfortable talking to you, then she might be more comfortable talking to a non-judgmental stranger.
What you don’t want to do is tell her what to do. You can’t tell her to leave him or “rescue” her. Part of abuse, whether physical, emotional or psychological, is about removing control from the victim. The last thing you want is to play into a similar dynamic; if she feels like you would be equally controlling, then she’s likely to pull away. Instead, let her know that she can reach out to you and that you’re ready to help or support her in the way she needs. That may mean being the shoulder to cry on and to listen quietly when she needs to talk. It may mean giving her a place where she can work through her incredibly complicated and difficult emotions and feelings regarding her relationship with your brother. In time it may mean helping her figure out how to end things with him… but that’s got to be her choice and on her timeline. Supporting her decisions, providing her with reassurance and affirmation is going to be far more important than trying to get her to agree that it’s time to go.
You also don’t want to give up over her “ratting you out”. As I said: toxic and abusive relationships are tricky things and sometimes people will refuse help or cling harder to their abusers. If that’s the case, then let her know you’re there to listen without judgment if she ever wants to talk, and leave it there. If she’s not ready or doesn’t want to talk, then don’t push it. Just keep the lines of communication open if she ever needs them.
Now I’m of two minds about whether confronting your brother will help. On the one hand, openly calling out his shitty behavior in the moment reinforces both that his behavior is wrong and that people recognize what he’s doing. Social opprobrium is a powerful tool and it takes away from his ability to minimize his treatment of her. Similarly, telling him that he’s talking about and to her disrespectfully or that the way he treats her is unhealthy can possibly start the chain of events that would lead to his getting help and changing his ways. It’s a very slight chance… but it’s there.
However, it also runs the risk of causing him to isolate her further… especially from you. One of the ways that abusers will cut their victims off from their networks is to claim that the people who’re speaking out against them have ulterior motives. He could, for example, tell her that of course you’re talking shit about him; you’ve clearly got a crush on her and would do anything to break the two of them up. Or that you’ve always been jealous of him and you try to sabotage his relationships because you’re a hater.
(This, incidentally, is another reason why it’s good to encourage her to reach out to friends and relatives besides you. Even if he successfully makes her think that you’re just doing this because you want to get into her pants, it’s harder to pull that same move on her entire social circle. Not impossible, but harder).
It could also just cause him to change his behavior in public, while being just as awful to her in private.
Incidentally: you may want to contact the Hotline yourself. They have resources for friends and family members of people who are in abusive relationships, and having someone who can guide you through best practices may be helpful for you as well. After all, this is your brother you’re talking about. That level of complication can make things feel more daunting. Having people who are specifically trained to help and can point you towards resources you may need will be invaluable for you as well. Plus, dealing with this situation and navigating the thorny issue of his being your brother can take its toll on you. You need to take care of yourself too; it doesn’t do his girlfriend any good if you burn yourself out in the process.
I realize all of this is frustrating, TW. But I want you to know: you’re being a good friend to your brother’s girlfriend. She needs someone like you on her side. Give her the help and support she needs and hopefully you and her support network can help her realize this is a shitty situation and it’s time for her to leave.
Write back to let us know how things are going.