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TherapistMarryAnn, Therapist
Category: Mental Health
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Experience:  Over 20 years experience specializing in anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol, and relationship issues.
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I believe that my sister in law is in a very emotionally

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I believe that my sister in law is in a very emotionally abusive relationship which she has been in for 25 years. She is a partner in a law firm so at least she has a life outside the house, but is completely bullied and domimated by an insecure and quite frightening husband.  She has cut off every member of her family gradually over the last few years which seems to be coming to a head now. I think that shortly she will end any contact with her parents and both brothers - their relationship is at an all time low. Her husband is a controlling bully who doesnt want her to have any close relationships with anyone else - all their friends are his friends and he cuts her off from any close friendship she has. She appears to worship him and will not hear a bad word about him, but he is cruel and manipulative. He is not physically abusive but most definitely psychologically abusive. We have seen him constantly criticise and put her down and punish her if she is clumsy or doesnt inform him of her every move.  He cannot bear her seeing anyone from her family.  Once her phone accidentally called us and you could hear him screaming at her for half an hour about a sandwich.  She wasnt crying for help - the call was definitely an accident as she defends him so vehemently always. I believe that when he is treating her badly she is very lonely as he gets their daughters to punish and exclude her if she has done something he disapproves of like contact a friend or family or not consult him on the most trivial household decision. Is there any way of showing her that we care or do we just walk away? Any attempt by anyone to mention anything about her husband being part of her rejecting her family has been received very very badly. I can walk away and not have any contact (which is what they seem to be pushing us to do by making it so difficult to see or contact them) but just feel that I want to somehow let her know that I am there for her - but I think he monitors her emails/phone calls . The problem is that she is so brainwashed I think any intervention would mean that we would never have contact again. Despite this I wonder whether it is worth risking this or whether it is better just to keep polite but distant contact.     I would really appreciate your help. Thanks

Hi, I'd like to help you with your question.

I agree with you, all the signs you listed sound like abuse. Anyone who is cruel and manipulative to another person is being emotionally abusive at the very least. And if your sister in law's husband is forcing her to cut off contact with friends and family, that is a sure sign that there is abuse going on.

People who are victims of domestic abuse often have a very hard time seeing that they are indeed being abused. Part of this is because they have a low self esteem. They either entered the relationship with low self esteem or through repeated abuse developed a low opinion of themselves. This makes it hard for the person to leave because they feel they deserve the abuse.

Also, your sister in law's husband may be using psychological abuse to convince her that she needs to stay. Controlling the victim is important for the abuser. If the victim would realize that they could leave, then the abuser would lose the relationship and the control they have over the victim. In order to make the victims stay the abuser will not only try to lower their self esteem but they will use fear and threats to get them to stay. So your sister in law may feel powerless to break free of the abuse.

Many victims also defend their abusers. This is as a result of the psychological abuse and the low self esteem they develop in the relationship. They feel they cannot live without the other person and are convinced they would not do well on their own. Also, many domestic abuse victims have dependent personality traits, making it even harder for them to be convinced they can live on their own outside of the relationship.

Therefore, it is very hard for someone from outside of the relationship to convince the victim to leave. Many will fight harder to stay in the relationship and may even bond more with the abuser, creating a "us against them" mentality. Your sister in law may also be suffering from something called Stockholm Syndrome, where the victim starts to sympathize with the abuser.

If you can still talk with your sister in law, one of the best things you can do is be supportive of your sister in law without trying to convince her to leave. If she feels she can come to you without having to defend her relationship, then she may even share her feelings with you. When that happens, you may be able to gently introduce the idea that she is being abused. Even providing her with safety numbers and resources about domestic violence might help. Whatever happens, try to maintain contact with her. She may someday need to turn to someone and you might be the only person she has left.

You may also want to express your concerns to other family members, even if they do not live nearby. You need support and they may be able to help.

Also, learn what you can about domestic abuse. The more you know, the more you can help your sister in law. Here are some resources to help you:

You may also want to contact the local domestic abuse hotline for more ideas on how to help your sister in law with resources in your area. And also contact the local domestic shelters for ideas of how to approach the situation.

I hope this has helped you,

Customer: replied 5 years ago.
I think the problem is that she absolutely adores him. She will never leave him. What I am worried about is that she will completely cut off her parents - and then when they die she will live with that regret for the rest of her life. Also that if things ever get so bad that she does decide to ask for help, that she has someone to come to. She will not confide in me about her relationship at the moment as she feels she is in a close and solid relationship with her husband. I suppose my question is - is the right thing to do to point out that she is being abused and that she can come to me for help which will probably end up in her cutting me off, but at least it might get her to look at her situation in a different light? Or should I maintain a polite and distant relationship and see her when I can? Thank you.

I would not talk to her about being abused right now. She is not ready to hear it. She is still accepting of being abused. There may come a time that she is open to hearing what you have to say, especially if she realizes that being cut off from family and friends and being controlled by her husband is too much. That is when your friendship will mean a lot. Try to see your relationship with her as a friendship but don't bring up the abuse until you feel she is ready to hear it. You will know she is ready when she starts to talk about being unhappy and scared.


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