(The Root) —
"A close relative is involved in a physically and verbally abusive relationship with her boyfriend. She constantly complains about him and says she wants to leave him, but she never does. I can't keep her away from him even though I have tried. (Once, when she stayed at my house and was leaving to go to his, I took her keys.) She deserves better than this and knows better. Is there any way to get through to her?" —X.K.
Honestly? There's not much you can do about it. Your relative does deserve better. No one — man, woman, child — deserves to be mistreated in any way, but as much as you want more for a loved one, you won't see any changes in his or her behavior until that person wants it for him- or herself.
As hard as it is to know what's going on with your relative's relationship, I'd encourage you not to get involved. I completely get the rationale for taking her keys to prevent her from spending time with her man, but that isn't your place. If she's an adult, she is free to make her own choices, even if that means picking a mate who is abusive and choosing to stay with him.
The best thing you can do for her, though it won't be easy, is to continue to support her emotionally. That's probably draining for you, but her self-esteem is extraordinarily low, and it's important that whenever, or even if, she has a breakthrough moment of clarity and decides that she's had enough of her volatile situation, she knows that someone has her back.
Also, since she's repeatedly mentioned ending the relationship, there is some hope that she genuinely wants out; she may just not know the best way to detach herself. The next time she complains and threatens to leave, ask her, "What would it take for you to stay away from him?" Help her become proactive by creating a plan of action. (Be forewarned: Even if, in the best-case scenario, she leaves, it does not mean she will stay gone.)
I know that doesn't exactly sound like doing much, especially when you want her to end the relationship now. But it could make a difference down the line. Abusive relationships are often alienating to the people in them. The initial secrecy of the abuse, the lies to cover it up and the self-seclusion because of embarrassment when the secret is discovered are often discussed. Rarely do I hear about the alienation by frustrated family and friends who can't take being sucked into the drama or sitting idly by to watch a loved one self-destruct. Knowing that you are there and you love and support her unconditionally could eventually be a turning point for your relative.
Unfortunately, I've been in a situation similar to yours. A friend who lived nearby once called me, asking to borrow $20. It sounded urgent, so since I was headed out of my building and in her direction, I volunteered to drop the money off. I knew something was wrong as soon as she opened the door. She looked fine, insisted she was, but she had a nervous energy about her.
My suspicions were confirmed when I spotted her boyfriend. He was stalking around the apartment like some sort of caged animal, inhaling from his Newport and flicking the ashes on my girl's brand-new rug.
Over the next 10 minutes, he stubbed out the cigarette on her suede sofa — also new — poured cognac on it and eventually pushed her against the wall. She tripped over her ottoman and bumped her head on the floor. She was crying hysterically as I helped her up — not injured, just scared — and she begged me to call the police on him.
I didn't, for a couple of reasons. One, if she got hit, was capable of calling and didn't, she really didn't want to. It wasn't my place to call the cops on her man. And two, if he was bold enough to do all that in front of me, this wasn't the first time — or likely even the fourth or fifth time — it had happened, and they were still together. That was a regular part of their relationship, so much so that they forgot how crazy it was and did it in front of another person.
As it turned out, just the threat of calling the police was enough to get him to leave, and after he did, she and I talked for a long while. She swore the relationship was over. I talked to her a week later to check up. She said she hadn't talked to him. The following month, I showed up to meet her at a party. Guess who was there?
I said hello to him as if nothing had happened. She thanked me after the party for not mentioning anything to anyone we knew and not making a scene that night. I felt complicit in their dysfunction.
That incident at my friend's house really affected me. I had never seen a man act like that before, and my girl didn't fit my idea of the "type" of woman who would put up with that. But she was. (There is no "type," really.) And I realized that there was nothing I could do about it. She had to want more for herself.
Eventually she did. But it wasn't because of anything I did or said. She finally got tired of the drama and found her freedom.
Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor to The Root, a life coach and the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. She answers your dating and relationship questions on The Root each week. Feel free to ask anything at firstname.lastname@example.org.