My sister is in an abusive marriage, how can I help her?

My sister has a four-year-old daughter and is in a bad marriage. Her husband appears perfectly respectable but he isn’t. I don’t think he actually physically abuses her but there is mental abuse. He is a crude bully and puts her down all the time. He drinks too much and ignores his child. I think he has girlfriends. My sister knows all this but stays. I’ve tried to convince her to leave him but she makes excuses for him. She is a real sweet person and really capable. She says he will get better. Is there anything I can do?

Why people stay in destructive relationships is a puzzle to those on the outside. Often women in these situations feel trapped. They cannot see a way out.

Sometimes they are blaming themselves by saying “It is my fault, if only I had been more…(take your pick of: understanding, assertive, strong, forgiving, loving, etc.)…it would work out.” This is just not true. One person cannot make a relationship work. No matter how saintly your sister was, her husband would still be the way he is.

Fear often keeps women in bad relationships. Bullies and drunks who don’t get their way may resort to physical violence. Although protection of women is better than it used to be, many women are still physically abused.

Your sister may fear poverty. Women who leave abusive relationships to raise a child on their own can face serious money problems.  If your sister does not have excellent work prospects this may be very important.

The fear may be of being alone. In the middle of a bad marriage that has damaged her self esteem, she may see no prospects of any life outside of this marriage.

Your sister may fear damaging her daughter. Although it is best for children to have two parents who are respectful and loving to each other, ending an abusive marriage will not harm her daughter. It will allow her bond with her daughter to grow and will show her daughter that women don’t have to put up with abuse.

Your sister may stay out of a sense of loyalty or commitment. Some people feel that it is their duty to make a marriage work no matter what.

A very difficult trap that many women in abusive relationships fall into is the hot-cold trap. Just when she is determined to leave, your sister’s husband may show some affection or kindness that makes her think it can work out. It may be a trivial kindness but the contrast with what she usually gets may make it seem important. Unfortunately, either on purpose or not, many abusive men show this pattern and are able to trap their partners into staying with them.

Be supportive of your sister. She needs your love. Don’t blame her for staying in this marriage. Telling her to leave may make her feel worse. She has to make her own decision.

Make sure she knows that others think she is a capable and effective person. Encourage her to do things for herself so that she doesn’t feel so trapped. Be wary of the possibility of her being physically abused. Get her information on women’s shelters.

Support your niece. Don’t criticize her father as this will put your niece in a difficult situation. Be a special auntie to her. Include her in your family activities if you can.

Few things are as hard as seeing a loved one in a bad relationship. Standing by your sister will help her more than anything.

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