Dear Dr. Yael:
I am concerned about my daughter. She is dating a boy whom she is crazy about, but I see certain things in him that make me nervous. He tries to control her and wants her to spend all her time with him. If she has plans with friends or family members, he will often become upset; as a result, she cancels her plans so she can be with him.
As I see this intense connection between them, I understand why she likes him; but to me it does not seem like a healthy relationship. I am worried that she is going to take the relationship with him to the next level – namely, get engaged – and I am not sure how to proceed. I do not want to alienate my daughter and am not sure that this boy is abusive, but I know that his being controlling is a red flag.
What can I say to my daughter and how can I get her to listen to me? When I expressed disappointment that she canceled certain plans in order to go out with him, she became very defensive. I know that her life is her own, but this kind of mistake is not one I am willing to let her make.
A Distressed Mother Dear Distressed Mother:
It appears from your letter that there are definitely some signs that this relationship is not healthy. Isolating someone from their friends and family is definitely a red flag and is usually the first step that abusive spouses take to exert their control over their wives or husbands. Once a person is cut off from her or his support system, it is very easy to manipulate the person and make her or him feel badly about herself or himself, while convincing the manipulated individual that it is her or his fault.
People in an emotionally abusive relationship become entrenched in this cycle of abuse and often do not realize what is happening. Generally it is their friends and family who are the ones to pick up on the abuse and help them out of their situations; however, if they are cut off from family and friends, an extremely dangerous situation ensues.
There are organizations that are very helpful in these matters, such as Shalom Task Force and Shalva. Shalva offers some questionnaires on their website (www.shalvaonline.org), which may help you approach your concerns about your daughter.
The first step is to evaluate what is really going on. Some signs of an abusive relationship are:
* Isolation of a partner from friends, family and community.
* Conflicts are resolved by one partner, who dictates the solution in a demeaning manner.
* Disrespect and denigration of a partner’s values and beliefs.
* Use of criticism and humiliation to reinforce the partner’s shame and guilt.
* Lack of communication is prevalent, as the partner does not feel that she or he can raise issues that are bothering her or him.
* The use of threats and coercion to solve problems.
It may be helpful to share this information with your daughter and print out a screening questionnaire from the Shalva website (see above). This must be done very gently and with much sensitivity. Perhaps you can approach your daughter when things are calm and when she is not feeling torn between her feelings for her boyfriend and those toward her family and friends. Express how much you love her and that you want the best for her. Tell her that you understand why she likes him and you can see some very nice qualities in him. Then explain to her that you see some things that are making you nervous.
Give her, and ask her to read, copies of the questionnaire and the signs of an abusive relationship. Urge her to consider whether she believes that her relationship with her boyfriend is healthy. You must ensure that you do not come across too strongly. However, it is important to remember that even if she becomes upset with you, she may be reacting to shame and insecure feelings – and may look at the paperwork you gave her later on. Show her physical affection (i.e., hugs) if she seems receptive and assure her that you will be there for her regardless of her decision. This will show her that you are not trying to take her away from her boyfriend (something that he may be telling her if he is indeed controlling and abusive) but rather that you care about her and want to support her.