by Sarah Rutledge Fischer (she/they)
My friend is in trouble, but none of our other friends see it. I don’t know what to do. “Jane,” had a long-distance girlfriend, “Anne,” who moved cross-country to be with her about six months ago. Typical U-haul stuff, but we were happy for them. The thing is, since Anne moved in, things have changed.
Jane has always been confident and full of energy, but lately, she’s just nervous and tired. I never see her outside of work anymore, and even at work it feels like she’s avoiding me. If I ask what they’ve been up to lately, she always seems to dodge the question. The other day, I convinced her to go for a walk, and she showed me how she’s working to change her stride because Anne had helped her realize she had been walking without purpose, which made people think she wasn’t capable. I didn’t know what to say.
Our friends say I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. They say nothing is wrong, and people often change in relationships. But I don’t think that’s it. I feel like my friend is disappearing. How can I make our friends see it? And what can I do to help?
Not A Molehill
Seeing danger that others can’t or won’t see can make us question our own judgment, but your friend’s sudden change in personality is a very good reason for concern. There could be another explanation, but the changes you describe in Jane—sudden loss of confidence, change in social participation, reluctance to talk about her partner, and changes to core aspects of herself in response to her partner’s criticism—are clear warning signs that she could be in an emotionally abusive relationship.
Emotional abuse is less discussed in our culture than abuse that includes physical violence, but it can be extremely harmful. Emotional abuse is non-physical behavior meant to control, isolate, or frighten a victim. The abuse—which can look like constant criticism, gaslighting, isolation from friends and family, and more—strips away a person’s sense of self and creates a psychological dependency on the abuser.
In the LGBTQ community, many struggle to acknowledge emotional abuse. The continued fight for our relationships to be seen as legitimate creates a reluctance to acknowledge when they are also flawed. Women in relationships with women face additional challenges; stereotypes about being more emotional and prone to “catfights” or “dyke drama” can hide and normalize abusive patterns. On top of that, many of us, raised in homophobic environments, still hold subconscious beliefs that we don’t deserve healthy, supportive partners.
As for your friends, they may struggle to see the problem for the above reasons, but be compassionate. They may also be navigating their own history. Adults who have experienced emotional abuse can struggle to recognize or acknowledge abuse experienced by others. If your friends are dismissive of your concerns about Jane, consider that they may have a history they are not yet ready to confront. Don’t push them. Seek support elsewhere.
Now, let’s talk about what you can do to help Jane. You should start by educating yourself. The ample resources available on the National Domestic Violence Hotline website, thehotline.org, are a good place to begin.
Also, before you talk to Jane, check your intentions. You may have the impulse to rescue her, but you must not make choices or decisions for her. What she needs is your unconditional support. Emotional abuse disempowers; empower her by supporting her choices and decisions, whatever they are.
If Jane is not ready to confront the situation or find a way out, don’t walk away. Abusers maintain control by isolating partners from family and friends. Be respectful of boundaries, but let Jane know that you are there for her.
If she is ready to open up, listen without judgment. Help her access resources (use your phone or computer if she thinks she’s being monitored) and offer to help create a safety plan. Acknowledge that what she is going through is difficult and remember that your role is not to fix but to support.
No matter where she is in the difficult process of escaping abuse, she needs your friendship. That should get you started.
To submit your own question, email Allie at Allie@focusmidsouth.com. Focus Mid-South reserves the right to edit letters for length and clarity.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, help is available. The National Domestic Violence Hotline’s website, thehotline.org, contains extensive resources for both people living with abuse and those who know and love them. They also provide access to judgement free advocates ready to offer care and support 24 hours a day through the following channels:
- By phone: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233); TTY 1-800-787-3224
- By chat: at thehotline.org
- By text: send “START” to 88788
For people between the ages of 13 and 26, the National Domestic Violence Hotline operates a special project love is respect, loveisrespect.org, which offers resources specifically for young people navigating abuse and intimate partner violence. They can also be reached 24 hours a day:
- By phone: 1-800-331-9474; TTY 1-800-787-3224
- By chat: at loveisrespect.org
- By text: send “LOVEIS” to 22522