Carolyn Hax: Witness to a male friend in an abusive relationship

Carolyn Hax
Columnist April 11, 2013

Dear Carolyn:

The last few times I’ve been out with my buddy and his wife, she’s made some really derogatory remarks to him, if not outright screamed at him. He seems really cowed by her, like he’s just trying to placate her so she’ll stop yelling and calling him names. He hardly talks now.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I’m on good terms with both, but I’m his friend first. I worry about him (she wasn’t like this when they were dating or early in their marriage), and I’m wary of burning bridges. I know him. If I even hint that she’s abusing him, he’ll get angry and tell his wife what I said. I’m at peace with that, but they’re bound to circle the wagons and cut me out of their lives.

How do I bring this up with him? I’m 99 percent certain he doesn’t think he’s being abused. But a police officer who saw her yelling at him on the street the other day almost arrested her, and pulled my friend aside to ask him if he was being abused. It’s real.

Do I just bring up the subject with him and live with the likelihood that our friendship might be over? I’m starting to think that’s what a real friend would do.


(Nick Galifianakis)

Burning Bridges?

First, applause for that cop. Awareness of men as abuse victims has lagged, to put it mildly. (More info: Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men and Women, dahmw.org.)

You’re confident your friend is unaware, even after attracting police attention? Maybe he’s in that kind of denial — nothing new with domestic abuse — but maybe, too, he feels trapped by shame, also nothing new, especially with male victims. It’s an insidious obstacle to seeking help (or the door).

It does seem counterintuitive, but being willing to burn the bridge is a generous act. Too often the goal of preserving the friendship is ultimately a selfish one, if understandable: Nobody wants to shorten their list of pleasures in life, which buddies usually top.

It can be unselfish to stay friends, when you want to prevent the victim’s isolation and remain a potential lifeline. This is arguably one of those cases. It’s a tough balance to strike: to remain close enough to help him, without enabling her through your friendship-conscious silence.

It sounds as if you’ve erred on the silent side, though, and that has to stop. Whenever you witness yelling and name-calling, stay calm and say “No”: “I suspect neither of you sees this, but, Sarah, the way you treat James has changed and isn’t okay.”

Or, “Sarah, would you want anyone to treat you that way?”

Or, “James is being a gentleman, but I’ll say it: Please speak respectfully or not at all.”

Note, you’re not calling him out. You’re merely holding the line on civility among friends. Hold it with all your might, and let both see you do it.

Then, one-on-one: “I say this knowing I might lose your friendship: You’re being abused. If you drop me for saying this, that’s a price I’m willing to pay for your well-being. I will be here for you, forever, even if you never contact me again.”

It’s on him take it from there. An angry response, by the way, means he has some hard growing up to do first.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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