Does a Family Have a Duty to Rescue a Daughter in an Abusive Relationship?

Reader’s Question

Once someone who tends to see everyone as a sweet and loving persons gets completely enmeshed in an emotionally abusive relationship with a “covert-aggressive” Prince Charming, is there anything a family member can do to intervene or rescue the victim even though she might not think she is a victim?

We rescued our daughter two years ago and helped her gain more awareness of how her boyfriend was manipulating and controlling her psychologically, and trying to isolate her from friends and family. She even read a few books by Bancroft, Evans, Simon, and Carver. But she still went back to the guy and agreed to go into therapy (couple counseling) with his family psychologist, upon his mother’s recommendation, with the outcome being that she took the blame for the earlier breakup, which she then passed onto her parents, sisters and friends who had supported her during the intervention. Now, she’s planning to marry the guy, the wedding being planned by his mother, without any consultation with us, the family of the bride. In fact, their plan was clearly to exclude us, since we have caused harm to their son.

All the experts say there is nothing we can do, except express our unconditional love and stand back and let the inevitable unfold. Having just finished Hedda Nussbaum’s book, I somehow don’t believe this is all we should be doing. She lost a large piece of her life, sanity, her future, and her own child, because no one did anything to help her, not even her parents or her sister. The tragedy of her situation was that Joel, her abuser, won. He got the better of everyone and not only succeeded in destroying her, but the collateral damage was immense. These sorts of manipulative, covert-aggressive predators always seem to get away with their cruel psychological games, especially when there are no visible wounds. We would greatly appreciate your take on this. We cannot sit idly by while this sort of camouflaged torture continues. As the saying goes: “Bad things happen when good people do nothing.”

Psychologist’s Reply

Cases of severe domestic terror, abuse and violence are indeed tragic. Well-intentioned but nonetheless uninformed counselors at one time faulted victims for apparent lack of strength of character. Now, we know better. But victims in such horrendous situations stay in them not only because of the manipulative skill of their controllers, but because of a deeply-rooted intuitive sense that they might actually be on safer ground succumbing to the controller’s demands than declaring independence (a fair proportion of deaths and murder-suicides occur in such relationships just after the victim has decided to leave). So, it’s important that victims have a clear and viable safety plan that includes a strong support network and safety allies.

In cases where extreme control, emotional abuse, or physical torture is not present and in which the “victim” might easily (and sometimes rightly) perceive that a lot of people are trying to control her (including family), it’s important she be afforded a sense of being able to determine her own destiny (whether for good or bad). Sometimes, a family’s anger toward the victim for being so naive as to be “duped” is displaced upon the stronger party in a relationship, thus overly vilifying that party.

It’s absolutely impossible to make an even remotely accurate assessment of the situation you describe without first hand knowledge. But from what you say, it appears that a lack of awareness on the “victim’s” part is not the issue. That being the case, we have an adult, aware human being making choices and living with the consequences. She would need to know that unwavering support is available if she ever has occasion to ask for it, but she also most likely needs to feel like she can direct her own life.

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