Dear Thelma: My niece is in an abusive relationship, how can I help her?


By THELMA
Do you need a listening ear? Thelma is here to help. Email lifestyle@thestar.com.my.

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Dear Thelma,

My niece has a 23-year-old divorced boyfriend with a two-year-old baby. She met her boyfriend at her workplace.

At first, their relationship was OK but recently her boyfriend has been very controlling. Her boyfriend would scold her and sometimes beat her if she didn't answer his calls while at work or was late answering his calls.

Her boyfriend gets jealous if she talks to other men.

She quit her job because her boyfriend told her to quit. She was a restaurant manager at a fast food restaurant. Then she worked in a clinic, and again her boyfriend asked her to resign and now she is unemployed.

He threatened to jump from a building if she does not marry him. At one point, he threatened to leave her, and my niece tried to kill herself by taking sleeping pills. She was hospitalised. She said she can't live without him and loves him very much.

There was also an incident where he called and scolded her because she was spending time with my sister and her brother watching movie at the cinema. He just wanted her to spend time with him and just focus on him. My niece thinks that this is love and she doesn't realise that he is manipulating her thoughts and emotions.

I could clearly see that she was mentally, emotionally and physically abused by this man.

The problem is that my sister has not yet told her husband all the things that happened to my niece because she is afraid that my niece will be scolded and might run away from home.

Every day she would go out and see the man. Her father thinks she is going to work.

I have advised my sister to tell her husband so they can sit down and talk with my niece and try to find the best way to deal with this.

My niece sees that man every day, which I think is dangerous. She is young and immature. She is very easily influenced and manipulated by this man. I don't know what this guy's real intention is but I do know that the relationship is toxic and abusive.

I don't know how to help my niece because she refuses to listen to anyone. And I don't know how to help my sister because she doesn't have the courage to take action.

The man also spoke rudely to my sister. When she asked him to bring his parents to meet her if he wants to get married, he asked, "Why must my parents meet you?" He just wants to take my niece to the kadi's office and get married. He does not want her father to be a witness, and he said he would get someone to replace his father as a witness to their marriage.

I've advised my sister to take a series of steps: Firstly, discuss the situation with her husband and involve him in finding a solution. Secondly, file a police report against the boyfriend for assault (he also beats his daughter). Thirdly, seek professional help through counselling for both her daughter and herself.

Despite my genuine concern, my niece refuses to heed any advice, making it challenging to assist her. I'm also unsure how to guide my sister effectively, as she seems hesitant to take decisive action.

How can I help my niece not to ruin her future and get her out of this toxic and abusive relationship?

She is still young and has more things to do in her life than marry this man.

How do I help my sister? What is the best advice to give her? What can she do to save her daughter from this man? Please guide me because I love my sister and my niece.

Exasperated


I am so sorry to read your letter. What an awful thing to happen.

Your description is an excellent account of how abuse works. This man has his claws firmly in your niece, isolating her, making sure she has no income, and beating her when she doesn’t do exactly what he wants. The man is abusive.

He knows that if she regains her power, he loses his punching bag. Leaving a husband is a lot more complex than leaving a boyfriend, even when there is clear violence. The marriage is to establish complete control.

The problem with abuse is that the predator creates a reality where the target has no power. All they can think of is pleasing the predator.

Sadly, the law doesn’t reflect this. If your niece is 18 or over, the law treats her as an adult who is making her choices. Bad choices. Dangerous choices. But that is not illegal.

As you mention jobs that aren’t given to kids, your niece is probably an adult. Also, you are an aunt, not a parent. This limits your influence.

However, the predator has beaten her, and he beats his child. Those are police matters. There is the overdose and the hospitalisation. That also adds to the record.

I think your advice is spot-on: This is a family matter, and it starts with your sister talking to her husband. I’m concerned because his daughter is clearly in a lot of trouble and he hasn’t seen this. Also, you and your sister think his reaction will be to scold. That does not bode well.

However, this is an emergency. There is documented violence and danger. As your niece is young and she hasn’t married him yet, there is a chance that you can get her away.

You are involved, and I think you may want to help with your niece as well as support your sister.

Sadly, family interventions are tricky. They can work, but many backfire. Your best option is to first understand some basics (you write like a person who may know this already, but for readers who don’t, I think we should make these clear).

First, his aim is to establish total domination. To get there, he has to cut her off from everyone who will help her.

During your intervention, there can be no scolding. Anger will only drive her away. So anyone who wants to wave fingers and blame has to suck it up. This is a rescue.

If the family give any kind of ultimatum where she has to choose, he will force her to choose him. So never give ultimatums. Tell her constantly that no matter what happens, you will always be there for her. Always. Then, in case the first attempt doesn’t go well, you have left the door open to future success.

Second, this man has convinced your niece that she is responsible for his abuse and threats.

Don’t tell her it’s nonsense; to her, the nightmare is real. Instead, listen. Let her talk and talk and talk. Sometimes, victims will hear themselves and wake up to the truth.

If you see the opportunity, tell her, “You don’t deserve this, no matter what.” Then stop.

Inside, your niece is terrified. She knows she’s in trouble. She can’t understand it. She needs to feel safe with you. Love her and let her know she is loved.

Third, walking away from predators is dangerous. These people are violent and they have no boundaries.

If she does leave, there will be calls, threats, stalking, and more. The authorities can only do so much. There is a long history of predators who have attacked and hurt or killed victims who escaped.

So acknowledge the danger. Talk immediately to an NGO that specialises in this, AWAM (Telenita Helpline 03-7877 0224) or WAO (Hotline: 03-3000 8858 or SMS/WhatsApp Tina at 018-988 8058) are excellent. After them, talk to the police and discover what can and can’t be done. Make a plan so that if your niece is ready to leave, you are prepared.

When the family talk to her, let her know you won’t take decisions for her – but tell her that you have a safety plan. “I know it’s difficult and that you’re scared. We are here for you.”

Fourth, he is coercing her with threats of self-harm. So if she tries to pull away, he will act out some drama, and blame her. Irrationally, she will likely not see this as his manipulating her; she may believe it is her fault.

Be prepared to listen, and to hold her hand through this. Professional help from a counsellor who is trained in domestic violence and abuse will be helpful here.

Fifth, be prepared to shut down outsiders who will question your niece and blame her. It’s amazing how many people side with predators against victims. As a family, surround your niece and tell anyone who is not fully supportive to back off.

In summary, leaving an abuser is a process. It’s emotional, tricky, and dangerous. Hopefully, with professional advice and support, you can help. Please know I’ll be thinking of you.

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