Sitting down to write this installment, I wanted to make sure it didn’t sound all about “me.” But I do want to highlight how families as a whole are affected by abuse. The abuser’s actions are brutally far-reaching for those with loving families.
There’s a fine line (in my mind, at least) between supporting an abused family member and supporting abuse. There was absolutely no way to convince my sister to leave this guy (or not marry him in the first place) because she had to come to that conclusion on her own. (And, praise God, she did!) The family had to tread very carefully here giving help when she asked but also not pressuring her or else she would cut off contact entirely. (He would have made her.)
When it comes to abusers, their hallmark tactic is isolation: Making sure the abused partner or spouse doesn’t have the family or friends to give them hope that they can leave. And a lot of family and friends give up trying to support the abused party because it’s frustrating (Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?) as well as painful to watch.
Every bruise and every tearful phone call made us feel powerless. Pastors encouraged us to pray but that became more and more difficult as he failed to change. Deep in my heart, I just wanted to pray that my sister’s husband would just disappear from everyone’s lives. There were a couple of close-calls where he ended up in the hospital in the last few years. I prayed for his healing as my sister requested while secretly hoping he just wouldn’t make it. (I still feel horrible about it.)
Over the first few years of my sister’s marriage, my parents and I actually went to counseling ourselves to help deal with the emotions involved on our side. The roller coaster of not knowing if she was OK or if we’d ever hear from her, again, was not something I’d wish on anyone. There was also heavy guilt to get past that somehow we might have been able to dissuade her from marrying him. Health issues abounded as did lack of sleep every time we heard that he had gone berserk and she had had to call the police.
There was a very real fear in all our minds that one day we would be burying my sister due to the abuse. He would literally break her cell phone so she couldn’t get in touch when they fought and that scared the heck out of me. They would move without telling anyone. (Once moving out of state without any contact.) The silence was both a relief at times (a break from thinking about them) and a horror as our imaginations ran wild as to why my sister hadn’t been in touch.
One time someone found my sister’s wallet under a bridge. Her husband had thrown it out of the car window in anger during one of many, many fights. The person who found it called my mother (her emergency contact) to claim the wallet and that time I was positive that my sister was really gone. (I’d seen enough episodes of Dateline to know it wasn’t a good sign.) The horror of that day (and not being able to get my sister on the phone) still haunts me at times. It was one of many times over the past ten years that my parents and I cried over her.
In addition to my sister’s healing, the family will need to heal now, too. She lied to us for so long about his behavior improving that it will take time to fully trust her. Our relationships need to be rebuilt without the abuser’s influence. We need to get reacquainted. To figure out where we all are these years later. So many life events have been missed on both sides.
Unfortunately, I hate to admit that it will also take some time to forgive her and him. While I’m relieved beyond words that the divorce proceedings are finally in place, I still find myself resenting the fact that my sister brought this guy into her and our lives. I also resent that he had preyed upon my sister so deliberately and with such malice. (Abusers really are predators.) So many memories over the past ten years are marred with his touch.
Finding a balance between being there for my sister and also looking out for our own mental well-being will be a learning curve. As she opens up to our parents and me, more stories come out about how horribly she was treated. It’s difficult to hear but we know she needs to talk with these changes so fresh and the wounds still raw. We can’t just go “hey, don’t talk to me, talk to a counselor” at this point in gaining each other’s trust. She needs to know it’s safe to talk to us, again.
So, that’s where we are right now: Trying to heal as a family and trying to help build up my sister’s self-esteem and self-worth, again. We have a long road ahead of us.
Have you ever had to stand by while a loved one was abused?