Hey Elderly Aunt, how do I help my sister who might be quarantining with a verbally abusive girlfriend?

Dear Elderly Aunt,
 My sister has been living with her girlfriend for nearly a year. I went out with them in public a few times. That was back when we could all go out. They seemed to get along fine. But my sister, let’s call her “Jane,” has been making comments to me since the quarantine began that  suggest her girlfriend can be verbally abusive. Maybe it’s just stress of being around each other 24-7. I’ve asked her point blank if she feels threatened and she emphatically said no. But I worry that Jane is in a damaging relationship and might not realize it. What should I do or can I do? 

Please allow the Elderly Aunt to begin, dear reader, by sending you a safe, socially-distanced e-hug for being such a good sister! 

Now that’s done, let’s be crystal clear about one thing: Verbal abuse is abuse. If your sister is in any kind of abusive relationship, you must encourage her to get whatever help she needs in order to get out of that relationship now!

Next, a few questions about your current sisterly concerns. Is there anything in your sister Jane’s past/current behavior that makes you suspect she might tolerate an abusive relationship? Is she hyper-critical of herself, for example? Does she minimize her accomplishments and successes? Is she reticent about voicing an opinion even when asked to give one?  Does she tend to say she causes other people’s bad behavior? Does she take responsibility when something goes wrong, even if it’s not her fault? 

The Elderly Aunt asks these questions to try to get a feel for the level of your sister’s self-confidence and self-esteem. We humans need solid amounts of both in order to form and maintain healthy emotional relationships. In the Elderly Aunt’s experience, the good life only begins when—to riff on the Staples Singers 1971 soul classic— we learn to Respect Ourself!    

Sadly, in the course of her long life, the Elderly Aunt has known far too many people who get stuck in abusive relationships because their past experiences have accustomed them to be relationships in which they are bullied, denigrated or ridiculed. She’s also known people who cling to unhealthy relationships because they’re afraid to be alone. Or because they fear change so much they stick with what’s familiar, no matter how unhealthy it is for them—the devil you know, as the old Irish proverb puts it. Indeed, it astonishes the Elderly Aunt how frequently people stick with familiar situations that make them unhappy, rather than endure the discomfort of change.

Finally—to wave at the elephant in the discussion—has Jane’s sexuality been in any way difficult for your other family members to accept? If so, might this make it more difficult for her to admit that her (first?) live-in relationship is a failure?

If any of the above reminds you of your sister, dear reader, the Elderly Aunt adamantly recommends professional therapy as the best way to loosen the grip of past damage on her present life. For what it’s worth the Elderly Aunt, herself, has been there, done that, and she is happy to report that good therapy rocks!

As to what you can—or should do—about Jane’s situation. Again the Elderly Aunt can only speak from experience. Her own life has been a long and bumpy trek. Whenever things got bad, what helped her most was to know that someone else noticed she was in trouble and took pains to be gently, supportively and consistently present in her life. Nobody else could fix her—she could only fix herself. But it helped her a lot to know that there was somebody calm and loving she could talk to or take shelter with; someone who would gave an opinion when asked but wouldn’t get all het-up telling her what she should and shouldn’t do. It’s easy for the most well-intentioned of us to turn into Bullies for a Good Cause when someone we love is in trouble and, for some reason, they do not immediately follow our advice,

As to how to proceed, the Elderly Aunt suggests you calmly query Jane anytime she makes one of her “comments” that suggests verbal abuse. And do push back firmly against any rationale Jane offers for her partner’s sketchy behavior. 

Stay calm and keep your questions simple and direct. Say, “I’m worried” (rather than shrieking “what were you thinking!!!”) when something worries you. And then explain why you’re worried—again, simply and directly.  

In other words, as much as you can, dear reader, be what you want Jane to become: someone who is willing to look life’s inevitable troubles in the eye, acknowledge them, and then muster whatever courage it takes to come out the other side of them stronger because of the experience.

Finally, the Elderly Aunt suggests you conjure up Sister Sledge’s We Are Family  on YouTube and cut loose with Jane in a get-down dance of sisterly joy. The Elderly Aunt cannot think of a better way for you to let your sister know that you’ve got her back.

The Elderly Aunt offers her thoughtful responses to your questions about this wild ride we call life on every other Monday.  And as a general disclaimer—to quote the elves from The Lord of the Rings — “… advice is a dangerous gift, even given from the wise to the wise.”

Got a question for the Elderly Aunt? Ask her on Facebook or email your question to [email protected] with the subject line “Elderly Aunt question.” (Just please don’t ask detailed financial questions). 

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