‘I fear my daughter is in an abusive relationship’

Henrietta has noticed a marked change in her daughter’s manner when her partner is present and fears she is in an abusive relationship. She asked psychologist Dr Emmanuella Murray how she should best tackle the issue.

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Q. Henrietta
My husband and I fear that our adult daughter is in an abusive relationship, where she is being abused mentally, not physically. She used to be so assertive but is becoming increasingly withdrawn when her partner is present. How do we handle this?

A. I do feel for you and your husband. The fact that you are asking advice about this says a lot about your love towards your daughter and your desire to approach this in the best way possible.

Many people don’t realise they are in abusive relationships. It isn’t easy to watch someone in an abusive relationship, and all you can do is show her as much empathy as you can.

In my experience when working with clients who are living in an abusive relationship, the worst thing we can do is charge the point – that is, say things like ‘let’s get you out of this relationship’ – as this is likely to scare them from talking to you again, and we don’t want that.

When you next see your daughter, you might say, “I’ve noticed you aren’t yourself lately.” You might further explain what you observed: “You’ve been more withdrawn than normal. Is everything okay?” This may allow her some space to talk to you.

If she doesn’t want to talk, then remind her that you love her and that you are both there for her if she needs anything.

The key is to show loads of empathy – listen, validate and have a non-judgmental attitude. Often, people will stay in an abusive relationship because they have lost any confidence they once had. So, having a good listening ear, checking in with her and loving her like you do, is the best step forward.

If your daughter were to disclose that she is living in fear, then I would encourage her to speak to her GP and/or call one of the confidential domestic violence lines that have private specialised counsellors who people can speak with.

The way I would frame it with a client is to say, “I’m worried about you. Maybe it would be a good idea to speak with someone from the DV Line.” If they say “no, I’m not sure”, I just offer encouragement: “Well, it’s just a one-off call and it’s confidential. Maybe you could treat it like you are researching a topic, just finding out some more information. You are not committing to anything.” Often, this is far less confronting, and the point is we want them to talk to someone about what’s happening for them, so they can receive further help.

1800RESPECT is a 24-hour national sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling line for anyone who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

Dr Emmanuella Murray is a clinical psychologist who has been practising for more than 10 years. She works with children, adolescents, adults and couples, and presents to professionals and community groups.

If you have a question for Dr Emmanuella Murray, please send it to [email protected]

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