real life

‘I couldn't see the danger in my relationship. Until a friend asked me one question.’

A frog, if dumped into a pot of hot water, will immediately jump out. But if it’s placed in cold water, it will remain in place as the heat gradually increases to boiling point — and that can ultimately be fatal.

There was a time, a few years ago, when I was at the uncomfortably-warm-water stage. And just like an unsuspecting frog in a pan, I had no idea how close to danger I was.

Grace at age 20.

When I was fresh out of my teen years, I found myself living with a man I’d only known for a few weeks and making excuses for behaviour I would have loudly called out just a year before.

So my boyfriend got drunk and verbally lashed out in front of my friends? He never did hold his booze very well, I justified.

So he had a fully-fledged, door-slamming tantrum because my girlfriends and I didn’t want to switch our TV channel to Top Gun when he came home? Yeah, he’s just temperamental.

So he told me my ‘slutty’ dress must be a bid to attract attention? Oh, he cares so deeply that he can’t help getting jealous.

So my windscreen was mysteriously smashed during one of his bad moods? What weird, bad luck.

Related: An open letter to my friend in an abusive relationship.

Any relationships expert will tell you the severity and frequency of abusive behaviours escalate over time, and that early red flags like name-calling, isolation from loved ones, and controlling tendencies can evolve into full-blown emotional, verbal and physical abuse.

But for the person inside the unhealthy relationship? Those red flags are inconvenient truths. They bruise the beliefs to which that person holds tight — that their judgment is solid, that their whirlwind romance is ‘the real deal’, that they are loved.

Of course, those beliefs will ultimately be slowly eroded anyway, or shattered at the relationship’s inevitable breaking point: The moment when the penny drops that the relationship was an illusion. But until that critical stage, the person in a relationship will often keep her blinkers on, quietly doubting herself but never quite admitting that the relationship is drowning, not uplifting her.

That constant self-doubt is part of what makes dating a man with abusive tendencies so confusing and difficult.

Grace in her younger years.

But you know what’s almost as awful as that? Seeing a close friend get closer and closer to a partner who’s not only unkind, but possibly dangerous.

It’s notoriously difficult to warn a friend that they’re dating a jerk. You run the risk of being shut out — because the very nature of an abusive relationship means the person trapped inside one is conditioned to distance herself from friends and family.

Lectures don’t always work, either: In my case, pamphlets and long-winded speeches drove me away from the people who lovingly tried to remove my blinkers.

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Signs your friend is in a relationship with an abusive guy.

There was one thing that cracked the barrier of denial I’d erected around myself and the relationship, though.

One particular friend managed to maintain my trust and confidence throughout the entire short, intense, live-in relationship with this man —  and while she clearly didn’t endorse his behaviour, neither did she so loudly judge me that I edged her right out of my life.

She kept her ears open, and her shoulder available, and when I inevitably came crying to her after another ‘fight’ (him blowing up and withdrawing affection, me panicking, him calling me names) she asked me one clever, gentle question:

‘Are you ever worried he might hit you?’

The question struck me like a bucket of cold water, because I knew instantly that the answer was: Yes, he probably would hit me one of these days.

Grace, at the age she first entered into the unhealthy relationship.

Without judging me, my friend had gently echoed the concern that had been gnawing at me for months: That this man did not make me feel good, or happy, or safe.

Having that seed gently sown was what made me — stubborn, pigheaded me — resolve on my own terms to leave a bad relationship.

Weeks later, I asked the man to move out. And when he did eventually become violent in one final, awful interaction, I was armed with the knowledge and practical steps I needed to cut off contact once and for all.

Grace – now happily married to her very kind husband Ben.

Experts also agree it’s essential not to make a friend in an unhealthy relationship feel blamed and judged.

“Listen to (your friend’s) concerns, believe what they say and express concern,” Heidi Guldbaek from Women’s Legal Services Australia told me in an email exchange. “Save your judgements and don’t victim-blame… Let her know there are options and supports she can access and know what they are.”

It’s also “important to let her friend know that she will support her to make her own decisions,” the Women’s Legal Service NSW echoed in a separate correspondence.

Related: If your friend is receiving abusive texts, show her this.

So, if you’re in the painful position of watching a friend or a family member draw further and further into an awful relationship, stay close. Stay open. Stay gentle but honest, and sow the seeds for them to take control of their lives again.

That’s the only thing that worked for me.

Related:

‘How Alanis Morissette helped me end an abusive relationship.’

Do you have to have a bad relationship before you can have a good one?

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