When Your Family Member is Abusing Their Partner

When Your Family Member is Abusing Their Partner

Green background with a silhouette of a person in the foreground watching a coupleBy Anitra, youth organizer at The Hotline and loveisrespect

At The Hotline, we talk a lot about how to support someone you care about if they are being abused. But what if the person you care about is the one who is being abusive toward their partner? What if they’re a member of your own family?

This can be an incredibly difficult situation to deal with. You might love your family member, but you know that what they’re doing is harmful. You may not want to admit that it’s happening, or you may just feel like cutting them out of your life. These are all normal reactions. Relationships with family members can be complicated, and if someone is behaving abusively, that makes things even more complicated.

It’s important to remember that you have the power to be an active bystander. Ultimately, your family member is the only person who can choose to stop the abuse, but there are a few things you can do to encourage them to behave in healthier ways.

Educate yourself on the dynamics of domestic violence and abuse. Abuse is about power and control, and the signs are not always obvious. Learning the warning signs of abuse can help you help your family member identify their abusive and unhealthy behaviors. If you witness behaviors that you feel are unhealthy or abusive, try not to be silent about them. You might say things like, “I don’t think it’s healthy to talk to your partner that way,” or “If you care about someone, I think you should treat them with respect.”

Avoid blaming the victim or excusing abusive behavior. If you witness the abuse, or if your family member tells you about a time they behaved abusively, try not to place blame on their partner or make excuses for the abuse. For example, avoid saying things like, “Well, what did they do to make you act that way?” or “You couldn’t help it.” There is no excuse for abuse; it is a choice, and it’s one that no one has to make. Although you may care about your family member, it’s important to focus on identifying the abusive behaviors. Even if their partner stays in the relationship, that doesn’t mean they deserve to be abused. Remember, you’re not turning against your family member. You’re just trying to help them have a healthier relationship.

Realize that you can’t make them change. You can’t “save” or “fix” another person. It’s up to them to decide that they want to change. Acknowledging that their behavior is abusive is the first step, and change can be a long and difficult process. Encourage them to seek professional help or to reach out to a confidential, non-judgmental hotline. Remind them of the effects that their abusive behaviors are having on their partner and their family. And remember, your family member’s decision to be abusive is not a reflection on you.

Practice self-care. It can be very difficult knowing that someone you care about is an abusive partner. You might feel stressed or emotionally drained, and that’s totally normal. You have the right to take a step back from the situation when you need to and practice lots of self-care! By self-care, we mean doing things you enjoy or that help you feel calm and relaxed. Your own well-being is important, and you can’t put energy into supporting others if you aren’t taking care of yourself.

If someone you know is being abusive, we are here to help. Call 1-800-799-7233 (24/7) or chat here on our website between 7 a.m. and 2 a.m. Central time.


Comment section

2 replies
  1. Hello.
    My mother has been in a verbally abusive relationship for over 25 years with my stepfather. And he was also abusive to my brother and I when we were growing up. He was a mean alcoholic. Unfortunately, neither of our biological fathers ever took financial responsibility for either of us. My mother has taken that as her platform to manipulate and keep us under his and her thumb. His mother was once quoted as saying that he will raise dogs that will bite the hands that fed them. It’s been the guilt trip theme of our lives.

    As we grew up things have only become worst between my mother and him but since we have gotten married and moved out things have just become bearable for my brother and I. We would tolerate his presence on her weekly visits to us and her grandkids or on holidays for her sake but the relationship between he and us has always been strained.

    We thought things would get better several years ago when he finally stopped drinking. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as of a year ago which is what prompted him to drop the alcohol. He was seeking treatment but as far as three weeks ago he stopped taking his medications and went back to drinking.

    My mother had gotten knee surgery about two weeks ago. She had my aunt and grandparents stay with her to help with recovery. My aunt told me she witnessed something quite disturbing just a day after my mother came home from the hospital. She said that they were arguing and that she found herself having to shield my mother because she was afraid that he would strike her. In the middle of all this he got in my mother’s face and told her “I hope you have a heart attack and die”. My aunt said she had never witnessed him be that cruel to her and it left her shook up. She asked me to step in.

    I sat down to talk with her about the situation and she explained that she didn’t feel right leaving him now that he needed her(because of the bipolar disorder). I told her that I can no longer tolerate his presence and that I will only come around to help when he is not home. I don’t want my children or myself to be around this situation anymore. My brother and I have pleaded with her for years to leave him but she has had a myriad of excuses for his behavior and she, in turn, has manipulated us into allowing him to stay in our lives and that of our children.

    I am tired of putting up with it just because he gives us money once in a while(money that she pushes him into giving us and that we don’t ask for) or brings food as a token of his “love” for us even if seconds later he verbally assaults her and us. It feels like he’s trying to buy forgiveness or pay us off.

    Am I wrong to want to walk away from this situation? I am tired of being around this abuse and it is not getting better, if anything, I fear that it will turn physical soon. Please advise.


  2. Dear Anonymous,
    First of all, we’re glad you found this post validating and informative. We’re so sorry to hear about your mom; it sounds like some very concerning things are happening in her relationship. We encourage you to forward her this post (if you believe she can read it safely). You are also welcome to call or chat with us anytime – we’d be happy to help you come up with some options for you and for your mother. Call 1-800-799-7233 (24/7/365) or chat here on our website! I hear your very valid concerns of wanting to walk away from all of this–especially after all the abuse you and your mother have endured. There are many reasons why victims stay in abusive relationships. They may leave and return to the relationship many times. It’s important to remind ourselves to not criticize their decisions or try to guilt her, as she will need your support even more during difficult times. I’d encourage you to get in touch with our advocates as they can provide you with great ideas about emotional safety planning for you and your mother and more. I hope this helps!
    The Hotline Admin.

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