Love and Relationships

[Two Pronged] My friend has an abusive partner. What can I do?

Margarita Holmes, Jeremy Baer

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[Two Pronged] My friend has an abusive partner. What can I do?
'How far does my responsibility as a friend go?'

Rappler’s Life and Style section runs an advice column by couple Jeremy Baer and clinical psychologist Dr. Margarita Holmes.

Jeremy has a master’s degree in law from Oxford University. A banker of 37 years who worked in three continents, he has been training with Dr. Holmes for the last 10 years as co-lecturer and, occasionally, as co-therapist, especially with clients whose financial concerns intrude into their daily lives.

Together, they have written two books: Love Triangles: Understanding the Macho-Mistress Mentality and Imported Love: Filipino-Foreign Liaisons.

Dear Dr. Holmes and Mr. Baer,

I’ve found myself in a bit of a pickle lately regarding my friend’s relationship, and I’m not quite sure where my responsibilities lie in all of this.

Let’s call my friend Maya. Maya’s been with her partner for years, but there’s always been something off about their relationship that’s made me feel uneasy. Despite Maya’s background in psychology and her willingness to lend a helping hand to anyone in need, her own romantic situation has left me scratching my head.

Maya’s always quick to defend her partner, saying he’s devoted to her despite his rough edges. But I’ve never fully bought into it. There are these little red flags that bug me – like how Maya hardly ever hangs out with her friends outside of work, always rushing home with excuses about her dog or other stuff waiting for her. Plus, she’s always tight on cash even though she works multiple jobs and lives a pretty simple life. She once let slip that her partner’s been out of work for a while, but she’s saving up for their wedding.

Recently, Maya confided in me that she finally mustered the courage to leave her partner after he physically harmed her. I expressed my support and applauded her courage for walking away, but before I knew it, they were back together. It’s a tough spot to be in, knowing the cycle of abuse but not wanting to judge.

So here’s where I’m stuck: How far does my responsibility as a friend go? How can I support Maya without overstepping boundaries? And most importantly, how do I make sure she stays safe?


Dear Sole Path Seeker,

Thank you for your message.  One of the foundation stones of therapy is that the only person one can definitely change is oneself. Another is that a third party can never be privy to a complete understanding of another couple’s relationship. 

With this in mind, it should be clear that your ability to help Maya is inevitably limited, as you seem to have already discovered. This does not mean however that it is a lost cause, but merely that you should recalibrate your expectations and not assume that the only definition of success is a breakup.

Ideally, Maya and her partner should seek therapy, with the aim of either improving their relationship – or reaching a realization that it is at an end. You can encourage this and even if they reject couples therapy, individual therapy would be very beneficial.

If Maya’s contacts with her friends are slowly being whittled away, your support is all the more valuable. Yours can be the voice of reason, a counter-balance to her partner, and hearing what you have to say can be of help even if she is still not prepared to leave. It may also be that money is a factor as many relationships persists because the couple, or one partner, cannot afford to leave. You might be able to help Maya in this respect

In the final analysis, the decision is solely hers to make but possibly your continuing support may tip the scale.

Best wishes,

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[Two Pronged] Leaving an abusive husband

[Two Pronged] Leaving an abusive husband

Dear Sole Path Seeker:

Thank you very much for your letter. You asked the following questions, which I shall try and answer in similar order:

  1. How far does my responsibility as a friend go? 
  2. How can I support Maya without overstepping boundaries? 
  3. Most importantly, how do I make sure she stays safe?
  1. In my opinion, (and I am very happy to hear about other opinions from other people), your responsibility as a good friend goes as far as the other is willing to let it go.  If she is upset and cries to you in the middle of the night and you’re good with that and more, then that is your responsibility as a good friend.  

If, as a loyal friend, you give her advice and she refuses it either verbally or non verbally, then this is the signal that your friendship doesn’t go that far, so you step back a bit, and keep on stepping back until her reception changes from frosty to welcoming/thankful. You cannot be more solicitous/caring than your partner wants you to be.

  1. You remain sensitive to verbal and non-verbal cues, and accept whatever boundaries she puts up. It may be difficult because you are good friends, and you may never have had to worry about such things. However, things change and Maya’s having this boyfriend has changed not only her, but her relationship with you. Maybe she doesn’t share as much or as deeply as she used to; maybe it is because she can feel your displeasure, maybe it is because she doesn’t know where to begin, maybe she feels foolish hesitating to do what she feels would be no problem for you, maybe she worries you will lose “respect” for her if she doesn’t do what you’ve mentioned is patently obvious.
  1. There is nothing foolproof you can do to make sure she stays safe. She may not even be interested in being safe, fearful that once she acknowledges how dangerous he is, she will be forced to leave him, which she is still not ready to do. All you can do is reassure her you are with and for her 100% no matter what her decisions are; that your phone will always be on, so she can call you anytime; and that she has the necessary contact details for the nearest police department, and hospital and woman’s shelter,  should that be necessary.

I know, I know, that hardly seems enough.  But one of the joys of friendship is loving someone and yet not owning them. This includes recognizing their agency and not having the hubris to feel you know much more than she does.  

Yes, this may fly in the face of your own reasoning, but if she is your friend, she is also your equal, and deserves no patronizing from you.

All the best as you navigate your need for patience,
MG Holmes


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