Dear Carolyn: A family member is in an abusive relationship. For the most part, I believe the extended family has handled the situation fairly well. We have let the family member know we support them, have helped out in several situations where the family member has broken away from the relationship for a short period of time and have taken care to not do any victim-blaming. We are careful to not criticize the abuser, and the abuser is included in functions where others with the same “relationship status” would be.
My question has to do with an issue outside of that. The abuser is charming and financially well-off, and generous with the wider family. Certain family members see no issue with being treated to dinner or taking up the offer of vacation-home use. Without making a big deal out of it, I have been careful to not avail myself of the abuser’s generosity. My reasoning is that accepting this generosity warps the view of the abused: “Well, this past week was certainly horrible, but [the abuser] has done all those nice things for my family.”
I have made my case to my family members, and they do not agree. They think it’s fine to accept things, partly because the abused family member encourages them to. I am also wary that because the abuse is emotional, not physical (as far as we know), the other family members may think it’s not “that bad.”
A few of them read your column. Your insight would be much appreciated.
Anonymous: You offered them tremendous insight already: that accepting these gifts makes it harder, and harder, and harder, every time, for your relative to get free of their abuser. It muddies things for someone already struggling to see clearly through the obfuscations of charm and abuse.
And your family members’ response to that insight is to . . . enjoy a free vacation.
So, yeah. Not sure I can turn that leaking tanker around.
I can add this: The offer and acceptance of the abuser’s gifts is a section of the abuse cycle. People who are always cruel get dumped. People who alternate cruelty with charm fuel hope that things will finally stay charming.
I can offer an adjective, too: gross. Accepting these gifts is gross.
In fairness, refusing to be treated to a meal at a family gathering can be tough, logistically. Plus, taking expensive gifts knowingly off a bad person is a pretty common temptation, which is why bad people so often come bearing expensive gifts. There are a lot of lies we can tell ourselves about why it’s okay.
But those lies aren’t supposed to survive the pin-stick of a bystander saying, “Maybe borrowing their beach house is not the best way to express your concerns.” Especially not when that concern is the known mistreatment — of any severity, really — of a loved one.
So if any of them are reading this, hi, thank you so much for your readership! I am sorry I haven’t made it clear before today that it is important not to profit personally, if at all possible, from the manipulative person your relative is struggling to leave. It is good moral hygiene in general, in fact, not to accept gifts from people in whose debt you don’t want to be.