Walking on Eggshells


Question: I am losing my best friend. She has been married for about a year and ever since she got married she doesn’t call me very often. I think she is worried that her husband will get upset if we spend time together. And when they have come over for dinner with me and my husband, he says things that are very mean and embarrassing to her in front of us. Sometimes I even feel scared of him. I don’t know what is happening or what to do to help her?


Answer: I know you have only given me a little bit of detail about what is happening with your friend and your friendship, but it sounds like she may be in an emotionally and verbally abusive relationship and your relationship with her is being impacted by it. This is hard for you and no doubt hard for her. It is an unfortunate fact that about 1/3 of all women in relationships are dealing with a partner who is emotionally and verbally abusive.


I think what might help you is to give you a very basic understanding of the dynamics of relationship abuse. This will help you understand the difficulty your friend faces in keeping a close relationship with you. Relationship abuse is really about one person (your friend’s husband) needing to have Power and Control over another person (your friend) in order to feel good about himself. It’s as if he is saying to his wife, “well at least I am better than you.” Typically, an abusive person will use the tactics of isolation, minimization, blaming, put-downs, threats, humiliation, mind games, and control of family income in order to maintain control over his partner. In thinking about your question, I would imagine that your friend is hearing things like, “if you cared about me, you wouldn’t want to spend time with her” or “she doesn’t like me, and I know she wants us to break up.” This puts a lot of pressure on her to side with him and distance herself from you. If she didn’t, he might get very angry, withdrawn, and threaten to leave her. He makes her pay a price to maintain a relationship with you.


The other basic concept that might help you is that she is likely repeatedly experiencing something we call the Cycle of Violence. This is a pattern where his controlling behaviors escalate over time, culminating in what we call the explosion phase, which often involves very intense emotional and verbal abuse, and potentially physical violence. It is usually after this explosion phase that a woman contemplates leaving the relationship. This is when your friend might reach out to you and tell you how terrible it all is for her. It is at this point that an abusive person realizes that he might actually lose his partner and tends to become exceedingly agreeable, will consent to couples counselling, and may even apologize for his bad behavior. This is a very effective tactic we call the honeymoon phase. Unfortunately, because these changes are not “real”, but rather designed to maintain long term control within the relationship, the old pattern of controlling behaviors quickly returns and the feeling of “walking on eggshells” begins anew.


So what can you do? I would suggest that you do some further reading about relationship abuse (also called domestic violence). I would suggest a book by Patricia Evans called the “Verbally Abusive Relationship.” You can also search online for information – just use Google and type in “domestic violence.” I think the best thing you can do directly for your friend is to just be there to listen when she is ready to talk. Let her know you support her but you are not ok with how she is being treated by her husband and that she is not responsible for his behavior. Try not to judge her because she is just doing the best she can right now. Telling her to leave him won’t help and it is important to note that the most dangerous time for a woman is when she leaves the relationship and breaks the pattern of control. You don’t want to feel responsible if anything happened to her and that advice really never helps anyway. If you feel that she can hear it, let her know that counselling is available. Our agency has a free program for women impacted by abuse. Simply give her our number or web address and let her take it from there. She will make the call when she is ready.