Can I stage an intervention?

A grandmother is desperate to get her granddaughter away from her controlling husband.

Our elder urges caution.

Dear EWC

I believe that my 24-year-old granddaughter is being emotionally abused. She has been married for three years and they have a four-year-old daughter. She will make plans with me and not follow through. No phone call, nothing. I won’t hear from her except when she calls to say that she, their daughter and her husband are coming to my house and can we go out to dinner. Her family (mother, father, sister, brother) are experiencing the same behavior and she lives only blocks from her family. Everything is done with her husband’s family. Some advice to this grandma who is so sad that she can’t grab her granddaughter and help make it OK. Thanks.

Folk replies

You have known your granddaughter her whole life, so if your gut is telling you there is something wrong, there is something wrong. You haven’t given me a lot to go on, but the few things you have mentioned are all strong indicators that your suspicions about your granddaughter being in a emotionally abusive relationship are probably correct:  She has been distancing herself from her family; she makes plans and then doesn’t follow through with them, not even bothering to call and cancel — which presumably is not like the “old” her at all.  If she is also not replying to your emails and avoiding your phone calls, if she vehemently denies that anything is wrong when asked, and if she seems defensive, uncommunicative, and anxious, she may be doing her best to keep the peace. If this is the case, you will have to act very cautiously and carefully if you do not want to make the situation worse than it already is.

When a family member withdraws and stops communicating, the natural response is to bombard them with even more calls/emails/invitations etc. But if your granddaughter’s husband is trying to isolate her from her family, doing this will only help his cause. He will spin your concern to her as intrusiveness.  He will say you are being are pushy, over-protective, and even jealous of her closeness with him and his family. In order to gain total control of your granddaughter, her husband has to convince her that he is the one who truly loves her and that her family members are the ones trying to control her.

Your granddaughter only lives a few blocks from her family, so it would be easy for her to visit with her parents or siblings while her husband is at work. Maybe she is too afraid of her husband to do this; but it is also possible that your granddaughter’s husband has convinced her that it is her family that is the real problem.

Instinctively, you might think that the best approach to get your granddaughter to stand up to her husband is to tell her that you feel he is abusing/controlling her. You may have already said something like this to her. In exasperation, you may have criticized her husband or even criticized her for putting up with him. Most of the time though, this type of approach backfires.  Since she is already being controlled by her partner, any suggestions you make to your granddaughter about what she should do will seem controlling to her as well. Even more ominously, if your granddaughter’s husband senses that anyone is trying to encroach on his “turf” he will retaliate — he will turn your attempts into an excuse to coerce your granddaughter into taking sides. In other words, he will do what it takes to make her be loyal to him and disloyal to you. Your granddaughter is experiencing the same impacts as prisoners of war and people who have been sucked into cults. Her husband routinely uses a mix of power and vulnerability to keep her hooked in; by revealing his weaknesses and fears to her, he makes her feel that he needs her more than anyone else ever has or could.

You are not going to like what I am going to say next, but unless your granddaughter comes to you for help, there is not much that you or anyone can do at this stage. She entered the relationship with hopes and dreams and she still has hopes and dreams that the relationship will work. In fact, she is doing everything she can to make it work.  Right now, your granddaughter may feel it is safer/better for her to stay in the relationship than to leave. Leaving a controlling man is the most dangerous time for many women.  If he has not used violence in the past, he might do so if he perceives that he is losing control.

My advice to you, as a concerned grandma, is to continue to monitor the situation and find ways to support your granddaughter that keep the lines of communication open and let her know you are there for her no matter what.
Here are some ways you can do this:

•    Let her talk; Just listen
•    Ask questions aimed at helping her hear her own story out loud
•    Create a welcoming safe atmosphere for her to come to (even if this is only for one hour, one day, or a one minute phone call)
•    Chat to her about what you’re doing in your life
•    Chat about funny things
•    Chat for short times about general stuff – nothing to do with her relationship
•    Ask how you can help support her

I know what I’m suggesting is hard. Watching your granddaughter suffer is painful in the extreme, and you want to do something. Even if the suggestions I’ve made work, they won’t work overnight. But don’t give up hope. Planting one small seed can make a very big difference. Some seeds take time to sprout. Seeds need the right nourishing conditions. You can be the person who offers those nourishing conditions.

I hope this helps. We are always here if you’d like to talk more about this. Please write back and let me know how you are doing. I will be thinking of you.

Letter #: 428017
Category: Family

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