“I’m worried my son’s boyfriend is being abusive towards him. Last time he came home from college, I noticed some bruises on his body (he says they were an accident from playing soccer) and I’ve heard them fighting on the phone a bunch. Something just doesn’t feel right. Are there signs I should be looking out for? Can I bring up my worries with my son? Please help, I’m really at a loss for what to do.”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Rachel Dougherty
Before we get into it, I want us to take a deep breath. Allegations of abuse are a lot to hold in your heart and mind. I know because I’ve navigated unhealthy relationships and supported by friends as they wrestle with their own histories of abuse. I’m writing from personal experience that’s taught me I cannot care for others without also prioritizing my own care. Please remember to center your well-being in addition to your son’s as you navigate these conversations. If you need a break, take a minute.
Thank you for being present with your son. Thank you for noticing that something might be wrong. And thank you for being willing to seek help, even when it would be much easier to deny it and pretend that everything is fine. These might seem like small actions, but all too many parents turn a blind eye when their kids might be in abusive situations, so thank you for being brave.
Your perspective on your son’s reality is valuable, and I don’t want to discredit your worry. However, I find it most helpful to start by understanding how your son perceives his situation. This is his truth, and sitting with him in how he understands what’s going on is key. By this I mean, don’t start your conversations with “I’m worried about you.” Instead, create space for him to tell you about how he sees things: has Boyfriend taken him on any cute dates recently? When’s their anniversary and will they do anything to celebrate? What are Boyfriend’s parents like? Whatever your son is excited to share with you, be excited to listen. Lay the foundation for your son to feel comfortable talking about Boyfriend with you.
It’s difficult to hear someone label your relationship as “abusive” from the outside, which, in turn, makes it easy to reject this label and shut down the conversation. Naming abusive relationships and letting go of them is scary, especially as a queer person. It’s usually with our partners that we learn how to live outside of the closet as our full, joyful selves.
In one of my first major relationships, it took me a long time to realize things weren’t so great. Abusive behavior crept into my relationship, and to begin with I didn’t notice. It only became apparent when I was talking to friends about their relationships; eventually I came to see that the harm that I was experiencing was not standard. I found this comparison really helpful, because it allowed for external analysis ahead of internal reflection.
So, how can you help your son evaluate his own relationship in comparison to others? First, start with examples of relationships in his life. If you’ve got a partner, use your relationship as a jumping-off point. Share some of the good things that make your relationship with your partner work. More importantly, given examples of healthy conflict, because, remember, disagreement and conflict is natural in any relationship and not inherently abusive. What’s a time that you and your partner disagreed on something? How did you work through it? By setting an example that doesn’t whitewash the ups and downs, you can guide your son through key elements of a healthy relationship.
You can also get him to evaluate the relationships of his peers and articulate his understanding of what does or doesn’t work about these relationships. Try asking: are any of your friends dating? Do you think they’re a good fit? What is it about their relationship that works?If relevant, you could even ask why so-and-so broke up. Through questions like these, you’re able to help cultivate his emotional intelligence and understand whether he has a critical eye to be able to identify healthy and unhealthy aspects of a relationship. It’s much easier to help him build this skillset when talking about other people than jumping right in and talking about himself and his relationship.
With the language and analysis to recognize healthy and unhealthy relationships, your son might naturally start to categorize what parts of his relationship feel good and what parts, if any, are causing him harm. However, if you think it would be helpful to be more explicit, ask him to name what he wants out of a relationship, or what he thinks a healthy relationship looks like for himself. This sort of exercise can help him imagine what he wants his life to look like, not only in terms of relationships with romantic partners but also in relation to friends and colleagues and siblings. We don’t spend enough time learning how to evaluate our relationships and build the ones we want, so this project of imagination is really valuable, whether or not he’s in an abusive situation.
All of this being said, your son might not want to talk to you or anyone at all. And that’s OK. You cannot and should not force him to talk through this, because if he is experiencing abuse, he already is feeling controlled and experiencing a lack of trust. For you to seize control of how he processes what’s going on would only replicate a power imbalance he’s already familiar with. Instead focus on building trust and remind him that you are his biggest advocate. People experiencing abuse cope in many different ways. Some need help finding a therapist, some have trouble remembering to eat, and some just need distractions of binge-watching Netflix. Think about what you and your family can do to at least ensure your home feels like a place of safety where you’re able to care for and honor your son’s full self.
If your son is in an abusive relationship, it will probably take time for him to be able to name it, and only then can he decide what to do. You can help him build the skills to better understand his situation, but you cannot name his abuse or make his decisions for him. With your patience and support, you can help him define and strive for healthy relationships, but it will take time.
For additional support, check out these resources:
• Love is Respect (1-866-331-9474)
This organization works to support young people in preventing and ending abusive relationships.
• GLBTQ Domestic Violence Project (1-800-832-1901)
This agency actively assists and supports victims and survivors of domestic violence—focusing on GLBTQ communities—to bring about responsive public policy and to increase access to culturally competent services.
• GLBT National Help Center (1-888-843-4564)
The GLBT National Help Center serves the GLBTQ community by offering two toll-free hotlines: one for adults and one for young adults up to age 25. The website gives access to instant messaging (IM) with volunteer counselors on any topic or question you may have, including healthy relationships and other relationship concerns.
• National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (1-212-714-1184)
This agency is a national coalition of local member programs with the mission of ending all forms of violence against and within the LGBTQ community. This agency offers national reports, online forms for reporting violence, and a list of programs (by state) that offer counseling service. Bilingual information (212-714-1141) is also available.
• National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE )
If you are in an abusive relationship or a concerned friend or family member needs help, call or visit the website www.thehotline.org for free 24-7 support and referrals to local services.
• The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) (1-800-656-4673)
RAINN offers extensive resources and assistance for victims of sexual assault, including a hotline and website: www.rainn.org. RAINN can connect you with state or local domestic violence coalitions and rape or sexual violence crisis centers.
Rachel lives and works in NYC but is constantly homesick for Pittsburgh. They are passionate about increasing civic participation, and they are concerned about building equitable access to the public sphere. In their spare time Rachel spends time seeing shows at DIY venues, wrestling with their Jewish spiritual life, and going off-recipe in the kitchen. Follow them on Twitter @active_witness