“I think my son is in an abusive relationship. His partner is very selfish and sometimes cruel. I’ve tried talking to my son, but he denied that anything is wrong. I hate seeing my son suffer, but I don’t want to drive him away or make him think he can’t rely on me. How do I support him?”
Questioned Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Dr. Anne Rafal
Dr. Rafal Says:
Thank you for reaching out to My Kid Is Gay. This is a difficult and potentially harmful situation.First, let’s review the definitions of abuse. In all types of abusive relationships, whether partners identify as LGBTQ or not, one person uses various means to gain control and power over another. The abuser is often someone who feels weak and powerless themselves (and may have some type of mental health issue), has been abused themselves, or perhaps has witnessed abuse to others in their biological family. The pattern of abuse includes a cycle of physical, emotional, and psychological mistreatment, leaving the victim with feelings of isolation, fear and guilt. No race, ethnicity, or socio-economic status is exempt.
The five types of distinct and overlapping methods of abuse that occur in both heterosexual and same-sex partners are:
• Physical Abuse: Any forceful behavior or threat of harm that intentionally or accidentally causes bodily harm or property destruction.
• Sexual Abuse: Any forced or coerced sexual behavior used to acquire power and control over the partner. It includes contact that demeans the partner and arouses feelings of shame or vulnerability.
• Emotional/Verbal Abuse: Any use of words, voice, action or lack of action to control, hurt or demean another person. This may be less obvious than physical or sexual abuse. This type of abuse may include name-calling, insults, “put-downs,” intense jealousy and possessiveness, and controlling what the partner thinks, does, wears, and even eats.
• Financial Abuse: The use or misuse, without consent, of the financial or monetary resources of the partner or the couple.
• Identity Abuse: The use of personal characteristics to demean, manipulate and control the partner. This includes racism, sexism, ageism, able-ism, beauty-ism, as well as homophobia and threats to “out” the partner.
From what we know, the rate of abuse and/or intimate partner violence in the LGBTQ community is similar to the rates of abuse in the wider population. Approximately 23% of LGBTQ men and 50% of LGBTQ women experience abuse from their intimate partners. This means that members of the LGBTQ community are slightly more likely to experience abuse than straight couples, according to the National Online Resource Center on Violence. Abuse in same-sex relationships may also differ from abuse in opposite-sex relationships. Same-sex abusive partners may use discrimination and rejection to control their partners, and may threaten to “out’ them to family members, employers, and community members. Survivors may experience additional isolation in LGBTQ relationships that are abusive if they have already been rejected, distanced themselves from family or their community, or are unsure of whom they can trust.
So, if you suspect your son is in an abusive relationship, how can you protect him, be supportive, and not “drive him away” all at the same time?
Try to observe the dynamics of the relationship without being obvious about your concerns. Invite your son’s partner to family events, dinners or movies. Observing the relationship firsthand will give you more insight and information about what is going on. Look for red flags—signs that something is not right. Either a reluctance of your child’s partner to spend time with your family or a reluctance on your son’s part to bring his partner around family or friends can also be red flags. Other signs that something is “off” in the relationship is a change in your child’s personality, attitudes, behaviors at school or work, or on-going communication with other friends.
At the same time, it is important to keep an open mind and look for positive aspects of the relationship as well. If none of the true red flags are present, remember that young people learn about all kinds of relationships by trying them. They often may not realize how “bad” a relationship is until they are out of the relationship for awhile and in a healthier new one. Finally, ask yourself: does your son have the support of loving friends or family? If there is any type of abuse in the relationship, loving friends can make a huge difference in your son’s life.
COMMUNICATE AND LISTEN
If you have serious concerns, discuss these with your child without being judgmental or critical of either your son or his partner. Additionally, you want to be clear that your concern is NOT about your son having a gay relationship, but only what you have seen and observed about this relationship. Speak about your love for him and your desire for him to be safe and cared for always. Speaking openly about your own experience with difficult relationships, what you learned from them, and about what is important to you in any loving relationship can open up the communication with your son.
If you have a specific concern, gently speak to him about this in explicit terms. Saying “I don’t like the way he treats you” is too general. Try this instead: “I’ve noticed that you are always with his friends and not your friends. How is this for you? Do you miss your friends?” Pause and let your son reflect. Saying less is saying more—this is a golden rule of parenting.
Finally, consider why you think your son denies anything is wrong. His resistance may be related to his shame about having a same-sex relationship. Perhaps this is the first time he has been in a LGBTQ relationship. He may simply think that this is what all relationships look like because he does not have experience to know otherwise. This misconception may be encouraged by the abusive partner. Perhaps he is so happy to be accepted and in a relationship that he does not want to admit any problems, even to himself.
Be aware that your child may resent you for offering help and resist your encouragement to obtain medical attention and counseling. Above all, trust your instincts—you probably know your child better than anyone else does.
PROTECT YOUR CHILD
After you have observed your son’s relationship, communicated directly with him, and are confident in the nature of the relationship between your son and his partner, you may need to advise and act to protect him. Do you observe bruises or physical injury? These could be a sign of physical abuse and/or sexual abuse. Protecting your child is crucial if you see signs of bruising, swelling, or any physical ailments.
By law, a parent is obligated to protect their child until they turn 18. If a child is not emotionally, sexually, and physically protected by their parent, the state has the right to intervene and hold the parent accountable.
If your son is over 18 years old and in any kind of potential danger, a safety plan is essential to his safety. A safety plan is a set of actions that are used to minimize or avoid harm, raise an individual’s level of safety, and protect others such as children, family, or friends. Even if your child denies that the relationship is harmful, it is wise to communicate and educate him about the danger signs and “what-if’s” in any relationship. Discussing with him what this safety plan might look like is a good idea if you have concerns.
Key Elements for Developing a Safety Plan:
• Tell someone you trust about your abuse and what you would like him or her to do in an emergency. You may want to give him or her a code word or phrase that can signal you need help.
• Keep a wallet with important IDs and credit cards with you at all times. Make copies of critical documents and account numbers and keep them someplace safe, such as a friend’s house or at work.
• Learn where to get help (see resources below) and memorize emergency telephone numbers.
• Keep a dated journal of your abuse, including threats, stalking, and destruction of property. The information will be useful in securing a restraining order and any other legal action. Obviously, the journal must be kept in an extremely safe location to which the abuser has no access.
• Plan ahead. Some people develop an ordinary activity that takes them out of the home regularly, such as taking out the garbage, walking the dog, or getting a newspaper. This activity can be used as an escape route and serve as a safe way to get out of the home.
• Assemble a safety bag. A safety bag includes items such as money, keys, medication, green card and/or other important documents, and clothing. It is a good idea to store the bag in a safe and easily accessible place, such as a friend’s or a family member’s home, at work, in a car trunk, or any place to which the abuser will not have access.
Protective Orders and Restraining Orders:
• In most states, LGBT individuals are able to get domestic violence protective orders.
• Protective orders are the most significant legal recourse available to victims of abuse. With protective orders, judges have broad discretion to restrain or direct the behavior of the abuser without requiring criminal charges.
• In some cases, you may want to consider getting a restraining order; however, these may be costly and difficult to obtain. A restraining order can instruct the abuser to stop abusing you, to have no contact with you, to leave your apartment/house, to compensate you for expenses related to the abuse, and/or to grant you temporary custody and support for your children. In some states, orders are available regardless of sexual orientation or whether or not you have ever lived together.
• If you are not yet ready to get a protective order or a restraining order, learn where to go and how to get one, and gather any needed information and documentation in preparation.
Sexual assault is always a crime, even though service providers are not always aware of appropriate services and referrals for victims who are not heterosexual. If your son is not willing to speak to you about the relationship directly, there may be a therapist or another adult that he could be willing to speak with. The resources below are critical to protect you and your child.
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) 7233
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.
Dr. Rafal has a doctorate degree from the University of Maryland School of Social Work and Community Planning and over twenty years of professional experience in counseling, supervision, educating, mentoring, and agency consulting. She has worked at several child-welfare and mental health agencies in Texas, Virginia, Maryland, and Missouri. Anne directed the Frost Counseling Center in Rockville, Maryland for many years and has social work experience at the University of Virginia Health System and coordinated Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gay (PFLAG) activities in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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