Tell Me About It: My friend’s wife is a bully – what can I do?
I cannot overstate how unpleasant she is to him, but she thinks her behaviour is normal and he never complains
Illustration: Getty Images
Q A good friend of mine I’ve known since school (we’re in our 40s) is married to a woman who bullies and harangues him continuously.
There is a lot to like about her – she’s clever, witty and often very generous – but her behaviour towards him is extraordinary.
She belittles him in front of his friends, makes fun of his hobbies and is generally abusive. It is often embarrassing to witness and to see how he tries to deflect it.
Recently she became angry with his parents (over something that seems to be rather minor) and tried to stop him from visiting them, and from taking their children to visit. When he had a period of ill health a while ago, requiring hospitalisation, she seemed to be very angry with him.
She has less serious health issues herself and appeared to consider his illness to be a threat of some sort. The day after he had come home from the hospital after major surgery, she insisted that he go to the supermarket because, she said, her back hurt. He was not able to make it around the supermarket and had to crawl back to the house.
Whenever he arranges to see his old friends with his family, she does something to prevent it. Last time it was “a wardrobe emergency” at half an hour’s notice. He works hard and is losing touch with his closest male friends, who have incurred her wrath. I cannot overstate how unpleasant she is to her husband, but she thinks her behaviour is normal and he never complains.
She has asked me if I “allow” my husband to do this and that and looked surprised when I said that I didn’t allow or forbid him from doing anything. He was really down when she was trying to stop him from seeing his family.
Is there anything we old friends can do to help him? As his wife has a history of boycotting anyone who annoys her, my fear is saying anything would result in becoming estranged from them.
A This is a horrible situation and you are feeling as helpless as your friend probably feels in dealing with it. Like many abusers, your friend’s wife wants total control over him, even if that means splitting her own children from their grandparents. The post-operative supermarket incident shows her lack of care for his wellbeing. Assuming her back injury was genuine, there were many other solutions to getting some food in.
Bernadette Ryan of Relationships Ireland says: “Abusive controllers tend to isolate their ‘victim’ from family and friends. They can also be quite charming to those on the outside. Many people tend to put down their partners in company and sometimes this can be a light banter between a couple with no real malice intended but this does not seem to be the case here.”
And, you’re right, in healthy loving relationships there is no “allowing” or “disallowing”. But why is your friend putting up with this? As Ryan asks, is it ‘anything for a quiet life’ and really all is okay between them in private? Or is it that he can no longer think clearly, or think for himself, as a result of years of abusive control?
“From the tone of the letter, it would seem to be the latter. I wish I could say do A, B and C and that will sort this out but, if this is an abusive relationship, it is far more complex than that,” says Ryan.
“The helplessness that you and his other friends are feeling may be reflective of the helplessness your friend is experiencing,” Ryan says. We all know domestic abuse is wrong, but society still tends to view male victims with a jaundiced eye, deepening their feelings of helplessness and shame.
Stay connected to your friend, and, if the opportunity arises, have a word and offer a listening ear. “But we need to be very care not to strip someone of their coping mechanisms,” Ryan warns.
For now, be there for him and do nothing to make this woman boycott you. This man needs professional help, so when the time is right, perhaps he will feel able to trust you in helping him find it.
Tell Me About It Christmas Special: On Christmas Eve, Kate will be answering Christmas-related questions. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or contact Kate on Twitter, @kateholmquist.We regret that personal correspondence cannot be entered into