Home Life Style Carolyn Hax: He suspects his girlfriend’s stepdad of emotional abuse

Carolyn Hax: He suspects his girlfriend’s stepdad of emotional abuse


Adapted from an online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn: My girlfriend and I are both in college. We have been together for eight months and love each other very much. But I’m a little worried that she is emotionally abused by her stepdad, and I don’t know what to do about it.

Examples: He monitors and criticizes my girlfriend’s weight when she is at home, calls her and her mom [glass bowls] and says he is smarter than they are because of the college he went to, and has said my girlfriend is “a guest” in his house. He makes light of anxiety issues she has. She doesn’t have a bank account and is reliant on his credit card, but he threatens to withhold or offer money — like, thousands of dollars — depending on whether she goes along with his preferences on things such as which major she chooses. Once, when I visited her house, he offered to let me drive an expensive car he has — even though my girlfriend is prohibited from ever driving it. His offering me the keys in front of her made me feel gross, like he was belittling her. (I passed on driving the car.)

What is going on here? Is this emotional abuse? What can I do about it as a boyfriend that won’t make things worse? My girlfriend says she hates him but feels stuck because he has threatened to stop paying for college if she does something wrong.

Tell us: What’s your favorite Carolyn Hax column about becoming an adult?

A Boyfriend: Oh, wow. Yes, this checks about every box for emotional abuse. Belittling, shaming, controlling, financial strong-arming: It’s a buffet of abuses of his power over her.

Please remind her that there are resources to help her navigate this. It’s a difficult problem — I won’t minimize it — but that is not the same as her being helpless or stuck.

Typically, a college’s counseling service is the most accessible option, but many are stretched beyond their capacity. Still, yours may not be. Without pushing, see whether your girlfriend is up to making an appointment. Return thereafter to your listener role, regardless of her answer.

This hinges on the college’s resources in another way, but she can speak to a financial aid adviser to learn of any options for cutting ties to an abusive parent. It’s a big if, but she won’t know whether help is available until she starts asking for it.

The next place to turn is solid, free and available on short notice: the National Domestic Violence Hotline, thehotline.org. It’s not on-the-ground like the school can be, but the hotline staff can do the crucial work of explaining why the stepfather’s behavior is abusive, what the risks are and what she can do to mitigate them.

She’d be wise to get a job, even a tiny one, and a bank account for her earnings.

I’m so glad you asked this and have shown her such love and respect. This says good things not only about you, but also about her: It’s a sign her “picker” still works, despite her exposure to abuse tactics at home. That she chose someone supportive is a ray of light from an otherwise dark situation.

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