Ms. Opinionated: I'm Worried My Religious BFF Might Be Marrying An Abuser

Megan Carpentier
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Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don’t.

Dear Ms. Opinionated,

I am an outspoken feminist, my best friend from high school is decidedly not. Like, as in “living with her ultra-conservative, religious family until she marries because a young woman shouldn’t be on her own not a feminist.” We manage to make it work, most because I stifle a lot of how I feel about the way her family treats her and she knows that I have a different world view and she doesn’t try to convince me that I am going about my life in the wrong way. Essentially we respect our differences and don’t make our disagreements known. However, she is now engaged and I am a little concerned that her fiancé might be controlling in a scary way. For example, he told her his plan to propose, but held off on doing so almost six months because she had started mentally planning, and he wanted to be sure the engagement was “on his terms”. How do I convey my concern to someone with completely different ideas about gender roles? How do I make clear that I am not attempting to impose my beliefs on her, but this is actually a red flag? How do I make clear to someone who has lived with very conservative representations of gender that she might not recognize that such behavior is not healthy or okay? Basically my fear is that even though her family is not abusive, her experience with gendered expectations might not lead her to recognize signs that most people will see.

Let me start off on a bit of a tangent. It’s great that you and your best friend can respect one another’s differences and remain friends despite the natural urge to proselytize to one another. But agreeing not to proselytize and never actually openly disagreeing is not really the same thing. Never airing the stuff that comprises your differences leads to surface politeness, not a deep relationship, and it means that, to some extent, while you both think you know where the other is coming from, there are almost certainly ways you don’t.

Why the tangent? Because this might well be one of those ways.

Do I agree that his I’m-going-to-propose-eventually shtick sounds really annoying, somewhat controlling and fairly creepy? Sure. I wouldn’t sign up for that sort of game, but neither would I start mentally planning a wedding when someone told me that he planned to propose eventually. (Propose, don’t propose, marry, don’t marry – all these waiting periods totally seem contrived to me regardless.) At the end of the day, for whatever reason, essentially he said that he held off because he wasn’t sure or he wanted to be sure that the proposal was the right thing for him. Which, in the absence of any other context (like, for instance, him grossly telling her which ways she needed to “improve” for him or “prove” herself to him to “earn “the proposal), seems fairly reasonable. So it’s hard to me to assess how valid your concerns are by that one example.

And it’s not clear that you have that needed context, either – just that he’s as conservative as she and her family apparently are, and he says some icky conservadude things, which she probably doesn’t really discuss in depth with you that much because you guys have a tacit arrangement to avoid stuff that might cause arguments.

So, it might be time to set that arrangement aside a bit and ask her to open up – not about her fiancé being a jerk per se, but about what she expects and wants out of a relationship and a marriage, whether she thinks he can provide it and whether she has concerns about some of the behaviors she’s seen from her fiancé. You mention that her family isn’t abusive, so she seemingly has a model for religious conservatism that isn’t tinged with abuse – so ask her about how her father treats her mother, how comfortable she is being treated that way and which ways she thinks her husband-to-be’s behavior carries on that tradition or departs from it.

And then listen, really listen, to her answers. If there’s no chink in that happy-relationship armor, it’s going to be very difficult for you to create one given the circumstances you describe. One of the hardest things to learn as a friend is that even when you can see someone else’s trainwreck coming from a mile away, you’ll never shout loud enough to alert the closest engineer in time – and if you step in front of the train, you’re just going to be the first casualty of the wreck.

It’s maddening, I know.

But if you do listen and you do hear her being at least a little concerned about her fiancé being more controlling than her dad, or weirdly jealous or inappropriate possessive, especially in contrast to her parents, encourage her to talk more about it. Tell her you know she might not have thought you would be the right person for her to bounce those concerns off of, but you’re glad she confided and you weren’t sure how to express your own concerns with those issues within the framework of her faith and moral values. Suggest talking to her mother, or even her father or pastor about her concerns. And make sure she knows that, no matter what, you’ll be there for her.

Familiarize yourself in advance with this checklist of some signs of an abusive relationship, and listen for whether she expresses fears or concerns. Keep the number for (and this more serious checklist from) the National Domestic Violence Hotline handy, and offer to call with her if you are hearing signs of abuse but she wants or feels she needs a more objective opinion than yours.

And if after your conversation, you’re more scared for her safety and physical well-being than before, and more convinced she isn’t going to do anything to end the cycle, it might be time to go to her parents (assuming your conversations don’t reveal heretofore unknown familial abuse). I know it’ll feel like narc’ing on her, and it might not be effective, but where your differences might be too great for her to follow your advice – and if you have solid things that point to him not just being an icky conservadude but an abuser – her parents might well be able to help her understand that their shared values do not include accepting abuse.

On the other hand, if you don’t think they’re going to help or that your conversations with your friend are solid enough to take to them, the best advice I can give you is to keep the lines of communication open and the judgment to a minimum. If he is borderline abusive, and his behavior does escalate, she’s going to need a support system to help her leave, and you might be able to help provide that. But you’re always going to need to be asking questions of her, not explaining things to her.


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6 Comments Have Been Posted

Hi, this is the letter writer

Hi, this is the letter writer here, and there is one thing I should clarify when I said he held off after she started planning, I mean he bought the ring, talked to her father, set a tentative date for when he would like the wedding to be, told her when he planned to propose and then, when *she* started thinking about the wedding he said that he was going to wait until she learned that they would be doing things on his time, on his terms. I don't know if the context changes things or not, but I should have made that more clear.

@ letter writer, that does

@ letter writer, that does sound majorly controlling. I'm wouldn't be surprised to find out that he is controlling in other ways, finding out more about their relationship will let you know if it's an isolated incident or part of a larger patten.

but Miss Info is so right about not being able to stop a train wreck. I had a friend in a borderline emotionally abusive relationship. The bf cut down her appearance and made her feel like shit about herself every day, in a joking manner, so that was supposed to make it ok.. Anyways, once my friend found that I had told a mutual friend that I thought her bf was emotionally abusive, she cut me out of her life.


I mean, on a personal level, it's still gross, it's still game-playing, it's still controlling. The fact that her dad didn't take his permission back (I assume he "had" to give permission because, ugh) and possibly knew about the game this guy played suggests to me that you might be dealing with not just a friend with conservative religious beliefs but a set of specific conservative religious beliefs that push the whole wifely submission thing (which was a possibility).

I think, though, that my advice remains the same: ask questions of her, but don't try to lecture her. Figure out how she feels about it, ask her to compare it to her parents, as that's probably her major relationship model. If her parents practice a form of religion that accepts that whole king-of-his-castle mindset, telling them is probably off the table, though. And then just try to be there for her in the ways that she needs.

Right on

I had a similar experience and felt that I knew best for my best friend when she was engaged to her now husband. We both have different lifestyles and both respect each other for them now. But at the time, I was hung up on the fact that he was not right for her because I would never choose a person like him to spend my life with. And, there was the issue - It was all about what I thought was best for her!

While this situation is different I feel that this friend sees something that's not right and thinks her friend needs to be rescued (and she may need help - so see the answers above:) but her friend may want that kind of relationship. That may be her normal and what she expects. I ended up finding out some dirt on my friends man and then told her - only to find out that she was okay with him as he was. Something I could never be okay with, she was. And that's okay! It took me a long time to accept that. I still may not like him but love my friend and am happy she is happy. Sure, it's not the life I would choose but that doesn't mean I should judge or attempt to change my friends decisions.

There is some great advice here and if you follow it, things will be just fine!

Okay, full disclaimer here:

Okay, full disclaimer here: my background is one of religious conservatism; I was raised in that environment from infancy until I escaped less than a year ago. Obviously, that affects the way I look at this kind of situation. No one here seems to be approaching this question with much insider information on how conservative religion operates. I'm not suggesting that this is true in <i>every</i> instance, but I've seen it firsthand and heard too many stories to dismiss it as coincidence: conservative Christianity (especially certain specific movements therein) often tends to produce and enable environments where abuse can occur and is seen as natural and good. Just because outsiders aren't aware of any abuse going on, or don't know where to look for, doesn't indicate that the environment is not abusive. In fact, there's an entire category of abusive behavior going entirely unacknowledged here, usually referred to as religious or spiritual abuse. It can lead to believers and survivors experiencing a form of PTSD called Religious Trauma Syndrome.

As I said, it's not my intention to accuse /all Christians/ (or even all conservative Christians) of perpetuating abuse, but all too often, it's part of the whole package. Abuse is literally built into many Church doctrines; it's carried out by believers who have usually been taught that they are endowed with God-given power over others, and accepted by those who've been indoctrinated into believing that their role in life is to be submissive. There's been quite an uprising in the last couple of years of bloggers and writers exposing the teachings of these groups and their harmful effects, and I've seen a lot of this firsthand myself. If you have friends who've escaped from a similar environment, or are still enmeshed in one, it's probably a good idea to familiarize yourself as much as possible with some of these watchdog bloggers--if for no other reason, than so you can better understand your friends and be aware of some potential hidden forms of abuse they may be dealing with or internalizing.

A few things immediately strike me as red flags in this particular situation:
<b>"living with her ultra-conservative, religious family until she marries because a young woman shouldn't be on her own not a feminist"</b> The letter-writer didn't mention how many siblings their friend has or what particular group their family's aligned with, but this belief is usually associated with the Quiverfull movement. Quiverfull is a religious + political movement built on Christian patriarchy, revisionist history, and Dominionist politics. These are people whose goal is to literally birth an army of "arrows" for Jesus, in order to win the culture war and to dominate the US political system, and to radically change the face of the country. By <i>outbreeding their enemies.</i> Kids who grow up in these families are usually pretty isolated and under/miseducated, and are denied opportunities to individuate or deviate, in any significant way, from the plans their parents have laid for them. Quiverfull girls are kept at home, under their father's control, and usually discouraged or prevented from attending college.
It's also known as the Daughters-at-Home movement.

<b>I stifle a lot of how I feel about the way her family treats her</b> Just because nobody's getting hit or outright threatened doesn't mean abuse is not taking place. The letter-writer's aware of, at the minimum, some extremely uncomfortable family dynamics, and it's already been established that the policy of this friendship is to minimize or ignore uncomfortable differences. Most of the items on spiritual abuse checklists (designed for churches--such as this one: can also be applied to other relationships between members of a religious community, including individual families. Sometimes these checklists refer to cult-like behavior in place of spiritual abuse, but the principles are the same. The family operates as a microcosm of the larger religious community and can enforce the same harmful standards...only without allowing anyone inside to take a break, or get some distance or perspective.

<b>her experience with gendered expectations might not lead her to recognize signs that most people will see</b> This happens A LOT. Normalization of strict gender roles (especially in a religious context), and the purity culture that seems to inevitably go along with that, has led girls and women to remain in abusive relationships, to not run away from their abductors, and to not report their rapes. You're taught in this culture not to trust your feelings ever, because feelings are dangerous and deceptive; you learn to look to your authorities for information on what you should be doing, thinking, and feeling, and internalize learned helplessness.

My advice--admittedly not knowing all of the nuances of this situation--to the letter-writer would be to approach your friend with a whole lot of caring and compassion and honesty, and let her know that the reason you're concerned is precisely because you care so much about her and you want to support her in the best way you can. And then let her know about your concerns, with her fiance, her family, and any other figures of "authority" in her life that you find concerning. (Before trying to talk to her about this, READ UP as much as possible, preferably from sources who've experienced similar family/church environments to what you know of your friend's background. You will need as much information as you can get.) Be prepared to listen without judging her for what you hear, and don't try to ride in on your horse and "save" her--but do let her know that you support her. I do agree with Carpentier that talking about differences can open up new levels of honesty and deepen your friendship, and I think that's a great idea. You could start by talking about the different trajectories you're both planning for your lives, the qualities you like in yourself and in her, and base your course of action (if any) from there. Just having someone to honestly talk to can be a huge help. If she marries the guy and it turns out that he really is controlling and abusive, be there for her then too, because at some point she'll probably need to talk to someone, and there's a good chance it's impossible for that "someone" to be anyone in her family or church. If this thing comes to extremes, she might eventually need resources or information or education or a place to go, and you can be ready to help point her to those things, and if she never ends up requiring, or taking advantage of, those resources, you can help her by continuing to invest in her emotionally.

Some suggestions for further reading (and there's SO MUCH more out there):

Gigantic Red Flags

I agree with you, Theo. This situation raises many red flags for me. As someone who escaped from the exact sort of situation, everything involved in this letter is off.

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