Dear Margo: Trying To Rescue a Friend

How do I help a friend in an abusive relationship? Margo Howard’s advice

Trying To Rescue a Friend

Dear Margo: A good friend began dating a man whom I will call Albert. Recently, she admitted he hits her and constantly checks up on her. Last month, some other concerned friends and I held an intervention and learned the true extent of his actions. He is verbally abusive, restricts her choices and movements, tracks her phone and car, calls constantly, and has hit her twice in the face while arguing. She is afraid to be herself and enjoy her own interests for fear of getting yelled at. At other times, Albert (who’s a med student!) is completely charming. I believe he could clinically be defined as a psychopath. If you were to meet him casually, you would not suspect a thing.

It took six hours to convince her that the relationship is unhealthy. At this point, because we told her we would pursue legal action if he continues, she has not told us anything else because she fears she would ruin his reputation. I heard from one of her other friends that he still hits her, and I want to let him know that, unlike my friend, I have no qualms about ruining his reputation. Thoughts? — Protective of My Friend

Dear Pro: Your friend in the abusive relationship sounds like she’s at the Stockholm syndrome stage. She’s afraid she’d ruin his reputation? I think it deserves to be ruined. I do not know the procedure, which I suspect has jurisdictional differences, for reporting an abuser if you are not the victim. Do inquire, though, at your local police department.

And regarding his being a medical student: As the wife of a physician with ties to a medical school, I can tell you the dean of students would be grateful for this information. I hope you don’t wait for your friend to decide she’s had it with him, because that likely won’t happen. She’s already been sucked into this sick cycle, and I hope you and her other pals succeed in getting her out in one piece. — Margo, persistently

When Not Everyone Behaves the Same

Dear Margo: I have been sending my nieces and nephews birthday gifts for the past 20 years. They are now in their 20s and early 30s. I sent the gifts until they graduated college, and now I just send a card. The problem is that my children are young teens, and this practice is not reciprocated by one s-i-l. Money is not an issue for her. My children say, “Auntie forgot my birthday again,” and I tell them they should not expect people to send gifts, but it is nice when they do.

I am ticked and feel slighted for my children. I have sent the offending aunt’s kids presents for birthdays, high school and college graduations, showers, weddings, and new babies. I feel she is rude and thoughtless. Am I wrong to feel this way? I find myself upset and obsessing about this. Should she be confronted in some way? — Feeling Slighted

Dear Feel: I agree that Auntie is thoughtless, and she’s certainly making no friends in the family. You cannot, however, make anyone send cards or gifts, nor can you enforce thoughtfulness. I am sorry your kids feel slighted. You might make this situation a teachable moment, as it were. One lesson is that you don’t give gifts to get them. Another is that not everyone behaves as you do, but being thoughtful is a lovely trait to have.

You’re not wrong to feel as you do, but by being upset and obsessing about someone else’s actions, you are the one who suffers. Auntie has no idea you are ticked. If it would make you feel better, you could mention that your kids would really appreciate a card on their birthdays — but be prepared for a defensive frost. — Margo, positively

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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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57 Responses so far.

  1. avatar David Bolton says:

    LW1: Unfortunately you can’t make someone do or feel what you think they should—otherwise you’d just be another version of Albert for your friend. She’ll either wise up or she won’t. Margo is right about the legal question, as well as the educational aspect. But be prepared to be ousted by your friend if it’s revealed you had anything to do with it. And Albert might get vindictive towards you as well.

    LW2: Your sending presents and cards to your relatives does not and should not guarantee reciprocation for your own kids. If that’s how you feel, you should have spent your money on your own. What’s important here is establishing a sense of caring and interest in the lives and achievements of family members. That is the real gift—not something purchased for an event. Just like I said for LW1, you can’t make someone care any more about you than they do. If it’s not enough or it’s not what you need—cut ties and move on. 

  2. avatar Island_Doc_to_KS_Doc says:

    As the physician wife of a physician where both of us have ties to a medical school–this needs to be reported. I have sadly witnessed colleagues protect one another in situations of substance and spousal abuse and I saw students in my graduating class who did HORRIBLE things to their spouses, children, and colleagues. Those physicians with whom I graduated with who were abusers went on to become cold, cruel, manipulative physicians who eventually burned out. One of them committed suicide. The medical profession and society seem to make allowances for those with authority to continue to have inappropriate powers. This should never happen. Reporting abuse to a dean may stop someone from hurting a patient or family members in the future. An intervention now may prevent hundreds of people from being held emotional or health hostage by a power control freak. Believe me when I tell you that if a group of you and your friends make an appointment and  speak with a dean, he will allow that appointment to be confidential and will take the accusation you make very seriously. Chances are, some of his colleagues, attending physicians, and professors have noticed some questionable behaviors already.

    It is by doing nothing that we do the most damage. Best of luck. 

  3. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    LW#1:  I can only echo Margo’s response and the comments of others here with a warning that once this is reported to any authorities and actions are taken that all hell will break loose for your friend and perhaps for you and others should the abuser know who made the reports.  That does not mean you should not do the reporting. 

    LW#2:  I suspect that your obsession has more to do with your dislike of your sister-in-law for whatever reason than her failure to send your children gifts…and why now…after all this time are you obsessing about it?  And despite what you say you have told your children, they have evidently picked up on your resentment otherwise they would not feel *slighted*.  I would try to let this go. 

  4. avatar LyleAustin says:

    I just saw this same question (LW 2) on today’s Annie’s Mailbox.  The advice given there was pretty much the same as Margo gave.  You can’t expect/force someone to give a present.

    • avatar obiemama says:

      In the account on Annie’s mailbox, the LW says that her SIL used to send gifts, but no longer does so. I think this very much changes the situation.
      Maybe consider that money actually is an issue for her now, as it is for so many others?

  5. avatar Michelles11 says:

    Re: LW2 My brother-in-law and his wife never show up to family parties or acknowledge any of the kids’ birthdays.  But we are expected to show up to all of his kids’ functions and rsvp in a timely manner.  If we don’t, we get a phone call and a reprimand.  We finally had enough of the nonsense and just quit going.  I still send a gift to the kids because it’s not their fault their parents are rude, and besides that, the kids don’t even talk to anyone because they don’t raally know us or their cousins!  Sad, but that’s how it is.

    • avatar bright eyes says:

      Michelles – that’s how it is with me. I was putting out the effort and none was returned. It’s not about the presents, it’s about how I’m supposed to remind everyone that one of my nephews birthday is coming up. I’m supposed to remind my parents and make sure they send them something before their birthdays – yet they completely forget my sons. And yes, I still send presents, but I have scaled things back because I never know if they liked what I got or even if they got it.

  6. avatar Donna Sampson says:

    Gifts should never be given with the expectation that gifts will be given in return. You say you told your children that, but you need to tell yourself that. For your children to feel slighted, they have caught on to your feelings of your children being slighted. You say that money is not an issue for her, but how do you really know? Lots of people who make plenty of money have plenty of bills because of overspending. Her family may be in that situation.

  7. avatar mjd4 says:

    First of all, your sil is the one to blame?  Not your brother?  What’s up with that?  

    Second, you mention sending, not giving.  Am I right in assuming you don’t see each other that often, or get together on birthdays?  Not everyone does the ritual sending of gifts to all relatives. 

    Third, I have a young teen.  He’s not perfect, and gratitude and appreciation are not always his strong points, but I don’t think it would ever occur to him to take note, much less keep track of, who did not send him a birthday gift.  Your children learned that attitude from you, and it is not charming.   

    • avatar htimsr40 says:

      Exactly.  My kids would never have thought to notice that “auntie forgot my birthday”.  Some relatives remembered them, some did not … but it was not anything that the kids (or parents) paid attention to.  

      • avatar Briana Baran says:

        My sons noticed…but they only have two aunties, who have no children of their own…and one always sends something (even though I’ve told her it isn’t necessary when she’s short of funds…and the boys are 20 and 14…so it isn’t so easy to find things for them now). The other has a bad habit of telling them she wishes she could, but she’s so penniless…so the younger son tends to worry about her.
        It’s a lot of fun when they’re young. As they get older…feh…not so much. We do gift giving as something that is meaningful…but not necessary or to be expected. I think that LW2 should maybe lighten up a little.

    • avatar Briana Baran says:

      “Your children learned that attitude from you, and it is not charming.”
      mjd4:  Beautifully stated. 

  8. avatar mjd4 says:

    Obviously, your anger at Albert is completely understandable, as is your wish to hold him accountable.  If your friend denies the abuse, there is not much the police can do.  

    Keep in mind, though, that abuse victims are often defensive of their abusers, and open criticism may just make her stop coming to you.  Abusers tend to isolate their victims, too.  If you against the relationship he may forbid her contact with you – control only tends to escalate.  Then, when she decides she really needs your support, she will have a much harder time coming to you.  

    You’ve let her what you think.  Not let her know you are there for her, whenever she needs.  

    • avatar Pinky35 says:

      I agree – You and your friends can report the abuse if you like, however, if she will not come forward herself, it’s only going to be your word against his. And he will probably isolate her and even punish HER for your behavior. Saying that she was the one telling you about his actions. So, I would tread lightly and just stand by her and be there for her. She has to be the one to leave him and go to the police. You can encourage her to leave and probably push her farther away from you, or just tell her no matter what she decides, you are there for her. Unfortunately, it’s hard to watch such a thing just happen to someone else, but there isn’t much you can do aside from letting her know she doesn’t have to take this and she is strong enough to leave him. 

  9. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: You and her other friends are definitely to be commended for sitting her down and talking with her; trying to get her to see the light. And chances are it’ll be a while before she walks away. While I completely understand your attitude not caring if his reputation gets ruined, I’d tread REAL lightly on that. She and yourself could face some really ugly consequences of “outing” him to his superiors. Frankly I think just “hanging in there on the sidelines” for her sake, “I’m here when you’re ready to leave that loser” is enough. You’ve gone the extra mile already. I hope she does leave him today!

    L #2: It’s always got to be someone. :- Not everyone cares, not everyone plays fair. If you’re unable to mention it to her, let it go — for your own sake. Ultimately it’s her loss.

    • avatar Tulip O'Hare says:

      “She and yourself could face some really ugly consequences of ‘outing’ him to his superiors.”

      The friend’s already being hit, verbally abused, and confined — that’s not ugly enough? And what about the potential for him to abuse his patients and their families? 
      If you worry he’s going to do something like kill her or beat her half to death or stalk the people who report him — you’ve fallen for his game. He KNOWS that the fear of what he might do is what keeps people under his control, and he uses that.
      Yes, it could be that he’s such a psychotic that he would kill to keep control, but if that’s the case, he’s a ticking time bomb no matter what people do or don’t do. But if he’s anything else, his power and control vanish the second he meets someone who’s not afraid of him, because all of what he does depends on fear and silence. To quote Margo, don’t ask me how I know these things.

      • avatar Briana Baran says:

        “But if he’s anything else, his power and control vanish the second he meets someone who’s not afraid of him, because all of what he does depends on fear and silence.”
        Not necessarily. I find it fascinating how many people are “diagnosing” this person as “psychotic” or as being a “psychopath”. It’s much more likely that he suffers from an Axis II personality disorder, such as Borderline Personality Disorder, or Malignant Narcissism, or any of the now diagnosable hundreds of others. These are not treatable, they don’t involve chemical imbalances like “psychosis” does (this occurs with schizophrenia and other Axis I disorders such as bi-polar) and those who have them can frequently be characterized as manipulative, abusive, without conscience, able to maintain a charming, social exterior…etc..
        People like this don’t just collapse and behave themselves because they’re faced with someone who is unafraid and determined to challenge them. They do not like being thwarted at all. It ruins their distorted view of themselves. They are capable of logic, planning, rational thought and complicated deception. They are extremely dangerous. I would definitely report this man to the medical school and also contact the local woman’s shelter (hopefully secret) and get the woman away from him…then be very, very cautious myself. These people retaliate. It pays to be vigilant. Carry pepper spray…and please learn how to use, and be determined to use it. Lock all doors, don’t be foolish or wary of calling 911 if you sense trouble. People who are afraid of looking foolish end up dead…or worse.
        I would report him with no hesitation. Someone like this never needs to be treating patients. Screw his reputation and his miserable life. I wouldn’t care if my friend never talked to me again…it would be better than some of the potential alternatives.

        • avatar Lila says:

          Briana, I agree – We had a discussion elsewhere – it’s not a disorder to defy social expectations – and it is not a disorder to be mean, selfish, conniving, manipulative, or even violent.
          Check out the UVA case where George Huguely killed Yeardley Love.  He might not even have intended to kill her, but he sure did intend to choke / shake / push / shove / hit her.  Women need to remember that most men are MUCH stronger and heavier then they are, and this kind of physical abuse can easily result in death even when the abuser didn’t mean it.  Love was a very fit athlete, but to Huguely, she was just a skinny little girl and easily thrown around.  And now she’s dead.

        • avatar independent says:

          Not everything is a pathology. That said, your terms are archaic. There is no such disorder as Malignant Narcissism in the DSM IV-TR. That is a colloquialism meant to refer to extremely pathological forms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and it is often used by lay persons. In addition, the term psychopath is not interchangeable with the word psychosis or psychotic. Psychopathy, commonly used interchangeably with the word sociopathy, is considered a subset, and not a synonym for, Antisocial Personality Disorder. Further, your statement that all axis II personality disorders are not treatable is wholly incorrect. There are multiple clusters within that axis and many of them are treatable. BPD, for example, is treatable with radical acceptance, cognitive mindfulness and dialectical therapies focused on retraining the mind to interpret stressful situations in a less judgemental and reactive manner, as well as to imbue self-soothing skills for overwhelming emotions. People who suffer from this disorder do not need to read casual comments stigmatizing them as hopeless from people with dated and incorrect information. It is no more accurate to refer to sufferers with BPD as lost causes as it is to refer to those with Bipolar 1 as crazy, though they often suffer from periods of psychosis and mania, can be abusive and, interestingly enough, experience a high rate of being misdiagnosed or dually diagnosed with BPD. Lay people are not qualified to make that distinction and psychiatrists spend many hours working with a patient to understand the pervasive patterns of behavior before they render such life altering diagnoses. One last note, even ASPD is making head way with treatment modalities–such as Schema Therapy.
          An abuser is a disordered individual but not all violence is pathological. It is abhorrent and inexcuseable but you should really hesitate before you assosciate sufferers of personality disorders with violent abusers.
          Modalities of therapy for axis II disorders thrive or fail on multiple things, principally of which is the patient’s willingness to acknowledge a problem and then to seek treatment. The same goes for sufferers of so-called ‘psychotic’ disorders such as BP 1 and schizophrenia. Additionally, you mentioned in another post that Cyclothymia is not a form of bipolar. It is on that spectrum, however, and is a mood disturbance of highs and lows characterized by rapid cycling.

  10. avatar martina says:

    LW2 – How many nieces and nephews does your SIL have?  I have 12 and the greats are starting to show up.  It’s hard to keep track of them all and I can’t afford to purchase gifts for all of them and it’s not fair to buy for one for one and not the other.  Something to keep in mind.

    Also, you are not only teaching your children the joy of giving – hopefully, you aren’t showing them your annoyance at their not receiving anything – but you are also showing your SIL’s children the joy of receiving which hopefully, they will some day reciprocate.

  11. avatar JCF4612 says:

    LW1: I suspect your friend was starving for male attention and at first found the control aspects from her beau quite flattering. By the time she felt enough discomfort from the escalation to share with you and other pals, she was far too invested in prospects of marrying a doctor.  With “wed the med” notions ingrained, she now finds it easier to complain than dump him. You can remain on the sidelines to provide support if and when she comes to her senses (or ends up hospitalized as a battered woman.) Or you can develop a case history and report it to the med school dean and cops. Make your documentation very specific. To act (or even pay attention to you), authorities need a whole lot more than he is “verbally abusive,” “restricts her choices” and “calls constantly.”    

    LW2: Tell your SIL and your bro what you’ve told Margo. Once. And plainly, just to get it off your chest. Then drop it. And knock off the card flow, which these days has gotten mighty expensive in itself. If any of the neices and nephews inquire as to why, tell them your kids have never been similarly acknowledged.

    • avatar Briana Baran says:

      How about “He hits her”? Going to the Dean of Medicine (these are budding physicians, remember, and this bud is blighted) with even hints that he is abusing his partner is going to cause a disturbance. Medical schools hate scandal…during the schooling process and in their alumni. It reflects very badly on the institution when the media breathlessly reports that Dr. Albert Lipschitz nearly beat his wife to death, or was arrested after her body was found crammed into a container in the garage…and the Dr, Lipschitz graduated cum laude from We-Ignored-The-Warning-Signs-Medical-School-Of-Potential-Spousal-Abusers.
      As for alleging that the abused woman was “starving for attention” and found Albert’s controlling ways flattering…what planet did you say you’re from? Mongo? I, personally, have problems understanding exactly why women…or men…remain with people who physically abuse them. My first ex tried that out just once. Once. I laid him out on the floor for a full 15 minutes, and explained my opinion of men who hit women while he struggles to clear his head. But he and the second bag of feces were both verbally and emotionally abusive…and trust me…I wasn’t “starving for attention”. Not even negative attention.
      The woman isn’t “complaining” (again, I may not quite be able to wrap my head around all of the “whys” but I have seen this too many times not to understand the syndrome). She’s frightened…both of staying (who really likes being a punching bag except for masochists?) and of leaving (who wants to be stalked?). She’s in denial. She wants help, but won’t take it or ask for it. Makes my brain hurt, I confess…but I’d still walk it to old Albert and her as well. Intervention is horrible. I’ve lost a couple of friends that way…but losing friends by helping them be healthy is better than planting them. 

      Sure. She just wants to “wed the med”. She was just whining. That’s why all of her friends were concerned. Welcome to earth and the human condition.

      • avatar KL says:

        Briana — There is something off with someone that allows someone else to abuse them.  I’m not sure starving for attention is the one-size-fits-all reason, but it’s definitely not an uncommon reason.  Others grew up in households where such abuse was common, so although it’s destructive, it also feels familiar in many ways too.  There can be many reasons — but the one thing they all have in common is some unhealthy pattern or deep wound.

        You were in three abusive relationships, okay.  You have some perspective, but yours isn’t the only perspective.  Just because someone else has a different one doesn’t mean that yours is any less valid (or to the contrary that the other person’s is invalid).  And if you choose three abusive men, at some point, you’ve got to look at the common denominator and figure out why you chose them or at least didn’t recognize their abuse until much later. 

        • avatar independent says:

          @KL, well said. The human experience is varied and is not a one size fits all situation.

  12. avatar sewpro says:

    L#1: Your friend may be in serious danger if her boyfriend is called into the dean’s office, since his anger over being reported will be taken out on her. I would consult with a local women’s support network for how to best handle the situation. No, “sitting by in the sidelines” while you’re friend is beaten is not enough. Just be very careful for her safety. Good luck. 

  13. avatar Artemesia says:

    Of course you should expect reciprocity in family gift giving.  WHO on earth loves giving and giving and giving and getting nothing in return but a masochist.  It isn’t about money, it is about reciprocity.  A person without means can still remember those who are generous; they can call or send a card; they can bake some cookies.  It is about getting expensive stuff or money, it is about a relationship being a relationship.

    In fact in most gift giving situations (although not with gifts to children in a family) it is rather rude to keep giving gifts to people who don’t reciprocate.  By not reciprocating they are indicating the level of relationship they want to have and to force more by sending unwanted gifts is rude. 

    • avatar bright eyes says:

      I agree there are ways to give presents on a fixed budget. When I first started working where I am now, I was so broke. But I made a bunch of cookies, brownies, cupcakes, etc, packaged them up and brought them in for presents at Christmas. I saw they were left in the fridge until the next week – yep – everyone ate them in the week before Christmas and New Years. A few of the people said Wow! I love getting home cooked things!
      And cards – $.50 at the dollar store and $.45 (or whatever it is now!) for a stamp. Yea I know how to get around cheap. Being a single parent you figure out how to get things for the holidays or birthdays. It’s not about how much you spend it’s that you took the time to think of that person.

  14. avatar Artemesia says:

    Of course it is NOT about getting expensive stuff — it is about the remembering.  typo

  15. avatar R Scott says:

    LW1 – Don’t do anything until you have your friend in safe location. If you report this guy or in anyway mess with him you know who is going to pay the price. Not you. Think this out and have a very good plan. I don’t know what state you’re in but I’m pretty sure you can’t just kill the guy which sometimes is kind of a shame.

    LW2 – I’m going to stick up for the SIL on this one. She’s made it quite clear that she’s not into mandatory gift giving. Why didn’t the LW take that hint a long time ago? I’m sorry but I see her lette as just a lot of whining. I come from a large,  loving, gregarious, outgoing, fun loving and, affectionate family. We just not big gift givers. Never have been, never will be. It’s not how we express ourselves. I’m hoping/assuming the SIL has other qualities that the LW might focus on. The important thing is that she got Thank You cards for her efforts.