I can’t handle my boss’s stories about her emotionally abusive relationship

A reader writes:

I’m in my early 20s and I’ve been in my role for two years. It’s my first proper professional job in an office. I’m mostly remote and I’ve met my manager in person only a dozen times (she lives in another state).

Professionally and personally, my manager and I click and get along great. We collaborate well and she’s very good at teaching. I’m happy in my job and it has great career progression.

The issue is that I believe my manager is in an emotionally abusive relationship. At first I thought she had just married a really lazy, patriarchal guy who thought his role as partner and father started and ended with his paycheck, but story after story has alarmed me and now I have no other word to describe it.

It’s starting to really affect me and I don’t know what to do about it. I’ve come to dread our post-weekend chats as I’ll inevitably be hearing about their arguments and fights, how their children are acting out, how she can’t sleep or function, and on and on. Her life is chaos. Endlessly bad things going on. I want to be supportive (she is very isolated) but it’s truly heavy stuff and sometimes I’m tired too and can’t cope mentally with hearing it all.

I try to stick to staying things like “that sounds difficult” and I correct her nicely if she makes a joke about my partner behaving similarly, as I do not want to normalize it and it’d be really unfair on my partner to agree. But otherwise I’m lost on what to do or say. She’s broken down crying to me on video calls several times and I felt helpless and awkward.

The other week I called out of a meeting sick because I couldn’t face potentially hearing another story. I think that was a wake-up that it’s not sustainable. I feel completely powerless though. I don’t think she realizes how bad the stories are because in her mind she’s just sharing her weekend. I don’t want to cut off any avenue of support, nor damage our great professional relationship. Any advice would be really welcome.

Oh no.

It sounds like your boss is in a really horrible situation … but you aren’t the person for her to vent to. As her employee, you’re in many ways a captive audience, and the power dynamics mean you’ll necessarily have to worry that your responses could impact you professionally — and those two things mean she really, really needs to seek support somewhere else.

But how to handle it depends strongly on your sense of what the relationship will allow.

If you think you can say this without professional repercussions, ideally you would say: “I’m really worried about you. The stories you tell me about Dave are alarming — he’s really unkind to you and you deserve better. It’s become so upsetting to me that I can’t be a sounding board for it anymore or I stay disturbed for weeks, but I want to urge you to talk to someone who’s trained to help.” If you are comfortable suggesting a resource like the National Domestic Violence Hotline (which helps with emotional abuse too, not just physical abuse), please do.

But if you don’t feel you can say that, you could say other versions of it. For example, when your boss shares an upsetting story, tell her it’s upsetting. Don’t hide your natural reaction. If you look horrified and say “that’s so upsetting, I’m really worried for you” often enough, it might get through to her that the stories she’s sharing aren’t normal relationship ups and down. You could also say, “That’s so upsetting, I don’t think I can keep hearing this stuff. It makes me worry about you all the time.”

If she weren’t your boss, I might suggest asking “what do you think you’ll do about it?” every time, which in other circumstances is designed to either move the person from venting to action or make them find venting to you less satisfying. But in this case, it risks inviting you further into the situation, when you’re trying for the opposite.

I want to be clear that I don’t mean to be callous toward your boss. She’s in an awful situation. But your mental health matters too, and you’re entitled to be able to come to work and do your job without having to hear disturbing stories. I hope you can nudge her toward help, but the power dynamics mean it’s okay for you to say that you cannot be that help yourself.

{ 169 comments… read them below }

  1. Lilo*

    Something that needs to be clear is you can both have compassion for your boss while acknowledging what she’s doing here isn’t okay. This is stomping all over professional boundaries. I think you need to potentially talk to HR or someone above your boss, both to see if they can get her aid and because this is seriously impeding your working relationship with your boss.

    1. Eli*

      Yes. And while a DV hotline is good, the in-office EAP or even Love Is Respect might be a gentler place to start.

      1. anneshirley*

        Agreed, or even just a general suggestion of a counselor or therapist. If the boss is making jokes about the behavior and isn’t conscious of how bad things sound, using the words “domestic violence,” even if accurate, have a chance of backfiring– a pushback that might be appropriate for a loved one to work through with her, but definitely not an employee.

        1. Sloanicota*

          I definitely worry for OP that bringing this up too strongly will damage their relationship with their boss. Boss ultimately needs to realize the situation but will they listen to an employee, or will they be more likely to lash out and avoid or punish the employee for bringing this up? I think OP can try once, and I like the suggestion of mentioning the EAP or whatever, but ultimately OP is poorly positioned to be the one to help their boss snap out of it.

      2. Cait*

        You can also send her a pdf copy of “Why Does He Do That?” (just Google) that might help her realize what kind of relationship she’s in. You can also ask her, “If I was the one telling you these stories, what would you tell me to do?” in an effort to make her realize she needs help. But, ultimately, this shouldn’t be your burden.

        1. SaffyTaffy*

          @Cait that book is SO GOOD. It’s nice to meet someone else who’s read it. So helpful for me.

          I love Alison’s advice about not hiding your response. I once relayed an interaction to a friend, something that had become commonplace, and her horrified reaction made me realize that what I was going through wasn’t normal.

        2. earl grey aficionado*

          I adore that book, and OP might find some strength in it personally, but I would be extremely cautious about sending it to someone who’s being abused, most especially a boss. Boss might take it as an insult or an invitation to get more emotionally involved with OP, and/or if she keeps the PDF on her phone or a computer she takes home, and her partner finds it, it could be a serious safety concern for her.

          But +1000 on the book recommendation for anyone who wants to know more about abuse and domestic violence.

          1. Mid*

            Depending on how OP feels, possibly bringing it up less directly and offering to send it might help. Like “Oh, my ex was constantly doing [thing that Boss’s Husband does] and I found reading this book to really help me deal with it” or “My best friend’s ex sounds just like your husband, and she said that this book was a game changer for her, and sent me a copy of the PDF. Do you want me to send it to you?”

        3. jasmine*

          If OP’s boss doesn’t realize what kind of relationship she’s in, sending a PDF copy of this book is likely to come across as abrasive and it’s also unlikely OP’s boss will read it in that case.

        4. L'étrangere*

          That book is excellent. I personally have found it helpful both to myself to feel less powerless about trying to help a friend, and to the friend also eventually by extension. The emphasis on bolstering the abused person’s agency is by far the best tactic I have ever seen, and did turn out to be effective.
          You might also be able to use this book 2 ways, OP. You can read it yourself and hopefully find some comfort and clarity in it (I can guarantee your public library has a copy). Then you can tell her that you were upset about her stories and people recommended this book, and here is a copy because you think it might be helpful to her too.

      3. Banana*

        Yes! I had an employee venting to me years ago about her marriage difficulties, but she was married to a director in another area (my field, not my division, but if I were to take a leadership role in another area, he’d be my most likely boss.) He sounded emotionally abusive but it also sounded like she was an unusually emotionally vulnerable person. I pointed her toward our EAP.

      4. L'étrangere*

        I think it’d be entirely appropriate to talk to the EAP (if any) for your own self, explain why you’re upset and say you want them to help your boss. They hopefully should be familiar with any company policy to support employees in her sad situation, may be able to get her manager on board with support etc, all without jeopardizing your position

  2. Hills to Die on*

    Being in a traumatic situation can p-revent you from thinking clearly. It would not surprise me if she doesn’t take hints. Perhaps saying that you can’t help her and want to find her someone who can – someone who is not distressed / trying to work while emotionally upset by it – is a more direct way but still gentle?
    That’s hard because my inclination is to suck it up and be there for others at my own expense but this is not sustainable for you. And so vulnerable for her. I would keep pushing the DV hotline for a while and maybe transition her over to that before telling her you can’t be here for her to vent to.
    So sorry to hear this.

    1. 3DogNight*

      As Alison sometimes notes, workers who are in toxic workplaces tend to normalize that behavior, so do abused people. She may be so far into it that she thinks this is normal. The answers of “Wow” or “That sucks” or “Oh my God!” aren’t going to get through as much as some of the really good suggestions through the commentariat. OP–You will need to be more direct in responding. And maybe reach out to someone yourself. This is already affecting your mental health, and having to be direct with your boss about something so deeply personal is hard. Please take care of yourself, too!

      1. Library maven*

        I think the OP has also normalized non-normal behavior—that of her boss. I do not say this with unkindness toward either of them. They are both in bad situations—with the boss’s situation being far, far worse, of course.

        But OP is also being abused in a sense and her reactions are telling her this-her disquiet and emotional upset are actually healthy. They are alerting her that she should take steps to recognize and address her own needs—emotional and professional

      2. Rose*

        Yea I kind wonder if she talks about it as a way to almost prove to herself how normal and common it is. This isn’t scary abuse that I’m hiding! It’s re guy alt relationship stuff. Etc

        I grew up in a situation like that so I have all the empathy in the world for Boss but also this should never ever be OPs to deal with. Boss needs to majorly readjust her thinking on what’s ok to share.

  3. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

    I agree with Allison, I think that she needs to hear that 1. this violates professional boundaries 2. that what is happening to her is not normal and is not okay, 3. that there are people to help her if she wants it but that person is not you. I think that giving her a natural reaction “that’s horrible, how can he act that way” and “I am concerned for your safety” will put it into context. “Do you need help finding help” if you feel you can do this.

    1. Keeley Jones, The Independent Woman*

      Also “ you don’t deserve that” or “you’re amazing/smart/whatever makes sense”

      The boss might know this is not normal, but she’s probably feeling like this is the life she deserves. She needs to be reminded that she has value.

      1. mairona*

        Agreed – just hearing something like “you deserve better” and “how he’s treating you is not normal or healthy” can help to break through the thick fog of negativity and may make her more receptive to trying out suggested resources. Abusive relationships can really do a number on one’s sense of normalcy and self worth, and with non-physical abuse, it can be really easy to fall into the mindset of “Well, he’s never *hit* me, so it’s not that bad” until someone you trust (gently) challenges that point of view.

        Hopefully OP can help plant those seeds that can allow Boss to seek out the help she needs, but ultimately, it will have to be Boss’s choice and OP should make sure to look after her own mental health in all this, too.

      2. Anon for this*

        As someone who has been (and still is) in this position for 20 years, I didn’t feel I deserved so much as there were no other options. My child had special needs, especially as an infant. They needed the health insurance and I needed to be home with them. I had just enough in a retirement account to not qualify for aid. My spouse was a good material provider, so I’m still here. I miss the emotional connection to someone, but at my age it’s easier to just deal with it and try to remember it’s their shortcomings, not mine.

        1. NotRealAnonForThis*

          I’m assuming you’re referring to yourself, and I am so, so sorry that you’re in this position. I have no advice, just hugs. Lots of those. Be gentle with yourself.

        2. I take tea*

          I can understand that it might have been the best choice when your child was young, but please, don’t let your age deter you from leaving, if it is a possibility now. I found the Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe very empowering, about a woman leaving her husband when she gets her first pension check.
          If you have to stay, keep reminding yourself that it’s their shortcomings and try to take care of your own wellbeing, do things that make you happy as much as you can. Sending internet stranger strength to you.

  4. Jerusha*

    Also, if you know you have an EAP, remind your boss of that fact. If you’re not sure if you have an EAP, ask around (probably to HR) and find out if you do. If you don’t want to start out by telling HR about your boss specifically, you can probably vague it up with something “a colleague has been telling me about a difficult situation in their personal life; do we have any resources/supports I can point out to them?”

    1. Bitsy*

      Also consider calling the EAP for help for yourself. They may be able to help you navigate this tough situation.

      1. Lils*

        I agree with this. I think you should focus on looking after yourself too by reaching out to the EAP or your therapist. Being near this kind of situation and hearing about it can also be kind of traumatic, especially when you care about the person (it seems to me you care about your boss in a healthy way).

      2. CaptainMouse*

        Hearing about about abuse/someone else’s trauma can be traumatic for the listener.

    2. Not a moose*

      Excuse my naïve question please! I’ve not worked anywhere with an EAP. What is it (from context I’m guessing a therapist for employees) and is there an expectation of confidentiality when making an appointment or sharing your concerns about a co-worker?

      1. londonedit*

        It’s an Employee Assistance Programme and is completely separate from the employer and completely confidential – ours will ask which company you work for but you don’t even have to give your name. It can provide advice and support for all sorts of issues, whether work or personal – legal advice, counselling (we can access up to six free counselling sessions and the EAP can also refer you for further counselling) and they can also refer you to other services that can help.

  5. KofSharp*

    The “That’s upsetting, I’m really worried for you” works. I had a coworker who literally told me “Pain is the price of love” who got out of an abusive relationship after the whole team did variations of “Uhhh that’s terrifying, why are you with her.”
    LW, your boss has probably normalized it. Helping her know it’s not at all normal in a compassionate way should help.

    1. KofSharp*

      *can really work. It’s never a sure thing, but I also agree with commenters suggesting the EAP. you should not have to do the emotional labor for someone else.

      1. Canadian Librarian #72*

        Yes, this, and also, this is a great example of correct use of the term “emotional labour”. Here the LW is being effectively forced to manage her own emotions and those of her boss in order to maintain a professional relationship on which her livelihood is contingent (and it’s not even in her job description).

        (People often say “emotional labour” when they actually mean “processing my emotions or a friend’s is hard”.)

      2. Darsynia*

        Another very important point is the idea that it’s confusing or rude or even wrong to ‘change your mind’ in this situation from letting them talk about it around you to pushing back. This is incorrect.

        First of all, we often don’t realize how much weight other people’s issues are to carry until the burden is too much to bear. We’re socialized to be supportive, and without prior experience, we can find ourselves too deep in a situation. This is actually an opportunity to push back, rather than a ‘too late’ situation! Saying some version of, ‘I wanted to be supportive at first but misunderstood the situation as a short-term one, and now that I realize this is ongoing, I’ve come to understand that I’m not the right person to help, unfortunately.’ Adding that it’s difficult for you personally to offer support without being able to change anything is illustrative without being too pushy, IMO.

        Crucially, this isn’t a sunk cost, you’re not trapped, OP! You have come to realize it’s too much for you. That’s reasonable, and it should be reasonable to convey. If you’re worried that conveying it will be hurtful interpersonally or harmful to your job security, your boss should have realized those things initially as well. They have a higher burden of responsibility here than you, as your superior.

    2. londonedit*

      I agree. People in this sort of situation will often lash out at anyone who attempts to tell them outright that they’re being abused, because their brain is trying so hard to normalise what’s going on and they’re likely being told at home that what’s going on is normal/part of any relationship/all their fault anyway. I’d probably lean away from the ‘I don’t think I can keep hearing about this’ part because again that might push the boss away from seeking help – but at the same time, the OP can’t be the one to shoulder all of this terrible information. I think repeating the ‘Wow, that is really upsetting – I’m worried about you’ or ‘Gosh, no, my partner would never do that – it sounds awful’ comments, maybe with one or two ‘Do you think you ought to try talking to the EAP/a therapist about this?’ thrown in (but you’d have to gauge your boss’s reaction on that one) would be the way to go. It might just have the effect of persuading her that the sort of things she’s talking about are well out of the realm of ‘You’ll never believe what my husband said at the weekend’ and well into the realm of abuse that she shouldn’t have to put up with.

    3. Waiting on the bus*

      I also thought that if the boss isn’t seeing how bad the relationship ship is, consistently going “This is worrying, I’m worried for you” might have the benefit of making her realise that the situation isn’t normal at all.

      Hopefully it will be enough to help the boss see the relationship for what it is. If not it should at least make conversations with OP uncomfortable enough that boss will go with a different topic for chitchat.

    4. Generic Name*

      Yes. I’d bet she doesn’t even realize that she is in an abusive relationship, as outrageous as that sounds. I sure didn’t know that all the crappy ways my ex husband treated me was emotional abuse until a therapist pointed it out to me. You don’t have to be as blunt as my therapist was (she said, “You know, what you’re describing is emotional abuse”), but I agree that not censoring your natural reaction of, “Wow, that’s awful! How can he talk to you that way?” or whatever.

      1. ferrina*

        Yuuup. Abusers often normalize their actions and gaslight their target to paint the abusers as “normal” and the target as “crazy” or “over-emotional/over-critical”
        Getting outside perspective to help you stay grounded and validate that this is not normal is so helpful.

        1. AnonToday*

          That is what happened to me in various abusive relationships (academic/workplace as well as personal).

          One of the things abusers will do is isolate people from their social support networks, partly so they won’t have anyplace to go easily if they leave, and partly so their target won’t have those outside perspectives.

          The fact that Boss is talking to OP when it’s not appropriate for the workplace may mean Boss has been isolated from personal social networks that her husband has access to. (What my abusers would do is tell my friends that I was mad at them and didn’t want to hang out with them, then tell me that my friends didn’t want to hang out with me because I was so [whatever abuser was accusing me of this week] so I wouldn’t reach out to them.)

          This isn’t to say that OP has a responsibility to shoulder that burden of being the only voice of support alone! OP can do her part by getting Boss connected to the EAP or a DV hotline.

      2. MsClaw*

        I think that framing of “I find this horrifying, not cute” is a good way to go. Suggesting that the boss find someone to talk to about it is also a good idea.

        I do think that the OP needs to tread carefully when it comes to labeling the behavior. Saying something along the lines of “Your husband sounds abusive. Here’s the phone number for a hotline” has the potential to backfire tremendously. That kind of thing coming from a therapist is very different than it coming from a younger underling.

      3. Dona Florinda*

        Same here.
        I spent a lot of time normalizing the abuse I was going through, and I wish someone told me that no, the things he says/ does are not normal.

      4. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        Very much this…from OP writing that boss says that OP’s partner probably does X or Y, too – because that’s how husbands act.
        Like this bit I read on Bored Panda by an adult who, as a child, visited his friend’s house. The mom announced that Daddy was home. That OP said his stomach fell and he ran to the friend’s bedroom. He then realized all the family children ran TO the dad who hugged them and asked about their day. They weren’t terrified of their dad. He had never seen that before.

    5. APsychNurse*

      I came here also to agree with this:

      Don’t hide your natural reaction. If you look horrified and say “that’s so upsetting, I’m really worried for you” often enough, it might get through to her that the stories she’s sharing aren’t normal relationship ups and down. You could also say, “That’s so upsetting, I don’t think I can keep hearing this stuff. It makes me worry about you all the time.

      Sooooo often, people will chuckle uncomfortably, cluck your teeth in sympathy, or whatever, but hide our real reactions. Then the victim is (unconsciously) thinking “Well, nobody seems to bat an eye when I describe it, so I guess this is okay.” So

      1. GingerNP*

        +1 – I also think it’s important how OP does not equate the behavior of her own partner with her boss’s partner. The combination of “that’s awful, I’m worried for you!” (or something similar) with “no, that’s not what I experience in my relationship,” may really effectively point out to her boss that this is* awful and it is not* normal relationship behavior.

    6. Office Gumby*

      I believe, by what you have told us, LW, that your boss suspects her situation isn’t ideal, but she’s trying to suss out if it’s normal by her joking about your partner behaving similarly. If you agree, then that brings her some sort of comfort in solidarity, and that’s when she starts to accept his behaviour.
      You have an opportunity to both correct her and get her pointed in the right direction for healing. Instead of saying, “No, my partner doesn’t do that,” you could say, “No, that’s not supposed to happen in a normal relationship. Have you considered having a chat with the EAP?” Every time she brings something like that up, acting horrified, shocked, bothered is a good reaction, followed by. “I’ve never experienced that. I don’t know if I can help you. Have you considered…” and keep pointing her to the EAP, or DV hotline.

      By talking to you, she’s trying to see her bad situation as “normal”, so she can accept it. But if you return the awkward every time she brings it up, she will, at best, realise it’s not normal and seek help, and at worst, stop talking to you about it.

    1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      I definitely wouldn’t go to boss’s boss. HR maaaaaaybe, but definitely not her boss.

      1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

        It’s become a company issue now though, as the manager’s actions have caused the OP to go off sick.

        1. AnonToday*

          It may be a company issue, but treating “My boss is trauma-dumping at work” the same as “My boss is sexually harassing me at work” seems rather callous.

    2. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      The trouble with this is whether the situation is affecting the workplace dynamic in a way that needs escalating, right? What result would you be aiming for?

      It’s almost always better to include the person in this sort of decision. “I’m finding it hard to hear these stories, it’s very upsetting and I’m concerned for you. I’m not able to provide a listening ear any more, but I hope you’ll have support that you need. Would it be better if you could work from the office so you’re away from Dave’s attitude during the day? Maybe Big Boss or HR could set that up so that it doesn’t look like you asked for the change.” Or “Do you want to talk to HR about getting a referral to the EAP?” Or “Sometimes when people leave relationships, they need time to take care of logistics, and to do some self-care. What would it take to arrange for some leave time?”

  6. SJ (they/them)*

    Hi OP, I’m sure you’ll get excellent advice from the whole commentariat here so I’ll just mention that the term ‘vicarious trauma’ may be helpful for you to look into. Please take care of yourself as best you can around this. Sending you strength and light.

    1. yala*

      Yes, very much this. If you have access to a counselor, then please use it. Or find one even just for a session or two. It’s not happening to you, but you’re still getting to feel helpless and awful over it, and honestly, seeing a counselor is rarely a bad idea.

    2. Lilo*

      I actually have held a job where working with DV victims was part of my job. And I have to tell you it is really difficult, the training and regullar support I received was absolutely crucial, and even then burnout was crazy high in the job. It’s really, really difficult.

      It’s important for the LW to understand that no one can reasonably expect her to handle this by herself. This is a very difficult and complex situation that’s not what she signed up for. And frankly LW doesn’t have the resources and training to actually help the boss.

      Please don’t feel bad raising this to someone else LW.

      1. Hannah Lee*

        “And frankly LW doesn’t have the resources and training to actually help the boss.”

        This is a really good point. LW ‘knows’ this but there can be a gap between knowing that and not feeling like you should, somehow, be able to help since you’re there, your compassionate towards a person suffering in a difficult situation. Plus, in LW’s case, being a subordinate in the workplace, there’s a little bit of the “my job includes being helpful to this person” where if you have *any* tendencies to be an over-helper or have blurred personal-professional boundaries, it can become a slippery slope that sucks you right in psychologically so you start to feel responsible for fixing it or to blame if it continues.

        But there is a huge difference between wishing you could be of help, and having the skills, training, experience, standing and objectivity to actually be of assistance to someone experiencing chronic abuse in their primary relationship.

      1. GingerNP*

        Super common in lots of vocations, mine was related to sexual assault nursing mostly but also some “run of the mill” ER nursing as well. Just because it didn’t happen to you doesn’t mean it didn’t affect you, and ptsd can be part of the response.

  7. Watry*

    Honestly offering the DV resources may be a kindness to her as well as you, since it may jolt her into realizing that it’s reached that level, or at least plant the seed.

    1. Anon Today*

      And sometimes that seed needs to be planted more than once–but one can never know if it has been or not by others. I still remember when my now-ex was arrested (violent crime committed against another person .. the one that all too often goes unpunished for a variety of reasons), the arresting detective asked to talk to me, and I ignored everyone’s advice not to and did talk to him, and he pointed me to DV resources, but I totally was not ready to hear that then. However, when someone else next day did the same thing, I realized just how bad it was and got on the path to an order of protection and divorce. But if the detective hadn’t said it first, I don’t know that the second person (who would then have been first) would have gotten through.

      Because yes, within the situation, I don’t know if it is so much that it is “normalized” or that one keeps trying to convince oneself because the safe avenues out are so hard to find. It makes it even harder when there are children involved because then you worry that you cannot protect the children (because the court really is so heavily tilted toward keeping both parents involved, even when one absolutely should *not* be near the children). In my case, the children’s guardian ad litem was advocating for no visitation whatsoever while the judge ordered supervised visitation. Fortunately, it turned out close to the same thing because now-ex couldn’t comply with what he needed to do to get the supervised visits. But if the situation had been less extreme (at the time of the divorce decree, he was in custody for violating my order of protection), I’m not sure that the judge wouldn’t have done the standard “every other weekend + full week in the summer” of condemning my children to be alone with him because “the offense was not against the children”, which was the justification given for granting visitation over the guardian ad litem’s recommendation.

      1. Generic Name*

        Hugs (if you want them) from one survivor involved in family court to another. It’s really outrageous how often the “justice” system ignores and even participates in domestic violence. I’m glad you got out and you and your children are safe.

      2. Watry*

        My job means I come in contact with a lot of DV victims. I can’t do much to help except give them what they need for court/getting a protection order, but I do sometimes give out DV and TPO pamphlets. It’s basically the only thing overcoming my ethical objections to where I work, because pretty often they come back within a week or two to start the process.

        I’m glad you were ready to hear it the second time.

      3. CaptainMouse*

        And sometimes those seeds need to be planted many times and can take a long time to sprout. But it’s still important to plant your seed.

    2. APsychNurse*

      agreed! She may not even need the resources, but she has probably never even thought of the phrase “domestic violence” in relation to her own situation.

  8. Regina Phalange*

    I had a much milder version of this with the executive director at my first professional job. She would casually say horrifying things like “oh, Husband doesn’t let me watch that show.” I never said anything to her, but my coworkers and I would privately be like, “so he sounds abusive, right?” Fortunately she eventually divorced him and is married to someone much nicer now.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Yeah, I have a (now former, but for innocuous reasons) coworker who basically introduced herself by telling me about her horrifically abusive ex, followed by stories about her “much better” then-current husband . . . who was clearly, if not actively abusive, using her and relying on her insecurity and fear of being alone. It sucked because we have a lot in common and I really did want to be friends with her, but so far her “personality” is mostly trauma inflicted by her family of origin and the awful men she chose to replace them. She has since divorced the useless second husband but I haven’t had the heart/nerve to reconnect on more than an Instagram-follower level. (She does seem to be doing sensibly-masked and/or outdoors things with friends, at least?)

  9. SheLooksFamiliar*

    OP, I tend to ‘be there’ for others, too. I’ve been told I’m compassionate and caring, and people feel like I’m really listening to their problems. People have been kind to me when I needed kindness, so I am glad to offer kindness to others. Most of the time, it’s not emotionally draining…but hearing about abuse is. I was physically and sexually abused as a child, but remembering the verbal abuse can make me cry even now. I really do understand how words can hurt, but I can’t continue to be a kind ear for a person who doesn’t seem to be doing anything to protect themselves.

    OP, please tell your boss that you’re concerned for her and that what she’s describing isn’t healthy or safe. She may say, ‘He’s never laid a hand on me!’ and you’ll need to prepare for denial. No one likes to admit they’re being abused, and verbal abuse is often brushed off. The resources Alison provided can help you to help her.

    Be ready to tell her you can’t continue to hear about her husband’s abusive behavior any longer, and that she needs more than you can provide – and she really does. That might shake her up enough to realize she needs help. Even if it doesn’t, setting boundaries is not cruel, it’s necessary. You can’t ‘be there’ for her if it means your health suffers like it has, and it will only get worse.

    I hope your boss gets help and finds peace.

    1. LaFramboise*

      OP, this. You can and should protect yourself from trauma. And I’ve found that being sympathetic and kind and giving your honest response can go a long way for oneself– you don’t feel false when you are starting your truthful response to a situation. Please speak to someone about your concerns, though, as this position you’re in isn’t sustainable.

    2. jasmine*

      > OP, please tell your boss that you’re concerned for her and that what she’s describing isn’t healthy or safe. She may say, ‘He’s never laid a hand on me!’ and you’ll need to prepare for denial. No one likes to admit they’re being abused, and verbal abuse is often brushed off. The resources Alison provided can help you to help her.

      If OP does go into a deeper conversation with her boss (which she *definitely does not have to do*), she shouldn’t judge her manager for denying or defending her husband. She also shouldn’t argue that her manager is being abused. Both those things would be counterproductive. It doesn’t sound like OP really wants to get into this with her manager, but OP, if you do decide you want to go that route, please contact the hotline yourself first for advice. What’s helpful or harmful to say to an abuse victim can be counter-intuitive.

      1. SheLooksFamiliar*

        I don’t think anyone here, least of all the OP, is talking about passing judgment on the manager for anything.

        Also, I didn’t suggest telling the manager she’s being abused. I just know from experience that when I tell someone, ‘I’m very concerned about what you’re describing, and it doesn’t sound healthy or even safe for you…’ they almost always respond with, ‘He’s never hit me or the kids, he only kicks the door or punches the wall/he only throws things when he’s mad, but he aims over my head/he’s just yelling, don’t be so dramatic/he doesn’t mean what he says, and he always apologizes for calling me names/he’s just blowing off steam/he only does that when he drinks/he’s under a lot of pressure…’ And so on.

        So no, you don’t have to accuse someone’s partner of abuse for that someone to defend their partner or downplay their behavior.

        1. jasmine*

          To clarify, I wasn’t disagreeing with anything you (or anyone else) said, just adding additional thoughts

  10. Keymaster of Gozer*

    Having been the one in an abusive relationship/with serious mental issues (u treated) I was a little too fond of unloading onto people every single thing wrong with my life because I wanted some validation that yes, I didn’t deserve this.

    But the most helpful? We’re the people who told me ‘I’m not the right audience for this’ or ‘seriously you need to find help and I can’t provide it’. Because I knew then that I’d exhausted their goodwill and I wasn’t going to get any more sympathy unless I actually made a plan to solve it.

    1. quill*

      Yes. Finding people who had similar experiences for my PTSD was helpful, but also I ran into a lot of people who just were not equipped to help me. And a decent amount of ones staring like a poleaxed goldfish because yes, people who don’t have that trauma and haven’t trained in helping are usually very unsure of what to do!

      Trauma dumping is a thing that improves with escape and treatment, but ultimately what this boss needs is escape and treatment.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        Or even if they do have that trauma.

        I was bullied pretty badly in middle school and I’m honestly not sure what I’d tell a bullied kid now (in terms of what to actually *do* about it. I’d obviously tell them it wasn’t fair, etc.) because I don’t know how any of this works. I wasn’t able to help myself then, either–I got out because we moved and I changed schools entirely. If that hadn’t happened I probably would have gone to school with those kids all the way through graduation. So . . . I did get out, but through no means of my own.

        1. quill*

          Yeah. Poleaxed goldfish from people with similar trauma even! And the ever helpful (no joking, it was actually helpful given that I hadn’t gotten this far in terms of hey, this may require a therapist) comment of “That’s a lot of PTSD, and that’s coming from *ME*”.

          Honestly I’m not sure how helpful peers might have been if I hadn’t already achieved escape via graduating and leaving for college. They could help with the “find a therapist they actually will take this seriously” and “no honey, this is not a normal amount of anxiety over dealing with new people in college.”

        2. Irish Teacher*

          And honestly, even if your own actions had put a stop to it, not all situations are the same. As a teacher, I’ve seen bullies who target the kid with a bad temper, knowing they can goad that kid into hitting them and thereby get him or her in trouble, which really amuses them and other bullies who wouldn’t dare go near the kid with a bad temper and only target kids they know would never hit back. So somebody who got a bully to stop BY losing their temper could well give advice that would only encourage another bully. And I strongly suspect a lot of the “don’t mind them, they’re only jealous” or “he probably fancies you” advice for bullying victims, which are quite harmful, especially the latter, come from older generations who may have been victim blamed or seen others victim blamed for being bullied and have determined, “I will never make a child feel they were bullied because they did anything wrong; I’ll remind them that being bullied does NOT mean you are in any way lesser,” without thinking that implying that being liked gets you bullied has its own problems.

          I would imagine the same is true with domestic violence. While people who have experience of it may be able to share some resources or advice, not everything that worked for them will necessarily work for another person.

          1. quill*

            This above all else. The tactics of abuse are usually consistent along the abuser’s relationships, but not necessarily consistent between two different abusers.

    2. Daisy*

      Yes, this is very important! For years I unloaded on friends/acquaintances instead of actually figuring out how to get out of the abusive relationship. Unloading on others was just passing the immediate emotional pain on instead of planning on preventing it in the future (by getting out).

      1. londonedit*

        Absolutely – slightly different situation but I have a friend who has spent 20 years unloading all her depression and other associated mental health challenges onto everyone else, instead of actually figuring out how to make things better. She won’t accept it when people try to suggest seeing her GP/a therapist/anyone who might be able to help, she won’t accept people’s attempts to suggest that perhaps she might be dealing with depression/anxiety/undiagnosed ADHD, and she becomes extremely angry and combative whenever anyone tries to help (‘The doctor is useless, I went to one therapy session 15 years ago and it was awful and I’m never going back, medication won’t help me, stop telling me I have ADHD can’t you understand it’s the entire universe being against me that’s the problem’, etc). It pushes people away and I wish she’d heed some of the ‘I can’t help you with this and I’m tired of being shouted at for trying to help; you need to see a doctor’ advice people have given her over the years.

    3. Hannah Lee*

      The ‘I’m not the right audience for this’ phrasing can be very powerful, I think, especially if it’s coming from someone who has been previously opening to listening.

      Because I think part of what’s gone on is that a) LW seems like a decent person who is willing to listen and b) LW is kind of a sitting duck, has to interact with boss for work and is therefore a built in audience but boss has no idea how cumulatively bad everything sounds (likely is trying to minimize it to herself, very common, sadly) and doesn’t realize exactly how much she’s dumping on LW in the process of “chatting about their weekends”

      “I’m not the right audience for this” and deflection every time boss starts up towards real help may not just buffer the LW, but also ping for the boss that what she’s going through isn’t normal.

  11. Preethi*

    I had a manager like this too. She was in a relationship with an addict and he eventually ended up passing away November 2020. They had an abusive relationship (he destroyed her car out of jealousy when they split up). She would vent to me about him and every minor inconvenience she experienced during the day. I knew I needed to be empathetic but I had a hard time setting boundaries. Eventually it got to the point where I needed to stop being around her after I got promoted. She took it personally but I needed to protect my sanity.

    1. Rain's Small Hands*

      I have a friend who lost a stepfather who was an addict – her father had passed and her mother had remarried a jerk who OD’d a few years later – and I looked at her and said “I’m not sure to offer my condolences or congratulations.” She gave the wry grin of someone who was in that point of uncertainty herself and said “I think both are appropriate.”

  12. Butterfly Counter*

    This isn’t fair to you. I once worked in a position where I was hearing people’s traumas for a significant portion of my day. It is so wearing and it introduces secondary trauma. The difference is 1. that I knew the job before going into it, 2. I had resources available to help me cope, and 3. I saw the full spectrum: from people in the midst of trauma through their recovery so that I saw that could be a light at the end of the tunnel for most people going through it.

    You didn’t sign up for this, you don’t have the resources, and you feel just as helpless (even more so because you can’t make any decisions FOR your boss) and there’s no respite of knowing that this might work out.

    In my research, I found that people in trauma respond best to others offering emotional and tangible support. You’ve tried emotional support for your boss by being an unjudgmental listening ear. You can’t do that anymore. Perhaps, and only if you want to, give tangible support. When your boss starts talking about her emotional abuse, send her a link to a DV hotline and let her know they can talk to her about emotional abuse, too. Or, to switch up the EAP recommendations, give HER the EAP information to let her know they’re available to help her through this too. If she says that she doesn’t want or need that, underline that THESE are the people she should be disclosing her trauma to, and that you don’t have the emotional bandwidth for her to share this with you anymore.

    This will feel like overstepping, but I think it will go a long way to at least signal to your boss that this is something that you can’t hear any more, is above your paygrade, and give her, you know, RESOURCES that are available, ready, and willing to help her, even if it’s just to be a sounding board.

    1. BubbleTea*

      I was about to comment very similarly. Listening to people talk about their abusive relationship is my entire job, and there are three key things that mean I remain sane and relatively emotionally balanced:

      1. I have a stack of support available. I have a personal counsellor, I have an EAP with 24/7 access to counsellors (called them today in fact!), I have clinical supervision, I have colleagues, I have ongoing training. I’m never carrying it home at night. (Well, I work from home so it’s already here, but you know what I mean.)
      2. I can offer practical help and advice to the people talking to me. I was trained in some things and the rest has developed through years of experience. There are ways I can help people even in bleak circumstances if they reach out, which leads to…
      3. People call me when they’re ready to ask for help. They’re not just venting. I’m not working on an emotional support helpline, we target a specific practical issue and therefore people come to us actively wanting help with something. There’s a place for simply allowing someone to talk but I couldn’t handle being that place. I need to be able to see a result from our conversation (even if it’s just them saying “oh, I didn’t know that was an option, I’ll try that”) or I feel helpless.

      LW, you don’t have any of those things. You just have an endless stream of secondary trauma you have no way to handle. It’s okay to ask for it to stop. It’s necessary to do that. Good luck.

      1. blurb*

        All of this. I do work on an emotional support hotline–the toughest calls are the ones where folks call in because things are bad…but they’re not ready to take the (HUGE) step of seeking therapy, leaving the relationship, entering a dv shelter, etc. Even with specialized training and more knowledge about community resources for survivors, it’s still hard. And draining. And we need to take breaks and talk to coworkers and ask people to cover the phones so we can take a walk and seek outside support, so we’re able to come back. To pick up the next call and be present with the person calling in. No one can do this work in isolation, indefinitely. Please take care of you.

  13. Riot Grrrl*

    May be an unpopular answer, but OP, I think that before you decide on any specific response, you first have to decide whether you want to take on this emotional labor at all. You do not have to. It is a kindness to be supportive, to offer help, etc. but you are 100% NOT obligated to do so. If you feel you have the strength to take this on, you may choose to do so. But if you choose not to, it says nothing whatsoever about what kind of person you are. You would not in any way be unkind or defective for choosing not to engage.

    Next time she tells you an awful story, you would absolutely be within your rights to say: “Ok. I had a question about the Miller Account. Can we discuss that?”

    1. londonedit*

      It’s good advice, but it can be difficult when you’re young, in your first professional job, this is the boss we’re talking about and you’ve only met said boss a handful of times. There’s a whole power dynamic thing going on that can make things much more tricky.

    2. jasmine*

      I don’t… know how I feel about this. OP doesn’t have to support their boss through this but I feel like there’s a jump between that and responding with total nonchalance. The latter normalizes the abuse and does active harm. It can communicate to the victim “well its not a big deal that your husband did that to you- let’s get back to work”

      I know you’re arguing that this is essentially not OP’s problem but I do think some basic consideration is warranted among human beings. Being transparent about wanting to put up a boundary is much kinder.

      1. Avril Ludgateaux*

        Same. It’s fine and appropriate to redirect the conversation back to work, but maybe preface it with an acknowledgement of the manager’s struggle and a gentle reminder that it’s not okay. I don’t know, this is very touchy. OP has to preserve themself first, but there’s still room for a touch of sensitivity.

      2. Riot Grrrl*

        I do think some basic consideration is warranted among human beings. Being transparent about wanting to put up a boundary is much kinder.

        That is absolutely true. And it is also true that OP does not have to do that. This can be something OP chooses to do. It can also be something OP chooses not to do. And that would be just fine. Establishing a boundary is not a negotiation. It is something you simply do–in whatever way works for you at the time of your choosing.

        1. jasmine*

          It’s unkind to knowingly cause harm to others. People have the right to establish boundaries- it does not follow that they have the right to do in whatever way they want. Communication is a two-way street and the person on the other end matters.

      3. Ellie*

        Agreed – just going straight to the Miller account is awfully cold. I couldn’t do that. OP sounds like a kind person who couldn’t either.

        OP – why don’t you get together a list of resources that might be of help (a copy of “Why does he do that”, some leaflets for domestic violence resources, etc.) and have one more sit-down conversation with her with nothing else on the agenda. Say that you’re worried about her, what her partner is doing is not normal, and it pains you to say it but you can’t continue to listen to it because its affecting your mental health. Tell her you hope she finds the strength to leave him one day and give her the resources. Then leave it alone – if she comes to you to vent again, just say, “I’m so sorry, that’s awful, but I can’t continue to listen to this. Its too upsetting.” Then end the conversation, and walk away if you have to. You’re entitled to do that, and it lets her know that you still support her.

        Also, I’d urge you to consider whether you should loop someone else into her predicament at work (maybe her line manager, if they’re trustworthy?) This is a lot to deal with on your own, and if she doesn’t turn up to work one day, it will help if someone else is across the situation. There’s also the slim possibility that she may retaliate against you one day (and it might not come from her – her partner might identify you as a threat, and he might make the complaint), and you really this all on record if that happens.

    3. Esmae*

      She absolutely doesn’t have to take on the emotional labor, but frankly, I’m not sure if this approach will make the awful stories stop. Her boss obviously feels a need to share what’s happening, and it sounds like she’s already doing it without getting a lot in the way of reaction or validation. Just saying “Okay, can we discuss [work thing]?” may just result in things continuing on just as they have been, and that obviously isn’t working for the OP.

      Even if all the OP wants and/or feels comfortable with is putting a stop to the upsetting conversations, directly suggesting that she talk to someone more qualified might be a better way to do that than trying to redirect back to work every time it comes up.

  14. Jack Straw from Wichita*

    Stealing this from the Mental Health First Aid training, but it is my favorite, go-to line when suggesting someone may need to seek professional help: “There is a world of professionals/people out there trained to help you.” You can add on “…with things like [insert situation/emotion here],” or substitute “people” for professionals” if that feels better to you. I try to follow it with two suggestions, so they have options and don’t feel like it’s what I suggest or nothing. In this case, I’d defibetly include the EAP if you have one at work.

    1. Sylvan*


      “There are people who help with this, and they can do XYZ” lands better than “You need help.”

    2. Slow Gin Lizz*

      I like “people trained to help you” because I think the word “professional” has some baggage attached to it that might put off someone who needs help. “People trained to help” is a good phrase, though, because it implies that OP is not a person who is trained to help and therefore not the best resource for Manager to vent to. Seems like OP might need to explicitly say that OP isn’t able to listen to Manager talk about this anymore because of secondary trauma (a phrase I just now learned, thanks to other commenters here), but Jack Straw’s phrasing seems to me that it’d be helpful to use when having this conversation.

    3. Jack Straw from Wichita*

      Adding: You can also adjust the wording to “There is a world of people out there trained to listen and help you,” with the option of “but I’m not one of them” if it works for you/the relationship.

  15. Daisy*

    As someone who was on the other side (in an emotionally abusive marriage) I think the advice here is right on. Abusers normalize their behavior and spin that the abused “deserve” it or she is just overly sensitive. Her venting is a cry for support that she doesn’t deserve to be treated poorly. It is absolutely NOT your job to listen or be responsible for her emotions, however. It is correct to tell her you are worried about her, his behavior is not acceptable, and you can’t be her sounding board/venting companion. Direct her to therapy/services.
    Hearing others say “that is wrong AND I can’t deal with it, you need a professional” is very important. This acknowledges these aren’t minor issues, but major problems.
    It took me decades to get divorced. In 30 years there were two people who actually said “hey, that is a really messed up relationship and you need to talk to (pastor or attorney)” and although I didn’t get out immediately those statements gave me the strength to eventually leave.

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      Very good point. Directing her to therapy/services may just be what she needs to hear from someone else, it might be the confirmation she is looking for that she doesn’t deserve to be treated so poorly.

    2. kiki*

      Yes, I was also in an emotionally abusive relationship. My partner always had a lot of logic for why he said or did something mean to me. In his mind, here was always some very good reason I deserved what he was doing and I gradually came to agree with him. It became a normal dynamic of our relationship. Once I was telling a coworker a story from a weekend vacation with my partner, one that I genuinely thought was light-hearted and funny. After I finished, my coworker looked at me and said, “you don’t deserve to be talked to like that.” It stopped me in my tracks. It still took me a long time to get out, but those words came back to me often.

      1. kiki*

        And honestly, what got me was that the story I told *wasn’t* one of the horrifying ones. This was genuinely one of the better weekends of our relationship and it was still very clear to my coworker that something was deeply wrong with the relationship.

      2. Dust Bunny*

        This happened to my cousin. She was relating a “funny” story about something her awful husband did to teach her a lesson and when she got done her friends all looked stunned and horrified and pointed out that a) this wasn’t funny and b) she was an adult who did not need to be taught lessons. (It wasn’t even something dangerous, just something her husband found annoying.)

        She didn’t divorce him immediately but it definitely got the ball rolling.

    3. Ezri Dax*

      There are a lot of great suggestions on here, but one I wanted to add was calling or texting the National Domestic Violence Hotline yourself. They can offer support to you as well, along with guidance on how to both be affirming to your boss while setting your own boundaries. Boundary setting is so important to protecting your own physical and emotional well-being, and it can signal to your boss that the situation she is in is not normal or healthy.

  16. earl grey aficionado*

    When a close friend of mine was dealing with abuse at home, and spent a lot of time venting similarly disturbing things to me, I called a domestic violence hotline on my own behalf and got some really good advice on how to both help my friend and how to protect my own wellbeing. Domestic violence hotlines, local and national, are not just for victims/survivors – they are for anyone dealing with the ripple effects of abuse. In my experience their volunteers are well-versed in power dynamics and they might have particular insight on how to deal with this in a boss as opposed to a friend. So that’s another resource to consider. Best of luck OP, this sounds incredibly difficult.

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      YES!!!! I was wondering if OP could contact the DV hotline themselves, if that’s ok with the hotline if the person calling isn’t actually the person being abused. I pretty much assumed it would be, because of *course* the DV hotline would want to help someone being abused even if that person didn’t call themselves, but I wanted to be sure. Hotline website doesn’t explicitly say that it’s ok but I did notice that they have a page for what to do to help a coworker who is being abused. The page seems to be more for trying to talk to a CW about their situation, and of course this letter is pretty much the opposite (but OP still wants to help, of course!) so it might be good for OP to talk to them directly if they want to.

      1. earl grey aficionado*

        Yep, I think the absolute worst-case scenario if OP calls and explains the situation (that they’re not the person being directly abused, that it’s not an emergency) is that the DV hotline says that they have other priorities and redirects them to other resources. If that happens I encourage the OP to not view it as a failure or waste. I knew DV hotline volunteers in college and they always wanted more people to feel comfortable calling, not fewer.

        My experience with the hotline (a local one) was, truly, overwhelming kindness and effectiveness. The volunteer was realistic about what they could and couldn’t do for me but seemed genuinely concerned about secondary trauma and the feelings of helplessness I was experiencing; they never minimized me. One of the most helpful things was forming an emergency plan: when and how to call 911, in part. I live in an area where police regularly make headlines for brutality so we talked that through, too. One of the best things was getting the assurance that if something terrible happened, it wasn’t my fault for standing by – it was the abuser’s fault for doing it. I’m a survivor of abuse myself and I really needed to hear that at the time (I still think of it often).

        I doubt the OP will want to get further entangled in their boss’s safety in the same way I was willing to do for my friend, but talking through options with an expert might still relieve some of the feelings of overwhelm, horror, and helplessness.

        1. earl grey aficionado*

          I’ll add that my experience was earlier this year, during COVID, when unfortunately demand on DV hotlines has skyrocketed and call volumes are high. They did still make time for me. But I’ll second the commenters recommending the EAP as a resource given the strain on DV-specific resources right now if the OP is worried about it. My concern with going straight to the EAP is getting someone who is not specifically trained on the nuances and safety concerns of DV (someone who might recommend jumping straight to 911, for example, which can be risky for the victim and seriously emotionally draining for the caller) but hopefully that won’t be the case. Either way, it’s a hard situation, and whatever happens is not the OP’s fault. Wishing everyone in this situation the best possible outcome.

        2. Slow Gin Lizz*

          I am so glad resources like this exist, because I am certain I wouldn’t know what to do to save myself were I stuck in such terrible circumstances and I’m sure so many others don’t either.

    2. Nesprin*

      I’m a big fan of the warm handoff- along the lines of “wow is that above my paygrade- let’s go call the EAP/hotline since they’re really the people with the expertise to help with that”.

  17. Jam today*

    To slightly expand on Allison’s great suggestions, you could say something to the effect of “wow, this is really disturbing. I’m really worried for you. This really needs to be heard by a professional who has training. I don’t have the skill set to handle this.” Suggest the domestic violence hotline or any local resources available. If/when she brings it up again, try to hedge it off early, “I care about your safety and well-being so this really needs to be addressed by a professional. I’m just a [insert your job].” I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. I had a coworker whose partner was an addict and there was an unwelcomed debrief everyday. I can’t imagine dealing with this from my manager.

  18. kiki*

    As someone who was in an emotionally abusive relationship and probably accidentally revealed some retrospectively distressing things to unsuspecting people, I think Alison’s first script is really, really good. Even if it doesn’t compel your boss to get help right away, it will most likely make her stop her from telling you anything negative about Dave going forward. That may be because she realized she had crossed a boundary that should have existed as your boss OR because she doesn’t want to feel like you’re judging her relationship.

  19. Elle*

    All the advice here is great. HR Departments should routinely send out EAP reminders to all staff for situations like this.

  20. LB*

    Making it clear that your boss’s experiences are not only not normal, but far afield of normal, can be an essential part of helping someone not be gaslight that either a) all relationships are secretly this bad, b) boss “deserves” this treatment or that it’s a normal reaction on boss’s husband’s part, or c) that no one outside the relationship would care about it.

    Definitely you can take steps to set boundaries around hearing this stuff, but if you are told it and have to respond, don’t enable this abuse with “that sounds rough”; be honest and say “whoa, that’s really not normal or ok.”

  21. Avril Ludgateaux*

    I have no idea how to handle something like this (I’ve been trauma dumped-on by colleagues and customers alike, but every one of those situations was ultimately self-contained and resolved itself) but I appreciate Alison’s very tactful scripts. OP I wish the best for you and for your manager. This is a uniquely challenging situation. I hope if we ever get an update from OP, that it’s news that the manager stopped (probably subconsciously) using OP for therapy… because she realized her self worth, moved on, and is flourishing.

  22. JobHopper*

    She is seeking reassurance that she isn’t crazy and that she doesn’t deserve this. Of course. Maybe you could also say something like, “if she were ever concerned about her workers in that way, that you’d hope she would offer the same help to others on the team.”

    Because you know if it were one of her reports, she would have to set those same boundaries herself and make sure that Bob or Sally has the support they need without causing work PTSD to other team members.

    I weathered an abusive marriage during and after my time on active duty (civilian life didn’t instantly fix it!). The tough love comments enraged me, but they finally engaged me to do something.

  23. Falling Diphthong*

    OP, I want to really commend you for two things: pushing back when she says surely your partner does this too, and recognizing that she think this is just hey ho normal weekend all partnerships are like this.

    I think the best advice is in Alison’s fifth paragraph, to react to appalling confidences by appearing appalled. In an ideal world, she starts to really think about that and makes changes in her situation. In an at-least-improving-your-side world, you become much less satisfying to vent to.

  24. storyfox*

    I feel your pain, OP, and struggle with the same type of situations myself.

    Rather than suggesting any particular kind of action or resource, I’ve found it most helpful to respond to such situations with something like, “That sounds really tough and complicated. Are you getting the kind of extra support you need to navigate it?” If the answer is no, I might ask “Would you be open to suggestions?” and go from there. Once I’ve suggested the EAP or DV hotline or counseling or whatever, I just reiterate that alternative, briefly and kindly, when the same issues arise, for example, “Wow, that sounds so painful. The domestic violence line/a therapist/whatever would probably have good ideas on that.”

    For whatever it’s worth, over time I’ve realized that there’s a kind of inadvertent arrogance in acting as though I am the only or best person to listen and help, and/or that I have the skills and training to do so well. Learning to say “I want you to get the best possible support, and I just don’t have the expertise to offer that”—and being willing to repeat that as necessary as I wean us both from my starring role as Unlimited Listener—has taken me years, but it’s been transformative.

  25. Healthcare Manager*

    Really recommend calling a domestic violence hotline yourself and asking for tips on what to say.

  26. Abogado Avocado*

    OP, there’s some truly great advice here. Please also understand that even after taking this great advice that you may not be able to get through to your boss about her abusive relationship. That is not your fault, it’s not her fault, it’s just fact. Life experience and layers of denial, reinforced by the abusive partner’s actions, can make it difficult for an abused person to hear a person who says, “Wow, your situation sounds unsafe.”

    So, while doing what you can, please do not take it personally if your efforts don’t immediately result in your boss getting help. And do remember that you, too, may want some counseling to deal with the secondary trauma of this upsetting situation.

  27. DMCD*

    I would not say things like “I can’t keep listening to these stories” etc., as the abuse victim likely already feels isolated and alone, and has probably had their abuser already work to cut them off from friends and family, as this is a typical pattern. These kinds of comments are distancing and can create feelings of shame, causing her to further recede from what little support she’s got. Continuing to express alarm or concern is productive, as is validating how unhealthy and unsustainable this situation is. You could also offer suggestions for better support options benignly/non-judgmentally, like, “A friend of mine had some pretty serious problems like these with her partner, and she found therapy really helpful. Have you thought about that?” (It’s OK if this is a lie, you’re just trying to steer her towards solutions.)

    1. I should really pick a name*

      Is there phrasing you can suggest that would allow them to extricate themselves from these conversations?
      If the LW is calling in sick to avoid these conversations, the primary goal is to end them. Trying to steer their boss to solutions would be extending them, and possibly inviting more.

    2. JustKnope*

      But this is OP’s boss. I would agree with your advice if this were a friend or another social contact, but it’s not OP’s role or responsibility to recommend therapy to her own boss, or honestly worry about whether she’s isolating her boss (as callous as that sounds). She deserves to have professional boundaries in place here.

      1. allathian*

        Yes, I absolutely agree on this one. It would be different with a close friend or family member.

  28. HufferWare*

    I agree with the advice to name the problem. “Wow, that sounds like a terrifying and dangerous situation. I’m uncomfortable hearing this story and it makes me worry for your safety.”
    The sad fact is you cannot help this person in your position. But she does need to be aware that her situation at home and the way she is discussing it the office are not okay and not normal. Hopefully it will spur her to get out of that marriage, but at the very least it will hopefully get her to not say these things to you at work.
    I truly feel for you in this, it’s very stressful and sad. I was in a similar situation many years ago and handled it poorly. I regret my lack of compassion (I snapped “stop talking about your shitty husband” which needless to say was not helpful) and definitely did not alleviate the problem.

  29. Texas Librarian*

    I have been a sounding board for a boss (thankfully not abuse) and it is exhausting. I am so sorry.

    1. allathian*

      I have as well. A former manager picked me as her confidante, and I’m still wondering why I didn’t put a stop to her confidences earlier. I should’ve had the sense to extricate myself when she told me that her son had cheated on his wife at her daughter’s (his sister’s) destination wedding, with the sister’s MOH, and the subsequent divorce and lost friendship and strained family relationships. There’s thankfully never been any drama like that in my family, so I guess I felt too flattered to get an insight into that sort of stuff to change the subject. But the consequence of that was that I started thinking of my manager as a friend, and that I behaved very unprofessionally when she had to manage me, because I couldn’t respect her as my manager. Our relationship was very strained aftewards until she retired, and I’m glad that happened during Covid, because at least I didn’t have to go to her retirement party or invent an excuse to avoid it.

      I did learn my lesson, though, I’ll never allow a manager to become someone I think of as a friend again. I’ve had two managers since then, and my relationships with both have been friendly but always professional, and it’s been easy to maintain that level because neither’s attempted to be anything other than my manager.

    2. Ellie*

      I’ve been a sounding board for an employee (my direct report, so I couldn’t offload them onto anyone else), and that was exhausting too. Some people are living terrible, heartbreaking lives, but you can’t fix their problems for them. Its exhausting when you hear the same patterns being repeated again and again.

      I’ve always kept a good distance with everyone I work with, whether they’re employees, managers, or co-workers. Sometimes someone just chooses you to vent to.

  30. Asenath*

    I’ve had some success with “I really don’t know much about X; have you thought about (perhaps you should be) seeing an (expert in X)”. At least, it seemed to work better than what I did the first time someone senior to me (although not in a workplace setting) started unloading her problems on a child some 30 or so years her junior. That time, after squirming uncomfortably in my seat, I blurted out what I still think was a reasonable response (under the circumstances) but which was really excessively blunt and direct advice on a subject I knew little about. Eventually, I learned that trying to disengage politely helped my emotional well-being, and adding on a suggestion to consult an expert at least provided something for the other person to try. Although, unfortunately, it often seems to take a long time for people in certain kinds of miserable situations to realize that there might be help out there AND that it might be worth trying. Especially since this is your boss, with all that means, I think about all you can do is disengage, moving back to a professional distance, and suggest professional help.

  31. Irish Teacher*

    It sounds to me like the boss really doesn’t realise her relationship is not normal, both because she appears to be talking so casually about it and because she seems to assume the LW’s partner is behaving similarly. I’m not sure how much practical help that is, because it may EXPLAIN why the boss thinks this is appropriate to discuss with a younger, more junior colleague, but doesn’t really help with dissauding her from continuing.

    1. allathian*

      Agreed. But my advice to the LW would be to try and gently redirect things by saying that her partner doesn’t behave like that. But because this is a manager rather than a family member, the LW’s first responsiblity is to protect her own mental health by getting the manager to stop oversharing.

  32. Jackie*

    Does anybody here think OP should talk to her boss’s boss, just to give a heads up? The grand-boss might be in a better position to offer support. Or would that be a breach of trust/privacy…? Not sure myself.

    1. Irish Teacher*

      I think it might depend on the grand-boss and how sensitively they are likely to approach such an issue.

  33. iglwif*

    I have never been in an abusive partner relationship, but I have been that person who tells a funny childhood story and the whole group goes quiet because, oops, that was a story about emotional abuse.

    For me, it really did make a difference to start hearing people say things like “that was messed up” and “that wasn’t okay” and “that sounds really upsetting”. The only kind of abuse I knew about back then was the kind that leaves physical bruises, and although my father was a spanker, he didn’t otherwise physically harm us (I’m old enough that spanking wasn’t the massive red flag it is now).

    It did not occur to me when it was happening, but it turns out: A spouse or parent who frequently throws things (was he not aiming at any of us, or did he just have bad aim? Could be either), slams doors hard enough to leave holes in the wall, sweeps all your stuff off your desk while shouting angrily because he considers that you (a teenager) are spending too much time on the phone, promises to drive you places then reneges when it’s too late to get there on time by bus, says terrible things to you about your other parent, kicks you out of his house and dumps all your stuff on your other parent’s front stoop in plastic bags, sends a moving company to take away to his house the piano that you and your other parent play but he doesn’t, etc., etc., etc. — that’s abusive behaviour. Like, when I learned the acronym DARVO, my first thought was, “How does this person know my father?”

    You can’t always see it when you’re in the middle of it, and people telling you what to do isn’t helpful … but it CAN be really helpful to see and hear those unvarnished reactions, because it can start to recalibrate your own perceptions of what’s normal and what’s not.

    1. Churple Pairs*

      Yes. Me too. I started realizing my childhood/relationship with my parents was not normal, but I was in my early 30s before I was willing to recognize it as psychological abuse and start unraveling and healing its effect on me and my adult relationships. What pushed me to that were other people who recognized it and guided me to resources that helped, consistently.

  34. Risha*

    OP, this is so difficult and as someone who was abused by my exhusband, I truly feel sorry for your boss. It’s so difficult to get out of that type of relationship, you just feel so worthless and like you deserve it. When I used to “vent” to others, deep down inside I was hoping someone would tell me I didn’t deserve this treatment and that I should be with someone who will love me/treat me good.

    Of course, it’s really bad for your emotional wellbeing to hear her stories all the time and you should set limits on what/how often you listen to it. But if you feel comfortable doing so based on how you know her to react to things, it would be a huge kindness to speak to her privately. Let her know this isn’t normal, her partner should not be treating her that way, and does she need help leaving him. Even if she’s resistant to any help right now, maybe it would help her if she had contact info of DV resources in your area, people who can bring her to a safehouse if needed, even just to be told HOW to get out of this abusive relationship.

  35. Anona*

    “It upsets me to hear this. I hope you find a solution”. She’s your boss. This is work. It’s not your job to be her therapist and it’s detrimental to you. Sadly, you cannot fix her life.

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      This is similar to the comment above from Riott Girrl (or whatever the correct spelling is), and I don’t think either comment is particularly helpful. Of course it’s not OP’s job to be boss’ therapist or fix her life, but OP is well aware of that; OP *does* want to help, though, and is looking for the best way to do that given that the person suspected of being abused is OP’s boss. Comments like yours are actually rather dangerous, because ignoring DV has been status quo for SO long and only perpetuates the violence and the shame felt by those being abused. OP is certainly well within their rights to ignore the situation, but a) that’s what “they” (abusers) want and b) that’s not what OP wants.

  36. YetEvenAnotherAlison*

    I am sorry you are going through this OP. You sound like a very compassionate person – never ever let anyone tell you that is weakness. Her venting to you in this way is inappropriate, but your compassion is trying to help. Does she have any family that would support her to get out of the situation? Someone mentioned Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and I think that is good. Another idea would be to call a shelter in her area and ask them for suggestions – of course, never revealing the name of your boss. Or social services in her hometown – again, never revealing the name of your boss. Does anyone know if you can report someone in the household as abusive verbally if they have children? In other words, social services would investigate. This might create more issues for your boss – I don’t know. Somehow, she needs a trained person to lean on to help her make decisions about how to get out of the situation.

    1. allathian*

      This could backfire so badly, if the manager isn’t yet ready to get out of the abusive relationship. She’s not even recognizing it as abusive, given that she seems to want confirmation that what’s happening to her is normal in a relationship. The first thing that I’d recommend is to push back on that assumption with “no, my partner’s never done anything like that, and if he did, I’d leave him,” and “this sounds really difficult and I’m sorry this is happening to you, but I don’t have the training to help you with it.”

      The manager’s stories have been distressing enough for the LW to hear that she’s called in sick to avoid hearing them. This is a work-related issue, and I think that the LW should contact their EAP for help on gently setting boundaries with the manager. It’s not the LW’s responsibility to help the manager fix her life, and if she tries to help in a way that’s unwelcome, she might be jeopardizing her job.

  37. Humble Schoolmarm*

    Thank you Alison! I really needed this letter today. I have a co-worker and close friend in almost the same situation (lazy patriarchal dude becoming emotionally abusive) and the situation seems to be escalating. I’ve picked up some good thoughts and validation from the comments like suggesting resources and being open about how not okay this is.

    I was wondering, though, if anyone has some modified language for the “what do you think you’ll do about it?” question. My friend is, thankfully, very aware that she is in a bad situation and wants to extricate herself. She and I have had some discussions about leaving and her fears about taking that step make sense (although I suspect people better trained than me could find solutions for those roadblocks). I could really use a script that keeps nudging her in the direction of those resources, but I don’t want to cut off the venting (it would certainly make my life easier, but making her feel isolated is the last thing I want to do).

    1. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      Since you’ve already started the discussions, maybe something like “Last week we talked about X step. How ready are you to do that? Is there anything I can do to help you halfway?”

      Maybe you can help with planning what to say to the person who answers the phone at the resource provider. Or you could even make the a with her there, “Hi, I’m calling because I have a friend with Y situation. Could you tell me what would happen if she reached out to you for help?” She could just listen, or she could join in when she feels comfortable.

      1. Humble Schoolmarm*

        Thank you! Those sounds like really good ideas, especially planning a script to contact the provider.

    2. SJ (they/them)*

      Hi Humble Schoolmarm,

      Just poking my head in to say that what you mentioned about “people better trained than me could find solutions for those roadblocks” set off a little alarm in my head – I hope you know that nobody but the victim ultimately can make the decision to leave. If your friend doesn’t leave, soon or for a long time or ever, it will not be because you didn’t find solutions to the roadblocks. Certainly nudging your friend toward trained resources can help, I just mean, if your friend isn’t ready for a certain step (even reaching out TO those trained resources), then she isn’t ready and there’s nothing you can/should/need to do to make her ready. All you can do is be there and respect her choices as best you can (while protecting your own wellbeing if and when necessary).

      Much love, good luck to you and your friend.

      1. Humble Schoolmarm*

        Thank you for this! It’s a very helpful reminder/ good way to frame things for myself. To clarify a bit, my friend has expressed a lot of concern about custody and co-parenting with her abusive partner. I don’t know anything about custody fights and the legalities, but I feel like that’s probably something that folks who work in the domestic violence field would have a lot of knowledge about and ways to help with that specific scenario that I don’t.

        1. 1LFTW*

          You can check out TheHotline.org, and encourage your friend to do the same (or invite her over so she can use your computer while doing so, if she’s worried her husband is surveilling her). Or point her to local DV agencies. They know how to help someone come up with a safe exit plan, and they can definitely advise about custody and coparenting.

          And if your friend isn’t ready, they can recommend resources to you to keep you sane as you support her. Best of luck!

    3. Nesprin*

      What advice would you give me if I were in that situation? Or if a neighbor was in that situation?

  38. Retired (but not really)*

    As someone who is frequently a sounding board for those around me, having someone who listens is a very real need. Loneliness is a major issue with people in her boss’s situation. And working remotely just adds to the isolation. Whether OP is a proper listener is totally up to her. It is always a good idea to also suggest other appropriate listeners who can actually provide more help. She can assure her boss that things definitely need to be different but that it isn’t a negative reflection on said boss that these things happen, which is a likely reaction to hearing that what’s going on is very wrong. Others on here have given many ideas of ways to help.
    OP, know that all of us on here are concerned for both you and your boss and wishing both of you the very best!

  39. Beth*

    You could also find reasons to keep your Monday check-ins short – another meeting right after, busy day ahead, lots of topics you want to consult with your manager about as a reason to ask to forgo the personal conversation and jump straight into work topics. Or perhaps find a reason to try to change those meetings to another day of the week where ‘what we did over the weekend’ is less a pertinent small talk topic to start off with.

  40. Fez Knots*

    As a former mental health professional, I think it’s okay to go a step further than Alison’s advice while maintaining the same level of compassion.

    I would express my concern for her situation while recommending she speak to someone more qualified to help her. Something like: “I’m really worried about you. Hearing stories about what you’re dealing with with [husband] and the kids is really serious. It’s hard for me to hear how much you’re struggling every week, so I think rather than share with me you should share with someone who can start to make this better for you, like a therapist or support group.”

    It might be helpful to have some resources, like the hotline Alison suggested, on tap to email or give her if she expresses interest. And then I would go to HR. Let them know your boss needs support and you’re worried.

    I can’t imagine how hard this has been for you week after week. I think it will continue to be hard to stick to the above script, but if she brings it up again, I would do that. “I’m sorry you’re still experiencing that. Have you spoken to a therapist or support group? I really think you should.” If she gives you any reasons why she can’t use those services, acknowledge it’s difficult to ask for help, but you’re just not qualified to help her find the healing she needs.

    Repeat, repeat, repeat! Good luck.

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      I love this! Thank you for your response. I am not a mental health professional, former or current, and I am thankful that mental health professionals are able and willing to weigh in on this letter.

    2. VLookupsAreMyLife*

      Thank you Fez Knots – that script is something I can picture myself using if the need ever arose.

  41. J.B.*

    My dad became emotionally abusive and I sought advice from a professional about how I should talk with my mom. The advice was to focus on “I’m concerned for you”. She eventually left fortunately. I only said once that I thought it was emotional abuse and she was not ready to hear it. The other thing I said was “if x happens again please call for a hold”.

  42. JustKnope*

    OP, I want to gently push back on the idea that you have a great professional relationship with your boss. She’s in a hard situation and I have a lot of empathy for that, but she’s not keeping up professional boundaries *at all* by dumping so much personal information on you. If you’re at the point of calling out sick to avoid talking to her, this is not a healthy dynamic for any relationship, much less a boss/employee. You aren’t the one damaging the professional relationship by creating boundaries about what she is allowed to talk to you about and what support you’re able to provide.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      In an odd turnabout, OP, she has “trained” you that listening to her problems is normal.

      Uh. No, it’s not normal to listen to the boss complain about home life.

      My wise friend gave me some wonderful advice that I have held on to. Sometimes we think we are helping when actually we are blocking real help from getting into the problem. If we step to one side, we make room for real help to step in.

      OP, there is NO shame here in saying that this is above your quals or your life experience. Please say that. “Boss, I have not had this experience in life, I do not think I a good resource to help you find help.”
      I have had a few times in life where I have felt nothing but pure RELIEF in saying this. It’s a good skill to develop, OP, because you can carry it with you through life. I used to add, “Let’s open the phone book and see what we can find for you.” I guess now you could say, “Let’s google for five minutes and see if something looks like a good resource.” Or you could mention the resources you see here.

  43. Maruja*

    When I was a supervisor at a previous job, I was also in an abusive marriage. I felt so isolated and worthless. From my perspective, it would be a kindness to tell her how concerned and upset these stories make you feel, let her know you can no longer be a sounding board, and refer her to appropriate help like a domestic violence line or EAP. Honest, respectful feedback would have made a world of difference to me during that time. It wasn’t anyone’s “job” to give me that, but it would have helped.

  44. Criticism is needed for free thought and discussion*

    Removed. It’s not about disagreeing — there are comments on every post that disagree — it’s about talking to a letter writer in a tone I don’t want them spoken to in. You’re of course free to disagree with that decision, but I’m the sole arbiter of what I will and won’t host here. – Alison.

  45. AmberAlice*

    I am so sorry you have to be dealing with this situation. I am am year past a very similar relationship with my ex-boss. She was in an abusive relationship that thankfully she confided that to other people; but there was an after effect of her clinging onto me and directing all unhealthy tendencies on top of me. It was a toxic relationship that I felt unequipped to handle. It got so bad that in the week after she left I had several people come up and express sympathy for having to deal with her for so long (five years).

    Definitely try to steer the conversation in a neutral direction. Let her know when she is upsetting you and place firm boundaries where you can. Provide her with the proper resources. Is there anyone lateral/above your boss that you would feel comfortable talking to about this? I think HR would be the better direction, but having more people on your side is a must. The one thing I regret about my experience was not taking it up to my bosses boss at the time. I think if I had so much could have been handled much better than I could do alone.

    If you are anything like me this is going to be hard. You want to be there for her and support her and that’s natural! But ultimately you *cannot* control anything happening to her. You can, however, control how much of this you expose yourself to. Your mental health is no joke. My ex-boss and our relationship is STILL affecting me and its been nearly a year. Please take time to take care of yourself: whatever that means to you. I hope you have better days soon.

  46. DJ*

    I think it would be worth YOU calling the Domestic Violence line for advice, as well as discussing it with an EAP counsellor if one. Hopefully the DV line will be able to recommend resources or support groups that could help her, especially with the option of Zoom calls these days. I’d recommend against a general couples/relationships counsellors as they don’t always pick up on DV and thus encourage the victim to make more changes.

  47. Not So NewReader*

    A story for OP. I had an aunt who worked for a boss who was a mean spirited person. She was not likable. One day for whatever reason the boss spilled the beans, there were problems at home.
    My aunt was very upset to hear that a fellow human being was living like this YET at the same time the boss scared my aunt.
    My aunt went home and thought about things. She wrote down some numbers for help and decided to bring them into work the next day. She barely slept all night because this boss was a force.
    She went in and gave the boss the numbers. “Here’s where to call.” She walked out of the office almost certain that she was going to be fired.

    What happened next was jawdropping. The boss called the numbers. She got help. Her whole demeanor toward my aunt softened a lot. Because the boss was a harsh person to begin with, it was really hard for the boss to find that new and softer tone. This lead to some awkward moments.

    It started with the boss saying that no one had ever done that for her before. She decided that my aunt was a good friend to her. (NOPE! My aunt was trying to hang on to her job.) But my aunt did realize that the woman did need someone to be friendly toward her, so my aunt settled on doing that. So she tried to be friendlier with the boss this was hard because of the years of history they had. In the end, they patched together some type of a relationship with each other.

    Decades later my aunt could still clearly recall her own fear that day when she walked into the office with the phone numbers. The boss eventually died after some years. In that moment my aunt was able to reframe the whole story in her head. My aunt realized that she probably changed the course of that woman’s life by speaking up. Instead of recalling her fear, she realized, “What if I hadn’t said something?!”. The woman never went back to treating my aunt so poorly. The boss’ actions showed more respect and gratitude.

  48. Former emotional dumping ground*

    OP, I’m so sorry you’re wrapped up in this.

    I could have written a similar letter about 5 years ago–except that instead of an abusive husband, my boss was having an affair with someone who’s spouse was terminally ill. What started as a venting session over lunch at a conference turned into close to 2 years of me being my boss’s confidante for 8 hours a day over a situation I *really* didn’t want to know anything about.

    What ended it? I moved to another department. It was VERY tempting to blow things up and explain to my grandboss exactly why I left, but I didn’t, and am glad, because old boss (who is extremely skilled at their job when not distracted with personal affairs) is now in a director role at our organization.

    Alison’s advice is perfect.

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