My friend recently told me she is engaged to an inmate who is serving a life sentence for murder. I am shocked to say the least, as she is a beautiful, intelligent, caring person. My concerns include that she has a 10 year-old son and an 8 year-old daughter.
She is realistic that he is not going to get out for at least another 13 years and is convinced that this is the man she wants to marry. His parents are very supportive of this arrangement and she says she is "OK" with the problems this situation presents. She is allowed to travel 360 Km to visit him weekly and is allowed conjugal visits once every two months. I am endeavoring to have a semblance of understanding and be as empathetic and supportive as possible. I have presented to her my list of concerns and asked her many realistic questions about her future marriage.
What kind of emotional issues and traits are typical of women who choose to enter this type of relationship? How can I help my friend? How may this impact the children's emotional and psychological health? Do you have references or books that you can recommend about this type of problem?
Thank you for your thoughtful letter. You are obviously a loving and concerned friend; this woman is lucky to have you in her life.
I will try to answer your questions as methodically as you listed them. Women who enter into "impossible relationships" (your very appropriate choice of words), typically do so because they cannot accept or tolerate the intimacy a more appropriate partner might present. Despite the limitations of this "relationship," your girlfriend has a lot of control within it. She knows exactly when and where she will see her "fiance" and under what circumstances they will interact. She knows what will and will not happen. She can live with the projected fantasy of her life in thirteen years, rather than the day-to-day reality she has now, while she raises two youngsters alone.
Historically, women like your friend have experienced some abuse or trauma, such as child sexual abuse. On some (probably unconscious) level, she may still identify with and protect whoever abused her, so that some attachment bond remains. It may be significant that you have just learned about her "engagement," although she must have had contact with this inmate for some time. She has withheld this from you; does she seem secretive about other things? Secrets may be important to her.
Obviously, women like this generally suffer from low self-worth. Her intelligence, beauty and concern for others may be attempts to unconsciously compensate for this lack of self-esteem. It's my opinion, that there is very little you can do to help your friend. As long as she is able to maintain control (in this or any relationship) she will be unable to see its shortcomings. It is intimacy, after all, she is avoiding, and this "relationship" avoids it very well. It seems as though it would be unrealistic to assume that she could allow you (or anyone else, like a therapist) to help her, because she would have to be too vulnerable to allow that closeness, that intimacy.
Her children may or may not be impacted by her choice in "partner." Way before she became involved with this convicted murderer, your friend had already taught her children a lot about avoidance, unavailability, and control. In other words, the major damage to them may already have happened. Since you seem to be the only "grownup" around, you might watch for them to act out their internalized chaos through oppositional behavior, rage, or sexuality. In my opinion, they will probably need some sort of counseling in time.
If you are asking about books or reference material about women like your friend, this phenomenon of successful, seemingly independent women becoming involved with prison inmates is new, but there ARE countless numbers of books dealing with intimacy and control.
If you are inquiring about resources for yourself, you might consider attending CoDA, as this situation may prove difficult for you to remain "as empathetic and supportive as possible." You might need support and encouragement yourself.
Best of Luck,
Margaret "Peg" Burr , MA, MFT