I am from a very large family. At a recent family party, one of my cousins said she was unwell, then left suddenly with her parents and sister. The sister returned later, seething and said her dad was so angry he had stayed at home as he worried he might do something physically violent.
The reason for their distress? My cousin had told them another older male relative – we’ll call him ‘the groper’ – had grabbed her intimately during the party.
Apparently it’s not the first time this has happened and he has been doing it to other female relatives for some time.
I usually get on well with him so my family (including my cousin) has agreed I need to talk to him about his behaviour. Any help would be appreciated.
Sadly I get a lot of emails about this problem, particularly around the summer holidays when families get together.
Whether people know about what’s going on varies between families and depends on who’s acting abusively.
In some cases, particularly where there is a big age or status difference or if threats are made, then victims within families may not tell anyone about the abuse they’re experiencing.
As a consequence families can be shocked or even disbelieve a victim who does reveal abuse, because it was happening, perhaps even in plain sight, but nobody noticed.
Abusers are manipulative, secretive and determined
Alternatively it can be an open family secret where everybody knows a particular relative is a menace. Here the relative may be ostracised from the family; but just as often abusers remain a part of family life with relatives either keeping their distance or monitoring them closely during gatherings.
But all of this lets an abuser continue to harm others - whether it’s hidden by threat or force; overlooked as people can’t believe their relative is an abuser; or tolerated as a family quirk or secret. Abusers are manipulative, secretive and determined. Even families that are aware of abuse and think they can control it may not always be able to effectively.
On discovering abuse, families may well ignore, excuse or push aside what’s happening. Using your situation as an example ‘the groper’s’ age, mental health, status/importance in the family, or intoxication could all be used to justify or explain his actions.
Unfortunately it's also not unusual for the blame to fall not on the abuser, but on their victim who's seen as being oversensitive or provocative or in some other way responsible for harms done to them. In some families pressure to appear respectable, to not cause tensions, or to disrupt family occasions may appear to override the needs of victims.
Be alert for him trying to derail conversations or blame others and firmly refuse to be drawn on this.
As you can imagine this kind of reaction leaves the abuser free to continue to be predatory, and the victim feeling upset or disbelieved. It can, in some cases, mean the abuser escalates their actions.
And it can leave victims prone to self-doubt, distress, future mental health problems or toxic relationships. In some cases victims who cannot get their families to accept they were abused and/or to keep their relative away from family occasions may opt to go no contact.
If you believe this abuse has been going on for some time, and if there are other family members affected the following resources could help:
You may also find reading through or calling these resources helpful as you understand familial abuse and work out how to approach this when you talk to your relative.
Talk to your cousin about what happened – consistently reminding her she is believed. Note how she feels and what she would like to happen next (including anything she may be afraid of).
She needs support from your family and potentially some of the agencies linked to above, and you may also need assistance while you’re negotiating with the family around ending this abuse.
As a family you may all have ideas on what to do next. Evidently him stopping his behaviour is the main goal. But it may also be you wish for him to apologise. You all may want him to stop coming to family events for a time (or even forever) or it might be you are happy for him to be around if he acts appropriately. Whatever is decided needs to put the wishes and dignity of his victim(s) first.
When you talk to him say you know exactly what he did, state it caused distress, that there’s no excuse for it and you expect him to own the behaviour, apologise for it, and for it never to be repeated.
The message he needs to get from you is unwanted touching is not acceptable
You may expect him to deny, downplay, or deflect. The message he needs to get from you is unwanted touching is not acceptable. Be alert for him trying to derail conversations or blame others and firmly refuse to be drawn on this.
If, in conversation, he reveals he has underlying problems – for example illness, addiction or past abuse he has experienced that might explain his actions then encourage him to seek help from his GP and the agencies listed above. That doesn’t mean what he has done can be ignored, nor that his victims within your family are not still distressed.
You can be sympathetic and encourage him to get care if he needs it. But keep the focus on his actions and the impact his behaviour has had.
Sometimes in families there is the temptation to 'sort out' an abuser with physical violence. While that may feel tempting it can also lead family members getting into trouble for assault. Or leave abusers feeling more hard done by, but not actually changing any future abusive behaviour.
So speak to him alone, and be very firm, but don't bring along backup that might escalate the situation and stop him facing up to his actions. If any relatives are struggling to cope with anger and upset they can talk to each other or use the services linked above (particularly Family Lives).
He may be upset or embarrassed and eager to sort this. It may be that having been called on his behaviour it is never repeated and the family can rebuild. If he is showing remorse and genuine change then family members also need to ensure they don’t create drama or escalate otherwise resolved problems with ongoing blaming, shaming or threats - especially discussions across social media.
If, however, he is rude, dismissive, or blames his victims it would be better for him not to be part of family gatherings for some while, if ever. If he becomes aggressive with you, end your conversation immediately.
If he continues to be predatory or if it comes to light he has been more abusive than first realised, either to members of your family or people outside, then seeking advice from the police and considering reporting him (if victims wish) may be appropriate. This also applies if he threatens or physically harms any family member after you’ve spoken to him.
I know these things are very difficult to manage, but it is very good to hear that you are taking the needs of his victims seriously and want to address this.
I hope you are able to sort it out in ways that help the family recover, but if it's about having to let anyone go, make it him, because of what he has done. Never his victims.
Petra Boynton is a social psychologist and sex researcher working in International Health Care and studying sex and relationships. She is The Telegraph’s agony aunt. Follow her on Twitter @drpetra.
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