I need ‘friend in an abusive relationship with a crazy person’-level advice–sorry for the wall of text, but this one is heavy.
One of my husband’s best friends (and my good friend) from college is a sweet and passive dude who has seriously a horrible track record in relationships. While we were in college, he was dating a shut-in type of lady, 15 years older than him, who was controlling and emotionally abusive, and an animal hoarder/abuser on top of that. They finally broke up, and everyone told him how relieved they were he was out of a toxic relationship, and he made a point to all of us that if he ever dated someone we thought was toxic again we needed to tell him.
Fast forward 6 months and he managed to find a new girlfriend. Let me state that I know the term ‘crazy’ is often used as a gross misogynist catch-all term, which aggravates me to no end–therefore I use the term only when I think it literally applies. And this chick is certifiable, DSM-IV level psychotic. There have been scary rage explosions in public, meltdown crying jags, comments in casual conversation about killing people and chopping up their bodies, rampaging paranoia that people are trying to poison her, etc. There was one particularly awful event at his own birthday party where we witnessed this girl berate and verbally abuse him in front of all his friends to the point where he was in tears. Now, we know that our friend knows she is crazy, that she’s bad for him, and he knows his friends think she is horrible for him–because, per his instruction, we were honest that we thought she was bad for him way back when they first broke up. Not unpredictably (I suppose, for someone who gets in a cycle of abusive relationships) there have been the repeated break-ups and reunions, and each time he’s been covert about it and obviously not proud of what he’s doing or comfortable with it–but it happens regardless.
Here’s where it gets more complicated, and where I feel like we as friends have screwed up and may not be able to recover ground. Our friend and his crazy girlfriend had been broken up for about a year (to our knowledge, probably not really), and recently she started showing back up with him at social functions. Our friend acknowledged they were back together, in a really ashamed and grovelly kind of way, to my husband–who reassured him that we wanted to be his friend and wouldn’t judge him, etc. etc. I don’t really know if my husband was straight with him and repeated any of the previous reasons given for why his friends thought she was bad for him; my guess is he was pretty passive about the whole thing. Time goes on, as we are interacting in groups with them, and my husband and I figure she must be medicated because she seems mellower. We thought okay, maybe things are not going so badly after all.
The Big Reveal of the Ongoing Crazy came one evening last month in which it was just me, my husband, our friend and his girlfriend, all sort of thrown together by circumstance into an unplanned couples-type outing. It quickly became clear that this chick was just as crazy as ever. She said a bunch of really creepy and violent things, raged at perceived slights, and there were a couple points when both my husband and I thought she was going over the edge completely because of something one of us had said. What is really unsettling about it is that a lot of the vitriol and crazy comments are directed at me–the only other female–and definitely seem to be part of her overall Crazy Matrix that involves complete domination of her boyfriend’s attention. Afterwards, my husband said he could tell the moment I just stopped talking because everything I said was causing her to start going off the deep end, and that at one point he really thought she was going to straight-up throw a punch at me. Bad scene, end of story.
After that my husband and I realized that our ‘second chance’ move was a really, really bad one, and we should have trusted our instincts and stayed clear of this girl. Our friend seems to have hit the reset button on all our past interactions with us about this girl’s suitability as his significant other. Since the Big Reveal, we’ve tried to get him to hang with us solo twice, inviting him over, and both times he’s come back trying to bring her along. The third time, we dropped the subtlety and straight out told him that we weren’t comfortable with her, and really wanted to spend time with just him. As you might expect, our friend has now completely retreated and isn’t talking to us, and we don’t know what the hell to do. Honestly, we are worried about his emotional and even physical safety with this chick, but can’t even have a rational conversation with him about it now.
WHAT NEXT? How do we help our friend? How do we stay friends if we can’t see him because he is attached at the hip to his crazy girlfriend? How do we help him help himself and stop making these awful toxic relationship choices? We feel seriously guilty and like really shitty friends over all of this, and don’t know what we can say or do that won’t make the situation worse.
Oh my god, how awful.
This is the ultimate advice question, isn’t it? This is the ultimate thing a person needs advice about so bad but that is the hardest to actually advise upon. I mean, first of all, please don’t feel guilty. What on earth? It sounds like you’ve done everything you possibly could do, up to this point. You’re not the one abusing him; you’re just the guy’s friend trying to figure out a way to help him. That seems really good to me. Also, please don’t imagine you can make this situation worse. It’s as bad as can be, already, and doesn’t have much to do with you anyway. Your friend himself has made it what it is, and only he can extricate himself. I remember my friend whose dad died, we were talking about how as a friend you feel scared to call someone whose dad has just died, because you don’t want to say the wrong thing. And she was like “news flash: nothing you can say to someone can make them feel ‘worse’ that THEIR DAD JUST DIED. What they’re going through is already the worst it could be–whatever you say, it’s just nice that you said something.” I mean, unless you are like “Hi friend, I’m really glad your dad died,” or something absurd like that. Anyway, my point is, don’t feel guilty, and, I think, don’t worry too much about making it worse. It’s pretty much as bad as it could be, right now, already.
As friends, we should take our responsibilities seriously, as you obviously know. Friends, social networks, loved ones, we have real responsibilities to one another. That is one of the points of having friends. We are supposed to support one another, and that means more than just signing off on everything someone does. Just like parenting! Parenting isn’t about just letting your kid do whatever it wants and then telling it what a genius it is. You’re gonna raise a sociopath if you do that! Real, actual support also means challenging a person, calling them on their bullshit, helping them through gnarly stuff, telling them your honest opinion, and, just like parenting, sometimes cleaning up their barf and in the morning telling them it was no big deal, even though it was. It was a big deal. We all know this, and yet it is incredibly sticky to actually navigate, when push comes to shove. And “push” in this case ALWAYS means your friend is dating somebody you don’t like. It is the Ultimate Friend Challenge. Very similar to drug addiction, I would imagine. Giving someone your “honest opinion” is sometimes very difficult. Sometimes even if you love a person with all your heart, your honest opinion is still that they are a fucking idiot, and how do you say that? And how do you know when it is helpful and loving to say that and when it is helpful and loving to keep that opinion to yourself? Thus, advice columns.
Because we are all different. I respond pretty well, actually, to being told I am a fucking idiot by a trusted loved one. But I know other people who would respond with utter raging vitriol and then never speak to the person who told them that again. So it’s also a case by case basis.
I think general consensus holds that the “honest opinion” becomes not only appropriate but downright REQUIRED at the point when the friend in question is being abused. That’s a no-brainer. BUT! “Abuse” is itself a sticky wicket. We learn about abuse in school and through television shows and it seems so clear cut. On your favorite 90s TV drama somebody’s boyfriend hits them, gives them a black eye, then they show up wearing big sunglasses and you’re like “how come you’re wearing those sunglasses honey” and then she takes them off slowly and you gasp and go “I’M GETTING YOU OUT OF THERE” and the situation gets more or less immediately fixed. Like as if just saying it out loud–”He hit you!”–breaks the spell and now everything can go back to normal, and your friend spends one episode crying in a women’s support group and then she’s fine.
But then you learn that abuse is a many tentacled and subtle beast. It’s not always the black eye and the sunglasses. Sometimes it’s verbal, sometimes it’s psychological. Sometimes it’s not a girl wearing the sunglasses at all, it’s a boy, and culturally we aren’t as well equipped to make safe spaces and challenging life-altering demands of men who are being abused, and that sucks. And you also learn that the whole thing where somebody wants to stay with their abuser isn’t always based on fear. It is sometimes based, confusingly and dreadfully, on a weird unravellable tangle of self-image issues, self-confidence issues, love, longing, and deep-seated notions of what is “deserved.”
A lot of people don’t feel they deserve healthy nurturing relationships. Or else they grew up in a house with fighting and so they are organically more comfortable with fighting than with calm conflict resolution. Or they think anyone who is nice to them must be a sucker. Or they had horrific manipulative controlling parents and so they are deep-down comfortable being treated that way, even if logically they know it’s bad. Or maybe they’re being blackmailed. Or maybe the sex is so astounding that literally nothing else matters. Who knows? This shit is a mystery. I think everyone else’s relationship is a mystery, even if they are the greatest couple in the world. It’s always hard to imagine what a given couple is doing/talking about/behaving like when they’re in private together.
I’m talking like I know anything about this issue, which I don’t. But I kind of think no one really knows what to do when they find themselves in your un-enviable position.
On the one hand, you owe it to this guy, and to the world, and to yourself and your conception of the responsibilities inherent in friendship, to DO SOMETHING. On the other hand, what would that something look like? It sounds like you’ve been honest with him. You’ve told him everything you think. You’ve even made the call to tell him you’re not comfortable being in the presence of his girlfriend! That is pretty crystal clear. He obviously knows what you guys think–hence all the covert shameful grovelling and everything–and moreover, he obviously knows, somewhere inside of himself, that his situation is bad and wrong and he should get out of it. You know? You don’t shame-facedly apologize to your friends for getting back together with someone unless you know deep down that you’re doing something wrong. I’ve been there–I’ve been the one ashamed and confessing to my friends that I was getting back together with my shitty college boyfriend. It’s humiliating. And the reason I was ashamed was because I straight-up consciously knew I shouldn’t be with him. But I was doing it anyway, for complicated embarrassing reasons that had a lot to do with not yet being a fully-fledged, self-actualized human being. Your friend sounds like he’s still locked in this mode of being too. But how do you transition out of it? And how do your friends help you do that?
I think the most common consensus among advice on this issue is that first you express yourself honestly and compassionately to the friend. You make it clear that you love them and don’t judge them and that you want to help them. You use “I” statements and you try not to sound accusatory or condemnatory–”When she made you cry at your birthday party, it upset me so much because I hated seeing you so upset” rather than “what kind of crazy motherfucker behaves that way??”–or better yet, you phrase stuff in questions–”when she made you cry in front of everybody at your birthday, how did that make you feel?” You work this angle for awhile, trying to get them to talk honestly about what is happening, expressing non-judgmental support along the way.
After awhile, when this doesn’t work, some people say you are supposed to deliver a loving ultimatum. You’re supposed to say “Seeing you treated this way is toxic and upsetting for me, and I am starting to feel that by continuing to be around you I am enabling or otherwise lending my unspoken support to this relationship. I love you and I am here for you, and the moment you leave this person you can come to my house and sleep in my guest room for as long as you want, and I will do literally anything in the world you need me to do at that point. But until that time comes, I can’t be around you anymore.”
This seems so fucking intense to me. And although this is very common advice that I have seen given by everyone from Dan Savage to actual domestic violence counselor-types, I have also read responses to this advice from people who say this is too cruel, unhelpful, that it withdraws support at the very moment when the person in question needs it most, etc. Unfortunately these people never provide a better option, from what I have seen. Because I also really don’t think continuing to hang out and talk and act like nothing is wrong, WHEN SOMETHING IS SO WRONG, is loving either. That’s not loving! You don’t just let your friend slowly die of a drug addiction in front of your eyes because you don’t want to hurt his feelings or whatever.
I am torn. Because on the one hand I think it can be so jarring to hear an ultimatum like this that maybe it makes you question yourself in a way you hadn’t before. When I was with the aforementioned shitty boyfriend there came a point where my best friend very calmly said “I can’t talk to you about him anymore, I’m sorry.” And at first I was stung, and annoyed, but then after awhile I was like “Jesus, what kind of maniac do you have to be for your best friend to tell you they’re not going to talk to you about a certain subject anymore?” and I got embarrassed, and concerned, and ultimately I ditched the dude. It took awhile, but I did do it, and in retrospect that moment with my friend was pretty pivotal, even though no direct change took place immediately afterward.
But on the other hand, you’ve all but said this stuff to your friend already. He knows how you feel. He knows her behavior is unacceptable. He knows his friends don’t even want to be in the same room with her! He knows. So part of me thinks all you can do now is wait for those seeds to take root and grow. Just like with alcoholics, you can’t force someone else to make changes in their life. They have to WANT to.
On the other hand, sometimes those seeds never take root, and a person just stays in a shitty abusive relationship forever until they die of old age, their life wasted and pointless, their friends all long gone. How horrible! But, a brutal bottom line is: you can’t live someone else’s life for them. You can’t make their choices for them; you can’t make them want the stuff you want for them. My mom’s been trying to get me to grow my hair out for 20 years and it’s not gonna happen and frankly I wish she’d stop fucking talking about it. But you should prepare yourself for this possibility. Not everybody blossoms into a fully actualized individual. Some people really do die unfulfilled failures. That is just the way it goes. All we can do is work really hard to make sure it doesn’t happen to us, and to help each other however we can, but ultimately we’re all on our own journey.
I have a theory which is that some people don’t want to be happy. Everybody says they want to be happy, but some people, it’s like over the years you can only come to the conclusion that they are deliberately making choices in an effort to never become happy. I think some people thrive on drama and anguish and uncertainty. Or they don’t even realize that a relationship doesn’t have to involve fighting and crying. Like it’s never even occurred to them. Maybe this feels romantic or artsy or maybe they were broken in childhood by shitty parents and this is just the way they operate, I don’t know. But after awhile you can only come to believe that people, on some level, WANT TO BE WHATEVER WAY THEY ARE. Even if they say they don’t. The only way to stop being whatever way you are is to do something different. If somebody is like “I know I should do the dishes honey but I just ALWAYS FORGET, oh woe is me, my mother didn’t teach me right!” then after awhile you know this person is full of shit. They don’t actually “know” they should do the dishes. If they “knew” that, they would fucking do it. They’re continuing to not do the dishes because you’re buying their bullshit; you’re letting them be a lazy asshole. If someone keeps dating the same kind of person, then that’s the kind of person they’re drawn to, and what are you gonna do about it?
I think we all want to be whatever way we are. And if a time comes when we don’t, then we change. This guy could leave this girl, even though he’s passive and easily controlled. It’s a free country, he could do it, and if a time comes when he fully realizes that he wants to, then he will. But you can’t make that time come. You can’t make him do anything. It’s the sad double-edged sword of friendship–you have to be honest while also realizing that your honesty a lot of the time isn’t going to change anything.
Now I am fully closing my eyes and meditating and trying to put myself in your position, to try to see what I would actually do.
Initial Actual Advice (there is additional Actual Advice after this part):
I think that, for better or for worse, I would probably go the ultimatum route. I would sell it as hard as I could. I would probably cry while delivering it. I would say things like “I can no longer just sit here watching you get abused, it makes me feel helpless and furious. I can no longer imply that I support you staying in this relationship by hanging out with you as a couple. You are being abused and it is making me crazy and I’m not going to be party to it anymore.” I would cry and probably beg him to leave her, which would be shocking and gross and he would probably get really mad. And he would feel abandoned and alone. Maybe he would even tell me I was a piece of shit, I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like it could possibly end well. But for me, that ultimatum would be at least partially selfish, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing, actually. Everybody is on their own journey, and you have shit to do, you can’t spend your life desperately babysitting other people for years and years and years. Have you read the great DFW short story “the Depressed Person”? It’s about this raving narcissistic depressed person and her multi-layered cyclical internal monologue about how ashamed she is about how ashamed she is about being depressed. She calls these girl friends, who she thinks of as her Support System. She calls them ceaselessly, every night, and just delivers this unchanging monologue about her own feelings, and her shame about those feelings, and her shame about how selfish it is to keep calling these people to express her feelings while also expressing her shame about those feelings. DFW satirizes this relationship by slowly revealing that the main member of this Support System is herself dying of cancer, but still patiently listening to this Depressed Person’s ceaseless monologue with kindness and compassion. Like as if the person dying of cancer is still obligated by the bounds of friendship to listen to this hideous constant unchanging stream of negativity, instead of being allowed to focus on her own situation, or to create positivity around herself, or whatever, just to have HER PERSONAL SITUATION as a human taken into account in any way.
It’s like, the longer this goes on without an ultimatum, the more the abuse is being allowed to leak out and touch other people. You’re starting to be in this abusive relationship, along with your friend. And that’s not good for anybody. You are obviously allowed to not hang out with someone who physically scares you; who stresses you out; who you don’t like. No one would argue with that. If I was actually afraid someone was going to punch me in the face, I would never hang out with that person again and no one could criticize me for it. So I think you are doing exactly right in terms of announcing officially that you will no longer be in the girlfriend’s presence, due to personal terror and disgust. You’re allowed to extricate YOURSELF from this friend’s abusive relationship. And after a certain point I think you are allowed to tell your friend that HE HIMSELF makes you feel these things, after all this time of him not changing and him expecting everyone around him to go on implicitly sanctioning his shitty life decisions, and that life is too fucking short for you to feel these things, and that you’re here for him but only if he leaves her. Maybe that’s not loving but I also don’t think it’s exactly loving to just keep supporting and supporting and listening and listening. Like after a certain point, that’s obviously not helping, and it’s a fucking drag for you, and if it’s not helping AND it’s a drag for you then what is the point. “I am not going to continue to be in this abusive relationship with you.”
So that seems cold and hateful, and maybe it is. But I keep thinking of when my friend told me she couldn’t talk about my boyfriend one single time again, and what an impact that had on me. I’m imagining if I were in a deeply toxic horrible situation and it just went on and on and on while I passively accepted it, and then if someone I loved harshed me out with that kind of ultimatum…I feel like it would be so shocking, such a jolt, that it might get my thinking channeled down a slightly different path. Even if in the moment I was pissed, or hurt.
And the other consideration is: what else are you supposed to do? You can’t even hang out with him. You’re losing him anyway; you might as well give the ultimatum a shot.
There is also the Intervention route, where a whole group of people trick the friend into coming over for a high-society jewel heist (hopefully you get that reference) but then actually it’s an intervention, and you all go around the room forcing your friend to look into your eyes while you tell him all these things. And then you all collectively say, here is our ultimatum. If you choose this hideous person over everyone in this room, that’s that, you’re on your own.
Ugh! I hate thinking about it. But if you are all in agreement that might make even more of a jolting impact than your solitary ultimatum. God, can you even imagine? It’s the worst.
I think the Friendship Intervention is probably the best route, it’s just harder because people are notoriously afraid of confrontation and I bet it’s really hard to get a whole group of friends to agree to look someone in the eye and tell them their life choices are fucked up. But if you can accomplish this, I guess this would be my first-choice advice. It seems the most intense, the most hardcore, the most likely to have an impact.
But it is also like the last-ditch thing you owe to this guy, in your position as someone who loves him. It’s the last tool you have to use; it’s the last option. Beyond that, there is only sorrow and suffering and constantly having these horrific social interactions with this awful person who scares you, or else awkward hang-outs where you have to specify “do not bring your girlfriend.” The friendship will wither and die eventually under these circumstances. So really you have no choice, it seems to me.
I bet other people have very strong feelings about this–please weigh in in the comments. I am not an expert on abuse and maybe I’m also a bit of a cold-hearted monster, who knows? Please help this person!