Ask Dr. Nerdlove

Can I Ever Trust A Former Abuser?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Recently I met a pretty nice guy. I wasn’t gonna date him but I liked talking with him until one day he confessed that he used to be the abuser in an abusive relationship. That made me wonder what happens to people like that after their abusive relationship ends. I mean, does being an abuser once or twice make a person dangerous for others for life? With STD you at least know that infecting others is not something infected person wants to do. But being violent and manipulative towards one’s partner seems to be something one must be able to control. Which makes a former abuser into a person that others should keep their distance from. Yet, it seems to be a bit unfair. So, my question is whether trusting the former abuser is no different from trusting someone with criminal record or it requires super extra caution because people rarely change?  

No Need For A Clever Name

DEAR NO NEED FOR A CLEVER NAME: Whoof. This is a tricky one, NNFACN. On the one hand, I have pretty much zero sympathy for people who abuse their partners, either physically or emotionally. It’s a deep violation of the trust that we put in our partners, and the scars that result can last a lifetime. On the other hand, I do believe in redemption and in the potential for people to come back from the Dark Side.

Unfortunately, the “I’m so ashamed, I’ll never do it again” card is an incredibly common play by abusers as a way of manipulating their victims into sticking around – so many that it’s hard to trust someone with an abusive past, even when they were disclosing it to you so you can make an informed decision about your association with them. After all, the world is full of people who are a sucker for a good redemption story.

And yet at the same time, you don’t necessarily want to slap someone down for being honest with you, especially when they’re (hopefully) doing so in good faith.

You can see how it’s possible to tie yourself in knots over this.

So I’m going to be honest: my knee-jerk reaction is “Not just no but HELL no”. But again: I WANT to believe in second chances and people’s ability to change and do better. And on the other, other hand, there are people who eagerly want to take advantage of that belief.

So here’s my thought on the matter: if you’re going to pursue this, you do so with an incredibly skeptical eye and some VERY finely tuned bulls

t detectors. You follow the old Russian proverb: trust… but verify. Someone who has a past as an abuser is someone who needs to be vetted extra carefully — we’re talking CIA levels of carefully —  before entering into a relationship with them. There are many, many questions that need to be answered: what happened, how did he or she start abusing their partner, why did they stop? Were they abused themselves? Did they have specific triggers? Was the abuse part of being addicted to drugs or alcohol? Have they undergone addiction counseling? Anger management therapy? Worked with a psychologist to deal with their underlying issues? Do they have references - exes who can tell you about their relationship?

That is not a joke – being able to talk with former lovers about the (ex) abuser can give you a more rounded picture of what he or she is like and whether or not they fake remorse as part of the abusive cycle, and they’ll have perspective that their ex doesn’t.

The guy will also have to be willing to accept that pretty much everything they do is going to be going under a microscope over the course of a relationship – little things that might be brushed off as happenstance or not a big deal can have vastly different significance when you know the person doing them has a history of emotional abuse. It will be a while, possibly a long while, until their new partner may fully trust them and the ex-abuser will have to accept that he or she is going to be on double secret probation until they’ve proven themselves. And it will take a LOT of proof.

And even then… that may not be fool-proof. Some abusers are very, very good at earning their partner’s trust, and there are many who can play the long game. It’s a good idea to have someone else as a potential sounding board/canary in the coal mine.

But to be honest: this is all theoretical. My idealism is warring HARD with what I’ve seen others experience in abusive relationships. My instinct is still to say “date somebody else.”

At the end of the day: it’s tricky, it’s complicated, and it depends entirely on the individuals involved. I want to believe that people can be redeemed, but I would demand some pretty goddamned extraordinary evidence of change. 

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m in an unfortunate situation at the moment. You see, my boyfriend is in an abusive friendship, and I’m not sure how to help him. His friend, who I’ll call “Danny” was a mutual friend of ours for some time. In fact, it’s because of him that my boyfriend and I met! My boyfriend has known Danny for nearly ten years, and considers him his best friend. I met Danny 4 years ago and recently ended our friendship; he started out nice but within the past year became abusive towards me as we became closer friends, and I finally worked up the courage to get out of the relationship and cut him out of my life.

Part of the reason I woke up to the abuse is because, when I talked to my boyfriend about Danny’s negative behavior, he said that Danny had *always* been like that! He had always been exceedingly selfish and demanding of his friends’ time, simultaneously belittling and jealous of their accomplishments, prone to unpredictable verbally violent outbursts, very controlling, and sexually inappropriate (a real creeper). I asked him why he is still friends with Danny if that’s the case, and he says it’s because he believes Danny is actually a good person, he just doesn’t know any better–and that he will one day change. He also says he is one of the few true friends Danny has that haven’t left him, and that everyone needs at least one friend.

My own decision to end my friendship with Danny put some strain on my boyfriend and I’s relationship, but we have mostly worked through it. (It helps that Danny no longer lives in the same state as us, and that I have no contact whatsoever with him.) But, from what my boyfriend tells me, Danny has not changed his behavior, and continues to hurt my boyfriend and treat him abusively. I do not want to pressure my boyfriend to leave a friendship he wants to stay in, especially since it might seem I’m only doing it because I am no longer friends with Danny, or that I somehow want to hurt Danny as “revenge” for abusing me. This isn’t the case, I just want my boyfriend to stop being hurt. How do I–in fact, CAN I?–make him see that he’s in an abusive friendship? And how do I help get him out of it?

Thanks for your help,


DEAR WORRIED: When we talk about abuse, we almost always talk about it in the context of an abusive relationship – usually romantic or parental. It’s incredibly easy to forget that friends can be abusers as well. In fact, in a lot of ways, it’s harder to rid yourself of an abusive friend because we tend to be so slow to recognize it and when we do, we don’t recognize just how much damage it does. I’ve lost track of how many people I’ve known who’ve had incredibly toxic “friends” and put up with their abuse for years – sometimes decades – because we just don’t have any real cultural recognition of the issue outside of cutesy names like “frenemies”.

Unfortunately, you’re caught in an impossible situation, Worried. You can’t make your boyfriend break up with Danny, any more than a concerned friend can make their best friend break up with their abusive partner. Making ultimatums will only make it worse; it gives Danny ammunition to claim that you’re just “jealous” and to whip out the “I was here first” card to play on your boyfriend’s sense of loyalty. And from the sounds of things, your boyfriend is admirably loyal – even to people who don’t actually deserve his loyalty. You also can’t make him see things the way you do; those years of being Danny’s friend are going to be a powerful filter. You can present the facts to him – point out how much he feels like crap after talking or hanging out with Danny, show him all the ways that Danny abuses him and cuts him down. You can even point out that if you were describing a female friend talking about her abusive boyfriend as “a nice guy who doesn’t know any better” and how “he’ll change some day”, your boyfriend would (probably) be insisting that she should leave his ass ASAP. But in the end it’s not going to do any good because things aren’t going to change until your boyfriend wants them to change. He is going to have to hit the point where he can’t take the abuse any more and recognizes that the only thing he can do is leave.

Now what can you do? Well, the most powerful thing you could do is something you’ve already done: you cut ties with Danny. You refuse to be complicit in the abuse by being part of Danny’s world and letting him manipulate you the way he’s manipulating your boyfriend. The next thing you can do is simply be Team Boyfriend; be the person who supports him, who cares for him and treats him the way he deserves to be treated. He needs someone on his side who can help draw out the poison. But – and I realize that this is going to be hard – you have to be non-judgmental as you do it. You’ve made your case about the way Danny treats him; the next move is your boyfriend’s. It’s ok to get frustrated that he doesn’t see the abuse but at the same time, blaming your boyfriend for not seeing things the way you do isn’t going to help him and will just push him away. You can keep him busy as the two of you build a life together. But the most important thing is simply be there for him. He needs someone to support him and this will be doubly true if and when he finally decides to cut ties. There’s going to be an ugly period as he processes everything that’s happened and he’s going to need your help afterwards.

It’s not going to be easy. In fact, it’s probably going to be pretty damn maddening. You’ll grind your teeth and want to tear your hair out. But in the end… being the support he needs will be the strongest and most important part of helping him break the cycle of abuse.

Good luck.

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