Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

I Think My Sister’s Dating an Abuser

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: This isn’t so much a romantic issue as it is a dealing with a jerk issue.

My sister befriended this guy that she talks to almost nonstop. They call each other every day, and talk for several hours at a time and from a distance it seems like they have a great relationship. However, when she starts talking to me about this guy in detail I get worried.

Based on what I’ve heard he has jealousy issues, holds no respect for my sister, and he doesn’t seem to hold the word no in his personal vocabulary. Just today they got into an argument because this dude kept trying to pressure my 18 year old sister into agreeing to let him impregnate her and she wouldn’t stand for it. His reasoning was that he wanted her pregnant so that other dudes wouldn’t look at her. The other day they got into a fight because he wanted her to give him anal sex and she blatantly refused. When she tried to flip the script on him and asked “How would you like it if I shoved my finger up your ass when you didn’t want me to?” He responded, “It’s different for you because you’re a girl.”

In addition to that, whenever HE decides their arguments are finished he’ll merely agree to whatever she says in an effort to shut her up, not because he genuinely believes and respects her opinion. He’s also prone to making false promises for changed behavior but he never follows through. This is deeply troubling behavior for me to witness. If it were me, I would dump him like a sack of bricks, but it’s not me it’s my sister and she still wants to maintain contact with this guy. How can she better navigate their relationship without feeling like she’s walking on landmines all the time?

Sincerely,

Worried and Frustrated

DEAR WORRIED AND FRUSTRATED: These are the kinds of letters I hate getting WaF, because there’s on reasonable way to grab a stranger by the scruff of the neck and shake them until the stupid falls out. Because, um, HOLY HOPPING SHEEP S

T this isn’t a man, this is horde of red flags in a trench coat. This guy is waving more red flags than a military parade in Tiananmen Square and the best thing your sister can do is dump this guy so hard his grandparents get divorced retroactively. She should be NOPE-ing out of there so fast she leaves a human-shaped cloud behind as she hopes the Nope Train to F

k This S

tville.

You know this. I know this. The problem is that your sister doesn’t seem to get this and short of strapping her to a chair and giving her the full Ludovico Technique, you can’t force her to see it. And since your sister is a grown-ass woman and you’re not her legal guardian, you can’t exactly force her away from him.

Not that this would actually work, mind you. There’s no narrative as compelling to young, naive lovers as “nobody understands him the way I do!” Once they gets the feeling that everyone’s against them and their love, it quickly becomes a “you and me against the world” scenario and I can tell you from experience: that’s more likely to make them double down as it is to make them see sense and break up.

Which makes your handling this tricky. You want what’s best for your sister, but you also don’t want to give this your blessing or your approval just because she’s determined to make her own mistakes.  But just pushing her about how awful this guy is can be a great way to push her into his arms and away from you. As much as I hate to fall back to cliches and song lyrics, when people’re in love with someone (or near as dammit), they can do no wrong and like as not, they will turn their back on someone who puts ’em down. As much as we all wish we could, we can’t force someone to see how much of a s

tbag they’re dating.

But you can lead them into seeing it. Sometimes.

The trick is that it they have to feel like they’re the one who came to that conclusion. There’s no argument more powerful or persuasive than the ones that people come up with themselves. You just have to guide them to it.

So the key is that you need to talk with your sister. You can start this by expressing concern… it sounds like they’re really fighting a lot and the things he’s asking for are incredibly unreasonable. Why does she think he keeps demanding things like this from her? Is it really her responsibility to control other people’s thoughts or reactions? Isn’t it frustrating that he never seems to take her “no” as a “no” instead of the start of a negotiation? Is she ok with all of these demands he’s making on her? Is she comfortable with the way he reacts when she turns him down? She knows that it’s not cool for him to keep pushing after she’s said “no” to something, right?

The odds are good that she’ll come back with a litany of very common responses. “It’s not that bad.” “He doesn’t mean it that way.” “It’s not like he’s serious.” The key here is that you don’t argue with her. You aren’t trying to contradict her sense of reality; that’s more likely to make her double down on her claims that she’s fine, it’s fine, everything’s fine, it’s fine. Instead, you express concern: “Well, it’s just that the last few times you’ve been talking, you’ve been arguing.” “I just worry because it seems like when you’re talking to him, you turn into a different person; it’s like you’re tiptoeing on eggshells around him.”  Rather than asking her to agree with your facts, ask her to agree that your worries aren’t unfounded: “OK, but looking at it from my end, we can agree that it’s reasonable that I might see it that way, right?” You aren’t challenging her facts, you’re just asking her to agree that you’re both reasonable, rational people and that as a reasonable, rational person, your interpretation of things isn’t out of line.

Then you want to reassure her that you’re just worried about her and for her and that you care. Remind her that she shouldn’t let him push her into something she doesn’t want to do and that you always have her back. Emphasize that you two are on the same team and that you are always going to be there to listen and provide support if she needs to talk about things or is feeling weird about stuff.

And then you just make sure that you keep the lines of communication open. She may not necessarily be receptive to this immediately, but by keeping things non-confrontational and supportive,  you help encourage her to come to you when she does start feeling hinky about this guy.

You’re not likely to change her mind overnight, and you shouldn’t expect to. This is more about planting a seed that will hopefully grow into awareness… hopefully sooner rather than later.

Now the thing I would suggest you do be firm about is that she get on some form of semi-permanent birth control… something that he can’t undo or sabotage. Condoms “break”, birth control pills don’t always work and you can be talked into not taking them. An IUD or a hormonal implant (or even Depo-Provera) are all things that he can’t f

k with. Offer to take her to the doctor or Planned Parenthood yourself. Offer to pay for it, if that makes the difference. Even if you have to frame it as “this way you can’t have any accidents”, it’s really important that she not be in a position to “accidentally” get pregnant with him. A lot of abusers will use pregnancy to force their partners into compliance and denying him this chance makes it that much easier for your sister to get the cinnamon toast F

k away from him. And even if he’s not an abuser, just an asshole… the last thing she needs is to be scrambling her DNA with this s

theel.

You’re a good sister, and hopefully you can get your little sister away from this dude with the quickness. But keep in mind: what she needs more than anything else is your support, not your judgement. She won’t leave him before she’s good and ready, and knowing that you’re there willing to provide the love and support she’ll need can be a huge motivating factor.

Good luck. And write back to let us know how it’s going.

Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, doc@doctornerdlove.com