Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

Am I A Bad Person For Believing An Abuser Can Change?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: When I was 14 or 15, one of my friends at the time told me in passing that her boyfriend had been forceful recently in their physical relationship. At the time, I didn’t fully understand what she was saying but I could tell she was upset so I tried to comfort her the best I could and we moved on from that conversation. A year later, they broke up and I gradually started becoming friends with this ex. In 12th grade, when there were whispers of what she had told me earlier, I am ashamed to say that I didn’t speak up. I remained “neutral”, a very harmful attitude to take, and in doing so I know I hurt her immensely. The other people she had told also didn’t speak up and I can’t even imagine how hard that must have been for her. He was dating someone else at that point. Their relationship also ended once school did but I never really inquired as to what went down there.

College started and I became much, much closer to him. We established a friends with benefits situation which slowly turned into a proper relationship. He was good to me. Always respectful, always a good person. I’m not saying this to negate what he did to others, but just to point out how stark the difference was between who he was with me and with them. I know that’s also typical of a lot of abusers.

Earlier this year, his second ex reached out to me. She told me that he had been emotionally manipulative and verbally abusive in their relationship. The things she told me were so terrible that I didn’t know what to say or do. We had just started dating at this point, she told me she was telling me also because she didn’t want him to do the same to me. I thanked her for telling me, and after a lot of deliberation I took the decision to distance myself from him gradually. I also spoke to my friend and apologised for my silence regarding her abuse at the time.

Very recently, his actions in the past have been brought to light on a public platform. He is obviously facing a lot of backlash from people in school for these actions and a lot of people have chosen to cut him out of their lives. From the scattered interactions I’ve had with him since his ex reached out to me, I know he’s been going to therapy more regularly. He’s also apologised to both of them, and obviously they haven’t accepted his apology nor are they under any obligation to. He has never tried to deny, justify or argue against what he’s done. He has unconditionally accepted that he has caused a lot of trauma to these people and he has told me and other people that he is fully ready to face the consequences of his actions.

I feel like I made the right decision by distancing myself for the time being but I’m still confused about what I need to do in the future. I believe that this is an experience he needs to get through on his own. If he doesn’t have people around him to prove to that he is a changed person, and yet he still changes, I truly believe that that won’t be a superficial change because it requires a lot of courage to keep on living and working on yourself when nobody else thinks you deserve anything. His friends don’t have a responsibility to make sure that he’s changed, nor do they have to hold his hand through the process.

As someone who knows him better than anyone else, I have faith that firstly, he truly wants to change and that secondly, he is taking steps to do so. None of that can ever change the hurt and trauma that he caused, nothing can at this point, but the step towards accountability and responsibility is not one that many people take in the first place. That in itself, coupled with the fact that this step is accompanied by concrete actions of therapy, possibility of enrolment in abuser programs, unconditional apologies, makes me think that though the process will be long and difficult for him, he will come out of it better.

If he does, then is it okay for me at that point to be his friend? To say that I have seen the change in you and I believe you are worth my friendship, possibly my love? Does it make me a bad person and does it serve as dismissing the trauma of the victims? Am I a bad friend for saying that I believe he will change but not being there for him?

Very Confused and Guilty

DEAR VERY CONFUSED AND GUILTY: These sort of questions are always difficult, VCaG.

On the one hand, I’m a general believer that people can change and improve. I believe that folks can f

k up, own their f

k-ups and try to make things better, and I believe that there needs to be space for folks to actually do better.

On the other hand, folks love a redemption story and abusers know this. I can’t count the number of times that abusers and monsters have made a production of “Oh look, I’ve changed!” — especially as a way of returning to the public eye. Writer and professor Hugo Schwyzer was an almost archetypal example of this, using his supposed redemption both as a way of finding future victims and as a shield against new accusers. So there’s every reason to give take declarations of “but I’m different now!” with deep suspicion and a LOT of salt.

On the other other hand (yes, I have three hands) apparently this happened in high-school. And while that doesn’t preclude someone from being an abuser or a monster — all you have to do is look at Stubenville for proof of that — but high-schoolers also tend to be hormone-soaked bundles of frenzied confusion who’re often freaking out in multiple directions at once. It’s entirely possible for people to act badly without realizing that what they’re doing is harmful or abuse. Sometimes people are so caught up in their teenaged angst bulls

t that they don’t realize the damage they’re doing to the people around them.

But the fact that they don’t know they’re doing harm, or don’t intend to, doesn’t change the fact that they still hurt people. As has been said in many places, many times: intent isn’t magic.

(And that’s before we get into issues like the high-school rumor mill, people adopting the language of social justice as a means of abusing others and all kinds of murky crap)

So my position in general is “…maybe. With many caveats.”

I would have a lot of very pointed questions that would need very convincing answers before I’d be willing to come down on one side or another. The first is very simple: does he understand what he did? Does he accept — without conditions or qualifiers —  that his behavior hurt people? And as a follow-up: does he understand why his actions hurt people?

One of the first steps to change and growth is to understand how they’ve wronged others and why other people were hurt by what they did. Understanding the pain of others is the first step to empathy.

Next: does he accept responsibility for his actions — again, without conditions or qualifiers? Does he own his behavior without trying to explain why he’s not at fault or why he shouldn’t be fully culpable? Does he understand why he did what he did?

This is another important step; taking ownership of one’s behavior is crucial. It speaks both to their mindset: are they sincere, or are they trying to get out of trouble? However, it’s also potentially tricky. “I did X because I got drunk and didn’t recognize Y” and “I did X because I got drunk” sound similar, but are incredibly different. In the former, they’re demonstrating an understanding of how one mistake (getting drunk) lead to their behavior (…and so I did X). In the latter, it comes much closer to “you can’t blame me because I was drunk and that wasn’t who I really am”.

Next: if they understand what they did wrong and why they did it, what steps are they taking to avoid doing those things again? How are they proposing to be held accountable in the future?

And finally: what have they done to try to try to make things right? This may or may not involve a direct apology to the people they’ve harmed; sometimes trying to make amends actually causes more harm to the person who’d already been harmed by their actions. And — importantly — in trying to make things right, is he doing so humbly or in a manner that demands acknowledgment? Is he making a production of how sorry he is a way that pressures his victims to forgive him? Is he performatively penitent in a way that glorifies himself to others?

Even with satisfactory answers to these questions, I’d still proceed with caution. As I said: plenty of folks can put on the show of contrition, especially if it brings them back from the wilderness. Take it slowly and pay more attention to his deeds, not his words. Those will tell you far more about who he actually is and whether he’s actually changed for the better.

Good luck.

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