Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

Why Does My Friend Keep Going Back to Her Toxic Ex?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: One of my very close friends, we’ll call her Ellen, has been on-again-off-again dating this guy, we’ll call him Cody, for years. Long story short, he’s bad news and I have made my feelings about him very clear. He’s cheated on her multiple times and she stayed with him.

About a year and a half ago, she moved in with Cody, after literally everyone in her life (me included) told her not to, that she’d be getting herself into a situation that she’d ultimately regret. Wouldn’t you know, about a few months ago, she told me that her and Cody broke up for good. I praised the heavens, but I also took it with a grain of salt.

Because I’m the only person left that she hasn’t alienated in one way or another, she asked me to help move her out of her and Cody’s apartment while he was at work one day, to which I agreed.

Now, a little about Ellen. Honestly, I love her, but she’s a trainwreck. She can’t seem to hold down a job. She’s not very considerate. She’s a little selfish. She’s technically homeless and living out of her car, even though her uncle generously took her in. She’s got a ton of baggage that she just seems to unload onto me every time I see her. Honestly, being her friend is a bit exhausting.

A couple days ago, my boyfriend informed me that Ellen is hanging out with Cody again. Cue the biggest eye roll of the century. If I could roll my eyes out of my head, I would. Here we go again. Although, I can’t say I was completely surprised. Not to mention that she told my boyfriend one night when they were smoking and she told him to keep it a secret from me because she knew I’d lay into her about how he’s bad news and he’s just keeping you on a leash and once a cheater, always a cheater and all that fun stuff. Honorable mention: ‘If he loves you, he wouldn’t do this to you.’

I’ve tried to reason with her multiple times, but it seems like everything I say goes in one ear and out the other. Hell, I’ve even gone behind her back and talked with her parents about it, tried to get them to smack some sense into her. Nothing.

I’m not trying to victim-blame here–speaking from personal experience, I know how hard it is to leave an abusive relationship–but I’m at the end of my rope with this. I’m not sure that I can say or do anything else to make her realize that the best thing she could do right now is to leave him behind for good. For real this time.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

He’s No Good

DEAR HE’S NO GOOD: You can’t save someone from their own bad choices, HNG, especially if they don’t want to be saved.

We talk about this a lot when it comes to abusive relationships, but it’s just as true when it comes to people mundanely s--tty partners: you can’t force someone to end a bad relationship. It is only going to end when they’re ready for it to end and not a moment before. And even then, it can take more than a few tries before it ends permanently.

One of the things that can be useful to understand about why people keep going back to s--tty partners — even when they know they’re s--tty — is because the person is getting something from this. Now to be sure, that doesn’t mean that whatever they’re getting is good for them or positive… it just means that it’s meeting some need or desire or fitting into a particular niche in their lives. Some people feel a need for drama in their lives; having a relationship that’s always in crisis or making them miserable fills that desire to be at the center of the storm. Some folks stay in the relationship because they feel like it’s all they can have. Others stay because they feel like they should be able to fix things or because they think that they are somehow responsible for them. It may be a continuation of a pattern that they’ve had in their lives or they were taught that this is what love and relationships look like. It could even be a source of psychic self-harm, a way of punishing themselves for some sin or defect.

But until they’re ready to recognize that this is bad for them and they’re ready to break that particular pattern, there’s nothing that anyone can do for them. They have to decide it for themselves.

Now, it may well be worth your time to consider your relationship with Ellen. If this is a friendship that’s a drain on you, it may well be that you need to ask yourself what you’re getting from being friends with her vs. what you’re putting in. If it’s all give and no receive, if you’re treated as her crashpad as she flits from crisis to crisis… well, then it may be that you need to be a friend to yourself and peace out, cub scout. Or at least dial things back and make Ellen much less of a priority in your life. But if you honestly think that she can improve and that getting away from Cody will help… well, the best you can do is be there for her when she’s ready to leave. If that’s the case, then i think you need to lay that flat out. Tell her: “Look, you know how I feel about Cody. He’s a s--thead who treats you badly, and I think this is going to go the way this always does. I’m not willing to talk about him or hang out with the two of you again or see him. But if and when you’re ready to leave, I will be there for you — no judgement, no questions asked, no ‘I told you so’. But until then, this is the last I want to hear about him.”

And then leave it there. There aren’t any magic words that will make her change her mind. You can’t chase him away, and you can’t catch someone who’s determined to fall. You have to let them make that choice for themselves. The only thing you can do is be ready  and available to help — without judgement — when she’s finally ready to leave.

Good luck.

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