DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Do you have any tips or advice for screening out toxic/abusive partners from the dating pool? I’m talking about those who are well-rehearsed in appearing sincere, understanding and respectful, so it takes a couple weeks (months, years …) to see the red flags waving. For those of us who’ve been through the psychological wringer in the past, spending even just a few weeks with another such person can be re-traumatizing. By the time you’re starting to see the real them, you’ve also started to share yourself and become emotionally invested/vulnerable. What can you suggest to limit exposure to people who will take advantage of you and dick around with your head & heart?
– Wanna Be Pre-Cog
DEAR WANNA BE PRE-COG: One of the mistakes that a lot of people make is that we think that abusers look and act like cartoon villains. Sure, we all hear about superficial charm and all, but at the end of the day, we like to think that an abuser or someone who’s toxic can’t help but compulsively give away the game by being awful to everyone. This is one of the reasons why so many people don’t believe the victims of abuse; we hear about how “well he/she was always nice to me” or about what an awesome person they were and they can’t imagine their good friend WhatsHisNuts abusing their partner. Since we didn’t see them twirling their mustaches, flying away on a broomstick or turning into a character from Fury Road, we have a harder time processing the dichotomy.
(Now to be fair, it’s also hard to be willing to accept that hey, we were wrong about someone we thought was a good person. The cognitive dissonance between what we always believed about someone and what we’ve learned can be hard to process and that leaves a lot of people in a state somewhere between stunned disbelief and denial.)
But the truth is, abusers and toxic people are very godamn good at keeping those disparate parts of their personality separate. Sometimes this is a conscious choice; a strategy of abuse that they’ve chosen to adopt in order to isolate their targets. Other times, they may not be constantly thinking “OK, time to put on my Nice Face!” but they understand at some level that they should act one way to get a particular result around others and a different way around their victim. And while there’re are those who will overestimate things and drop their sweet facade early on, there are plenty who’re willing to play the long game… as long as they think it will get them what they want.
There’re a couple ways of protecting yourself from abusers and toxic relationships. The first is to recognize the common patterns and behaviors. Abusers will frequently “love bomb” their targets – overwhelming them with affection and praise. They want to establish themselves as The Good Guy/Girl, making their mark feel so special and cared for that they’re willing to ignore potential warning signs. In fact, this is an incredibly common recruiting tactic You may have noticed this behavior with people online, especially folks who get brought into toxic groups like the alt-right, GamerGate or ComicsGate; it’s a way of abusing the natural instinct to prioritize relationships that make us feel good. So if someone is far more affectionate and effusive than is really appropriate for your relationship – especially if you’ve heard bad things about them before – then it’s good to put your guard up.
Abusers will also try to isolate their targets from their friends and social circles. This is rarely overt, especially at first. Instead at first they’ll start to try to cast doubt on people you’re close to, especially people who might be the ones to tell you that this new person’s bad news. It often starts as “reasonable” questions that are designed to make you question the other person’s motivation. “Well of course he’s not happy you’re with me. He’s got a crush on you; he’s just jealous that I’m with you instead of him.” “I dunno, they seem like someone who starts a lot of drama.” The more they can get you to doubt the sincerity or motivation of people you trust, the less likely you are to go to them when you want confirmation that your gut says something may be wrong.
Abusers will also try to get you to doubt your own instincts and feelings. When we think of terms like gaslighting we think of overt or obvious lies – “I never said that,” “why do you make me do this?” What we often don’t think of are the subtle ways that abusers will try to undermine your confidence in your own judgment. This tends to start off with questioning your judgement calls or asking are you sure you didn’t contribute to the problem?Are you absolutely positive that’s what they meant? Maybe you misunderstood. The less secure you feel in your own instincts, the easier it is for them to twist things up so that things are your fault.
But the tricky thing about being on the lookout for signs of a toxic relationship or abusive behavior is that non-abusive behavior can sometimes trip those alarms and set your Spidey-sense tingling. And while well-meaning folks may do something that feels like it could be abusive by accident, inveterate abusers will be quick to give you very plausible reasons why their behavior is nothing of the kind.
Which is why the best way to protect yourself from abusers and toxic relationships is to build and maintain strong boundaries. Abusers aren’t like movie villains, who long to break someone’s will and will devote themselves to trying to suborn a specific person. They’re predators, and they don’t want to have to exert themselves to get what they want. Someone who’s not afraid to draw a firm line in the sand and refuse to cross it is someone who won’t be easy to manipulate. A person who will refuse to do things that they find objectionable, uncomfortable, or that aren’t their responsibility in the first place are people who are far less likely to swallow the abuser’s bulls
t. Yeah, telling this person “no” may risk the relationship… but the fact that you’re willing to take that risk is a sign that you’re someone who isn’t vulnerable to pressure or manipulation. When you’re not willing to let someone weaponize guilt against you or bulldoze your boundaries because “they know what’s best for you”, you’re showing them that their tricks aren’t going to work on you.
Now maintaining strong boundaries is hard. There will be people – from partners to parents – who will resent and object to the fact that you feel like you can tell them “no”. Even people who we wouldn’t normally think of as toxic will object to the fact that you’ve decided to put your foot down. They will argue with you and badger you and try to guilt or shame you. Others will appeal to your sense of “fairness” or want to be oh so very reasonable. But you don’t need to explain, justify or otherwise give a “sufficient” reason for your boundaries. Your boundaries are not a democracy; you get to set them where you choose and nobody gets to tell you otherwise. Remember: “no” is a complete sentence.
The good thing is, once you’re in the habit of maintaining strong boundaries, you’ll have less to worry about. Having that sense of assuredness and willingness to stand up for yourself has the effect of driving abusers and toxic people away. While there may still be people who try to test your defenses, the people who stick around? Those will be the ones who understand your right to draw the line wherever you choose and who’ll respect it. They’ll be the ones who will show you through their actions that they’re people you can trust.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I am now finding myself in a role I didn’t want, and that is of “the bitchy girlfriend.”
This is a relationship from which I cannot easily extract myself. My long-term partner and I have been friends with this guy for about 5 years. We’re all older, and when I say that I guess I mean “should be past this drama by now.”
Long story short, my partner and I were set to help this guy move into a new apartment on Saturday, mostly consisting of helping him get the heavy stuff up the stairs into his new place. I had had a minor medical procedure which involved anesthesia done on Friday. This procedure had been scheduled and planned for 3 months, so we all knew about it way ahead of time. It was agreed that I would be basically doing light things and holding the door.
The move went well enough and was done in short time. Our friend wanted to go to a bar and drink some beer. I requested someplace that served food because I was feeling slightly nauseated and drained and wanted some soup and ginger ale.
This friend of ours likes to crack jokes. And when I say that, it’s almost as if he is incapable of having any sort of even half-way serious conversation. And I don’t mean discussions about politics or philosophy – I mean normal conversation. Every other comment is a crack or a jab. It gets old.
He also does this thing that I really don’t understand. When the 3 of us go out (the two guys and then me), it’s almost like he targets me. And he did so this right after this move and was jabbing me about “always wanting food” and “she didn’t even do anything to deserve it.” My partner gently suggested that he back off, I had just had a procedure less than 24 hours ago and was feeling under the weather, and that was the cue for our friend to say to me, “so are we all done with it being all about you then?” And with that I just wanted to cry.
It’s confusing because he only does this when the 3 of us go out. If it happens to be just him and me (we’ve gone hiking together on days when my partner didn’t feel up to it), he’s absolutely fine. He only acts this way when my partner is there. And I realize it’s a guy thing to insult each other, to make fun of each other, and I get it. But for some reason, it’s always me who ends up the butt of the jokes. In the past, I would just smile and say nothing or roll my eyes, but the joke is worn very thin.
So now I have decided to put some space between us and not attend these outings with the guys. My partner acknowledged that the jokes go too far sometimes and to try to not take it personally, “it’s a guy thing,” but as I tried to explain to my partner – I’M NOT A GUY. I don’t like to be teased, I don’t like to be jabbed, and what he did felt like an attack. And I spent my entire first part of my life being put down for whatever was convenient – my eyeglasses, my big nose, my big feet, my voice, my clothes, my weight, my whatever. So yes, I’m sensitive and no one gets to say what should or should not hurt me. I have no problems cutting people out of my life, but this one is slightly different because he’s my partner’s friend too. I don’t care if the 2 of them go out together, actually now I’d rather they did, but they always invite me along and now I don’t know how to remove myself gracefully or to even understand something as simple as what the hell is wrong with him.
Don’t Want To be The Killjoy
DEAR DON’T WANT TO BE THE KILLJOY: Your partner’s friend’s an asshole, DWTbTK. Pure and simple. He may think he’s being clever and funny, but to quote John Scalzi, the fail-state of “clever” is “asshole”.
Why is he targeting you? Well, it could be because he’s threatened by your presence and the change in the dynamic that you represent after you started dating his bro. It could be that he thinks you’re oh-so-serious and need to loosen up. Or it could be that he’s going for the person he perceives as being the weakest in the social group. But honestly? The reasons don’t matter; even if he’s doing it because this is his twisted way of trying to show friendship, it’s still not cool. It’s cruel and it’s hurtful and you don’t appreciate it and he can knock it ALL the goddamn way off.
So here’s what I’d suggest. First: refuse the invites to hang out with both of them. Full stop. Don’t worry about bowing out gracefully; just stop agreeing to go, even if you have to be blunt about it. If your partner wants to know why, then you can tell him that it’s because his friend’s an asshole who won’t stop insulting you and you’re not in the mood for being his punching bag for the evening. It doesn’t matter if it’s a “guy thing”, you don’t appreciate it and you don’t want to go through it. If your partner tells you that you shouldn’t take it personally, then you can point out that it’s hard not to when it’s only directed at you and it’s relentless and, regardless, you won’t put up with it. Until he drops his schtick – not “does it to everyone”, not spreads it around more equitably but cut it out completely – you have no interest in ever hanging out with him.
And frankly, your partner should be willing to stand up to their bro and tell him to lay the hell off. The dude’s being rude and disrespectful and nobody likes it or finds it funny. If your partner wants you to be out with the both of them, then they can step the hell up and help end the reason why you don’t want to spend time with this choad.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)