(Doctor’s Note: today’s letter deals with abusive relationships.)
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I would normally dispense with the niceties and whatnot, but I feel like I’m in the middle of a potential crisis.
The long story made short is that I’m a 23 year old guy who had just graduated from college with a bachelor’s, and there’s a female friend of mine – “Annie” — who had recently turned 29 (although if you ask her, she’s around 32 but that’s a detail I’ll get to later).
I’ve become increasingly concerned about her, to put it lightly. We’ve built up a rather strong friendship over the course of well over a year, but it seems like something has been very off over the past few months.
I know this because she was willing to become good friends because she gave me her number to text her (before that, we were DMing each other via Instagram). We’ve shared quite a lot of similar interests in just about a lot of topics (ranging from our favorite movies to particular styles of art), as well as recommended each other various new things to try. We’ve even vented to each other about our more personal secrets.
But like I said, it seems like there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.
I noticed that Annie wasn’t really reading my messages or my DMs anymore plus her overall activity on Instagram and Tumblr have been significantly reduced, so I decided to email her. Some time ago, I asked her (through email of course) if she would be able to come to my graduation ceremony as well as let me stay over at her place (I graduated with honors and there was a cosplay convention on that same weekend as my graduation, and the con was about a couple of hours from where I live). I was actually kind of expecting “no” because she wasn’t used to people staying over at her place, nor was she the kind of person to attend events with loud music and tons of people.
(In fact, neither am I, but graduation is pretty much a huge stepping stone that deserves commemoration).
The reason why wasn’t what I expected at all. She declined both offers because as of this writing, she has a fiancé that she’s been with for about three years now, and if her fiancé found out that another guy (even a male friend) took her to an event or let him stay at her place, then in her own exact words, “he would be significantly less than pleased… to put it lightly.” She then added that if her fiancé were to find out that we had been messaging each other as much as we had been in the past, then she would be forced to block me from all social media.
This wasn’t the only strange behavior I’ve seen from her. She has mentioned that she’s incredibly introverted and antisocial, but at least when we were talking more, she would at least take the time to talk when she was available. Not the case anymore. In fact, she was perfectly willing to give me her number in the past, but now it seems like she blocked my number for no apparent reason. She then DMed me on Instagram about that, trying to brush it off as a bug on her phone.
When another friend of mine tried to reach out to Annie, to check if this were a potentially abusive relationship, the she straight-up blocked them.
Finally, her whole demeanor has become a lot more… subdued, to say the least. I remember when we were texting until the wee hours of the night (it helps that she’s a night owl), she would get very emotional and very passionate about various topics. Nowadays, her personality seems to have just deflated into a shadow of her former self. She’s way less emotional now, and has become somewhat impersonal, almost robotic.
I’ve talked to another friend who recently got engaged , and they said that being engaged can come with less engagement with other people (especially on social media). According to them, it does kind of come with the territory. I do figure that’s understandable, except this feels less “guess they can’t stop bangin’” and more “blink twice if your soul is being held in a jar.”
Initially, I just brushed off all of this strange behavior from her because she recently became a business owner who works with several different countries (specifically China). Knowing that and her night owl tendencies, I could understand why she would be less active because I imagine that it’s a very demanding job that requires several hours of commitment. I mean, we’re both adults here, we both have real-world work to do.
In fact, I would even understand her having a fiancé and would have otherwise backed off because that kind of relationship requires a special kind of commitment… if her fiancé in question hadn’t been showing some serious red flags.
I just want to confirm that these are in fact red flags, and that I’m not going crazy:
– Annie telling me that her fiancé would be significantly less than pleased if any guy (including a male friend) took her to an event or let a male friend stay at her place.
– Annie telling me that if her fiancé found out we’ve been messaging each other as much as we had been in the past, then her fiancé would force her to have her block me from all forms of contact
– Her suddenly becoming way more willing to burn bridges with people, even with people she’s called friends for years (I can’t confirm this, but it seems like she’s unfollowed more friends who happened to be abuse survivors)
– Her outright disappearing from all social media and forms of contact (including her removing me from her Pokémon GO friends list for no apparent reason); she mentioned she’s a business owner who works into the wee hours of the night, but this disappearance is unusual even for her (I mean, she’s a diehard Pokémon fan for life!)
– Her apparently changing her age online to be “older” than she actually is (she has a history of dating men older than she is because she apparently finds herself unable to connect with guys around her own age, but this was well before I came into the picture)
After she told me about all the things with her fiancé and whatnot, I sent her a response email telling her about the potential red flags their relationship is showing, as well as all the strange behaviors that she’s been exhibiting over the past couple of months.
I haven’t heard from her since.
Interestingly enough, as of this writing, she hasn’t even unfollowed me on Instagram (she decided to follow me after her account had gotten hacked by Russian spammers; that was cleared up within a matter of hours), not even after I sent her that last email or after she blocked that friend who reached out to her.
This isn’t like she’s just “unfamiliar” with abusive relationships in the past; if anything, she has quite a history with them. Apparently when she was approximately closer to my age several years ago, she was in an extremely abusive relationship with a man who was about twice her age at that time. She doesn’t really want to talk about the details, but it more or less left her impoverished as soon as she left. Not too long after that, she met another guy and they started dating soon after. This now-ex had psychologically and sexually abused her, including forcing her to take alcohol and hard drugs to force her into caving in. As a result, she ended up alienating people she cared about, did some things that were uncomfortable and stranger for her, and developed C-PTSD as a result.
After all of this, she even created a sort of charity for abuse survivors and even creates hypnosis tapes for those survivors in order to help them recover (she’s a certified hypnotherapist, complete with degrees).
Additionally, I even did some asking around on online forums and chat rooms in order to determine if her fiancé’s behavior was indeed becoming abusive, and the overall consensus was pretty much “yes, the relationship is toxic AF and she should nope the hell out of there ASAP.”
While all of this might be bad enough, here comes the part where I screwed up. After her mentioning that she had a fiancé, I was in panic mode because of past friendships that would cease to exist because that friend would immediately ghost me after that relationship had started (that’s another story entirely), and as a result, I let it slip that I was planning on asking her out someday. At first, I saw her as someone that I could summon up the courage to ask out, but as time passed, I got to know her more and saw her as the good friend I now have, to the point where I simply forgot to ask her out.
As a result, she got scared and put “romantically unavailable” on her Instagram bio (apparently because two other friends had tried to ask her out around the same time; I honestly didn’t know about this until another friend told me).
However, the number-blocking and deletion from her Pokémon GO friends list happened way before I let that slip out, so there’s no correlation here.
Besides, if she had been for fiancé for about that length of time, asking her out would have been a moot point back then.
I know you’re going to summon the Chair Leg of Truth on me for this cardinal sin, but screw it, I honestly don’t care anymore because first and foremost, she’s my friend. I care about her as an individual, and I most certainly care about her safety (especially her safety).
I suppose I could sum it up to that being an inconvenient crush, but who knows? But then again, not knowing is part of the human experience, isn’t it?
It’s just that I really think she’s an awesome person, that’s it. In fact, she’s actually one of the few people I can actually talk to not just about personal items, but also about intellectually stimulating topics in such a way that I really can’t with most other people.
However, I am myself NOT ready for another relationship due to baggage that I won’t get into here (because then this will be a hell of a lot longer than it needs to be). I don’t feel emotionally ready for it, is what I’m trying to say. I even have plans to see a therapist to address this kind of baggage. On top of that, something like “getting into her pants” is NOT something I’ve thought about at all, not when she could be in potential danger.
Besides, it’s not like I can just drop her and move on with my life either, because like I said, her life could potentially be in danger.
In any case, I’ve asked my other friends for advice on what to do about this, and the best advice I’ve received so far is to just give my friend space. That’s… exactly what I did. I haven’t spoken to her in weeks, although I still find myself worrying about her every now and then, to the point where I check up on her to see that she’s doing ok (and that she hasn’t blocked me yet in case I finally decide to reach out to her).
I really don’t know what else to do. I guess I’m just looking for additional insight (especially from a professional), but more important, I just need advice on what I can do for my friend who may have potentially trapped herself into yet another abusive relationship.
Thank you for your time.
Stuck in the Middle with a Scorpion
DEAR STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH A SCORPION: Hoo boy. There’s a lot to unpack here, SitMwS and I have a lot of questions.
But let’s take it step by step.
First and foremost: Assuming everything is as you say it is, then yes, it sounds an awful lot like she’s in a toxic, if not outright abusive relationship. A lot of the behavior you’re describing sounds like someone who’s being isolated by an abuser. Take your friend burning so many bridges and cutting back on everybody in her life. While everybody’s different, getting engaged usually doesn’t also involve cutting ties with one’s friend. Someone who’s in an abusive relationship, however, often will suddenly withdraw from friends, from family and from activities they used to love.
This is entirely deliberate. Abusers will frequently try to cut their victims off from friends and family. The more isolated that their victim is, the more they come to rely on the abuser. It also helps keep them under the abuser’s thumb. By cutting their victim off from their friends, the victim has fewer voices warning them about the abuser’s behavior. Just as importantly, if the victim is cut off from her friends and family, then she has fewer available resources and fewer places to turn if and when she decides it’s time to get the hell out.
Abusers will frequently frame this in ways that may seem reasonable. It’s rarely “I don’t want you talking to anyone who isn’t me” – though there are those who will make it about how jealous they get. More often though, abusers will try to poison the well and sew discord and mistrust while convincing their victims to cut ties – the better to inoculate themselves against accusations of abuse. So they’ll frame the request as “they’re bad friends” or “they’re trying to break us up because they’re interested in you” or “they’re trying to turn you against me because REASONS”. This way, if someone tries to point out how awful his behavior is they can say “see, they said exactly what I said they would.”
Unfortunately, if her fiancé IS abusing her, then you played into this narrative by Nice-Guying your way through this. It’s much easier for him to sew doubt and mistrust by pointing out that you were hoping to ask her out at some point. This puts pretty much everything about your relationship with her into question, like asking if you can stay at her place, even knowing she was probably going to say “no”. Now anything you have to say about him is going to be through the filter of “yeah but he wants to date me,” regardless of whether that’s true any more or not.
I also want to come back to something you mentioned earlier: you’re surprised by this because she’s familiar with abusive relationships, having been abused before. This, unfortunately isn’t uncommon; a number of victims of abuse – especially as children – will end up in other abusive relationships. This can actually put something of a whammy on people who find themselves in abusive relationships; they don’t want to believe or accept it because they should supposedly “know better”. They believe they shouldn’t be the kind of person who’d get abused, especially again. It’s incredibly difficult to say “yes, this happened to me”. It’s even harder to say “It happened to me again,” especially to friends who may have pointed it out before. This mix of denial, shame and embarrassment can make it harder for them to decide to get out.
And it is hard to leave an abusive relationship. Abusers are very good at getting into their victims’ heads and convincing them that things are better and it’s all going to be fine now. They’ll lovebomb their victim and reinitiate a honeymoon period where they’re on their best behavior and it can feel like things are getting better. This lasts long enough for the victim to recommit and let their guard down… and then the cycle of abuse begins again. A victim of abuse – physical or emotional – often will leave and go back to their abuser multiple times before they leave for good. This can be maddening for their friends because… well, shouldn’t they know better by now? This cycle of leaving and going back often grinds people down, to the point that they’ll sometimes throw their hands up and say “fine, you know what, you chose this, I’m out.”
Which further isolates the victim.
Now someone call Sir Mix-A-Lot because there’s a huge “but” coming.
BUT. That’s all assuming that’s what’s going on here. Yeah, the activity that you’re describing all sounds like very typical abusive red flags.
They ALSO sound an awful lot like someone who’s trying to wave off a dude she barely knows who’s way more invested in her than she is in him.
You’ve known her for a year and over the course of that year — a year in which you’d been planning to ask her out. That would be a year in which you’ve known she’s had a fiancé.
And her dialing back contact with you has been happening over the course of several months. And the reduction in contact with you seems to have started around the time you invited her to your graduation and asked if you could stay at her place
All this raises other red flags with me.
Straight talk: a lot of the things you describe could be someone who’s giving soft excuses as to why she doesn’t want you visiting or staying over or wanting to dial back her relationship because you’ve been getting way too intense for her comfort.
Frankly, it wouldn’t be the first time that somebody wanted to turn down a crush and shifted the blame to a jealous partner. The increasing ways she’s disconnected from you – and the lame excuses – could be depression, it could be a way of trying to put boundaries between the two of you… the possibilities are fairly robust. Her withdrawing from the various friends could well be because she’s getting tired of a bunch of folks getting wound up by someone telling her that she’s being abused.
The truth is that there’s a lot that’s pretty damn ambiguous here. First of all, you’re getting a tiny sliver of her life and extrapolating worlds of information from that without any real justification for those conclusions.
There are loads going on that you don’t see and that you don’t know. And let’s be honest here: you’ve got some motivated reasoning going on here to want it to be abuse and not just her rejecting you.
But before everyone gets angry in the comments, all of the things I just mentioned? That’s part of what makes it so damn hard for an outsider who wants to help and support their friend. All of the potential ambiguity, the potential other reasons for the suspicious behavior… all of that muddies the water and makes it hard to know how to respond. And even if you are 100% correct, they may not see it that way yet.
That’s why the hardest part for someone on the outside is that, at the end of the day, there’s very little that you can do to get somebody out of an abusive relationship before they’re ready. You can’t “rescue” someone from an abusive relationship. The only person who can make the decisions for their life is them. The only thing you can do is provide support and a non-judgemental space. If she comes to you – IF – and asks for help, then you can provide her with resources like the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 and help her create a safety plan. But those have to be her choice, and pushing her could very well push her away.
So if you’re right and she’s being abused, then you’re going to have to accept there’s not much you can do. Check out the resources for friends and family of domestic abuse victims at the National Domestic Violence Hotline (https://www.thehotline.org/help/help-for-friends-and-family/). Call them yourself if you want to talk out potential options and how you can best help your friend if she asks for it. You can contact her and let her know that you care, that you’re worried about her, that you’ll always be there if she needs you and that she can reach out to you at any time for any reason.
But then… you have to leave the ball in her court.
Hopefully you’re wrong. Hopefully this is all a wacky misunderstanding and everything is just fine and there’s a logical and sensible reason for all of this. But if there isn’t… well, the best thing you can do is be the friend she needs, when she needs it.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com)