DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: My wife and I are in a difficult situation, and I hoped you could offer some perspective. We have a mutual friend (let’s call him S), who I met through ballroom dancing (S and I are both dance instructors), and have known for about 7 years now. My wife has been taking lessons with S for about a year, and they are most of the way through a showcase performance they’ve been working on. Yesterday, she came home and told me the following story:
She was midway through her lesson with S, when she mentioned she was going to have breast reduction surgery. He “jokingly” expressed sadness at this, and added, “I’ll have to grab one before that happens as a farewell.” She felt uncomfortable, but laughed it off, as their relationship is based on humour and sometimes a bit of harmless flirting. Then later, still in the (empty) studio, he DID grab one. And then laughed it off like it was part of the joke. My wife was understandably shocked, and couldn’t come up with anything more than a passive-aggressive response. She allowed the lesson to finish to avoid the risk of things turning ugly.
A few other important details:
1. This is not the first time he’s done something like this: He was previously inappropriate towards her one night a couple years ago when we were at his place and got drunk on too much scotch – he apologized afterwards, and she didn’t see him for several months. I also just found out he’d previously behaved inappropriately towards another instructor, but management defended him when she tried to out him (he’s a big money-maker at the studio).
2. It’s possible that his actions were captured on the security camera. I want to have the tapes pulled (as far as I’m concerned, our friendship is over), but my wife is still sorting out what she wants to do and I’m letting her take the lead on this one (while still offering advice, of course).
So I guess the question is, what’s the appropriate response to this? My wife feels terrible because she wishes she could have stood up for herself more, and she definitely wants to cut ties but is also frustrated because of how much work went into the dance routine they made together. I’m being as supportive as I can, while trying to figure out how to not punch him in the face when I inevitably see him at work. We even had a tabletop session planned with other friends this weekend, and I’m trying to figure out a graceful way to just bow out of it. My wife said she’s fine if I just behave like everything’s normal, but I’m not buying it, and it’s not possible anyway.
Any clarity you can offer would be wonderful, thank you.
- Furious Husband
DEAR FURIOUS HUSBAND: First and foremost: I’m so sorry this happened to your wife, and your wife should forgive herself for her reaction to this. Her reaction to de-escalate the situation with a passive-aggressive comment is an incredibly common one. There were a lot of factors at play in that scenario. For starters, there’s the pure shock that this happened out of the clear blue sky. Many times when incidents like this happen, the brain vapor locks; it’s so unexpected and so out of the ordinary that it’s difficult to believe it’s actually happening. By the time your brain reboots and accepts that yes, this s
thead grabbed your boob, he’s already pulled back and started laughing about it and while your glands are dumping adrenaline into your bloodstream that causes your muscles to stiffen up and your senses to sharpen.
If you’re not used to this sensation, it’s incredibly stressful. It’s part of why our response to danger is fight, flight or freeze. It’s also why first responders, police officers and soldiers all train for emergency scenarios and women’s self-defense classes run drills with simulated attacks and rapists. All that practice is to train people to respond when their adrenaline kicks in; their brains may lock up but they’ve practiced so often their bodies respond automatically. If you’re not used to having been grabbed or groped like that, the odds are greater that you’re going to freeze instead. And that’s perfectly normal.
Then there’s the fact that she’s alone with him in an empty studio. And while they may be friends with a long history together, the combination of his sudden decision to grope her and the fact that he’s almost certainly larger, heavier and stronger than her is going to put her in an uncomfortable position. On the one hand, yeah they’ve known each other for years, so there’s a presumed level of trust… but on the other hand, he just violated her trust and boundaries and seems to think it’s funny. If she makes him angry, there’s a non-zero chance that things could escalate very gooddamn quickly in ways that would make things much worse.
So while I can completely understand your wife’s disappointment in herself, the fact of the matter is that she didn’t do anything wrong. She was dealing with a situation she’s never been in before and had an entirely normal and natural reaction to it.
Similarly, I can understand the desire to haul off and deck the guy, PH, but as tempting as it is, it will only make things worse. One of the ugly truths about this sort of sexual assault — and it is assault — is how rarely people will take it seriously. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard women complain about guys getting grabby and being told to laugh it off, that it wasn’t that big of a deal or that if she didn’t slap him right then and there or immediately report him to someone, then it couldn’t have been that bad. And, straight talk: the odds are good that this is exactly what you would hear from people if you smacked the taste out of his mouth. All that would happen is that you’d get fired and your ex-friend would go on blithely wondering why you freaked out on him over what just wasn’t that big of a deal.
What you both should do is cut this guy loose with the quickness. While I can understand her hesitancy, what with all that time she put into her dance routine, that’s just the sunk-cost fallacy kicking in. This isn’t the first time he’s been grossly inappropriate to her. Once is forgivable, if he’s made a good faith effort to make amends, change his behavior and ensure that it never happens again. Twice — three, if you count the gross comment he made before he groped her — is a sign that this dude needs to be kicked to the curb with the trash. He’s had his chance and s
t got worse. It’s time for him to go.
I do think that, if she feels safe doing so, that your wife should let him know just why he’s persona non grata in your lives now. He should know that his exile from your life is entirely his fault. Not only will this help your wife feel like she’s gotten something back after what he did, but it helps cut off any rationalization he might have about his actions. If you were to confront him about this first, he might think that it couldn’t be that bad because your wife didn’t say anything. Her telling him off cuts the legs of that defense right out from under him. It’ll drive home that actions have consequences and that what he did was unacceptable and it might inspire him to get his s
t together and hopefully never grab the boob of someone who hasn’t given him boob-grabbing permission.
You, on the other hand, can be colder than a penguin’s ass to him at work. If he comes to talk to you, tell him to piss off. If he wants to talk it out with you, then shut that s
t down; you’re not the person he needs to apologize to, your wife is. And frankly she may not be in a forgiving mood, which is entirely her right.
As for the tabletop session… go ahead and come up with a reason you can’t make it. I wouldn’t tell them why unless and until your wife gives you clearance to talk about it. This is her story, after all, and it’s her right to decide how it gets rolled out and to whom.
If he’s a regular member of this group, then it may be worth telling the others that you and he are on the outs and you’re not comfortable with him around right now. If they want details, all you have to say is that he’s done some stuff that was unacceptable; that’s all they need to know until your wife gives you the OK to talk about it. And if they don’t feel like that this is enough to cut him loose or feel like they don’t want to have the drama of kicking him out… then, as much as it may suck, it may be time to find a different gaming group.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org