DOCTOR’S NOTE: Today’s column involves discussion of abusive relationships.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m looking for some advice. I think my best friend is in an emotionally abusive relationship, but I don’t know how to talk to him about it. I don’t know if he just doesn’t see it, or if he’s choosing to ignore the red flags for some reason.
Let’s call my friend Gary and his girlfriend Amanda.
They’ve been together for about 4 years now. At the time, they were both doing their degrees at the same university. They hit it off and at first things seemed good. When he brought her to meet our friend group, everyone hit it off quite well, she seemed nice. My wife noted once that she thought that Amanda was a bit controlling when we were playing board games once, but that was really the only negative interaction that any of us had noticed.
We first started to notice issues after they moved in together, about 6 months into their relationship. Gary started to disappear from our social circle, little by little. Of course some of that is to be expected with a new relationship, you want to spend more time with your new partner, but this seemed extreme. He basically dropped out from any kind of online gaming entirely, unless we pre-scheduled the game a few weeks in advance. Even then, sometimes he would bail on pre-planned games at literally the last minute. He also gained a curfew. Whenever he would actually make it to our weekly board game night (and not bail at the last second), he had a set time he had to be home by, lest he get in trouble. Once, Gary had to bail on a “pre-approved” game night we were having because every time he went to leave the house, she would start crying until he agreed to stay.
About a year into their relationship, Amanda got accepted to a Master’s program in Canada, and Gary was unable to go with her. They decided to try a long distance relationship, but she agreed only on the condition that he move in with her brother as a roommate. To this day, we’re still not fully sure what that was about. Once she left for school Gary became, well, Gary again. He switched his major and seemed to really enjoy his new school program. He also stopped bailing on events and hangouts at literally the last second. He would still disappear whenever Amanda came to town to visit, but that made more sense since they hadn’t seen each other in person for months at a time.
The one time I really got any insight into his home life with Amanda was one time when we were out drinking. We were talking about video games, and he asked what my wife thought of my gaming. He seemed somewhat surprised when my response was “She doesn’t really mind, so long as I don’t spend literally all my time playing”. This was when I learned that apparently gaming, and many of his other hobbies, were essentially verboten when Amanda was around. He basically had a small list of things that were “approved”, and she had to be involved in every single one of them. After I expressed some surprise/shock at this, he quickly changed the subject, and has never really brought it up since.
Once her Master’s degree was finished 2 years later, Amanda got a job in another city in our state. At this point Gary only had one year left in his new degree. He dropped out of school to move with her to the new city, and has not finished his program since. We play online board games from time to time, and his video game time seems to have increased somewhat (I don’t know if this was a concession for moving, or what), but it’s basically back to the way things were when they were first living together.
And that’s basically where we are now. I know I’m not the only one in our friend circle who is concerned about his relationship with Amanda.
So, thoughts? Amy I reading too much into this? I get that every relationship is different, but some of the restrictions she places on him seem extreme. I just want my friend to be happy, but part of me wonders why he’s putting up with all this. How do I talk to him about this, to see if he’s actually happy in his relationship? Is it even my place to do so?
Worried About My Friend
DEAR WORRIED ABOUT MY FRIEND: Well s--t, this sounds familiar, WAMF.
No, seriously: I was in a seriously toxic relationship back in the bad old days and a lot of the things you’re describing were things that I experienced as well. My girlfriend didn’t “approve” of tabletop RPGs like D&D and Mage, so I wasn’t “allowed” to play them. This, of course, meant I couldn’t see my friends nearly as often as I would’ve liked. On the day I got “approval” to spend playing in my friends’ campaign, she came and quite literally pulled me away on an obviously flimsy pretext. When we were apart, I had to call at various points of the day and I was not “allowed” to go or hang up until she was ready to end the call.
Many of my friends, in fact, pointed out how visibly I’d change when I’d get a phone call and realize that it was her. “Like watching a beach ball deflate,” as one of my friends put it. There were a lot of things I was either not “allowed” to do — which is to say, were highly discouraged and enforced with threats (implied and otherwise), but would be held up as my “choice” because I could still do them. Just. Y’know. If I were willing to risk she might decide this was the night to go find someone who would “treat her right”.
Needless to say, my emotional and mental health improved rather dramatically after we broke up.
So, yeah, WAMF, I would say that at the very least, Gary is dating someone incredibly toxic at the very least. Is it possible that he’s dealing with full-fledged abuse behind closed doors and just isn’t saying anything? Yeah, I’d say there’s a definite chance of it. Men in particular tend to be unwilling to talk about just how bad things are when they’re in an abusive relationship. The idea that men could be abused, mentally or physically, by women is considered laughable by many; if you admit to how bad things are, you may as well admit to not being a “real man”. This makes it much, much harder for guys in horrible relationships to reach out to others.
But that’s if you can get them to recognize that they’re in a toxic or abusive relationship in the first place. Speaking for myself, if you’d told me that I was in a toxic relationship, I wouldn’t have believed you. I would’ve had any number of excuses; you don’t know what she’s like, it only seems bad from the outside, she has her reasons to be jealous/insecure/controlling/whatever. In many cases, it’s not even “When A Man Loves a Woman”, it’s The Offspring’s “Self-Esteem”. After all, the more you suffer, the more it shows you really care… yeah?
That desire to deny what’s going on, to not want to admit that you’re the sort of person who gets “stuck” in these kind of relationships goes bone deep, especially for men. It’s bad enough to feel like you’re being dragged around by the nose by your significant other; accepting that it’s toxic or you’re being abused stabs directly at your ego and concept of yourself as a man. And the feeling that you could stop this at any time but don’t… well that makes it even more humiliating. In a very real and perverse way, it’s easier to just pretend it’s not bad and you’re ok with it than to face the ego-destroying truth.
This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why being on the outside looking in is so frustrating. You feel like you should be able to do something. You want to talk it out over beers, stage an intervention, hell, you want to subject them to the full Ludovico Technique to force them to see what the hell is going on. But all that you get is pushback from the very friend you’re trying to help. And that’s if you’re lucky; there’re plenty of times when their partner will catch wind — or he’ll tell them directly — and they’ll act to isolate them from you entirely. After all, the last thing they want is for you to have more influence on your bro than they do.
And unfortunately, one of the hard truths is that you can’t do anything… not directly. The harder you push, the harder they’ll push back. People don’t leave until they’re ready to, and that can take a long goddamn time. Even if their partner isn’t holding something hostage — parental rights, the life of a pet, whatever — people have a hard time pulling the trigger and ending a relationship, even when it desperately needs to end. Until that day comes, there isn’t much you can do about it.
However, there are things you can do to, if not speed that day along, smooth the process by which Gary will start being ready to leave. First and foremost: don’t call what he’s going through “abuse”, not yet. It seems stupid, but that word’s going to be like saying “Niagara Falls”; it’s going to trigger an immediate shutdown. The same goes for talking s--t about Amanda; this will just put him on the defensive, and it’ll work into any “of course they’re talking s--t about me, they never liked me” narrative she decides to spin. No amount of insulting her, denigrating her or calling her out is going to help, it will only hurt. He’s going to be resistant to the idea that she’s awful — even if she objectively is — because of both the time he’s sunk into this relationship and what it says about him that she could be this awful and he’s with her. Getting on his case about her is just going to end up setting a frame that will make him worry that you think badly of him because he’s still with her. That means he’s going to not trust you or feel comfortable coming to you when he’s ready to leave. You need to avoid this at all costs. He needs an ally he feels safe coming to and opening up to, and that will never happen if he thinks you either look down on him or that you’re going to bust his balls over this.
What you can do, however, is lay some of the groundwork. You can tell him that hey, it seems like he’s not happy these days. You notice he doesn’t get to hang out with you (virtually) the way he used to and that he seems like he’s just not himself and is everything ok?
Is this going to make him sit up and take notice? No, probably not. What it will do, however, is at least let him know that other people are noticing a change in him and that change is worrying them. It might — and I stress might — plant a seed that will start to bloom and help him realize how bad things are. But if he pushes back and says “no, everything’s fine, we’re fine, we’re all fine here, how’re you…?” then just say “OK, well, we felt like maybe things weren’t ok and we were worried. And you know if anything’s bothering you or you feel down or you just need to talk, I am always ready to listen, no matter what, no matter when.” And then just let the topic drop.
The key bit of information that you are conveying isn’t “hey, you’re being abused”. It’s “hey, I am explicitly on your side, I am ready for you to confide in me when you feel the need. I will listen without judgement and be the safe person you can talk to about this who won’t mock you, question you or make you feel bad about yourself over this.” Because what he needs more than the senses-clearing dope-slap you want to provide is the knowledge that he can open up about this without getting s--t for it. He needs to know that you are on his side no matter what. And if that day comes — and it may be a long goddamn time — you’ll be there to be his support.
And that’s the important thing to remember: you’re the support class in this scenario. You’re there to buff him when he’s feeling weak, carry him along when he needs the hand and make sure he’s got the resources he needs to get clear. But the only person who can pull him out of this relationship is him. Make sure he knows you’re always there for him, make sure he always has some way of contacting you and when that day finally comes, make sure he knows that you’re ready to help haul him out of the fire.
Here’s to hoping that day’s sooner, rather than later.
Write back to let us know how things are going with Gary.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org