DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I wanted to write to you because I wanted your advice on a situation that’s been bothering me for a few days.
So, one of my closest friends, we’ll call her Britney, has been seeing her coworker, we’ll call him Sam, for a few weeks now. Britney broke up with her boyfriend of 6 years a few months ago. I’ll spare you the gory details but let’s just say it was NOT a clean break. I personally think she’s moved on too fast and hasn’t really allowed herself time to heal, but whatever. She’s an adult. She can make her own mistakes.
Just some background before I get into the meat of this situation: Britney has some SERIOUS self-esteem and self-respect issues. I see it, her parents see it, my boyfriend (who is also very close with her) sees it.
I’m going to try to condense this as much as possible for you. A couple weeks ago, some s--t went down between Britney and Sam when Britney (a previous addict) showed up to work one day messed up. She told me that she had taken a bit too much of her (prescribed) Ativan. Sam said he didn’t know how to react because he’d never been with an addict before, so he shut down and basically ghosted her for a couple days.
Now, a few days ago, Brit came to me and explained everything. I told her that what he did was immature and disrespectful. Sam is almost 27. His story of “I didn’t know how to react” is complete bulls--t and I don’t buy one word of it. He couldn’t even man up enough to have a mature adult conversation with her? Instead, he decided to just keep her in the dark for days so she can drive herself crazy thinking about what she did wrong? Come on, dude. She started defending him and telling me to lay off as I haven’t even met him.
This is her M.O. She thinks that now that he’s given her a reason and apologized, that everything’s okay. But the fact still stands that he disrespected her. I told her that it’s not okay and that she needs to see what an amazing human being she is and to start demanding respect from those she chooses to invest her time and energy into.
We’ve been doing this back-and-forth for years. Every time she asks for my opinion, she yells at me and blows me off if it’s not what she wants to hear. It’s like talking to a brick wall. Every time I try to talk some sense into her, it always goes in one ear and out the other to the point where I kinda feel like “okay, well, what the f--k is the point?” She’s just not gonna listen to what I have to say and do whatever the hell she wants anyway, so why waste my breath.
Now, obviously, this is a direct result of her self-esteem issues. There are times when I find myself getting angry trying to get her to see her worth and what an amazing person she is. I mean, her ex-boyfriend cheated on her multiple times before she finally got the message to leave. Even then, I had to drill it into her head that that is not what love is.
I’m the type of person that when I love, I love HARD. I love this girl like a sister. I love her so much to the point where she’s said it feels like I’m attacking her when I’m simply trying to talk some sense into her. And maybe that’s my fault, maybe I should learn to dial it back but I’m not gonna apologize for being a good friend and telling her what she needs to hear.
All of this to say, am I wrong for telling her that she needs to start respecting herself and demanding that same respect from others? Is there something I can do to help her see what a wonderful human being she is?
–Unapologetic Voice of Reason
DEAR UNAPOLOGETIC VOICE OF REASON: A couple of things, UVR.
Your heart’s clearly in the right place and I don’t doubt your intent behind everything. But holy f--knuts Batman, you are going about all of this in the most counterproductive manner possible.
First, let’s address the current inciting incident. Britney already has substance abuse issues and apparently fell off the wagon. Now, to be clear: I’m not judging her for this. I’ve known addicts, I understand just how hard it can be to break an addiction and how easy it is to relapse. However, if someone hasn’t been in a relationship with an addict before, it can be incredibly intense and off-putting. It’s not an experience everyone has had before and people are going to have complicated and uncomfortable feelings about the whole thing, especially if it’s someone they’ve been dating for six months or less. That’s not in the “weathered the trials and tribulations of a relationship” stage, that’s not even out of the “everything is shiny and new, easy and exciting” stage of New Relationship Energy. Seeing your partner fall off the wagon at that stage can be scary, especially if you’ve never dealt with it before. Doubly so with a prescription drug like Ativan, when the effects of an overdose can include loss of muscle control, disorientation, confusion and trouble breathing.
So, yeah, I’m not entirely surprised that this freaked him out and he needed time to get his head wrapped around what happened. That was likely a scary and unusual situation for him, and it may well have made him question whether — and how — he wants to move forward. Did he handle it in the textbook perfect manner? No… but then again, it’s pretty damn hard to do so if that’s the first time you’ve ever encountered this situation.
But speaking of handling situations, while Sam didn’t exactly cover himself in glory, quite frankly, neither have you. I’m not entirely surprised that Britney got upset with you over the way you responded to this. From the sounds of it, you’re getting all of the information second hand and drawing inferences, ones that she clearly felt were inaccurate. Now, in fairness: people in s--tty or toxic relationships will defend their partners to their friends and family. Trust me: been there, done that, got plenty of personal experience in these matters. But whether or not your inferences were or weren’t accurate, berating her and yelling at her that she was wrong and needs to do exactly what you say is the wrong approach.
Here’s the thing: nobody has ever browbeat someone into breaking up with a toxic partner or respecting themselves more. In fact, this has the opposite effect. Like families or friends who do things to “toughen someone up” or “make them less sensitive”, yelling and criticizing aren’t how you make someone feel better about themselves and respect themselves more. And, quite frankly, it isn’t being helped by the fact that you’re contradicting your own message to her. You’re telling her to respect herself and have boundaries, to not let people treat her badly… but then you get pissed at her when she draws a boundary with you. That’s not her lack of self-esteem talking, that’s her telling you that what you’re doing and the you’re going about it isn’t helping her and she doesn’t appreciate it. But if you ignore those boundaries on the grounds of “well this is for your own good” or “I’m just trying to help”, you’re undermining your own advice by showing that no, some boundaries don’t seem to count. “I love her so much to the point where she’s said it feels like I’m attacking her when I’m simply trying to talk some sense into her” is not the excuse you think it is, especially if she’s asked you for help or advice. That’s not being a good friend, that’s someone who isn’t listening to what their friend is asking for.
Nobody — even people looking for help — appreciates help that starts with “muscle up you wuss” or being beat over the head. In point of fact, what this actually does is cause them to dig their heels in and refuse to listen. Worse, yelling at them, judging them and criticizing them for not making the choices you think they should make means that when they decide they do need help or assistance, they’re not going to come to you. All you’ve done is shown them that any sort of admission that they were wrong is going to come with a heaping helping of “I told you so” and judgement, when what they need is compassion.
You can’t “tough love” someone into leaving a s--tty partner. You can’t argue or debate them into it either. The only time someone is going to leave their partner — whether they’re a cheating piece of s--t or an actual abuser — is when they’re ready. You can’t speed that day along with yelling or harsh truths. One very common reason why people will stay with s--tty partners is because they don’t want to deal with the judgement and comments from friends and loved ones. The fear of that judgement, the embarrassment of having let things go on as long as they did and the pain of hearing that criticism will cause them to shy away and stay with the situation they know. Does this make logical sense? F--k no it doesn’t. But we’re not talking about logic, we’re talking about people and people are not logical. The way you make it possible for them to leave is by providing them with care, compassion and support; when they’re ready to make the leap, you want to make sure they have a soft place to land.
And again: I speak from experience here. I’ve got folks in my life who still give me s--t about my toxic relationship from nearly two decades ago. You know who I go to when I need advice, comfort or solace about heartbreak or emotional issues?
Literally anyone else.
Doesn’t matter that they love me — and I know they do. Doesn’t matter that they want what they feel is best for me. What matters is that they have made it clear that a relationship that hurt me deeply and caused me trauma is still fair game to bring up and toss out into casual conversation like it was nothing and that means I wouldn’t feel safe bringing anything else sensitive to them. Why would I if it means another f--k-knows how many years of having it brought up again and again?
You want Britney to start treating herself with respect? Start by modeling what that looks like. You want her to have compassion for herself? Show compassion first. And if you want her to have stronger boundaries and not let people walk all over her, respect her boundaries, even when you disagree with them. Support and help doesn’t look like yelling at her and telling her what to do, it’s encouraging her when she makes the right call, helping her pick herself up when she stumbles and being someone she can turn to for understanding and care, not judgement and criticism.
Want to see a great example of this in action? Watch Harley Quinn and pay attention to the relationship between Harley and Poison Ivy. They’re both f--ked up individuals — to put it mildly — and it ain’t perfect, but Ivy’s friendship and support of Harley is a big part of what helps her leave. And — I might point out — it doesn’t involve browbeating her or yelling at her and justifying it because Ivy cares SO much.
Your yelling at Britney isn’t going to raise her self esteem or inspire her to new heights. That just makes her feel attacked and like she can’t do anything right. Care, support and encouragement will.
Want to help your friend? Start by being a better friend to her.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org