DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: My friends and I have a problem and we hope you can solve it. We’ve got a friend – let’s call him Carson. Carson’s a great guy, he’s been my friend for years and he’s a valued part of our social circle. Carson’s not the problem… his girlfriend “Molly” is.
We don’t like her, at all. I don’t really have any better way to describe Molly except to say that she’s just a b--ch. You can’t have a conversation around her that she doesn’t try to take over and she talks over everyone. She makes everything about her, constantly. If you had a problem, she’s had a bigger one and so much worse. If you had a good day, well better hope she didn’t have a bad one or she’ll remind you about how lucky you are because SOME people (except she means her) had a bad one or have some horrible thing in their lives and it’s rude of you to be so happy about your thing.
She’s an Expert In Everything (she looked it up on Google once or read some Tumblr post on it) and will correct people who actually know what they’re talking about. She’ll lecture folks about all of their sins for not being woke enough or liking “problematic” things, criticize you for talking about things she doesn’t view as being good or pure enough and remind you that SHE would never do such things, that’s for bad people. And if you point out that she did the exact same thing, then she’ll have any number of reasons why it didn’t count when SHE did it. And of course, she has no problem making these constant left-handed compliments or passive-aggressive remarks about people. I think you could say she’s negging us, except I don’t think she’s interested in ANYONE that way.
Everything has to be exactly how she wants it and if it’s not perfect, she’ll throw a tantrum. She won’t rant and rave (unless you’re a waiter who didn’t get her order “right”), she’ll get passive-aggressive and pout and give folks the silent treatment if you’re lucky. If you’re not, she’ll start complaining constantly and just be the biggest wet blanket while the rest of us are trying to have a good time. Then Carson has to try to make her feel better which usually involves a lot of apologizing and promising how he’s going to make it up to her and “fixing” things becomes incredibly inconvenient for everyone. So if we want to hang out with Carson, it means we’re stuck with whatever Molly’s willing to do and nothing else.
Normally we’d just ignore her or try to avoid her but she is ALWAYS around. She won’t let Carson out of her sight and if he’s out on his own, he has to check in with her constantly. She has no problem texting him and demanding he drop whatever he’s doing for her, but if you do anything to inconvenience her in any way, she’s going to demand that you account for yourself and listen while she explains why you were wrong. And if you object, that just proves how wrong you are and why she’s right to correct you. She’s doing it to make you better, you see.
Honestly, we’re worried about saying anything to Carson because, much as I love the guy, he’s a complete puss when it comes to her. He’s not the most assertive guy even before he met Molly but he’s gone completely spineless since he started dating her. We’re worried that if we say anything, she’s just going to start forbidding him from seeing us. It’s hard enough getting time with him without him as it is.
Dr, we tried. I swear we did. We tried to give her a chance, and we’re all thoroughly sick of her. What do we do? How do we tell our friend that his girlfriend’s a b--ch, without her just pulling him away from us?
DEAR SAVING SILVERMAN: Hoooo boy.
OK, SS, I’m gonna level with you: reading your letter was rough because I’ve been there, I’ve done that and I owned the T-shirt factory. The problem is that I was Carson and this Molly sounds far too much like my ex.
Now, I’ve talked about my own experiences in a toxic relationship before, but there’s one aspect that I want to zero in on: I knew that my friends didn’t like her much. The problem is that I wasn’t ready to hear from them that this was a bad scene. I wasn’t in a place where I could actually recognize just how bad things were, no matter what my friends said. I got very good at rationalizing their reasons away, explaining – to myself or others – why they were mistaken or misunderstood her and it wasn’t that bad. There was always a perfectly good reason why this thing or that thing she did was actually acceptable if people would just understand or see it from her side of things or…
Well, I’m sure you see where this is going.
My point is: I’ve been where Carson is, so I can tell you from experience: there’s not much you can do. Carson’s going to have a lot of Very Good Reasons that explain Molly’s behavior and why it’s Ok, Actually.
(It’s an open question as to whether he actually believes that or he – like me, back in the day – isn’t ready to face that it’s a bad scene.)
And you’re not wrong to be worried that Molly might use this as an excuse to pull Carson away. If she already can dictate how he spends his time or demand he leave you all and go back to her, then it’s certainly possible – even likely – that she’d isolate him from you all if you talked about her.
But then again, she may do it anyway. Not saying anything isn’t going to be a guarantee that she won’t just continue to isolate him from his friends, so you may as well say something.
However – again, speaking from experience – it needs to be handled the right way, and with the understanding that this is going to be a process, not a one-time conversation.
What I’d suggest is to get time with Carson by himself. Now to be clear, this time with Carson should be standard “hanging with friends” time, not an intervention. If there’s even a whiff of confrontation or judgement, his guard is going to go up and he’s going to get defensive very quickly. As soon as he’s in a defensive stance, he’s going to stop listening. You want to avoid this as much as possible, for as long as possible. You’re likely going to trigger that defensive posture at some point, but the longer you can put that off, the better.
You’re not going to be able to change his mind for him; instead, you’re going to have to entice him to change his own mind. If he’s going to get to a point where he’s ready to see this as a bad situation then he’s going to have to decide that on his own. All you can do is light the path for him.
I’d start with casually mentioning that it seems like you don’t get to see as much of him as you’d like, certainly not just him. The “get” is important; the underlying message is that he’s not “allowed” to spend time with you. When he shrugs it off or says he’s been busy, you can say that it seems like Molly demands all his time or doesn’t seem to like him spending time with you all.
Whatever he says to this, the next thing to point out is that it seems like Molly isn’t… really a happy person. She always seems to have something going on and she’s always upset about something. And well, you’re worried that he’s having a hard time right now with the way she’s always just in a bad mood. You worry that maybe it’s affecting him too, especially since he doesn’t seem to get time away from her. How’s he doing? Is he doing ok? You might also mention that maybe he doesn’t seem like he’s all that happy right now or that he’s been down for a while.
If Carson’s not stupid – and it doesn’t sound like he is – he’ll probably pick up on the subtext. He may ask you straight up if you don’t like Molly or if you have a problem with her. If he does, then the best thing you can say is that you all get the feeling she has a problem with you all and she just doesn’t seem like she fits in with the group and that makes it hard to get time to see him.
Now if he wants to make it about what you don’t like about her, don’t respond with specifics. Instead, you’d do better to ask questions. Is it you, or does it seem like she complains a lot? Does it bother him when she talks over him? Or maybe ask why she makes the comments about your friends? Does he ever feel like he can’t stand up to her, or does she always get her way in the end? Doesn’t that get frustrating?
If he still won’t let go of the idea that you don’t like Molly, then it’s time to tell him the truth. The best answer you can have is “I worry that she’s making you unhappy”. He’ll have an answer for this; he’s not ready to admit that there’s a problem. But the important thing is to focus on him, not her.
Keep in mind, all you’re doing here is trying to sow the seeds of doubt, ones that lead to him coming to the conclusion you’re hoping for. That’s… not going to be easy. You’re going to have to spend a lot of time waiting for those seeds to bloom, and a lot of them won’t. So don’t be confrontational, be concerned and empathetic and wanting things to be better. Reminding him that you care about him is going to be crucial.
Now, having different members of your friend group have similar conversations – mostly how you don’t see him, Molly takes all his time, he seems down is he ok? – can help a bit, but odds are that he’ll twig to what’s actually going on pretty quickly. If you want to keep him from getting defensive, you’ll have to tread very carefully.
Now if he does get defensive, then that’s your clue to let the conversation go. Make it clear that you’ve said your peace, you’re going to drop it, but you are always going to be there for him. If he wants to talk about anything, you’re there to listen, no questions asked, no judgement given.
And that no judgement is going to be important. If Carson does recognize that his relationship with Molly is bad, he’s going to feel pretty ashamed about it. Knowing that he can come to you or any of his friends without getting an “I told you so” or jokes at his expense will be important. If he feels like he’s going to get so much as a whiff of mockery or embarrassment, he’s not going to reach out to you. Yeah, it seems crazy that someone would rather stay in a potentially abusive relationship than face some embarrassment. Welcome to the human psyche, we’re all just apes with anxiety, nobody expects us to be rational actors.
Do your best to spend time with him without Molly, remind him that you all are all there for him no matter what and generally show him that life without her around is better.
But more than anything else, make it clear that the lines of communication are always open and you’re there for him, no matter what. Knowing that he can come to you at any time will make it easier for him to finally leave her when he’s ready.
Just be prepared for that to take a while. It may suck, and it’s incredibly frustrating, but it’s ultimately going to have to be his choice. And he won’t make that choice until he’s ready to do so.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org