DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I am writing to you in desperate hopes of understanding the psychological reasons behind a difficult situation that my friend finds herself in.
Her predicament involves a deeply troubling affair with a married man who has children. My friend is only 20 years old, while he is 41, and they have been involved in this affair for well over a year now.
They have kept this a secret from everyone (for obvious reasons) and even from me for a while. I have only found out recently that he was married with kids because she’s lied to me about the truth of her relationship.
Before finding out the whole truth, I still disapproved of their relationship. Their situation has taken a severe toll on her mental and emotional well-being. This man exhibits controlling and abusive behavior in numerous ways, which include demanding her location at all times, expecting immediate responses, and restricting her freedom to go anywhere without his permission.
He rented out an apartment where she resided for almost a year before she moved back home with her parents. In that apartment, he had cameras in every room so he could check up on her. His bad habits started becoming hers as well which include drugs and alcohol.
I can go on and on about how toxic their relationship is but I think you get the idea…
As a result of this toxic relationship, she has made the continuous indirect decision to drop out of college, sacrificing her education and future career (she’s done this every semester and he’s the reason for it every time).
Recently, she came clean to her mom about this affair but unfortunately her dad found out as well and kicked her out of the house. This leaves her in an extremely vulnerable position.
This man works in a different city than his actual home and she moved in with him. However, shortly after moving in with him, he lost his job, leaving her homeless. She’s currently living with me until he finds another job. She revolves her life around him, waiting for HIM to make a move so that she can follow him around.
I am deeply concerned that if she continues down this path, the consequences could be dire, and her well-being may be seriously compromised.
She’s well aware of the situation she’s in because we’ve had countless conversations about this. She acknowledges that she shouldn’t be in this affair but then contradicts that statement by saying that she’s in love with him and can’t help herself.
I am reaching out to your advice blog in hopes that you can shed some light on the psychological meaning behind all of this.
I know that the saying “You can bring a horse to water but you can’t make them drink from it” applies to this situation but…any advice on how to approach this delicate situation and help her make healthier choices would be immensely appreciated.
DEAR DESPERATE FRIEND: OK, DF, I’m going to tell you something you already know: there’s not much that you can do here. This is a situation your friend has created for herself and she’s the only person who can get her out of it. This is going to continue until she makes the decision to leave – and quite frankly, it’s probably going to take a few tries before she’s ready and able to do so for good.
Much of what you can do is going to involve helping her change her mind. You can’t force the issue, nor can you logic or argue with her in a way that will make her decide to leave. She has to come to that decision on her own. If you do talk with her about this and want to help nudge her in that direction, then you functionally have to be sneaky about it and subtly prod her to think about things.
The best way to do this is to talk to her about it in ways that encourage her to think things through without coming across like you’re being judgmental or overly critical; that’s just going to cause her to shut down. You make that mistake in your letter, in fact; when you say “she knows she shouldn’t be in this affair but then contradicts herself”, you’re setting up a framing of judgement. You know better than she does, so why is she being foolish and not listening to you?
If you look at it from her side of things, the “it’s wrong” isn’t about how he’s treating her or how toxic the relationship is, it’s almost certainly about the taboo nature of the relationship — the forbidden allure of being involved with a married man. She may realize that it’s a bad scene, but she’s focusing very intently on the part that makes it all ok: that she loves him and he “loves” her.
This disconnect is part of the problem, and if you aren’t mindful, you’re going to run the risk of pushing her away and closing down an avenue of escape for her.
In fact, you actually a very good example of what not to do in your letter. Her father kicking her out of the house is precisely the wrong approach. While he may have thought that this was tough love or something that would be a wakeup call, what he’s done is ensure that she’s not coming back any time soon. While he may not have intended it, what he’s done is made it clear that she will never be allowed to live down or forget that she did this. Her father has functionally said “this is a permanent stain and you will never be free of it.”
In other words: he’s shamed her and made it so that he is no longer a safe person to come back to, because she won’t be allowed to ever move past this. Is that what he actually thinks? Probably not. But it’s what he’s done.
One of the reasons why people get stuck in bad situations – whether it’s a toxic or abusive relationship, a s--tty collection of friends, buying (literally) into MLMs/crypto/memestonks or joining actual cults – isn’t because they don’t have a way out. It’s because they’re afraid of what their friends and loved ones will say. It’s not even the desire to be proven right so much as to avoid the pain of having being wrong rubbed in their faces over and over again.
Here’s the thing: shame is incredibly powerful, possibly one of the hardest emotions to face and overcome. And as irrational as it may seem, the fear of facing shame and judgement is a motivator to stay the course, rather than to make a change… even when that change would demonstrably be for the better.
The shame of being caught up in those situations is incredibly high, and the pain and fear of it is very powerful. So powerful, in fact, that they would often rather rationalize why they “can’t” or won’t leave rather than face it. It ends up isolating them further, cutting off the outlets that they might have that would help them get away.
This is why it’s far more important that you make it clear that while you not approve, and you think this is a bad situation for her, she can always – always – come to you for help, for advice or a place to crash, no questions asked and no judgement given. That doesn’t mean you can’t tell her what you think or express a boundary about a topic, but it does mean that she knows that you’re not going to give her s--t or judge her when she does finally get away. She’s going to be confused, scared, full of doubt and self-recrimination and she’s going to need people who are willing to help her be safe and give her the safe space to process these feelings without adding to them.
To come back to the nudges, here’s how to handle it: you actually do lead her to the water. You ask questions that prompt her to think about what’s going on. Why, for example, was a 40 year old married man pursuing a 19 year old girl? What do they have in common? What shared experiences, values or history do they actually have that he wouldn’t have with someone closer to his age? You’d feel weird trying to hook up with someone literally half your age; what would you even talk about?
Isn’t it frustrating that he’s always keeping tabs on her? Oh, he’s jealous? OK… but has she ever given him reason to be jealous? You’re both reasonable people; don’t you think it’s unfair, even unreasonable that he treats her this way because he has a problem he’s not trying to resolve himself? Why would it be her responsibility to solve his problems? Especially when he’s the one who’s cheating on his wife? If he’s that afraid that she’s going to cheat when he’s already doing so, doesn’t that say it’s more about him?
For that matter, doesn’t she think it’s weird or even a bit intrusive that he’s put cameras all over the apartment where she’s staying? Doesn’t that lack of privacy ever get to her? Sure, he could say it’s for security or whatever, but how do you ever relax when there’re eyes on you at all times? You’d feel weird if your partner was always watching you no matter what…
Notice how often there’re references to “we”, to “we’re both intelligent, reasonable people” and to just trying to understand. You’re reinforcing that you think she’s smart, perceptive and capable, while also emphasizing that you and she are similar. You’re not judging, just trying to understand because she clearly sees something you don’t, so maybe she can explain it to you in a way that makes sense.
The more she has to actually think about it, the more likely she is to see the flaws in the thinking. The more you emphasize her smarts, her common sense and her reasonability, you’re telling her that she’s not an idiot or a fool, and thus more likely to trust in her own judgement rather than relying entirely on his. And – importantly – you’re telling her that you and she are on the same team.
Will this guarantee that she thinks twice? No… but with luck it’ll plant the seed that’ll grow and break through the concrete of his toxic behavior.
If and when she moves out and back to him, make it extremely clear to her: she always can reach out to you, any time of day, any reason, no questions asked. Make sure that there is always a way she can contact you, even if it’s a burner email account or an online dead drop of sorts. The more options she has to reach you, the more likely she will when the time comes.
Hopefully that’ll come sooner, rather than later, and before her mistakes pile up to the point that they can’t be fixed or corrected for later. But until that day, the only thing you can do is support her as best you can while she lives her life.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org