My good friend Alice recently got herself a boyfriend. I have two issues with this:
1) Even though I’ve never met him (it’s a long-distance relationship), and she’s never complained about him, I’m pretty sure he’s a typical Darth Vader boyfriend -because all of her ‘cute’ stories are actually really awful,
and 2) Every time my friend falls for a guy, she falls HARD, and becomes an entirely different person who doesn’t seem to care about anything other than her boyfriend.
A little background:
Alice has recently taken to saying that she and Bob have been in love since they were children; it would be more accurate to say they met when they were kids, when they were both living in India. They never actually dated or anything back then, but to hear her tell it, they were madly in love but never ‘made it official’ -which I take to mean (based on her tendency to greatly romanticize and assume anyone she likes reciprocates) that she had a huge crush on him, but they were platonic -which is actually better than the alternative, since when she and her family moved to Canada she was 12 and he was 16. They didn’t really keep in touch, only connecting a few times in the intervening years, but she would reminisce about him often. Last summer they got back in touch, ‘dated’ for a couple months, and broke it off.
Then, earlier this month, they started ‘dating’ again -and over the course of a week, she went from “It’s very new, we’re going slow and keeping it to ourselves” (not even wanting to tell me who she was dating, because he had told her not to) to “Our wedding will be in about a year” (no, he hasn’t proposed, she’s just assuming he will).
As to why I think he’s a Darth Vader Boyfriend:
With the exception of being mad at him for not answering her calls or emails for nearly a week (this is the reason for the previous breakup), she has never complained about him, but her ‘good’ stories are all actually awful. For example:
-When me and my (male) partner picked her up to hang out the last time she was dating Bob, Alice told us about how he’d instructed her to never get into a guy’s car or be alone with a guy -but that it was ok since I was there. My best-case scenario is that this was a joke on his part, but in my experience guys who make that kind of ‘joke’ aren’t really joking. To her, this is just Bob being caring & protective.
-Even long-distance, he’s being a huge time-suck and keeping her from important priorities like school (she’s a PhD student, really needs time for studying), sleep, and friends -she’s told me, as ‘evidence’ of how ‘sweet and caring’ he is, that he just won’t let her hang up on him in Skype and insists they keep talking when she wants to go to sleep, to the point she falls asleep on the couch with Skype still on. Similarly, the last time I had plans with Alice, she was extremely late, and explained that it was because he’d called her and gotten her all worked up about an invented crisis -kept her talking to him for over half an hour -before admitting it was made up and he’d been ‘trolling’ her. He knew, and she had reminded him, that she had plans with a friend.
-she describes him as a ‘lovable asshole’. What even. She also says that sometimes you just have to let him be an asshole for a while and talk himself down, without trying to reason with him or disagree with anything he says.
-When they broke up previously, she flirted with/dated another guy. Bob got mad at her for this, and has been guilting her over it -even though he fully admits he was f*cking someone else at that time.
-He tells her that she is special to him because, unlike ‘all the other girls’, she is ‘innocent’ -because she hasn’t had sex, has never sent him a dirty picture, etc. He compared her to an ex by saying that that ex had mentioned she enjoyed/was good at giving oral sex, and said that he “lost all respect for” that woman because of her comments. Again, he fully admits that he has had sex of all kinds with many different women. Alice believes in waiting til marriage for sex, but has recently started saying that when Bob moves closer she wants to have sex with him. I have no issues with her being sexual if she wants to, but I fear she simply feels she has to in order to ‘keep up’ with him, and also that since he outright stated he values her for her virginity that if she did sleep with him he would then break her heart.
-They apparently had a discussion about kids, and he got very upset that she doesn’t want as many as she does, and wouldn’t even discuss the idea of adoption (which is something Alice really wants). He went on to lay a guilt-trip on her about this, and to talk about how much he wants to ‘come home to’ a big house full of people -which to me implies he has a very different vision of their future then what I know Alice wants (she wants a small family, to work as a professor, and the freedom to travel often). That in itself could be worked out, but the fact he wouldn’t even listen to what she wants, especially early in the relationship, spells trouble.
-She cannot hear criticism of him, and gets very angry and defensive. This might be my own issues, but I am reminded strongly of myself when I was in a relationship that -in retrospect – could easily be classified as emotionally and sexually abusive. The not-letting-her-hang-up-on-Skype thing also strongly reminds me of that past relationship, and I worry that small similarities like this may be skewing my own perceptions.
Additionally, Bob is planning on moving to the US to be closer to Alice (though it will still be about a 10 hour drive -but Alice has somehow convinced herself it’ll only be 4 hours). I’m afraid if he does, Alice will feel obligated to stay with him forever and feel obligated to do whatever to make him happy, since he moved to a different continent for her. I’m also afraid he’ll convince her to move closer to his new city -which will put her far from all her friends and family, and force her to drop out of her PhD program.
For what it’s worth, my partner also thinks that Bob sounds like bad news, and is also getting frustrated with Alice’s unwillingness to discuss any other topic, so it’s not just me thinking this.
There’s a few other issues with the relationship, not all of which are Bob’s fault; such as, her defense of why this is actually a great relationship is that ‘he’s her dream guy, her ideal, the one that she always remembered and compared all of her relationships to’ -which actually sounds like a bad thing to me, like she’s got him built up in her head to some fantasy figure and isn’t seeing the real person. Which may be why she’s interpreting everything he does as being perfect and awesome. As well, since Alice is Indian and in her late 20s, she is feeling a lot of pressure from her family to get married soon. Alice jumping headfirst into a relationship is also her pattern, and not specific to Bob -I’ve seen her fall hard and become obsessive with other guys before, just not to this degree.
I know your normal advice for dealing with a friend’s Darth is to try to talk about other things, and when the subject comes up to ‘talk like a therapist’ -to disengage a bit, with ‘hmm’ and ‘how does that make you feel’, etc., but she just won’t talk about anything else. Not only will she get furious and start crying if I -however gently -try to point out that some of the things she’s saying don’t actually sound like a healthy relationship, she will carry on an entire conversation by herself if I don’t talk. Literally, the last time I had her over, she talked for over an hour with me not saying a word beyond the occasional ‘hm’ or ‘huh’, and nodding every so often. Both me and my partner attempted to change the subject at every opportunity, but she finds a way to bring everything back to Bob -after a brief lull I started talking about my new phone, and my partner and I steered the conversation to technology; she listened for less than two minutes and then started talking about how Bob likes his phone and Bob likes computers and Bob is so good with technology… We talked about a recent party, and how one person there was being very strange and rude (she’d been incredibly hostile to me for no apparent reason) and she instantly changed it to ‘Bob also thought that was rude, when I told him about it.’ And from there, every detail of her last conversation with Bob. She doesn’t even stop when she runs out of things to say -at one point, I lightly joked that she must have had too much wine because she was repeating the same Bob story for the third time that night, and she laughed but then continued. It’s getting to the point where I don’t know how to talk to Alice without getting immensely frustrated, and am left wondering what happened to my bright, caring, intelligent friend, who used to be fully capable of carrying on a pleasant conversation.
How can I try to make her see that this relationship is unhealthy? Am I just reading into things too much, possibly because of my own bad past relationship? Should I just wait for the relationship to unravel on its own? And how to I talk to her without jeopardizing the friendship -any idea on scripts I can use to try to make it clear I don’t want to talk about him anymore, without getting her on the defensive? Should I attempt to be supportive even though I hate everything I’ve heard about this guy (and it’s all coming from her)? Or should I speak my mind even though I know it’ll cause a fight?
-missing my friendship
Dear Missing Your Friendship:
I am reading Lundy Bancroft’s book, Why Does He Do That? at the recommendation of many posters here, and from your friend’s description, “Bob” is sending up a red flag followed by a signal flare followed by 99 red balloons of potential badness.
- Not letting her sleep.
- Denigrating other women, focusing on sexual “purity.”
- Double standards around sex – her going on a date with another man during a time they were broken up is awful, but he is allowed to do whatever she wants.
- Inventing crises to capture her time and attention, delighting in control.
- The whole “lovable asshole” thing.
The whole thing just reeks of badness.
I’ve been doing this advice thing for a few years now, and I have developed a weird spidey-sense for doomed relationships (even if that doom is ‘you will most likely continue the relationship and be miserable for it’) and the rule is: The more a person argues that this is destiny (we’ve been in love since childhood, it’s written in the stars, I just know we are meant to be, we’re “soulmates,” etc.) the more the actual relationship will be a shitshow. Because when something is working, you don’t have to call in the forces of time and space to the witness stand. Update: Apparently science has something to say about this as well! Thanks, @sondosia.
Unfortunately, your power to influence anything that is happening is very small. As evidenced by her bringing everything back to what Bob would think of it and repeating Bob stories over and over – She has caught Bobness and I’m afraid it’s full-blown. Stage III, at least. This need to constantly talk about him, to be constantly validated around him is about many things, and not knowing your friend I can’t put my finger on the exact cocktail of stuff that’s going on. My guesses are:
- She is stalled in or disengaged from her studies.
- She is getting family pressure about getting married and getting restless about moving on to the next “stage” in life.
- She has dreams of being a professor, being married, being a mother, etc. but can’t quite picture the next steps of all of those things.
- Bob’s constant attention feels good to her and is hitting some ideal she has of how love is supposed to feel.
- In a messed up, uncertain world one person is offering her a script for what to do next – unfortunately that script is “be constantly available to me and under my thumb.” Right now, it feels better than “EEK the future is uncertain and maybe lonely!“
- But he’s not making her feel all the way good. Some part of her is awake and can see what is really happening. So she tries to talk that part of herself into the lovey-dovey-future-will-be-great-stuff. When someone is gaslighting you the way Bob is gaslighting Alice, they are trying to change your concept of reality to match their version. If Alice can convince others that the version of her & Bob’s story is the true one, then Bob’s version of the world gains new citizens. Having others who also believe in the Way of Bob will make it easier for her to live there without that tiny voice that says “But girl, you need SLEEP and also to be on time to things and also maybe you don’t want 12 kids and maybe you want to finish this degree that you started?” butting in to ruin the fantasy. This is why she is working so hard to propagate his opinions of everything.
It’s like In A Wrinkle In Time, when Charles Wallace gets absorbed into IT and then fights to stay there. Alice will fight any attempt to take her out of the reality where things feel good(ish) and where she is the center of someone’s attention and receiving the perceived rewards for conforming to the “get married and have kids” metanarrative that her family raised her with. Charles Wallace fought Meg when she took him out, and he was hateful and angry afterward and needed some deprogramming before he could be around her. I’m so sorry that you, as a caring friend, are in that position and I’m so sorry that the best case scenario (where they break up) means heartbreak for your friend.
This isn’t comforting, but I think literally anything that you do here is going to cause a fight. “Hey, can we take a break from talking about Bob tonight?” to just changing the subject “I want to hear about your research. Or that TV show we like. Or, what are you reading lately?” ==> you are challenging Bob’s place at the center of her life ==> You are activating some triggers that Bob has planted about how other people will try to control her and no one can control who she loves !!!!!!!!!! (except…Bob) ==> It plays into Bob’s hands and isolates her further from a voice of reason.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do these things. Someone who can literally only talk about one subject to the point of repeating stories over and over during the same party and relating literally every other topic to that subject is irritating to be around. As another person at that party you’re within bounds to say “That story is as hilarious the third time as it was the first time! Actually, not really, though. Let’s get your drunk ass home!” In the day to day, it is okay to set boundaries like that and continually enforce them. You don’t have to talk about the Bob thing as a whole, maybe just keep it focused on her behaviors. I try to maintain a two-or-three-redirects-and-we’re-done-for-the-day rule for boundary tromping conversations. That could look like this, initially:
You: “How was the movie the other day?”
Alice: “I liked it, and Bob thought….”
You: “Hey, do you realize that whenever I ask what you think, you tell me what Bob thinks? It’s weird. What’s up with that?”
Alice: “Okay…” or “I don’t really do that, do I?”
You: “Yeah, you do. But let’s talk about the movie, what part did you like best?”
Alice: “I liked this scene, but Bob said that….”
You: “Ha, you just did it again. I don’t want to make you self-conscious, but could we skip Bob’s opinions for today? I just want to talk to my friend. NO BOYS ALLOWED.”
Alice: “I don’t think I do that. That’s not fair, etc! That’s just what Bob said you would say! You just can’t be happy for me!” (etc. etc.)
You: “Okaaaaay, how did we get from me asking you, my funny brilliant friend, your opinion of a movie to talking about Bob yet again?“
Alice: More along the lines of “That’s not fair, etc.!” “We’re long distance, so you can’t meet him, whereas I hang out with your partner all the time”, etc. etc.
You: “Listen, I’m honestly not trying to dig into your Bobfeelings, but this behavior, where he becomes part of literally every conversation is making me annoyed. That’s not Bob, or how I feel about Bob, that is a thing that you, my friend, are doing, and it bugs me. I don’t want to fight, but please think about what I said.”
And then exit the conversation and cool off for a bit. She’ll be hurt and mad for a bit. She will most likely go repeat everything to Bob, who will spin it as you not being a supportive friend. There’s nothing you can do about that, honestly. It’s part of a cycle. Just, try again another day. If you can stop her before she gets super into the cycle of talking about him you can at least preserve some of your own equilibrium. You can also say what you think when she tells a story where does something rude or weird, without qualifying it. “That sounds not okay and kind of creepy to me.” You don’t have to lie to her, and that might be enough to get her to change the subject away from Bob even if it’s just to avoid things she doesn’t want to hear.
Another thing you can do is to develop a mantra, along the lines of “I don’t really get the whole Bob thing – especially when you describe him as a ‘loveable asshole.’ In my perfect world my beautiful friend is with someone we don’t describe as any kind of asshole. But anything’s possible, and maybe it’s just because I haven’t met him. If you’re happy, I’m happy for you, and you’ll have to trust me on that the way I will have to trust you that this guy is as cool as you say. But right now I need to talk about ________.“
- “But right now I need to talk about how we had an appointment and you missed it and didn’t call or text to say why. That’s not like you, and it worried me and hurt my feelings.”
- “But right now I want to hear how your research is going. You haven’t talked about it in a while. How are things at school?” “What does your advisor say?”
- “But right now, I want to talk about those dark circles under your eyes. When was the last time you had a checkup?
- “But right now I want to talk about something that’s going on in my life, and I want your perspective, not the opinion of some dude I haven’t even met yet. Actually, I’d prefer that you not tell confidential/personal stuff that I tell you to Bob. Can you agree to that boundary?”
- “But right now, I want to tell you that you talk about Bob to me more than my comfort level can handle. As a favor to me, would you go to a couple appointments with the school counselor? You can get a sympathetic audience and a fresh ear, and our friendship can get a break from having Bob at the center of our conversations.”
These might not work to change her mind about anything. She might not do anything you suggest, like go to the doctor or the school counselor or her advisor. These might not work to keep the peace between you. But they do involve you speaking up for yourself within your friendship about a) how you deserve to be treated and b) in a way that is caring to your friend. And I think that being silent is hurting you, the Letter Writer. So if I can give you some ways to not be silent anymore we will have accomplished something today.
I have some other guesses about this situation.
- Bob most likely has other women on the hook, other women who think they are in a serious relationship with him, other women he sleeps with, etc. Is he considered a “catch” in his home country? (family connections, good looks, money, high level of education, etc.) It’s possible he’s got the same pressures to settle down, and a parade of eligible women being brought by their parents for tea, and Alice is as much a distraction for him as he is for her, i.e. a way to appear to be making progress on that front without actually having to do anything about it.
- If you’re lucky, he may get bored with Alice and turn to tormenting/gaslighting one of those women if she seems more readily available due to geography/willingness to sleep with him. A poor sort of “luck,” but these dudes don’t generally give up the spigot of constant affirmation and attention they get from their victims without having another one lined up.
- I dealt with someone like this, without the overtly abusive/controlling parts. He was seemingly obsessed with me at a distance, full of plans for the future and reassurances and attention, but became a puff of smoke once we were in enough proximity to actually date. It’s possible that Bob’s facade only works at a great distance and will fall apart quickly if he actually moves (either he will vanish like The Daemon Lover, or he will be revealed to be a complete loser and liar upon closer examination). This will be heartbreaking for your friend, but it’s something to be hoped for.
These guesses aren’t necessarily useful for your friend, but file them away when you start to despair as you wait for things to implode.
So, I want to talk about what it might look like if you totally leveled with your friend the way you have with us. I don’t know any successful stories of this working out where the friendship survives in great form and the bad relationship vanishes and without lots of hurt feelings on the way. But let’s map it out and see what it might look like in case you need to hit the big red button on the situation, like, for instance, he actually does come to the U.S. or his behaviors and her emotional state seem to worsen.
What if you gave your friend a copy of Lundy Bancroft’s book, and told her, straight up in a letter:
“Alice, a lot of the stories you tell me about Bob are not endearing or cute to me, they are actually frightening because they remind me of stories in this book about abusive and controlling men and about my own relationship with an abusive and controlling man. For example the thing where he invented a crisis to keep you on the phone is very scary and not normal to me. It’s not normal for someone to police his girlfriend’s interactions with other men the way he seems to with you, but then have a double standard about his own interactions with women. It’s not normal behavior for you, my brilliant friend, to be able to talk about nothing else but boyfriend. I want you to be happy, and I want you to be loved the way you deserve, but it seems to me that you and Bob want very different things (like # of children), and sometimes great feelings of love don’t always mean great compatibility or the ability to make a happy life with someone. Will you promise to a) read this book b) go talk to the school counselor about whatever feelings it brings up for you? If you will promise to do that, I promise that if Bob comes here I will try to get to know him for his own sake, with a clean slate.”
Keep this one for a follow-up, especially if she is defensive and resistant (she will be defensive and resistant):
“I would love nothing more than to be totally wrong about this – I know I am getting all of this second-hand, and I don’t know him like you do. Because of what I went through with (Ex), I feel very strongly about this, and because I love and care for you, I would risk anything, including making you angry, if it could prevent you from suffering what I went through. If you read the book and decide that it has nothing to do with your relationship, that will give you peace of mind, and you can spend your time at the counselor’s office kvetching about your intrusive friend who has no boundaries. At least the book will give you insight into my history and tell you why I have not embraced Bob the way you want me to. If you can promise to do this for me, it will give me enough peace of mind that I promise I won’t harp on the topic again.”
And then maybe prepare for the very sad end of your friendship as she marries this jerksmuggle, because that is a real possibility.
Finally, I want to address the thing you say in your letter about your own past with a relationship like this. “Am I just reading into things too much, possibly because of my own bad past relationship?” People always want to write off a past history of abuse as unfair “bias”, like, “Well, she’s just saying that because of her own history, so she’s biased and unfair, you can’t expect her to be truly impartial.“
Like “impartiality” and “fairness” is the greatest thing we owe one another when we witness a friend being harassed and browbeaten by someone.
Like abuse doesn’t follow recognizable & predictable patterns and our perception of it must be reinvented from scratch each time we see it happen.
Like our own experiences as witnesses to those patterns somehow make us less believable, less reliable.
Like all of this mistrust of our experiences and pressure to be impartial isn’t deeply, deeply gendered.
I don’t know what will happen to Alice and Bob, but I do know what what you survived made you more able to see what is happening to your friend and gave you more insight and authority. I need the idea that someone who has survived an abusive relationship is somehow less able, less likely, or less reliable in recognizing abuse when it happens to others to die. In a fire.