Dear Captain Awkward:
A close friend is dating a total loser. Please give me the magic-spell-words to make him see this and dump him. Or else the fortitude to watch him marry this creep. We have already talked about my reservations concerning his partner’s character and their relationship. I don’t want to push him away.
I think my answer to this question depends a lot on why you hate this guy so much. There’s a big difference between “Can’t hang” and “Treats my friend badly.”
Dear Captain Awkward:
Both. I mean – He can’t hang, and he doesn’t treat my friend well. For example, he has been moving the relationship along extremely quickly. He brought up marriage on the first date, and immediately started showering my friend with expensive presents. They’ve only been together for three months, but they just moved in together and are already planning a wedding. He has a lot of expectations for how my friend should be that makes me think he doesn’t really “see” my friend clearly and accept who he is. For example, the two of them went on a long bike trip together, and it took longer than this guy expected because my friend is not as in-shape and had to work harder to keep up, so the partner got upset that things were taking so long.
He is very socially awkward and will often blurt out hurtful and insulting things at social gatherings that are later explained away as “jokes.” He’s also extremely conservative and quotes Glenn Beck all the time, and his idea of how their marriage should work definitely casts himself as a traditional husband and my friend as a “wife” even though they are both men.
I’ve told my friend what I think, and he always has an explanation for everything this guy does. My friend has brought up that the guy probably has Asperger’s syndrome, which, okay, that explains some of the social awkwardness, but I hate how my lovely, kind, and outgoing friend is always explaining and apologizing for this bozo’s outbursts.
I think the biggest red flag is that this guy doesn’t seem to have any other friends. My friend is his entire world. My friend claims that he does have some friends back home in another state, but he’s never met any of them. Since I’ve said what I had to say to him and they’re still getting married, I realize that I probably have to just resign myself and change the subject a lot when we’re together and the relationship comes up, but I’d welcome any other advice.
Thanks for the clearer picture! That is helpful. And awkward.
Your friend is dating Darth Vader. Let me explain:
“Luke, your dad is totally evil.”
“There’s good in him. I’ve felt it.”
“Luke, he blew up a planet just to make a point.”
“There’s good in him! I’ve felt it!”
“Luke, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but he severed your hand. From your arm. He cut it off.”
“Dueling to the death is just how we relate. You wouldn’t understand it. Now that we both have prosthetic robot limbs, it’s only brought us closer together.”
“Luke, he lured your friends into a trap so that he could murder them in front of you. We had to be rescued by Ewoks. It was embarrassing.”
“Yeah, that was pretty bad, I admit! But there’s good in him! I’ve felt it!”
And then Luke is risking his own life to carry Darth Vader out of the Death Star before it explodes so he can look up on that swollen purple face and experience one shining moment of real connection that would justify everything he’s invested in this completely dysfunctional relationship and he’s like “See? IT WAS ALL TOTALLY WORTH IT!” and even R2D2 is like “Whatever, the Ewoks are having a dance party, and I just can’t talk about this with you even one more time. Have fun with your collection of Ghostly Jedi Father Figures.”
I dated a Darth Vader, who is listed in my cell phone literally as “Darth Vader Do Not Answer.” My friends were very overt in their (totally correct) disapproval of the time I spent with this intergalactic sociopath. They would audibly groan and roll their eyes and leave the room if I answered a call or a text from him or brought up his name. They could not understand what I saw in him, and I could not really explain to them what I saw in him, but the answer was embarrassingly specific: Really Good Sex + Enough Drama To Fascinate.
There’s a poem by Marilyn Hacker called “She Bitches About Boys” with the line: “Women love a sick child or a healthy animal; A man who is both itches them like an incubus.”
This guy found me when I was a bit lonely and unmoored and he expertly crawled up into my life by showering me with affection and attention and orgasms. He also provided just enough confessions of deep childhood trauma that – when he hurt me – my first instinct would be to feel sorry for him instead of myself. I’ve never done heroin, but if it felt anything like the first few months of falling in love with this guy I totally understand why people do it, to the point that when he broke up with me I didn’t sigh with relief and run screaming in the other direction. No, I tried to get the relationship back.
My point is this: This relationship is filling some need that your friend has. It may be a need from The Dark and Sexy Side of the Force, so it may be something that your friend can’t or doesn’t want to explain. But something about this guy’s controlling ways feels good to your friend. I’m going to assume that you’re a grounded, healthy, regular person. So when someone says “You’re the only person who really understands me” to you on the second date, you panic. So do I….except for when I was completely high on being intertwined with who I thought was the First Person To Really Get Me, Too, and then had to spend a year of my life in Love’s Methadone Clinic. So do most people, except that The Twilight Saga books have sold over 116 million copies worldwide and a non-zero percentage of those readers think that Love Means Breaking Into Your House and Watching You While You Sleep. This guy has somehow tapped into your friend’s idea of what love should feel like.
I tell you all of this because: I think of myself as an intelligent and level-headed person, but I still got swept away. It feels good to be swept away. If you can understand that you can forgive him for it. If you can forgive him, when the topic of Bad Partner comes up, you can silent remind yourself “He’s getting something out of this that I can’t see.” That might be what you have to keep repeating to yourself as they careen toward the altar.
So let’s talk about scenarios.
There’s Good In Him, I’ve Felt It. You can’t talk someone out of being in love with Darth Vader, and sadly, the worse it gets the more your friend might try to talk himself into trying to make it work because if there is a happy ending all the ways he’s had to abase himself to stay in the relationship will have been “worth it.” You tried that, it didn’t work.
Maybe He’ll Cut Off A Hand Or Blow Up A Planet. If this guy is really a bad person or even just a bad fit for your friend, then sadly even the best-case scenario involves pain for your friend. At some point the guy might do something awful enough that it breaks the spell. If they are living together this can lead to a great deal of upheaval or financial hardship, and you can help your friend by being a place of safety and non-judgment while he goes through Love Rehab.
Your Hate Just Feeds The Dark Side. The worst-case scenario is that the guy is an abuser and that he will use your dislike of him to help isolate your friend socially. When people are unsure of themselves, they use a surrogate to point out problems, like “I told Jorge about our bike ride, and he said that you were being inconsiderate by expecting me to keep up with you” (Or, “I wrote to Dear Abby and she says that you should stop doing that!”) That gives the partner ammunition to say “Jorge has never liked me, why would you keep hanging out with someone who is so hostile to the person you’ve chosen to spend the rest of your life with?” Then the next time your friend sees you he’s on the defensive, and if you say anything bad about the partner you’re just reinforcing the badness. If your friend feels humiliated and judged he will withdraw from you and cling to Darth Vader.
Your friend knows how you feel about Darth, right? So when he tells stories about him, what kind of affirmation is he looking for? Is he looking to win you over and using these stories to convince you that “There’s good in him, I’ve felt it?” Or is he looking for a reality check from you because his head is so spun that he’s stop trusting his own gut, and he knows he can trust you to look out for him in a way that he can’t right now? Since they’re talking about matrimony I’m guessing the first one, but it’s not 100% certain and can even oscillate from day to day or even moment to moment.
There’s kind of a test for this that’s also the way to cope with this. When your friend tells you another story about Darth (or makes excuses for crappy behavior), answer like a therapist would: Don’t talk much, and when you do, ask only questions.
- “And then what happened?”‘
- “How do you feel about that?”
- “Can you remember how the argument started?”
- “Is that okay with you?”
- “Is that usual?”
- “Did you tell him what you’re telling me?”
- “How did he react?”
- “What do you think will happen now?”
- “If I were telling you this story, what would you tell me to do?”
What a therapist does is ask you leading questions and radiate non-judgement until you’ve talked your way through all your own defenses and circular bullshit and tried to turn things into entertaining anecdotes and try to convince yourself that “it’s not that bad” until you run out of excuses and you have to say the truth: What you want. What you need. What you feel. What you’re afraid of.
I could not do that job. I can write the scene from the movie right now where me-as-therapist would Hulk out: “OH GOD BREAK UP BREAK UP NOW. JUST BREAK UP. DON’T COME BACK UNTIL YOU’VE BROKEN UP. PUT BREAKING UP ON YOUR TO-DO LIST AND THEN CHECK THAT OFF WHEN YOU’VE BROKEN UP. PLEASE TO BE BREAKING UP? NEED TO BREAK UP? ASK ME HOW! I WILL PAY YOU CA$H MONEY TO BREAK UP. PLEASE VISIT THE DEPARTMENT OF BREAKING UP ON YOUR WAY OUT AND FILL OUT THIS COMMENT CARD ABOUT BREAKING UP. BREAKING UP CALLED AND LEFT YOU A MESSAGE, HE SAID ‘BREAK UP.””
And then I think about Darth Vader and my friends sitting through another brunch and my very nice therapist sitting through another session and saying “Do think think that’s okay?” and you could do this every time you see your friend and he could still not break up. That’s okay. Asking questions takes care of your friend, and it also takes care of you by helping you be a safe, nonjudgmental presence for your friend.
And then, you said it yourself in your letter – you can set boundaries and change the subject.
“You already know how I feel.”
“I want to be supportive, but this story makes me uncomfortable.”
“You already know how I feel, so why are you telling me this?”
And if you can find it in your heart, maybe try this:
“I don’t like him, and I still don’t get it, but if you are happy then I trust you.”
By which I mean….Accept That You Might Be Wrong About Everything. Maybe Darth Vader has some rough edges but is really kind and funny in ways you don’t see. Maybe the things he does activate your own personal peeves and triggers that you assumed your friend shares but it turns out he doesn’t and the things don’t bug him the same way.
That seems crazy counter-intuitive and I can feel those words turning to ashes in your mouth, but this is why I suggest them: Controlling people make their victims second-guess everything. When you’re involved with a Darth Vader from beginning to end it’s a story of “I can’t believe this is really happening!” In the beginning it’s “I can’t believe I found someone so magically perfect and amazing! Double Rainbow!” When it sours, it can be directed at you, like “I can’t believe you can’t see how awesome my boyfriend is, why are you being so judgmental?” The person’s self-preservation instinct is still there, it’s just been stunned by the incredible speed and highs and lows of the relationship, but sometimes it does come through with “I can’t believe that Not Okay thing happened!” but by then the person can’t trust what’s real and not real. “Is the high of being in love real? Are the Not Okay things real? Are my friend’s warnings real? Since I don’t know what to believe and I want the love so badly, I choose love.”
Deep inside your friend knows everything he needs to know about how this is going to play out. Remind him that he’s smart, and strong, and good at making decisions, and that he has your respect, because an abuser will be doing the opposite. Detach from your own need to be right about this. Detach from your own need to control the outcome of your friend’s relationship. Remind your friend of his own strength. It could be the thing that breaks the spell.
Or not. In which case, you don’t have to go to their wedding. That sounds like a really good weekend to be Anywhere But There.