Hello, Citizens of Friday.
First order of business, this great nod of solidarity for the socially awkward from Dorothy Parker.
”Those who have mastered etiquette, who are entirely, impeccably right, would seem to arrive at a point of exquisite dullness.” –Dorothy Parker
Second order of business: This great post from The Pervocracy, “How To Have Sex on Purpose.” It’s an essay form of the talk about consent and what people can learn about sex from kinksters that Cliff gave at U of Chicago’s Sex Week last week.
Third order of business: Great Darth Vader Boyfriend song or GREATEST Darth Vader Boyfriend song?
That should segue us nicely into this question:
Dear Captain Awkward:
My best friend at work is romantically obsessed with her douche of a boyfriend. He has been both mentally and sexually manipulative and verbally abusive. All of her friends at work realized this. We were asked on many occasions for advice by her or listened to her vent, but she only tightens her grip on him, and increasingly pushes her own friends away. Any advice? Is she a lost cause?
Your selected username is pretty unintentionally funny, because Don Draper is TOTALLY a Darth Vader Boyfriend. He physically assaults Betty, and tried to convince her that she cannot leave him. He totally broods his way into getting sympathy sex with ladies who he does not treat very well.
Don’t know how long you’ve been reading, but we covered Darths at length in one of the first-ever posts on this blog. And we also covered how to tell a friend that you have had enough venting for the time being.
The points I’d reiterate here is:
- Your friend does not have to break up with her boyfriend to please you. Even if he sucks. That’s just not how people and their hearts work.
- But also, you do not have to endlessly listen to her talk about him. Her sun may rise and set by the cycle of her bad boyfriend’s moods and behaviors, but yours does not have to.
What if, the next time she complains about something he did, you responded with some version or progression of:
- Sympathetic monosyllables. Hmmmm, huh, wow…
- Let her finish the story.
- “That sounds pretty terrible/abusive/crappy, sorry you had to deal with that.”
In other words, let her know you are paying attention, validate her experience, but do not offer any advice or suggestions or do anything to get further involved. At the end of her story, once you’ve validated her, be silent for a bit or make some brief soothing noises, and then try to change the subject to something else.
If she pushes you to respond more in depth, say:
- “You already know what I’m going to say, right?”
- “That sounds pretty not normal and not okay to me.“
- “When you tell me a story like that, what is it that you hope I will say?”
- “It’s not my place to tell you what to do.”
- “That sounds pretty serious. I wish you’d talk to a pro about it.”
- “I am very confident that you can decide for yourself what is best for you.”
- “I don’t want to give you advice, but I hope you find a way to feel better about things and get what you need.”
Translation: Listen to her, keep the lines of communication open, but maybe make it pretty boring for her to tell you about this stuff, and try to disengage from every detail of the day-to-day ups and downs.
If she really pushes you for an opinion, give her one.
- “When I hear stories about your boyfriend, it makes me sad, because in my experience people who love you treat you much better than that. I think you would probably be much happier down the road if you ended things. That is what I think. But you already know what I think about your boyfriend. More than anything, I want to be supportive of you, my friend, and that means being respectful of your choices. If you want to stay, I am your friend. If you want to leave, I am your friend. Beyond that, I don’t have anything to offer, and that includes advice about a situation that isn’t my business to decide.“
That all sounds pretty cold, right? But you’re not her therapist, and you can’t have her relationship (or end her relationship) for her.
So, here is my reasoning:
People do not thank you for being right about their terrible partners. Dogging someone’s choice of boyfriend when they are totally infatuated can end your friendship with the person and leave them cut off from you when they need you the most.
People in abusive relationships are used to being told what to do and how to feel. They are also used to having a lot of drama – extremely high highs and low lows – as normal. An abuser will try to convince a victim that their feelings aren’t real or don’t matter. And they will try to convince them that really outlandish, not okay behaviors are normal and okay. And that it’s normal & expected to have screaming fights, or be constantly dealing with cheating & jealousy & control, or to have sex when you don’t really want to. An abuser’s message is: This is normal and also the best you can ever expect from life. If you told other people, they wouldn’t believe you.
Sadly, Darth Vaders are the MASTERS of “You are the only person who has ever really understood me/Our love is different and outsiders wouldn’t possibly understand” and of getting their victims to defend indefensible behavior when it’s criticized by others and of isolating them from people who might give an alternate perspective.
That’s the precipice you’re on the edge of right now.
Criticize him too hard, and she’s put in the position of defending him. What seems obvious to you, like, “No one should put up with that behavior from a partner and it would be better if you left” is going to get twisted by Abuser Logic into “See, he thinks you are stupid for staying with me. You’re not stupid, right? So show him, by staying with me.”
She might run things by you to get a perspective and then take that perspective home to Darth, as a way to fight back against what he’s doing to her by invoking outsiders. “Don Draper at the office says that it’s bad to do x, y, and z, and you shouldn’t treat me like that anymore.” In the hands of a Darth, this will become about how you are just saying that because you are jealous and don’t really understand and you pry into everyone’s business and probably trying to sleep with her and everyone has always underestimated and misunderstood him, is she going to be one of those cruel boring people who can’t see how awesome he is or is she going to join the special magic people who really get it?
Listen to the song. Listen to how Carly/The Narrator says she won’t cut fresh flowers/make the wine cold/put on cologne/change the sheets/sit by the phone. As soon as she says that she won’t do those things you know that she will do them. Believe in that sinking feeling. Listen to how she asks all of her friends to stop her from going back to Jesse/Darth. And then listen to the end of the song, where she goes back to him, like we all knew she would. She’s self-aware about her addiction.
In every abusive situation, there is love, or someone’s idea of what love should feel like and be like. If people didn’t love their abusers and crave their love in return, it would be easy to leave. Those feelings of love (along with lust and a good dose of wishful thinking) are real and important to your friend. Whether you understand it or condone it, those feelings are part of the equation that an abuse victim is doing. “But I love him, and he loves me, and this hardship & pain is just a temporary cost of real, true, intense love like we have. You couldn’t possibly understand.” One of the most heartbreaking truths is that feeling love, hearing all the words you’ve ever wanted to hear someone say to you about love, having the most intense sexual chemistry, being able to stay up all night and have long, deep, intense conversations about the things in your heart do not necessarily mean that you can build a happy life with someone. They do not necessarily guarantee that the person who generates all those feelings will be kind to you and treat you as you deserve. So when someone describes abusive or unkind behaviors we’re quick to say “That’s not really love” or “You shouldn’t love him” or “he doesn’t really love you” or “DTMFA.” And we’re not necessarily wrong to think that or to say that. Obviously I personally think it’s important to fight against the way that our culture pressures people, especially women, to stay in romantic relationships even when they aren’t working. But when we treat someone’s feelings as unreal or unimportant in skipping to the part where they should do what we want them to, we forget that finding out that the person who makes you feel such intense feelings is not really good for you and that it’s not going to end well is fucking shattering. Breaking off a relationship that has been important to you, even if it was a dysfunctional one, entails feelings of extreme grief on the way to whatever relief and freedom is possible.
There’s a certain amount of contempt that creeps into the way we talk about abuse victims. We ask “Why does she stay?” or “Why does she keep choosing people like this?” instead of “Why did someone claim to love her and then turn around and treat her so terribly?” If you’re coming into work every day and getting the most recent Darth Blotter of Unconscionable Acts, you might find that contempt creeping into how you speak to your friend and speak about her. People get really mad when they offer help and/or advice and the other person doesn’t take it, like now that they’ve put in the time to listen and give the benefit of their perspective the other person owes them a certain course of action. If these feelings and attitudes are coming up for you (they are kind of seeping around the edge of your letter, like, we all LISTENED but she STAYS with him NOW WHAT), you can help your friend by examining them for what they are and not treating her like she owes you something.
The thing is, abusive partners start acting terribly after you already love them. And they don’t act consistently terribly all the time, so there is always the painful, exhilarating hope for the victim. “You mean, I won’t have to blow up my entire life/housing situation/hopes/dreams after all? There is good in him, I’ve felt it! He can change!” A Darth Vader is an expert score-keeper and advocate for “fairness.” Smart, kind people tend to be self-aware of their own mistakes and the ways they are less than perfect, and they own up to them and apologize for them. Darths use this admirable quality against us in some calculus where any bad act by him is cancelled out by you not being perfect + all the nice things he’s ever done + his really fucked-up childhood/history of depression/the unfair way everyone else in life has ever treated him = THINGS ARE TOTALLY OKAY NOW, RIGHT?
If, in the aftermath of some extreme fucked up behavior that makes you feel awful, you find yourself making pro & con lists of all the nice things someone has done for you and all the tiny imperfections you have, you may know a Darth.
So be the opposite of Darth. Don’t tell her how she should feel. Don’t tell her what to do. Remind her that she is smart and capable, remind her that you respect her work and like her a lot. At work, talk to her about work and treat her like a capable adult who does good work, and don’t let her personal travails bleed into your perceptions and treatment of her. Yes, I mean that even if she is bringing them up all the time. I mean that even if you cannot understand why someone would stay with someone who treats her so badly. Smart people get blindsided by emotional things that they can’t defeat with intelligence all the time.
You can’t stop her cycle and you can’t save her.
You can like her for who she is. You can gently offer a reality check when it’s asked for. You can show her that normal is when someone likes you and respects you, they treat you well all the time and it isn’t really that hard to manage. You can set some boundaries about how & when you want to discuss Darth. “I’m sorry, I am not the right audience for this story today. Can we talk about something else?” Those boundaries might serve both of you in more ways than one, not least by making work a No Darth zone. You can put the number of some counseling services into her hand, and you can let her know that seeking such services carries no shame and no stigma with you. “I think that the behavior you are describing is really scary and not normal, maybe you should talk to someone who will be 100% on your side and help you figure out what you want to do about everything.” Maybe you can help break her fall when it comes with a couch to sleep on, a small loan, a moving van, a hot meal, a sweet recommendation letter for a promotion, covering some shifts. She might accept that help and she might not. She might accept that help and then go back a month or six later.
Just keep in mind that when someone is fleeing the exploding Death Star and they need help, they don’t call the person who made them feel stupid for staying in it so long.