#TFG = #thatfuckingguy
I would appreciate any advice you could give on supporting a friend (female pronouns) who is not yet ready to leave an unhealthy relationship with her boyfriend. This has been an ongoing issue for about 2 years, but something happened a few days ago and I could use an outside perspective.
I would describe the boyfriend as coercive (in past conversations she has alluded to having sex with him just so that he will stop begging, even when she doesn’t want to) and one of my big concerns is that Friend will be extremely isolated in our current city without me. I think he looks through her phone and computer, so I pretty much assume that he could read any written communication I send. I censor myself in written communication with her and we only have frank conversations when we go for walks in the nearby park. He often invites himself along to things we have planned and it feels like he is monitoring our friendship. He also makes controlling comments, but when I call them out, he always says, “I was just joking. [Friend] knows I’m just joking. She’s amazing and the best thing ever…etc.” They live together, but he does none of the domestic work and will only do paid work (freelance) when she nags him.
A couple times a year, she will reach a boiling point and tell him to shape up or she will leave. He will improve for about 2 weeks and then go back to the status quo. Her work/school schedule has been grueling the past few years and she hasn’t had the energy to deal with the inevitable fallout of a breakup. Most of our one-on-one conversations end with me reiterating an offer that she is always welcome to stay at my apartment when she is ready to leave. She’s not blinded by love or anything, just doesn’t feel like there is a good way or time to exit the relationship. He is currently estranged from his family and not really working, so she feels like if she dumps him, he will have nothing. One of my priorities is staying in her life, so I don’t want to overstep and give her boyfriend ammunition for isolating her further. Her parents think her boyfriend is fantastic and her other close friends live in other cities and are busy with newborn babies.
A couple days ago, I ended up spending about 30 minutes alone with her boyfriend while we were stuck in terrible traffic, on our way to pick her up and go to an event. I don’t enjoy his company and generally avoid spending time with him. Our one-on-conversation (mostly him doing a monologue) was frightening. He was delusional, paranoid, and unable to remember things I had said 5 minutes earlier. I had to repeatedly remind him where we were going and why we were going. He was extremely animated in his conversation and was looking at me while he talked and not the road, often swerving at the last minute. His ranting mostly focused on how the [creative] industry was scared of his success and how “they” wanted to keep his [art] away from “the people” and that this was a huge mistake because “the universe was going to revolt” if they didn’t get access to his [art]. At first I thought he was joking and just being overly full of himself, but he was completely serious. He then segued into how his estrangement with his family was a concern of the Catholic Church. Apparently, him “stepping out of line” is crumbling the foundation of the church by upsetting the established hierarchy. At several points, he referred to himself as royalty and referred to his lifelong “fame” that comes with being part of his family. Before you wonder, you have no clue who he is. His “fame” comes from the local and state politics his family is involved with in one of the poorest states in the country.
This grandiose sense of self and paranoia about “the establishment” trying to prevent him from success is worrisome. There were also times when he said things that I know for a fact aren’t true, but he seems to have fully convinced himself of this alternate version. I have considered that he may have been on drugs during that conversation, though that possibility does not alleviate my worry. He does not believe in therapy, though Friend has suggested it to him many times over the last two years.
I have already sent Friend a vague text and we are getting together this weekend for a walk where we will be able to speak more frankly. I just feel powerless to help and that my support has fallen woefully short. I don’t know how to be a supportive friend in this situation and I’m really worried that he is acting like this with her on a regular basis. It was exhausting for 30 minutes, I can’t imagine what it is doing to her longterm. I don’t think he is violent now, but think he could become violent if she breaks up with him. I feel like Friend is the frog in the pot of water, slowly boiling to death. She’s been unhappy, but the decline has been gradual so there hasn’t been a catalyst for her to jump ship.
I know I can’t make her leave, but I do want to make sure I am there for her if she needs support. Any words of wisdom to help me be a good friend in this situation?
-Helpless & Worried (female pronouns)
Dear Helpless & Worried,
I think you’re doing as well as you can with this. You’ve figured out how to communicate with her around his possible monitoring of her electronic conversations. You’ve made it clear that you’ll be a landing place when and if she leaves him. Let me refer you to some past posts that deal with the issue of being a good friend in a basically impossible situation.
Let’s address the elephant in the room:
Without diagnosing this dude (seriously, no “It sounds like x!” comments, please, we don’t actually have to narrow it down), the grandiosity, short-term memory slips, and erratic driving behavior he displayed might correlate to a number of mental health conditions that all have one important thing in common: They will not get better and will most likely get worse without focused regular psychiatric care & medication. You and your friend both might benefit from calling or texting the support folks at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), describing what you experienced with this guy, and seeing what they recommend. Your friend can’t make him get treatment, nor can you, but their support resources for “family members and caregivers” might be able to walk her through what she’s dealing with and have checklists and methods for coaxing reluctant people into treatment.
Important: If you’re ever dealing with someone who is having the paranoid sort of delusions and they are getting very upset and agitated, it doesn’t help to try to convince them of what’s real or deny the truth of what they are describing. They are experiencing whatever it is as if it’s real, so it’s better to validate their feelings until you can get them to Help or Help to them. You don’t have to participate in the delusion yourself, so try “I don’t see any spiders, but that must be a truly awful sight” or “I don’t hear anything, but that must feel really strange and scary.” Be honest about where your own perceptions differ but validate and comfort the upset feelings the person is having without arguing them out of feeling them. Source: A NAMI-created education session for friends/family/loved ones I went to back when Mr. Awkward was hospitalized a few years ago for a bad episode with his bipolar disorder .
It’s a sad, true fact that one can be a clingy, controlling, abusive jerk who needs to be dumped and have some pretty serious mental health stuff going on. Correlation is not causation. Even if he gets treatment (unlikely, since he “doesn’t believe in therapy”), your friend will most likely be better off without this guy in her life, and I don’t want to suggest that she’s responsible somehow for making this happen or that she needs to stay until his mental health is stabilized. Just, knowledge is power, and also, support resources who are not you are useful things to have.
I’m now going to stuff that elephant back into a tightly sealed container, because he didn’t write to me and she didn’t write to me and this is about you and the limits of what you can do here.
If you ever witness an episode like the one you did, when you’re safely out of the car it’s okay to say, “You are not making a lot of sense today, and your driving was very erratic. You seem really not okay to me, like, maybe there’s something going on that a doctor should take a look at.” Say it directly to him as gently and directly as you are able. He may argue that he doesn’t believe in therapy or “Big Pharma” or whatever, which, okay, cool. Don’t talk about therapists or psychiatrists, use the generic catch-all of “doctor.” “I think you should make an appointment with a doctor and tell that person you’re having problems with memory and concentration, especially when driving. Dude, get yourself checked out – if it’s nothing, then why not rule it out?” He sees you at least nominally as a friend, so, use that and speak to him the way a friend would.
He 99.9% won’t go. On some level he suspects that if he goes to a doctor then “They” or “The System” will know there’s something bigger going on. That’s okay. Say it anyway, offer to be the driver on the way back – “I just don’t feel safe with you behind the wheel after what I just saw, and it’s even more worrying that you don’t remember what happened, why don’t you let me get us home, I’d feel much more comfortable” – and if he won’t budge, definitely find your own transportation home. Don’t make it about all future rides or ultimatums, just take it one ride at a time – Right now, you’d feel more comfortable if someone else drove. And in future conversations with him, if those happen, you can keep referring back to that particular night that you personally witnessed (instead of the shitty behavior you know about). “You don’t remember, but when we were in the car that night, your behavior was very disturbing. I really, really hope you’ll talk to a doctor about it. There’s no shame in trying to get to the bottom of something like that so you can feel better/drive safely/put my & girlfriend’s mind at ease.”
If he doesn’t listen to you or seek treatment, it doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. Sometimes speaking up about an issue isn’t about convincing the other person, it’s because it’s good for you to not stay silent. It’s good for you to name what’s happening, to remind yourself that it’s not normal, to remind yourself what you witnessed and experienced, and to put that out there in the world and not just silently fret about it.
When you next talk to your friend, another thing you can do is accurately and honestly describe what you saw. Talk about the behaviors, especially the scary driving, and talk about how they impacted you. You won’t be riding in a car with the boyfriend as the driver any more and you recommend that she doesn’t, either. He could have killed someone. He could have killed you. He could kill her. This is a very big deal and it can’t be waved away.
You can also talk about the grandiosity and the memory lapses and the other strange behavior you observed. Message: “I think there is something very serious going on with him, and he needs serious help – more help than you can possibly give or be expected to give.”
He doesn’t believe in therapy so of course he won’t want to go and she’ll doubtless raise that objection. Your script is: “I think this might beyond our friendly neighborhood therapist, even. This is serious doctor stuff.” Then give her the NAMI resources or whatever else you’ve found and that our nice commenters recommend.
Then, here’s your script for the one big serious talk:
“You are my friend forever, and I always want to see you. If you ever need a place to stay, a listening ear, a ride, whatever I can give, it’s yours. I will keep making communication safe between us and making time for these walks when I can see you.
I am seriously worried about you the longer you stay in this relationship. I think it is draining the life out of you, and I don’t think it’s your responsibility to support and help this guy even one minute longer than you already have. I think that he needs help that you can’t give, and the longer he tries to make you his girlfriend/mommy/financial support/mental health care substitute/pacifier, the longer he will delay seeking that care. I think it’s okay for you to call in medical professionals here, or think about contacting his family to see if they can help somehow – I think things are that serious and that they’ll only get worse from here. I know that’s overwhelming to contemplate, but if things stayed just like they are now and didn’t get any better, how long would you stay? Another year? Another 5 years? Forever?
In the end, only you can decide what’s right for you, and I trust you to take care of yourself and make a good decision about what to do. You don’t owe me a breakup with him, you don’t owe me anything but being my friend. You do what you need to do, and if you need me, I’ll be there, no questions asked.
That said, I can’t ride in a car with him anymore, anywhere. I have to make that boundary for my own safety. And I can’t pretend the way he behaves lately is normal or okay with me. I also don’t want him inviting himself along on our plans anymore, so what do you need from me to help make that happen?”
Your friend will have some stuff to say, so, listen to her.
And then, in the aftermath of this talk, as you go forward in this friendship, here’s what I want you to do:
Make your friendship about something other than “helping” and “supporting” her in regards to him. Make your friendship about how much you like her and want her company in your life. In practice, this means:
- It’s okay to redirect conversations about him. “You already know what I think, so, what are you asking?” “What do you think you’ll do?” “How do you want to handle that?”
- It’s okay to nope out of some conversations about him and not make all the time you spend together time that you chew on the gristle of her relationship problems. “Ugh, that sucks, I’m so sorry you’re dealing with that, but I’ve reached my Dude-talk limit for the day.” U R Not The Asshole Whisperer.
- It’s more than okay to recommend that she see a therapist or counselor. He’s the one with big, dramatic issues, but if she’s being drained dry by him, her having a safe place to talk and an advocate for herself within the mental health system is not a bad thing at all. You don’t have to be her sole outlet.
- I know you’re worried about her becoming isolated from having other friendships and relationships, but I’m serious about not getting in a car with him again, not ever. It’s okay to keep that boundary. “If Dude is driving, sorry, I can’t make it, but I’ll see you at the usual time for our walk.”
- Get out of the role of being the only mentor/advice-giver/”the okay one” or whatever. Make it a point to ask her advice about things that she’s good and knowledgable about. Ask her for help with things that she’d be good at helping with. You can’t make “getting her out of the relationship” the project of your friendship with her for a lot of reasons, not least because it takes the average victim multiple attempts to leave before they actually do.
- Make sure there is a fluffy/fun/positive/enjoyable thing that you share and talk about, whether it’s trading books or watching a favorite show together or a shared hobby or your weekly walks or texting cute animal photos. If he’s monitoring her communications (BAD, VERY BAD, RED FLAG) you having an innocuous conversation topic is a good thing, but it’s also important that you enjoy your friendship with each other as much as possible.
- I hate that this is a thing, but referring to your time together as Girl Time!!! and planning really female-coded activities for when you hang out can help somewhat in minimizing how much he tags along to your plans. “Sorry, this is Lady Time! No boys allowed!” sometimes translates better for misogynists than “Steve, you’re not invited!”
- Lady-Time Expanded: Is there a way for the two of you to join an all-woman choir or sport or other hobby group that meets periodically? Community for her, community for you, no That Guy.
If you’re doing that stuff, you’re doing the best you can under the circumstances.
While this is all going on, I also want you to take excellent care of yourself. Don’t neglect your other friendships and your social life. You need friendships without this abusive jerk hanging out in the background all the time. Don’t neglect your career, your finances, your education, your housekeeping. Above all, don’t neglect your own enjoyment and pleasure in life. Taking care of people and supporting them is great, but when your power to change a situation is as limited as it is here, making sure you can disengage is healthy.
This is all so imperfect. The mental health system is imperfect. Someone else’s relationship troubles are completely unfixable by you, and abusive people poison everything around themselves and the person in their grasp. You can’t make yourself like him, there’s only so long you can lie and pretend around him, and there’s only so long you can make vague soothing noises. There is no great, wonderful, awesome, brilliant way to handle this, there is only telling the truth and offering what you can safely offer.