#1148: “Navigating the aftermath of the abuse in the social circle.”

Hey there, Captain Awkward –

My dear roommate (Clay)’s ex-boyfriend was abusive. He had mental health issues, and emotionally manipulated roommate (they/them) in various ways. I spent a lot of time helping my roommate to process the feels and vulnerabilities emerging around what happened in their relationship – and potentially over invested myself in their emotional process.

This was complicated by the ex-boyfriend (Greg) still being a part of the community. He starting dating a different close friend of mine,(Sarah) I ran into him around town, we were on friendly terms.

We got into conflict around this when I shared some personal details about Clay’s life with Sarah, and I realized how much social navigating I was doing that was tiring me out. (Letting Clay know when Greg would be at parties / friends houses / keeping track of what information could / should be shared with who in the community around who was dating who etc..) I told Clay I was not willing to do this kind of social navigating and needed some space from the dynamics of the situation.

A few months later Clay and I were in an art show together. On FB, I invited Greg to the opening, which Clay was very upset and hurt by. From Clay’s perspective, because they had shared so much about their experience with me, they expected me to understand this was unacceptable. They were very hurt and shared that I had not respected their boundaries around Greg – but not until the show was over. (Which Greg did not end up attending). During the preparation / while the FB invitation was online, they did not say anything to me about this.

Around this same time, I also invited my friend Sarah (dating Greg) to an emotional-processing workshop I was hosting in our home, that Clay was also planning to attend. Clay was also very upset with me about this, and again from their perspective, not respecting their boundaries and experience with having been emotionally abused.

This conflict culminated in Clay moving out of our house, and three very dramatic and painful feeling months where we were not able to connect or work things through as we had previously done.

I take issues of emotional abuse very seriously, and am trying to learn from this situation. Was I being an inconsiderate friend? Do I need to learn to respect boundaries with more depth? Was Clay not taking responsibility for articulating their needs? Are all of these things true?

Looking for some insight and clarity –

Confused rooomie. (She/her)

Dear Confused Roomie:

You invited your friend’s abuser to their art opening.

You invited your friend’s abuser to their art opening.

Yes, it was your art opening, too, but really? Can’t show your art without having your friend’s abuser also there to appreciate it?

Like…why on earth would you do that?

You also invited your friend’s abuser’s girlfriend to “an emotional processing workshop” that they were also planning on attending in your shared home. “Oh hey this isn’t awkward at all, let’s emotionally process how your current boyfriend emotionally abused me and how I can’t stop running into y’all in this space that’s supposed to be safe and vulnerable! Pass the cheese!” 

You also told your friend Clay that it was too much effort to warn them when their abuser would be at social events and to stop sharing personal information where their abuser or people intimate with them might come across it.

Can’t imagine why Clay would want to keep some distance from you.

(j/k I can imagine it)

I can feel you trying very hard to be fair to Sarah, who is also your friend, and to the idea of this social circle, of which Greg is part, and I have sympathy for how exhausting it can be to be what feels like someone’s only sounding board for a traumatic relationship situation. I think you are allowed to say to “I’m kind of at my limit for being your sounding board about this, can we talk about other stuff, too?” without being a bad friend to Clay. But there’s a secret, ugly question in your question and it’s “Welp, Greg didn’t abuse me, and Clay is being really difficult & dramatic about all of this, and they didn’t make it explicitly clear that they didn’t want me inviting him to the art show, so why can’t this just be over/isn’t this a little bit Clay’s fault, too?” 

Abuse ruins everything. It isn’t fair. It spills out all around the intended victim and pulls everything out of balance. There is no world where it’s possible to be neutral to Greg and also be cool & protective & kind to his victim, Clay. By not wanting to choose a side, you chose a side (Greg’s side). When you did that, you stopped being a safe person for Clay, someone who knew what they had been through and someone they could trust to help them navigate the aftermath of a difficult thing.

We don’t yet have a good restorative justice process for someone like Greg, where he apologizes to Clay and makes amends for what he did, where he treats whatever mental health stuff he has going on (with a reminder that mental illness doesn’t cause abuse, just, this is a good step to take in general), and he does all of that without the expectation that he’ll be welcomed back by the people who know Clay. Someone who knows they fucked up, takes responsibility for that, and makes sure not to do that again could maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaybe have hopes of becoming nodding acquaintances with y’all. (Maybe). Until we have a good process for all that, one script for the Gregs of the world is “You’re not invited. You know why. Give everyone space and stop making this hard for the people you mistreated.” 

If you take nothing else from this blog post, take this: The abusers of the world know what they did and they know why people are mad at them. The part where they pretend they don’t understand and make you explain it again and again and probe the situation for fairness and insist again on hearing the reasons and act like it’s a court of law (when really it’s a party invitation) and project this aura of wounded innocence or casual friendliness that basically dares you to bring it up or try to charm you into giving them a pass and get others to plead their case or invoke plausible deniability…is a form of gaslighting…and it’s one of the reasons it’s okay to stop inviting them to your parties. “You were crappy to my friend and that makes me like you less than I thought I did” is really not that complicated. Watch out for people who try to make that very complicated.

There is/was potentially a script for Sarah, along the lines of “Hey, you’re my friend and I always want to hang out with you, but the Clay-LW house and all joint events are closed to Greg, as Clay has made it clear they won’t be anywhere Greg will also be. I didn’t want you to wonder why or think I was avoiding you.” Then Sarah could make some difficult choices of her own, and she could know what the boundaries are. If she chose to insist that she didn’t want to go anywhere Greg wasn’t welcome, knowing that it could limit some of her socializing, that could be her informed choice. (Then, when Sarah & Greg’s relationship inevitably goes to shit, you can try to be the “I believe you, it’s not your fault” friend and not the “I told you so” friend. That would balance the scales, a little.)

Of course that risks coming back on Clay, like, Sarah passes everything on to Greg and Greg blames or attacks Clay for ruining his social life, but Greg’s gonna Greg and at least you’ve been clear with your friend Sarah. To be clear, there’s never a perfect solution with an abuser, just an attempt to find the least bad one. You can’t singlehandedly fix the situation or your social circle or undo the abuse that’s happened. What we’re after here is doing your part to not make bad stuff worse.

Which brings us to your question:”Was Clay not taking responsibility for articulating their needs?”

Could Clay have been more explicit about the art show, like, “Did you mean to invite Greg the Fuckface to our art show, and if so, why, and can you also un-invite him, like, immediately?” Sure? But I understand Clay not wanting to have to rip open all their old wounds, again, to plead their case, again. A lot of people try to go with a “I’ll just invite everyone, they’ll self-select out if they don’t want to be around each other” practice which is just fine when people you like don’t like each other much, but falls extremely short in cases where one of them abused the other one. In this case, you know what Greg did to Clay. If you believe Clay about what happened, what possible purpose could inviting Greg to the show serve?

I realize I’m being really harsh on you about this art show thing and I’m really trying to not yell, but this is so very egregious to me. My friends don’t invite my worst exes or people who have mistreated me to my storytelling shows or my film screenings. I don’t have to celebrate these creative milestones while also stressing the fuck out because people I loathe or fear have been invited, and I don’t have to “set an explicit boundary” or explain to them why, and it wouldn’t be a mystery if I were pissed and extremely confused if they did. Also, remember when Clay was like “I don’t want to be anywhere Greg is ever again if I can help it, can you alert me please?” in a more general way, and you were like “No, too hard, I need space from all this?” How is Clay supposed to read this besides “I told my friend what I needed, she doesn’t seem to care”? And what would Clay have to do to get you to consider their history for a second and at least not invite him to events where you are jointly the hosts/honorees?

Rather than being a failure to set or communicate boundaries, it sounds like the choice to move out and get some distance is more about enforcing their boundaries around this. You didn’t want to set boundaries with Sarah or with Greg or with yourself about how you navigated social spaces with them, but you did want to enforce a “not my circus, not my monkeys” boundary with Clay. You wouldn’t choose, so eventually Clay chose for you. They chose what felt the most like safety.

I guess you can hang with Sarah and Greg all you want now, and you wanted to be free of worrying about Clay’s ugly relationship history, so, you got it! And you might in fact be much calmer and happier in your home now that this won’t be a daily discussion or problem that you have to expend effort on. But there was a trade-off, and what you lost sounds like a really important friendship.

So, question time:

  • Do you want the friendship back or is the distance from Clay better for you? If your primary emotion right now is relief, then own that, and let Clay go or at least give Clay and yourself lots of time and space.
  • The attempt to be on friendly terms with both of these people is a failed one, so, who are you going to choose?
  • If there is still something to be repaired in your friendship with Clay, could you start with an apology for inviting Greg to the art show and start with respecting the ways they’ve tried to keep themselves safe from Greg?
  • And, could you try to see the costs that are imposed on your friendship with Clay around this as something Greg created with his abuse, and not something that Clay did to you?

I hope this brings you some clarity. Comments are closed.