#1388: “A woman wants to bond with me over our shared history of an abusive man – and I’m struggling to be polite while also maintaining boundaries.”

Dear Captain Awkward,

A few years ago, I (34f) was in a relationship with Roy (36m, not his real name.) About six months into our relationship, I met his good friend Janine (36f, not real name.) I had heard a lot about Janine & had been excited to meet her, but when we met at an event, Janine was incredibly rude and hostile to both me and my friend who was with me. I remained polite through an excruciating dinner where Janine either ignored or sneered at my friend and I, & Roy didn’t address the dynamic. After the dinner, I told Roy that I had found her rude and that while they had a longstanding friendship and I’d never interfere with it, if that was going to be how she spoke to me and my friends, I didn’t want to spend any more time with her. Janine and I never met again. Over the next year, Roy became incredibly psychologically and emotionally abusive, including deliberately gaslighting me and triggering my pre-existing PTSD.  By the end of the relationship I was in a serious mental health crisis due to his abuse, and it took me literally years (and a lot of expensive therapy) to recover from it. About a year after the relationship ended, I also discovered that he had been married all through our relationship, only separating while we were together. He had abused his wife in a similar way to me. He had also been cheating on me with other women. The abuse was much worse than the cheating, but learning about all the extra deception and the abuse of his wife a year later opened up old wounds & prolonged my recovery. 

Now, a few years on, I’m doing much better, no longer live in Roy & Janine’s city, have rebuilt my life and am in a relationship with someone wonderful. 

About ten months ago, Janine messaged me on social media asking me if Roy had abused me. At first, I didn’t trust her and thought maybe Roy was using her to find out what I was saying about him publicly, & essentially said as much to her. She told me she had heard from other people that he was abusive to women and genuinely wanted to know. I gave her some information confirming that broad nature of the abuse, and she sent me a lot of messages telling me that she had known he was married and also cheating on me when we met; that she knew his current girlfriend and while she didn’t think it was an abusive relationship, she saw how he shifted his personality hugely based on who he was with; and she also revealed to me her own history of abuse (by another man, not Roy.) She said she was going to end her friendship with Roy and kept calling herself an ally and using words like “solidarity.” This was all a lot to process out of the blue and felt very intimate given the negative tone of our one and only interaction, but I told her that I appreciated her words of support; that she didn’t have to end their friendship on my account but if she did I hoped it was a good decision for her; and I expressed sympathy for her previous experiences of abuse. I told her that confronting issues like this in a friendship can be difficult and that I hoped she had support around her. I considered the conversation over. 

A few weeks later, she sent me a picture of an elaborate needlepoint-in-process saying something like “Fuck You Roy”; then the finished piece; then she sent me a picture of her leaving it on his doorstep. I sent some kind of “Ha! I hope that felt cathartic, be well” message back. She has since randomly messaged me several times, sometimes just insulting Roy, sometimes just mentioning events in her city (she knows I no longer live there). A couple of months ago, she messaged me telling me she was going on a weekend break to a city (not mine) and asked me if Roy had ever mentioned any good bars there, which felt incredibly random. I responded telling her that I appreciated her previous words of support and hoped that she was well, but that I didn’t want to get random messages about/reminders of Roy just because she wanted a bar recommendation, and to please not send me those types of messages. She has since messaged me a couple of times asking me if I could give her bar recommendations for a city I don’t live, whether I’d ever like to meet for a pint, and if I’m okay receiving messages from her at all. 

Here’s the thing: I do appreciate that she believed me and took action. I hope she’s generally doing well. However, I don’t like this woman. We met and she was obnoxious. She also knew my boyfriend was married and cheating on me, and decided not to call him out on it at the time. And her messages to me have felt quite performative and based in her assuring me that she’s a good person. I know that she cut him off so I know it’s not completely false, but the needlepoint and referring to herself as an “ally” and the forced intimacy just feel a bit odd to me. I don’t want to be rude, but I also don’t love the pressure to politely engage with her or perform gratitude. I don’t want to shut her down cold, but neither do I want to be friends with her. And I understand the desire to talk to someone who knows about an abusive person in common, but I’ve spent years trying to get over this guy and am very happy having no reminders of him. 

My friends are split on whether she’s an invasive, performative weirdo or a good woman trying to act in solidarity. My instinct that it’s somewhere in between, but frankly I am baffled by the whole thing and unsure how to react. The only response that genuinely feels accurate to my emotions towards her are “You need to talk to a therapist and figure out what you want from me” – but I’m aware that’s a bit aggressive!

But seriously, what DOES she want from me? And what do I do?

Thank you so much!

Snappy Sign Off Name: I Can’t Give You Your Feminist Ally Badge

Hello Snappy Sign-Off,

Leaving toxic and abusive relationships is a lonely business, and you did Janine a great kindness when she was making that decision for herself. Like you, I’m glad that women all over the place are leaving Roy where he belongs (the trash).

Whether Janine’s newfound sense of “solidarity” (or working definition of the word) is performative or genuine doesn’t actually matter. What your other friends think doesn’t matter. What she expects from you or whether she seeks therapy doesn’t matter. What would be polite doesn’t matter.

What matters:

1) You demonstrated some actual solidarity when you didn’t have to, so give yourself some credit.

2) You don’t want to be friends with Janine (or get drinks, or be her personal TripAdvisor, or get periodic messages from her), so, don’t.

Not only is “I don’t want to” sufficient reason, it’s the best reason, perhaps the only reason. Janine’s not a jerk for wanting to hang out, but equally, you are not being mean if you don’t. Friendship is about affection, reciprocity, delight, and wanting to be in someone’s company. It’s not about politeness or a sense of obligation to someone else’s misplaced expectations.

So let’s talk practicalities and scripts. Last time Janine got in touch about drinks or whether you wanted to receive messages altogether, did you respond? What did you say? It seems to me that she has given you an out, and all that remains is for you to take her up on it.

If the last ping was recent (say, within the past few weeks), try something like, “Thank you for asking. I’ve thought it over, and I’d prefer not to keep in touch. I wish you all the best, happy 2023.” Then deploy your preferred blocking, muting, unfollowing, and filtering protocols so that she can eat her crackers in peace and you can log into your own socials without a creeping sense of dread.

If more than a few weeks has elapsed since her last contact, and you haven’t responded, and she hasn’t followed up, great! Don’t say or do anything and skip ahead to Project Block/Filter if you want to. If she gets in touch in the future, you can give her the message at that point. “Oh, hello, sorry I never got back to you about drinks that time. Now that I’ve had a chance to think it over, I’d prefer not to keep in touch, but I wish you all the best.”

Even if you did throw her a guilty “No, of course you can still message me” at the time, all is not lost! The very next time she pings you, you can say, “My apologies, know I said that I was okay with it when you asked, but now that I’ve had a chance to reconsider, I’d prefer not to keep in touch after all. I wish you well!” You get to change your mind.

If she asks why, or tries to blame you or pressure you, consider that she is confirming that you made the right decision to end the acquaintance. You don’t have to answer continued inquiries or pressure attempts at all, and if you do, you don’t have to delve in deeply. “Nothing personal, just, I’m not interested in holding onto any ties from that period of my life. Be well!” Platitudes get a bad rap, but I think of them the same way I think of those Command Strips that let you attach posters to the dorm room wall without using nails or screws: Not my favorite, but it gets the job done without doing permanent damage. Good enough!

It’s time to save your tact and careful consideration for the relationships you actually care about and let “Thanks but no” be good enough. Janine will live on just fine, free to seek friends who actively like her, and the gift of No More Open Sewers Disguised As Men will provide its own reward for many seasons to come.