Help! My Friend is Dating a Creepy Dude.

themathgirl
asks:
There’s a guy I see frequently (We're in a small major together in school, we live in the same dorm) who has sexually harassed a number of girls in my group of friends. And now recently one of my friends told me that he raped her a year ago(the statute of limitations has passed.) I don't trust him. Most of my friends and I do what we can to avoid him. However, my roommate/close friend started dating him four months ago. She knows about his bad behavior towards her friends. She knew about it when she started dating him. Maybe she doesn't believe it. Maybe she doesn't care. She refuses to listen to their claims that she's dating an asshole. Knowing about this guy's general creepiness and having seen this friend disappear almost completely from our social circle to spend all her free time alone with him makes me worry he is abusing/manipulating/being an asshole to her. I've been told that often people put up with abusive relationships because they feel they have no social support outside the abuser. So the very last thing we, her friends, should do is let her disappear. In case she is being emotionally manipulated/abused/whatever, I want to show her that she has a network of friends other than him who care about her and support her. She won't spend time with friends without him though, and none of us (especially not the people he has harassed and abused) want to be around him. What do you recommend I do?
Sam W replies:

Oof, this is a tough spot, and I'm sorry you've found yourself in it.

I want to start by saying that your instincts, and what you've been hearing, are spot on. When you sense that someone you care about is being isolated by a partner, especially a partner with a history of harassment and assault, it's sound to try and maintain the connection you have with them so that they don't find themselves without a support network down the road.

That is, however, something that is easier said than done, because abusive or otherwise toxic partners are really good at making the people they date shrink down their social lives until it revolves only around the abuser. And heck, even in perfectly healthy relationships, it's not unusual for the people involved to focus most of their social energy on the other partner and spend less time with their friends (particularly when a relationship is new).

One thing that will help you is to focus on what you can do, rather than on what you can't. You can't make her stop dating him: she's an autonomous person who gets to make her own choices about who she dates. You can't make her believe you or your friends about how creepy this dude is or that he assaulted one of you. That's going to be frustrating, because you look at the guy and see the red flags, and wonder how in the world she's not noticing them. But she isn't, or she's choosing to read them as something else right now, and trying to force her to see what you see will make her pull away from you.

Here's what you can do. You can keep in contact with her, be that through social media, email, texting, whatever you like. Try to keep the conversations between you as normal as you can, to avoid making her relationship with creepy dude the focus of your time together. Suggest meeting up, either just the two of you, or with a group. These don't have to be big plans. They can be as simple as "hey, grabbing coffee after class, want to come with me?" All you're trying to do is stay connected with a friend, not become the ringmaster of her social life.

When it comes to heading off her bringing him along to these meet-ups, there are a couple of approaches you could use. One is to make it clear that you want it to be just you and her who hang out. The other is to use approaches such as "girls only paintball/dinner/D&D time!" as a socially acceptable way to get her to hang out sans creepy dude.

You do need to be prepared for her to ignore the more subtle blocks that you put in place (this may not be malicious ignoring, it may just be that she's not picking up on what those blocks are trying to say). She knows it said "girls only" in the email, but creepy dude just loves pinball so much, so she thought she'd bring him along. Or she just happened to be hanging out at creepy dude's place before she met you for coffee, and he asked to come with her, and you don't mind right?

If she does this for meetings where it was supposed to be just you and her, you can decide if you want to spend an hour in the presence of this guy in order to spend time with your friend. Or, you can amp up the directness and say "Friend, I know you like dude, but I really just want to meet up with you right now." If he makes you feel unsafe, you get to set the boundary of not having him around you and enforce it to whatever degree you feel comfortable with.

If she keeps bringing dude to group outings, especially if he's harassed or assaulted people who are going to be there, you're going to need to get even more direct. Something like: "Friend, I know you like this dude. But he has a history of making me, and our other friends, feel unsafe. That's why I suggested it just be this group of us. I'm not trying to make you feel like it's us or him, but I do need you to know that I, and our other friends, want to be able to see you, our super cool friend, without this guy hanging around and making us uncomfortable."

I hate to say this, and maybe it's something you've already guessed, but there's a chance she won't take that well. It might be that, even if you emphasize that this is not a "me or him" situation but rather a "no him around me, please" situation, she may still feel like you're making her choose. Or you may hit some buttons that creepy dude has installed about how no one understands their love/everyone is out to get them. Again, those are outcomes that you can't control. She's going to feel how she feels about this, and that's her right. But this guy is becoming a missing stair, and by setting the boundary of "he is not allowed near me or other people he has harassed" you're doing what you can to make him less of one. Your friend is allowed to date who she wants to, but her desire to bring creeper along everywhere does not trump your right, or the right of your friends, to feel safe in your own space.

It might turn out that your attempts to see her without creepy dude work. Hooray! But what to do in the event that she mentions something that he does that makes your hair stand on end but that she doesn't seem bothered by? You may want to shout "See, that, that right there! That is creepy as all get out! Dump him! Dump him and run!"

Tempting as that may be, reacting that way can seriously backfire. It will likely lead to her defending his behavior, and reinforce any messages he's been giving her about how her friends just don't like him. There's a lot of romance to the "the world is against our love, yet we persevere. Thus, our love is meant to be!" narrative, and you want to avoid feeding that line of thought when you can. Plus, constantly discussing his behavior keeps him the focus of the time that you'd rather spend connecting with your friend. So how do you let her know you think a behavior is a red flag in a way that has a low chance of backfiring?

Keep it short, observational, and about her rather than him. "That sounds not okay. How do you feel about it?" is a good starting place. It makes it clear that you think something is off about the behavior, but that you're interested in what she thinks and feels about it, rather than in lecturing her or criticizing her choices. If she presses you to agree with her about how funny/cute/great predatory dude or his actions are, or if she won't stop talking about him, gently, clearly remind her that "hey, you know my feelings on dude. So, can we talk about how your classes are going/that art project you're doing/what you thought about that new movie?" If you're not in the mood to address the red flag at all, or you sense that even a mild critique of it might result in a fight that you don't have the energy for right then, a non-committal "huh" does the trick nicely.

The other reason I don't suggest pressuring her to dump him, or to keep reminding her that he's a creepy creeper, is that people don't like to hear that they've made a bad choice. If many of your conversations with your friend involve you urging her to dump him, or what a bad choice she's making, if something goes south later on she might feel like she can't come to you for help and support because you're going to lord the fact that you were right over her and make her feel foolish. Which is the exact opposite of what you want to happen. By focusing as much as you can on normal friend stuff, you're reminding her that she has someone who cares about her and that she has an emotional and social life outside of her boyfriend.

On the positive side, there's a decent chance that she and creepy dude will break up in a few months, since college relationships tend to evolve and end rapidly. Or, he may escalate his creepiness to a point where it cancels out the traits she liked about him and she'll leave. So, just because she's with him now doesn't mean you're doomed to having this guy hanging on the edges of your friend circle forever.

But there's also the hard reality that you may not be able to stop your friend from falling further into this guys orbit, and at a certain point you need to prioritize keeping yourself (and your other friends) safe. That's one of the awful things about creepers (especially intentional ones) and abusers: their presence in a social group creates dynamics that are divisive, making it harder for the people they've victimized to get help or feel supported. And they can create sides in a friend group that lead to a lot of acrimony, or that result in people leaving the group entirely, even if you try to stop that from happening.

In the end, what you can do is try to help your friend maintain a social life that doesn't revolve around this guy. And if she keeps drifting away, then what you can do is be prepared to be there for her if/when she stops seeing him, whether that's for standard break-up reasons or because she's come to realize that the rest of your friends weren't just making up how icky this dude is. You can't control other people's choices, but you can be there for them when they decide that they need a little help from their friends.

One last note about his behavior: while your friend who was assaulted has determined that she can't report at this point, what about the other harassment that's going on? Even if he can't face disciplinary action, it would be sound to let someone like the resident adviser in the dorms (or, if the harassment tends to happen somewhere else, someone who is in charge of that space) know what's been happening, as their job is to make sure the dorms are a safe space for students. If you haven't already, research and find out the process for reporting harassment on campus. That way, if he harasses you, you know how to report him. And let your other friends know that you intend to do so, and that you'll have their backs if he harasses them and they decide to report it as well. Something that keeps people who have been harassed or assaulted silent, and that helps creepers keep creeping, is that many people are afraid to report what happened for fear of push-back from their social circles. So if you create a culture within your friend group of believing each other (which it sounds like you at least are already doing) and supporting each other, it will make it harder for this guy to operate.

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