How do I help my friend in a terrible breakup?
April 18, 2010 8:07 AM   Subscribe

So, there was a hidden love-triangle in my academic department. It all came to light last Monday, and things have been pretty awful since then, due in part to the stupidity of one participant and the deception of another. What on earth do I do?

My best friend has been dating a gal in our academic department since December. Because we're all in the same classes and share offices, she asked him to keep the relationship generally a secret to minimize 'drama'. This past Monday, it came out, through a very long and tortuous process, that she has in fact been secretly dating another guy in the department since September. Needless to say, friend broke up, notified the other guy, and proceeded to sulk.

I know how to be a good friend as far as spending time with him and giving him opportunity to vent, but I don't know what to do in order to guarantee justice wins out. Because while my friend is trying to make sense of the past three years, the cheating girlfriend is spreading malicious lies throughout the department about how he's a crazy person who has been stalking her, and anything he says about them dating is outright falsehood brought on by desperation. While my friend is at home moping, she's going out and partying with department-mates like nothing ever happened. This just seems wrong.

To complicate things, when my friend attempted to send her an email asking for explanation or apology, she replied with a boilerplate letter warning him of legal action if this "harassment" continues. So he feels that not only can he not talk to his ex and get closure (and his stuff back), but also that he can't clear his good name, all for fear of her going to the police or lawyering up.

In this frustrating situation what can I do? We're a midsized academic department, supposedly full of reflective people. I've thought about cornering her early next week and asking for "her side of the story," which I know will be directly contrary to what my friend has told me, and more pressingly, what I've seen of their relationship myself. I've considered maybe sacrificing myself and sending a note to the department email listserv, which would surely get me in trouble. Of course she'd probably respond by working me into her victim-narrative and then calling the cops.

I figure this one really isn't winnable: my friend has feelings, and she does not. She's an attractive and bubbly woman who people apparently like without pause. My friend, on the other hand, is kind of awkward but definitely good-hearted, well-meaning, and hurting so terribly.

So, hivemind, what ought I do? I'll be around for clarification, if needed, but I just want to protect my friend's reputation while ensuring she gets what she deserves.

(And yes, I know he shouldn't date in the department, and secret relationships are the devil's own.)

And for what it's worth, the other guy, with whom I'm not friendly, is believing every word the cheater is saying. Of course she didn't cheat, or if she did, it was during a bipolar 'manic' swing, and she just doesn't remember and can't be blamed. Mercy.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (33 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Me, I would definitely not get involved, other than to be a friend to your friend. You can't know what happened or how people experienced what happened. If someone mentions the scandal and/or your friend, you can say (as a friend), "That wasn't my understanding," or "I heard a very different story," or, "I know John pretty well, and I really don't think that's accurate." But I don't think you can otherwise influence "the story." Just my $0.02.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:17 AM on April 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

The best thing for you to do is to stay out of it -- don't email the listserv, and don't corner her!!! Keep being a supportive buddy for your friend -- you know his side of the story and can be a good shoulder for him to cry on. If people come to you about rumors concerning your friend, keep your story straight and state what you KNOW to be fact. Don't trash her behind her back (easy as it may be). The trick to the upper hand here is integrity and honesty.

But what HE should do is to quietly and calmly keep his head up. People's crazy will eventually always reveal itself, even if it takes too long to feel fair. If she keeps spreading malicious and untrue lies (an accusation of criminal behavior (like stalking) is per se slander in some jurisdictions), he should contact a lawyer for a straightforward cease & desist letter. If she has kept items of value to him, a lawyer can also draft a letter demanding return of the items. A third party (a professional, not you) will defuse her story about harassment and stalking.

This sucks when it happens, and it sucks to watch happen to a friend. You've just got to accept that it sucks and resist the urge for quick & dirty revenge.
posted by motsque at 8:21 AM on April 18, 2010 [25 favorites]

Stay out of it. Seriously, anything you do will just add to the drama in the department. Be there for your friend like you would any for any friend going through a breakup, but don't try to get in the middle of it. It will only make things worse.
posted by bluloo at 8:21 AM on April 18, 2010

I am not sure where my suggestion fits in whatever you do but at some point he might consider getting a police officer to go with him to her place to retrieve his 'stuff.' This would disprove any stalking or harassment charges.

If you know, factually, that they dated for several months that would be great defense as well.

But you may only know what your friend has told you and that might not work as a defense.

What an awful mess these office flings can cause. I feel for your friend.
posted by JayRwv at 8:21 AM on April 18, 2010

""untrue lies"....redundant, but you get the picture :)
posted by motsque at 8:22 AM on April 18, 2010

Seconding the idea of getting a cop to go with your friend to get his stuff. Although is she's going to be this crazy about things he'll probably have to prove that it is his stuff.
posted by theichibun at 8:24 AM on April 18, 2010

nthing ClaudiaCenter.

IANAL: If the ex-girlfriend has valuable stuff of your friend that he wants back.. he needs to send her a snail mail letter clearly stating all the items he wants returned. Nothing else. "Dear so and so, I am writing to ask the return of my personal items, listed below. Item A, Item B, Item C, Item D. You can mail these items to me at my address, arrange for me to pick them up, or leave them with mllrstvn. Thank you for your cooperation. Sincerely, mllrstvnFriend."

Date it, copy it, stamp it, certifyly mail it. Repeat three times. If she doesn't give the stuff back, take her to court.
posted by royalsong at 8:31 AM on April 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

Honestly, just do what you can to stay clear of the drama. These people may be your friends (or enemies), but they should be your colleagues first-- the colleagues who, someday, will be editing the journals you submit publications to, and chairing the committees you want to be on. You owe it to yourself to keep your eyes on your work and avoid acquiring a reputation as someone who meddles in petty personal feuds.

Also, they've been dating four months? Your friend will survive this just fine. It seems as though most of the girlfriend's acting out has been in response to stuff your friend's done (emailing her for an explanation, notifying the other guy), so the best thing he can do for himself at present is to back away from the crazy, leave the girl in peace, and start trying to move on.
posted by Bardolph at 8:35 AM on April 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

If the ex is denying the relationship in hopes of maintaining the other guy's affections, then your friend's stuff is already gone. She threw out anything that could be linked to him once she realized it could substantiate your friend's side of the story. Unless you're talking serious amounts of money (a car, high end electronics?), he should just forget it.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 8:37 AM on April 18, 2010

I saw a very similar thing happen in college. Because I'd been hanging out with the guy right after she broke it off, I knew for a fact that he hadn't spent the day "stalking" her as she claimed.

Months later, when she told a male friend (who she ended up cheating on her boyfriend with, natch) that the guy in question "stalked" her, and I told him that it wasn't true, he reported it back to her--and she told all of our mutual acquaintances that I was a "dirty shit talker."

In short, crazy dramarama. Don't get involved, but do be there for your friend in whatever capacity he needs. Ask him. Ignore her. She's not worth it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:39 AM on April 18, 2010

Once more, with feeling -- stay out of it. It will do no one good. Support your friend. He probably wants to pursue some kind of legal action for his stuff, and he should save every communication he has with her for future reference. He does not want to be the subject of a restraining order or any other legal action.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:40 AM on April 18, 2010

Assuming your story is factually accurate and complete, there is nothing you can or should do so that she gets what she deserves. This shouldn't be about revenge, it should \be about the future. Help your friend move on.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:41 AM on April 18, 2010

In my experience, the truth eventually comes out in these situations. If she is as awful as you say, sooner or later her true character will become apparent and she will "get what she deserves". Your friend needs to stay true to himself, let time heal his wounds, and continue to live his life with class and dignity. Any conversation or questions about what happened should be met with "Well, I concede a lack of good judgement in getting involved with her in the first place, haha!" He also needs to be careful in his dealings with her and take the advice above to get his stuff back.
posted by raisingsand at 8:53 AM on April 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

I don't know what to do in order to guarantee justice wins out

Justice rarely wins out in a breakup, particularly a messy one like this. You sound like you're a good friend and like you're on the right track with a plan to be a good listener.

Also, keep in mind that you're only getting one side of the story, and that what one person sees as reasonable, another might see as harassment. You're smart to avoid getting in the middle of it.
posted by corey flood at 9:27 AM on April 18, 2010

Any kind of justice that you are seeking will not be found by hearing her side of the story or getting others involved. Cheating will out. Anything you do to punish her will backfire.

What kind of stuff does she have (or did have) of his? Is it just little things like a toothbrush and a sweatshirt, or does she have items of considerable value like a camera or a computer? If it is the latter, do what royalsong mentioned above.

If you are still entertaining any kind of vindictive thoughts, DO NOT email the department listserve, DO NOT confront this girl, DO NOT interfere. Be a good friend and take him out to a movie or ice cream or a go kart track. This is not your problem and can only cause you drama in the future if you pursue it.

People's feelings get hurt in relationships. It happens. It sucks. You can't help after the fact, except to be there for him. All of the retribution in the world is not going to bring their relationship back from the dead. Stay away from her current boyfriend.
posted by amicamentis at 9:27 AM on April 18, 2010

You're thinking about sending out emails on the listserv or "cornering" her? You're fucking nuts. Sure, this woman sounds like a nasty, unpleasant creature, but at the end of the day you are not the Punisher or Dirty Harry or some gunslinger who can mete out justice. Get a grip. Sometimes, there is no justice.

The best thing you can do to help you friend get over this is to help get back his stuff. This means behaving neutrally and politely, and trying to work out a solution to get back his shit.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:37 AM on April 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

Your friend needs to stop sulking and go back to work. Reach out to whatever meager core of professionalism exists in your department and act like nothing happened. Surely there is classwork and other academic work to discuss?

Focus on your hopefully numerous colleagues who don't care about your friend's love life.
posted by Wood at 9:50 AM on April 18, 2010

In addition to strongly agreeing with the you-stay-out-of-it theme, I'd add that your friend may want to write up his version of the story and present it to the head of the department in person.

Having gone through an oddly-similar experience in my own university department not long ago, in the case that the girl decides to get Human Resources involved, or bring some kind of harassment (sexual or otherwise) claim, having made a preemptive effort to get his side out to the proper people will help his situation out.

And, perhaps by just writing down everything that happened, he'll get the chance to feel a little bit of closure, or at least be able to process these events.

Good luck!
posted by cheeken at 10:09 AM on April 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

I would suggest that your friend saves whatever e-mails/chat logs (if any) he has from the woman, as well. Accusations of stalking are likely to get him into serious hot water with the administration.

If he doesn't have tenure he should consider beginning to looking for a new job.
posted by leahwrenn at 10:24 AM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sorry---on re-read I realize you all are probably graduate students. Sucks, then, but no worries regarding being hauled up in front of HR or fired. It's just your usual incestuous grad school stuff.
posted by leahwrenn at 10:25 AM on April 18, 2010

Honestly, just do what you can to stay clear of the drama.

This applies to life in general, or as an old friend used to say:

"Stay out of other people's soap operas. You will become ridiculous."

He said it was old Chinese wisdom (word choice updated, of course). I've yet to come across it in any sacred texts but it's still darned solid advice that I've followed on any number of occasions.
posted by philip-random at 10:34 AM on April 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't know what to do in order to guarantee justice wins out

First, you're probably overestimating the importance of grad school gossip. Nobody "above" grad students particularly cares who's dating who or how their breakup went or whether someone is a "dirty shit talker" or stalker, at least not until the criminal justice or court system are involved.

Second, your ideas are at best Very Bad. Posting to a listserv is a bad idea. Posting to a department-wide listserv that includes faculty and isn't already full of horrible gossip is a doubleplusbad idea -- it publicly marks you as the sort of person who throws gossip where gossip doesn't belong.

What can you do?

First, in the relatively unlikely event that this carries forward into interactions with faculty, you could encourage your friend to speak to the DGS about the issue, to try to help keeping faculty interactions from deteriorating. But this step should really only be taken if there's some reasonable evidence that faculty care, which they probably don't.

Second, if you're at a conference later on and someone considering Bad Girl for a job asks you about how she would be as a colleague, you can be wishy-washy. You probably can't say "I think she would be a bad colleague because she is crazy," at least not unless you're speaking to someone you know very well and place some trust in, but believe me when I tell you that the lack of "OMG she is the best colleague EVER she is so pleasant and helpful!!!" will be noticed. Ditto if you're ever on a search committee considering her.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:55 AM on April 18, 2010

I'm alarmed by your use of the word "justice." No crimes were committed; just people behaving badly towards one another, as they always do. Everyone who is witness to the scene will know the score, and adjust their attitudes towards her accordingly.

Stay out of it. In the name of everything you hold dear, stay out of it. Be a good friend to your friend, but take no public action beyond being supportive and sympathetic.
posted by ErikaB at 11:05 AM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

First, in the relatively unlikely event that this carries forward into interactions with faculty, you could encourage your friend to speak to the DGS about the issue, to try to help keeping faculty interactions from deteriorating. But this step should really only be taken if there's some reasonable evidence that faculty care, which they probably don't.

Not only do the faculty don't care, more graduate students than you realize don't care either, I'd wager.
posted by vincele at 11:12 AM on April 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

If this is the way she behaves, probably others are on to it.. Some people in academia are crazy. CRAZY. You just have to steer clear of the crazy as much as possible and be collegial, professional, etc., but don't let it get personal. I mean, it's not fair what your friend is dealing with, but it seems well established that what he gets out of interaction with her is.. the crazy, so if he can trust you & vent to you, that's good, but leave her alone. (Though.. maybe, depending on how important, a businesslike and impersonal message requesting the stuff back would be all right?)

I've considered maybe sacrificing myself and sending a note to the department email listserv, which would surely get me in trouble.

DON'T DO THIS. Also I don't know whether you are planning on a career in the field that means you'll be looking to work, one day, in an academic department, but.. if so, you should probably never follow the urge to do something dramatic and rock the boat. There is always going to be drama because it's a small incestuous world and people are stressed and problems get blown way out of proportion. Stay away from drama would be my advice..
posted by citron at 11:17 AM on April 18, 2010

Some people in academia are crazy.

posted by dubitable at 11:52 AM on April 18, 2010

Isn't academe the ideal setting for the "vengeance is a dish best served cold"? I mean, isn't his (and your) best opportunity for revenge to be professional now, and then be needlessly pedantic regarding her research at some future point, ideally surreptitiously submarining her grants or committee appointments?

The real hope is that in five to ten years, when you or your friend are finally in a position to do so, you'll all have forgotten this nonsense, but petty departmental politics are supposed to be years removed from the actual slight.
posted by klangklangston at 1:23 PM on April 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

In my experience, the truth eventually comes out in these situations.

Yes. You should maintain your dignity and independence from the situation. But if people bring it up to you, I might say something short and oblique, like "I think there might be a bit more to the story," but then decline to say anything more. You need to do this with a spirit of "this isn't our business, let's not get into anything so tawdry," without bitterness, and with a sense of being above the whole thing. You're not saying "here's the gossip blah blah blah." You're just reminding the group, without criticizing anyone, of the general principle that it's not a good idea to judge others, especially without knowing the full story, and that gossip is often inaccurate. But given your friendship with him, implying that there's more to the story with some confidence could remind the more upright people in the group that they really don't know what happened.
posted by salvia at 2:52 PM on April 18, 2010

I usually avoid relationship questions but this one is creepy.

So, your friend was dating someone for four months and is trying to "make sense of the past three years," "notified the other guy" in some unspecified way, is "sulking" and "moping." He seems to feel he is entitled to "talk to his ex and get closure" (the latter of which is a dubious concept) after a very short term relationship.

You want to "guarantee justice," are considering "sending a note to the department email listserv" and have suggested she suffers from bipolar disorder based on unspecified evidence.

This is possibly creepy on her end but definitely creepy on (your friend and) your end.
posted by Morrigan at 3:26 PM on April 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Hmm, it sounds like the other guy would excuse cheating by saying it was during a bipolar swing, not the OP...? The time stuff is confusing though.
posted by salvia at 4:01 PM on April 18, 2010

I don't know what to do in order to guarantee justice wins out

Leave it up to the universe. Really.

I don't believe in magical karmic smackdowns, and people like this girl are usually far too practiced at deceiving and manipulating people to get any immediate blowback from the situation. Right now she probably seems to be doing just fine, while your friend is in pain. Of course you want to change that! It seems horrendously unfair, and People Should Know The Truth, and your friend should be vindicated, and so on and so forth.

But here's the thing: over time, as more and more situations like this unfold (and odds seem good that your friend won't be the first person this happens to), she'll seem less and less convincing to those around her. The first time she insists someone's delusional and stalking her and insistent that they had a relationship she denies, people might well believe her; but by the second time, and the third, and the fourth? Not so much. People love gossip, and people have memories, and the more strange and untrustworthy things she does - even if they're not on this scale - the more people are going to cast their minds back to this situation and thinking "Come to think of it, he never seemed crazy to me..."

In short: She'll dig her own hole. You don't need to incriminate her, because given enough time, people like her will incriminate themselves.

And meanwhile, your friend gets to pick himself up and go on with his life, armed with the knowledge that his conscience is clear. And that's a really important thing, something you should remind him of. Make sure his conscience stays clear, too; no dramatic callouts on the department listserv (from either of you), no furious confrontations, no ambushes in the corridor. Help him get to a point where he's moved past her, and in the meantime be safe in the knowledge that he can, while she'll never quite be able to move on from herself. That's the justice you should work for.
posted by Catseye at 4:24 PM on April 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

Having watched a charming, crazy girl do a number on several relationships in my department, I wouldn't do anything directly. People (most likely the other women in your department) will see enough of her behavior to put two and two together very soon if they haven't already. If someone starts talking about her accusations while you're around, I'd say very seriously, "that is completely untrue," but not get into gossipy details. Given that she has undoubtedly had moments that have caused others in the department to question her actions, and that you are calm and steadfast in defense of your friend, people will draw their own correct conclusions 99% of the time. She'll move on eventually with her professional reputation possibly intact, but her personal credibility ruined, and, while it may not be as immediately emotionally satisfying as some big confrontation, you can guarantee that someone who acts like this will dig her own grave either sooner or later.
posted by MsMolly at 7:22 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Graduate school drama is pretty awful. So indeed, stay out of it. And realize that graduate students have far too much free time and tend to obsess on bullshit that literally nobody else in the world gives a fuck about, and this includes whom you are or aren't sleeping with.
posted by bardic at 9:17 PM on April 18, 2010

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