my so-called friends
March 9, 2011 10:15 AM   Subscribe

How do I deal with a squad of unsympathetic friends?

I will keep the drama queen details short: I was in a quietly abusive relationship for a few years, emotional and occasionally physical. No one had any idea what was going on (I barely did, I thought I deserved it. Yuck, right?) until about a year ago, when I told some friends what happened. Their response was shocking to me - essentially, "he's so great, he would never do that!" and the occasional "oh that sucks, he must have been drunk." I see these people all the time, I live in a small city and the ex is close with my roommate.

It's somewhat clear that these people don't believe me and have bought into his "[name] is just a shit talker" line of thought. We've been broken up for over a year and I've mostly put his shitty behavior behind me, but I can't get past how my friends reacted. These people are otherwise active in women's shelters, feminist causes, and other activities that would lead me to believe that they'd be more sympathetic to a friend opening up about a stressful time in her life.

How do I deal with having to see these people? I avoid them as much as possible, but I live with someone who is very close to my ex and it's getting to lonely to stop going out in fear of encountering this group of people (it's a small city). They sometimes wonder why they haven't seen me in a while and it's hard not to say "maybe because you shrugged off years of abuse?"
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
When seeing them, be polite and distant. Don't volunteer any information, don't go into detail when asked and don't ask for too much info from them. If they ask why they haven't seen you, just say that you've been busy. Polite but vague is the way to go.

To avoid seeing them, look for other outlets. They can't be everywhere at all times. If there's only one pub that they al congregate at, try the wine bar instead. It might be that because you haven't looked elsewhere very much for other friends, you don't realise how many other people are out there.
posted by Solomon at 10:20 AM on March 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

They sometimes wonder why they haven't seen me in a while and it's hard not to say "maybe because you shrugged off years of abuse?"

Then I'd go ahead and say that, then.

Maybe not phrased thus -- maybe something a bit more civil, like "to be honest, I'm still a bit taken aback from back when I confided my abuse in you -- and it felt like you were brushing it off. I'm sure from your work, you understand how much courage it took to confide in you like that, and so it honestly felt like you were discrediting what I had to say. And I needed to focus on my own recovery, and so surrounding myself with people who were honestly somewhat more supportive was what I needed to do." Or something politic like that.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:20 AM on March 9, 2011 [60 favorites]

Actually, Solomon has it. My answer is probably best for if you want any of these friends back, and I suspect you don't, so eh.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:21 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think you have two choices: Either stop hanging out with these people and make new friends, or put this topic of discussion completely behind you and don't engage with these people on that level.
posted by xingcat at 10:21 AM on March 9, 2011

I think the first thing to do is to find someone else to live with.

I also suggest getting a copy of Why Does He Do That? if you haven't already.

But really, the best way to cope with having to see them is not to have to see them. How small of a city is it? Less than a million? Are you 100% sure things won't change for the better once you're living with someone else?
posted by tel3path at 10:22 AM on March 9, 2011

Uncle Fred is a nicely dressed professional CPA, he would never touch my child!

Even smart people have strong mental preconceptions about what "abusers" look and act like. Creating cognitive dissonance in people is a really fast way to make them hate you and stick to their original idea much more strongly. You would have to put a ton of work into convincing even one person that nice old Bob was actually abusive without very obvious evidence.

EmpressCallipygos has a nice response, but you will have to commit to getting a new social circle to get out of this, and getting a new place / person to live with would do that.
posted by benzenedream at 10:27 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd say that if you want to tell them, you should tell them. And what about your roommate? If your roommate isn't your close friend and doesn't have your back on this, can you move out? If your roommate does have your back, can he/she back you up with the friends (ie, when you come up in conversation, can you count on roommate to say "I believe Friend, and I don't want to have a conversation that minimizes her abuse"? Do you have friends who back you up on this?

IME--in radical circles, people who intellectually know all the stuff--people often side with the abuser. (This happens even more, also IME, in mainstream circles.) The abuser is "a great guy", "oh, he must have been drunk", "he has his own problems"...people often identify with the abuser rather than the victim, ie "I can't imagine hitting someone without feeling really bad about it and having it be a mistake, so Abuser must be the same way!" The majority of people in the situations I've experienced choose the man over the woman, especially if the man is popular and charismatic, no matter what he did. It's disgraceful.

If you want to call people out on this (but only if you want to!), feel confident that this is good and necessary work. People ought to be aware that they're choosing to downplay an abuser's actions just because they like the guy. If that's what they want to do, well, yeah--but they shouldn't be able to kid themselves that this is feminism.
posted by Frowner at 10:35 AM on March 9, 2011 [17 favorites]

As a guy who was abused by his girlfriend, I would get a lot of this. It makes a sort of sense - I'm 6'4" and 170lbs and she's half that - but still, what it takes to be abused and abuser is more about attitude and esteem and situations than size. People just don't understand.

Anyway, my friends were useless and traditional support groups sucked. What I did was just walk away. They were never going to understand, and it wasn't my job to make them. If they wanted to support me, they could, but none of them chose to.

I took it pretty personally at first, and it sounds like you are too. Don't do that. easier said than done, I know Just agree to disagree and walk away. You deserve better, so go find it.

Keep your chin up, maybe look into some therapy if you've having trouble getting past some of the complex of feelings. You're not wrong, or bad, or broken, and you're just fine now.

It does get better. I promise.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:42 AM on March 9, 2011 [20 favorites]

Seconding the Empress on this.

My gut reaction is that you need new friends, but that's the sort of thing that takes time. A lot of time. I don't know how outgoing you are (and given what you've been through, it's understandable if you're feeling a bit introverted lately). That's going to be rough, but you need to break away.

If you really want to try to keep those friends, you need to be honest with them. Hell, you might consider being honest with them anyway, just for your own peace of mind. You needed them and they made lots of excuses so that they wouldn't be socially inconvenienced by the fact that one of their friends was being reprehensibly cruel to you.

To be very blunt with them: you weren't looking for trouble. You don't want to be thought of this way. So why would you make this shit up?

Good luck. I'm sorry things are so rough. Good on you for getting out.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 10:57 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hold up. You were physically abused, your friends don't believe you, and you still run into these people (and indirectly, your ex) on a regular basis?

Not only do you need new friends, you need a new city. Make a break. A big one. You deserve better. Say that to yourself. You deserve better.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:06 AM on March 9, 2011 [10 favorites]

I was in a situation like this many years ago. In my case, my abusive lover hit the gossip mills before I did and told her version of the story, and I ended up ostracized by a group of friends. There's no winning when you're going up against a charismatic liar who has no ethical compunctions about saying whatever will make her look better.

I separated myself from the whole setting. It was pretty easy in my case since I was a graduate student thinking of dropping out anyway; I left school and the whole state. I'm sure it won't be that straightforward for you. But in your case I'd seriously consider breaking ties--including finding new housing--and following the advice up-thread to socialize elsewhere, as hard as that can be.

[My story has a tiny bit of a happy ending, in that about 6 months after I left, my lover got drunk and lit into her best friend with the same kind of distorted, abusive crap she'd been laying on me. And she did it in front of the whole group. I got apologies! On the other hand, the whole group was lesbians who were also women's studies scholars, so yeah. Kind of a fail there. I hope it at least helps to know you're not the only one this has happened to. And that getting on with a separate life does lead to good things, as hard as it is at the time.]
posted by not that girl at 11:07 AM on March 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Many abusers are charming people who only show their abusive side to the person on the receiving end of it.

I would personally light into these people with more than a wee bit of passion and let them know what jerks they were not to be supportive of you. They of all people should know better from what you say. I like the line "because you shrugged off years of abuse."

That crap ain't cool.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 11:46 AM on March 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I wish I had more to offer you for advice. Having been in a eerily similar place before myself, I was very careful about who I told, and many people I simply didn't tell at all. If you feel a need to tell them about all of this, do so quietly and seriously and only when you're ready - and that includes speaking to them without expectations of a sympathetic reaction. Tell them for *you* and not for sympathy.

This is the worst thing about quietly abusive relationships - oftentimes the abusers have everyone convinced of just how wonderful they are while the abused continues to suffer...sometimes even for quite some time after the actual relationship has ended. :(

If they were truly your friends they would believe you.

Good luck.
posted by floweredfish at 11:59 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know exactly what it's like to live in a small city and avoid going out because you're afraid to run into people you don't want to see.

I got divorced while abroad and had to return to this city for various reasons. All of my friends from my married life turned on me. I'd grown up up here and had a falling-out with a few friends back in highschool, and hadn't spoken to them in a decade. I also went to university here but all of my friends from here have since moved away to new jobs. So for a while after returning home, living here was a pretty bitter, lonely experience, because I felt I couldn't go anywhere or meet anyone new without my past catching up to me. Especially since in this town, anyone new I meet is inevitably connected with someone I know.

But eventually I said "to hell with being afraid" and started going wherever I damn well pleased again. If I ran into someone I knew, I would smile and be friendly and confident, even if it was just for show in that moment. Partly because I wanted them to know they can't take my life away from me (though it was more to tell myself that), and it put me in a better light - I'm so kind and warm, how could I be the bad one in that situation these people don't really remember anyway? It doesn't mean I really became friends with any of those people again, but when I run into them we're polite and I think nothing of it. I think nothing of them, because I'm not afraid of them. When I find out someone new also knows _____ then it's not a point of anxiety. And now in this itty bitty town I've made more friends, who are close to me and not the people I used to be tied to. Takes time, but I'm happier now than I've been in ages.
posted by lizbunny at 12:13 PM on March 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

Without going into too many details here: I was in a similar situation. It was in a small town, in college, and it went down freshman year. When I told my friends what had happened, they didn't act sympathetic, and one of them actually went on to date the same guy.

I realized, quickly, that these people weren't actually my friends if a) they wouldn't believe me and b) even if they didn't believe me, they wouldn't try to help me get help when I was so obviously struggling. For one year, because housing had already been picked, I did have to live with the girl who ended up dating him, and that was the hardest part. Then I got the hell out of their social circle, because it was obvious whose side they had "picked."

Avoiding them was impossible, given the size of our school and town. The next three years was full of the awkward run ins you describe: Oh, CharlieSue, we haven't seen you in so long! Where have you been? I did the same as you, made polite excuses, but I always wanted to slap them and go SERIOUSLY YOU DON'T KNOW WHY I'VE BEEN AVOIDING YOU?

Eventually, I did that. Three years later, right before we were about to graduate, when a bunch of the freshman year crew happened to be in one room hanging out. Someone commented on how I had "drifted apart." It flipped a switch for me. I told them, calmly, not screaming, what the problem was, and had been. There was awkward silence, and finally, apologies. The apologies didn't make the pain of either the four year old relationship or their betrayal go away, but at least I think they finally understood how deadly serious the whole thing had been to me.

I don't know if you'd have the same experience. It might be worth having the conversation. Not to save the relationships, not to make things right, but just to explain to your friends, and to give you the closure to move on.

Memail me if you'd like to talk more. I'm so, so sorry for what you are going through. What helped me most was finding other interests and groups of friends that were separate from them. I kept myself busy and made long lasting true friends in other places.
posted by CharlieSue at 12:17 PM on March 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry, that is really crappy. I had a vaguely similar incident where after breaking up with an awful ex. I think sometimes that friends suffer from the "but they're nice to me so they probably aren't that bad" syndrome- the person in question is their friend too and they don't want to take sides because really what do they have to gain from doing so? I've also come across this particular phenom where people have an expectation that there are always two sides to a break-up and that BOTH sides are inherently equally legitimate.

It sucks a lot, but it seems like your mutual friends are trying to avoid taking a side. It seems like they are going to keep hanging out with the ex in public like nothing happened, but one thing you can do is to explain that you respect their wish not to be involved, but you have your own boundaries that should be respected.

For me, that meant that I didn't necessarily want to go out in small groups where I'd be forced to interact with my ex- but I could invite people over or out with the understanding that this was our quality time without the ex or I could go out with a large group. I also had to make new friends, which ended up being really great in the end even though it was difficult in the beginning.
posted by forkisbetter at 12:58 PM on March 9, 2011

I agree that people will have a hard time acknowledging it if it was someone they know/ are friends with. When my ex would say or do fucked up things to me, and I confided in our mutual friends, I got a lot of the same thing. Them making excuses for him, brushing it off, or downplaying it. I understood it- it's a divisive thing and they don't necessarily want to take sides. Plus, they don't know what goes on behind closed doors. It's his word against mine. Most people would not want to be in the middle of that, even if they DO believe me or feel bad for me.

When I broke up with him, I didn't end up staying in contact with any of our mutual friends. (They were his friends first, anyway, although I think by the end a lot of them got along better with me than with him.) But in hindsight, I am starting to think that the whole lot of them are in sort of dysfunctional relationships and none of them seemed to realize that things can and should be better. They were all willing to put up with tons of crap and bad behavior, so why couldn't I?

I've found my most supportive friends now to be the ones who never knew him. These friends have higher standards for themselves and their relationships than my other friends did, and they are more sympathetic to what I went through. They have more self respect and are all-around better people. They would have never been friends with a person like my ex in the first place. So I'm going along with the side that's saying you'd probably benefit from better friends and a new place. Getting out of a place where you are/were miserable is really refreshing. I'd do whatever I could to make it happen.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 12:58 PM on March 9, 2011

They're still talking to him, right? Then it sounds like some of these people are friends with your ex. If so, they're basically torn between their loyalty to you and their loyalty to them; if they've never seen any evidence of the abuse, it's probably really hard for them to wrap their head around someone they like doing something like that.

It really sucks, but these people are not supportive because they don't want to deal with it. If they didn't like him, they'd have no trouble believing you. They've decided that their relationship with you is not worth ending their relationship with him. If this is a dealbreaker for you, that's totally justified. Maybe you should strike out to a new city?
posted by spaltavian at 1:23 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

You shouldn't have to do this, but I think the only way to really deal with the situation is to sit them down and really explain what went on, again. Use clear language, like "emotional abuse" and "physical abuse." Ask them if they understood that the first time around, and if so, why they reacted the way they did. Maybe your explanation wasn't clear enough the first time, or maybe they weren't ready to hear it.

It took you years to realize that you were being abused. It might take the truth a while to sink in for your friends, too. All the justifications you told yourself while you were in denial? Yeah, they're telling themselves that too, and it's much easier for them to believe.

I think it's particularly hard to communicate the reality emotional abuse to other people who haven't experienced it. As you surely know, it can be as much of a mindfuck as physical abuse (if not more, sometimes), which is hard to know if you haven't lived through it. It's also just harder to explain emotional abuse; it's not as easy as saying "he hit me" -- it can be easily confused (from the outside) with a mutually dramatic relationship. The only way you can really explain it, in my experience, is by telling story after story of what happened, until it all adds up for the other person. Suddenly you can see the lightbulb go off in their heads, and their eyes widen, and they say "That's really fucked up."

But communicating all of this takes a lot of work; I would not blame you at all if you didn't want to do it. In that case, ignore, ignore, ignore. Be icily friendly if you have to. Do your best Jane Austen impression. Forget 'em. Move out.
posted by yarly at 1:51 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

People in general would rather Not Get Involved with awkward, ugly situations. If they believe you, or say out loud that they believe you, then it follows that (1) he's a bad person, and that (2) they shoudn't be friends with him anymore. Because they consider themselves to be decent people, and what decent, moral person is friends with an abusive piece of shit? So essentially you are asking them to drop him and choose you. And they don't want to because they just don't care that much about you. It sucks and it's not fair and it's disappointing that your friends wouldn't choose you over an abuser; but there it is. They are not true friends to you, and this is just the easier road for them.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:06 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Many years ago, a friend of mine told me she had been raped. She started out in a roundabout way, but by the end of the story there was no question as to what exactly she was telling me had happened. In retrospect. At the time, I literally failed to understand her. I just didn't have a setting in my head for "my friend has been raped" and it did not compute with me. In the moment, I remember feeling like I wasn't getting something, or I was confused, but it took me a few days to be able to put a name to it (rape was what happened, it was rape). So back then, my response was inadequate. I don't think I dismissed what happened, but I definitely gave her some kind of mediocre comforting words that were totally out of proportion to what had actually taken place. I have always regretted it and periodically fantasize about writing to her to apologize for essentially failing her in that moment when she revealed something to me and I stared at it blankly and uselessly.

I think for that reason that EmpressCallipygos is giving you the best advice. It can give you clarity and closure with those friends who are incapable of being there for you. And maybe it can be a wake-up call for one or two people who just failed to understand what exactly you were telling them.

Just to be super clear, I absolutely do not mean to imply that you were somehow unclear when you told your friends what had happened to you. My friend was not unclear when she told me she had been raped. I just wonder, based on my experience of totally failing her, whether it might me possible that some of your friends might redeem themselves given a second chance?
posted by prefpara at 3:29 PM on March 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

Wow. Those people aren't your friends. Or at least, they're not friends worth having.

I'd go with the advice of the Empress.

You should also consider getting a new roommate, or moving out. Your roommate's closeness to your ex must be putting some strain on your relationship with the roommate, and it appears to bring you into contact with people you don't want to see. You don't need that crap.

Good luck.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:12 PM on March 9, 2011

They sometimes wonder why they haven't seen me in a while and it's hard not to say "maybe because you shrugged off years of abuse?"

Saying this out loud will definitely feel good. Will it make them think/feel differently about the whole situation? Not really.

Personally, I have a tough time letting go of things like this. All I can do is remind myself that there is nothing like going through tough times and learning who is really on your side. And that in itself, is priceless.
posted by xm at 9:13 PM on March 10, 2011

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