Navigating dysfunctional friends breakup
August 29, 2012 3:23 PM   Subscribe

A couple who I am friends with are going through a bad breakup. Can I remain supportive, neutral, and also safe? How?

Apologies in advance for the wall of text....

About 3 years ago, two acquaintances of mine, we'll call them Elvis and Priscilla, began seeing each other seriously. The three of us are all involved in the same local community group. Priscilla and I had hung out together on a few occasions, and Elvis was/is my mechanic, but I wasn't particularly close to either of them. (I don't really get close to much of anyone.) In the meantime, I met and started living with my partner and spending a lot less time with the local community group, but in the past year the four of us have become closer friends, getting together at each others houses, etc. It is well known in the community that Elvis is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict with a criminal past, clean and sober for I believe 7 or 8 years. He has been wonderful and kind to me every time I've dealt with him.

I knew Elvis and Priscilla's relationship was a bit stormy, but they seemed solid overall. A couple weeks ago Priscilla emailed and asked me to provide her with companionship and support as Elvis had just broken up with her - she knew I was friends with both of them and wouldn't take sides, and she was right. She and I have a great deal in common and I was happy to potentially make a real, close girlfriend, something I have been lacking for many years.

In spending time with her over the last couple weeks she has been very supportive of some of the things I've been going through lately (cancer, relationship issues, etc) and of course I've been there for her too. She tells me that through their relationship Elvis has been abusive and controlling, violent (destroying stuff, punching walls, etc) gaslighting, blowing up at her then claiming it never happened and telling her she's delusional, he's narcissistic, appears to possibly be having an inappropriate relationship with his adult stepdaughter, and is, as Priscilla describes it, "gun-happy." Having never seen any of this behavior in person, I remained neutral, giving him the benefit of the doubt when he started showing up at her house or at her work, sending her cards and flowers and letters and emails and texts trying to get back together with her, if only she would change *her* abusive ways. I had not actually spoken to Elvis about anything that's been going on.

They've been trying to work things out, so we hung out with them on Friday and again on Sunday. Sunday when she went to the bathroom and my partner was out of earshot he thanked me for being her friend and supporting her. I said she and I both needed a friend and it had been very mutually beneficial. He said he loves her and that she has a lot of issues to work out. He half grinned and said he didn't think it was *all* him. I was pretty noncommittal, letting him talk, so I could get some of his side of the story. That was pretty much the end of it, he didn't provide any further insight and I didn't ask any leading questions.

Last night we met Priscilla just after she and Elvis had been to couples therapy. In front of the therapist, she tells us, Elvis blew up at her, broke up with her again, called her names and screamed at her - enough that the therapist actually told her "just go, get out of here." She said that in his ranting, Elvis said that "even thrasher thinks you're mentally unbalanced." I never said any such thing and Priscilla knows it. She was and still is an absolute wreck. We tried to comfort her as much as we could - today she tells me Elvis left her a voicemail last night trying to patch things up yet again. I told her I will be there for her and that I think it best if she not try to pursue a relationship with him any longer.

At this point I still only really have Priscilla's side of the story, but I am inclined to believe all the things she is saying about Elvis are true. And if they are, I am concerned that my partner and I will be caught in the crossfire of all this. Hopefully not literally.

All I wanted was to be a friend and to have a friend, and maintain a friendship with my mechanic, but this is getting pretty deep. I kinda want to run away from the whole thing and never try to make friends again, but that seems pretty chickenshit. Should I try talking to Elvis privately? Any advice on how to proceed?
posted by thrasher to Human Relations (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What do you want to do? Do you want to remain friends with Priscilla or distance yourself?

There is NO way that telling Elvis that you think he's abusive will turn out well for Priscilla, or for you, for that matter. Talking with him about this is a very bad idea. It involves you further in their relationship and could lead to escalation of the abuse.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:31 PM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

While there are exceptions, in virtually all divorces I've been a witness to, someone gets the friends. In the best case scenario, you remain friends with one party and superficially friendly with the other. If what you want to do is remain friends with Priscilla, focus on doing that. You can be sympathetic and helpful and supportive without actually trashing Elvis to either party, which allows you to remain socially friendly with Elvis.

Also remember that as a couple, they have professional help, and that in any given incident, you're only getting one side of the story
posted by DarlingBri at 3:58 PM on August 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

thrasher, i have been in a similar situation before and i was fucking scared out of my mind that i, too, could get caught in a "crossfire". i would listen to that feeling that you are having about getting caught in the middle and would not have anything to do with the situation at all, any way possible.

i know you say they are your friends, but if i were in your shoes (again), i would very slowly but surely just get entirely back away from that situation and that relationship, and as mean as it may sound, both of them. for one, you have known them for only a short while - he's an unpredictable loose cannon and she already got you involved "thrasher thinks you're unbalanced" in a very unstable situation. that's just bullshit and it wouldn't sit well with me at ALL if i had been trying to be her friend. i know she was just making her case during a heated moment, but from what you've posted, i would reconsider the health of this friendship entirely. get a new mechanic. and don't keep yourself from meeting new people simply because these two are behaving this way.

tl;dr - just too much deadly drama. i'd just get away from it all. you don't need their shitstorm of a relationship. be safe.
posted by foxhat10 at 5:43 PM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Foxhat, it wasn't her who said Thrasher had called the other unstable, it was him.
posted by Meep! Eek! at 6:16 PM on August 29, 2012

This woman is trying to get out of an abusive relationship and could really use a friend. Despite saying that you've only heard one side of the story, it seems pretty clear that you know elvis is in the wrong here. One thing that keeps a lot of women in abusive situations is that they have no support, no-one wants to get involved, no-one believes them, and the only person who listens is their abuser. You say that you would like to have a real, close girlfriend, here is a great opportunity to be the friend that you want to have. I'm not suggesting that you should get involved in their fights - talking to elvis about it will only lead to trouble - but it would be sad to abandon Priscilla right when she needs a friend the most. As for staying friends with elvis - why the hell would you want a jerk like that in your life? Just avoid him when you can, and be cooly polite when contact is unavoidable.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 6:17 PM on August 29, 2012 [8 favorites]

Oops - read over too fast. thrasher, just be safe. i'd still advise to keep away from him as much as possible, like almost everyone else advises.
posted by foxhat10 at 6:41 PM on August 29, 2012

Have you actually seen Elvis behaving badly?

I hesitate to suggest that Priscilla is exaggerating or misrepresenting anything, but is it possible? Your narrator might be unreliable.

Regardless, you can be supportive of Priscilla without needing to actually buy into her story 100%. Do not give any (more) advice that suggests a course of action; that kind of thing blows up 99% of the time.
posted by gjc at 8:16 PM on August 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was pretty noncommittal, letting him talk, so I could get some of his side of the story. That was pretty much the end of it, he didn't provide any further insight and I didn't ask any leading questions.

This is pretty much how you'll want to engage with either of them on this topic. You can be a close friend to Priscilla, but when she talks about this stuff you can just let her talk and that's being supportive without taking sides. Ditto Elvis. Ultimately, you'll be better off assuming that they're both wrong about the problems in the relationship, taking everything with a grain of salt, and putting it out of your head as soon as they're done talking about it in the moment because it is stuff from the past, and they're just rehashing it so that they can come to understand it.

And if someone -- either of them -- asks for validation? "You know, at this point neither you nor [other person] really understand everything that was happening between you, so I wouldn't dare to speculate. I'm just glad you're moving on with your life."
posted by davejay at 10:46 PM on August 29, 2012

Oh yeah, and I'm not suggesting you seek out Elvis to be his confidant. Just stay the course if you run into him and he brings it up.
posted by davejay at 10:46 PM on August 29, 2012

Wow. This is tough.

You are not a domestic abuse professional and you are not qualified for this gig.

Honestly? I think it is 200% OK for you to turn your back on both of them because of the gun factor. Really. Really truly.

But if you do, it is tantamount to condemning Priscilla. I know.


- Do research on Domestic Violence and abusive relationships from the perspective of an outside friend.

- Make a plan.

- Stick to it, whatever it is.

Write it down if you need to, so that you don't get swept up in some crazy spur of the moment drama or danger.

- Wash. Rinse. Repeat.


Personally, I think it is time for you to have a "come to jesus" talk with Priscilla, but I'm pretty sure that is counter to the advice given to women who love abusers, so YMMV.

Again, the gun thing. Your intuition is screaming at you, and I think you should listen.

I feel like someone needs to tell Priscilla that she is a wonderful valuable human being, and that the gaslighting, drama, and possibility of serious violence is 100% not OK for her or anyone else to be involved with. Tell her that you are not issuing an ultimatum, but that if she won't make safe choices for herself based on the seriousness of this situation, that you must still make safe choices for yourself.

Tell her (and yourself!) this is not about choosing one friend over another in a break-up, it is about staying safe.

Then ask her what she thinks and listen deeply.

After that, follow your plan. Be kind, but set an example and do what is best.


My advice is likely totally wrong. It's just... If no one calls the elephant in the room a fucking elephant, I don't understand how anyone can expect change or improvement (or in this case, real safety!)

I'm operating from the perspective that Priscilla and women like her get confused because no one ever says point blank, "Thatz Not OK."

Be friendly with Elvis, but not friends. Just slowly (and carefully!) back away from him.

Priscilla is a grown woman making her own adult choices. Give her the truthful feedback she deserves, that the treatment she describes is both toxic and dangerous. Then let her process and decide. Urge her to discuss the ugly stories she has been relating with a professional counselor, explain you love her as a friend, but you are not a professional.

This woman needs some perspective on the stories she has been telling you - give her some.

PS - My understanding from the metafilter and the internetz is that women with shades of Borderline Personality Disorder often attract and partner up with men who have Narcissistic Personality Disorder. In other words, they could both be nuts. I believe the seeds of these types of behaviors are the result of childhood trauma.

Be kind, but don't get sucked in further. This isn't looking like it is going to end well, or soon. You don't have to stick around for it if you don't want to. You are not a domestic abuse professional and you are not qualified for this gig.
posted by jbenben at 11:44 PM on August 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Can you get her connected with some professional, one-on-one help? I think that's what she really needs right now-- from a domestic abuse counselor, perhaps. Would she be willing to do this on her own, without telling Elvis? Being there for her when she needs to talk is often the most important thing-- as someone else mentioned, women in abusive relationships often feel like they can't talk to anyone but their abuser (everyone else thinks it's not their business). On the other hand, if she calls you saying she needs to stay the night at your place because she has nowhere else to go, for example, you can instead get ahold of an abuse hotline or find a shelter or help her pay for a hotel room. I think it's smart not to get yourself and your partner involved, and not to bring the dispute onto your property. Go with your gut safety-wise.

Also, you can't know 100% for sure what's going on. But I know an abuser and his wife. I know for a fact that he abuses her, but he's never been anything but courteous and nice and obliging to me on a personal basis. Not a hint that he's the bastard I know he is. It's a major mindfuck, feeling sorry for someone who is physically abusing your friend. What you can do with minimal intervention is get her connected with some resources. But it's up to you.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:23 AM on August 30, 2012

It sounds like your friend Priscilla enjoys drama.

That's not to say she ISN'T in an abusive relationship, but there's some reason she keeps going back.

I know how it is to want to help Priscilla, and you should do that, but I don't see how you can keep Elvis in the picture as well.

I think you need to have a boundary, even if your friend won't establish one for herself.

"You are in a dangerous situation. If even half of what you say is true, your relationship is too dysfunctional for you to continue in it, and I don't support your getting back with Elvis. I want to be a good friend to you and based upon what you are telling me, my instincts are to advise you to not continue in a relationship where you are mentally and physically injured. What you decide to do is ultimately your choice, but I don't want to be dragged into a situation that has the potential to turn violent. You are free to come here and hang with us, but we won't be going to hang with you and Elvis any more. Also, Elvis is no longer welcome here. While couples therapy is good, I think you need to have a therapist who is trained in domestic abuse for yourself. I'm not going to say this again, but I am going to stand by what I say. I will help you in any way that I can, but I'm not putting myself into a sitaution that I think is unsafe."

Then stick by this. I too had a friend who kept going back, finally, I extricated myself, because me being in the middle of all of that drama was unhealthy for ME.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:26 AM on August 30, 2012

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