At a Bash with Our Buddy’s Bad News Boyfriend
June 23, 2019 3:54 PM   Subscribe

My friend is dating an emotional abuser who loves trying to start fights in public. He and she and I, along with other friends, will be at a party for a special occasion and I am looking for the best method of avoiding him without making a scene that would upset her or the occasion.

This is not an edge case where he’s sometimes nice but sometimes a jerk, or maybe we don’t know him that well. The cruel things he’s said to my friend would make you want to throw your computer. He believes harmful things (Milo Yiannopolous and “men’s rights”) and does harmful things (lying about his past, insulting her in vicious ways, mocking someone’s stutter to their face). He also gets a real kick out of “pushing buttons.”

Earlier in their off-and-on relationship, he would pretend to want to befriend us, but during their last break-up, he said something to her so over the line and terrible that (now that they’re back together) he’s dropped all pretense of playing nice, because he knows she told us what he said to her. Recently he’s approached my other girlfriends to taunt them about “I know you hate me. Say it to my face.” etc. He loves playing the victim. He does this to our female friends when our male friends and boyfriends aren’t there. (When other men are around he’s mostly sullen and quiet or tries to fight about politics.) I have not been around him since before the last breakup for other reasons, so he hasn’t had his chance to confront me.

I plan to completely try to avoid him at this party. As much as I dislike him, I’m not trying to humiliate him socially because it could further isolate my friend. My goal is to be at this party and have a line or two or a suggested behavior in my pocket so that if/when he gets in my face or tries to provoke me, I can shut it down with finality. Something along the lines of “this is not the time or the place.” With him, I’m not sure that will be effective because he won’t be trying to mind his manners—his goal is to piss us all off!

(I am not asking how to get them to break up, or longer term strategies for dealing with him. Our circle of close girlfriends are like sisters and the rest of us have ongoing discussions about the best ways to keep open communication with her so he can’t isolate her, and to keep her safe. Our friend’s family is aware of much of the terrible things he’s done and lies he’s told and they have been open with her and us about their concerns. We believe our friend’s boyfriend is emotionally abusive, which may become physically abusive, and we’ve discussed those worries with her. Just because this is not my question does not mean it’s not my #1 priority involving this guy. I just mention this so no one thinks they need to warn me that this is the real problem here—we all know it is and we’re trying to be proactive and do everything we can.)
posted by sallybrown to Human Relations (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
"we're all as God made us, aren't we" is bland, pious and condescending, does that work?
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:03 PM on June 23, 2019 [10 favorites]

"Well, bless your little heart." In response to anything he says. Then smile sweetly and turn away.
posted by heatherlogan at 4:27 PM on June 23, 2019 [8 favorites]

I think a disinterested "no thanks," repeated in broken record style as needed, is what I'd have ready for someone like that. Something as bland and difficult to build a fight off of as possible. Obviously getting away from him and towards other people would be best, but if he continues to follow or jackass at you, either keep repeating "no thanks" or go with a bland stare.
posted by DingoMutt at 4:32 PM on June 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

Silently turning around and/or walking away can be quite effective. Or just stand there looking at him without responding until he says something reasonable. Or "I'm sorry your parents sucked."
posted by rhizome at 4:45 PM on June 23, 2019 [7 favorites]

if it's a big party and you're not stuck sitting at the same table: when he's not with his girlfriend, cut him dead every time. do not speak to him, do not see him. there is no clever comeback or soft answer that will make him feel anything but good. if he tries to get your attention, you didn't see him, you can't hear him. if he blocks you from walking past him, turn around and go the other way. if this means you have to face the wall while he shouts at the back of your head, do it.

this is not to make a big show or provoke him, as I understand you don't want to do; this is because at a party where nobody can hear other people if they're more than a few feet away, if he is as aggressive as he sounds, it needs to be obvious at a glance that this is a one-sided interaction with only one aggressor. if you're facing him and it looks like you're participating in a conversation, people across the room won't see immediately that something's wrong and it's not your fault.

if they both come up to you as a couple, speak only to her unless he says something genuinely unobjectionable. genuinely. he asks how you like the weather lately, tell him. anything bad, you didn't hear it. if this is too much like humiliating him for your needs, acknowledge that he spoke with a neutral look and a pause. but you don't have anything to say in response to awful statements and there's no benefit to pretending you do.

this withdrawal of goodwill goes against all social reflexes and I at least can't do it without planning it in advance, otherwise I fuck it up and smile and nod as is my usual. but it's very satisfying if you commit to it, without being a blatant fight-starter. when you know he's trying to get to you, total withholding of any visible response is such a pleasure.

but really, no snappy comebacks. they don't work and the ones that do can't be used if you're committed to not escalating into a scene.
posted by queenofbithynia at 4:55 PM on June 23, 2019 [59 favorites]

Avoid avoid avoid. I would pretend you have no idea what he’s talking about if he confronts you, even if he knows she told you what he said, you can “forget” or force him to say it to your face, and then address it if you feel safe and/or up for it. The actual biggest thing I have had success with is showing absolutely NO reaction to fight picking and dramatic confrontation. I never bring up drama or tease or show my disapproval. I address them when they are speaking directly to me, and don’t progress conversation. I’m not polite or rude, I’m as much of nothing as I can be and move around frequently. If you really want to continue to be there to hear what is going on with her you might want to be so boring to boyfriend that he doesn’t care to mess with you or prove anything to you.
posted by Swisstine at 4:58 PM on June 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

Since he doesn't do this around other men, will there be a man there who you can ask for help from before the party? That way if the abuser tries to start a fight with you, you can signal your male friend for rescue? "I'm sorry, I won't talk about this now. I'm going to enjoy the party with Brad." You could agree with your male friend that if he sees the abuser try to get you alone, he will approach and start a neutral conversation.

Obviously, this isn't ideal for obvious reasons, but since you're purely looking for a tactical solution, it might work.

Good on you for looking out for your friend. I hope she comes to her senses.
posted by frumiousb at 4:58 PM on June 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

How about something like, "I am sorry, I really don't have time to talk to you at the moment", said with as much sincerity as you can muster, give a bland smile in his general direction and then walk away to find someone else to interact with. That hopefully will appear just polite enough that he can't frame you as being rude, doesn't give him any ammo to fight back with and cuts him out.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 4:58 PM on June 23, 2019

Very blandly say "really".

In a tone that indicates boredom but not mocking or exclaimation or anything other than passing thought.....he's background clutter and you are not paying attention to whatever....
posted by mightshould at 5:01 PM on June 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

He will frame you as rude even if you hire a jacuzzi limo with a full bar to take him away. I agree with everyone who’s advocating a cut-direct, because no matter what you do in response to his nastiness, he will piss and moan about the unfairness. Might as well save yourself the effort and deny him your attention.

And good luck with this. My friend circle went through this a couple years ago, and the affected friendship didn’t really make it — even though the abusive relationship eventually ended and the abuser later died.
posted by armeowda at 5:06 PM on June 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

and it's always good to unfocus your eyes and drift off a little bit, maybe tell yourself some jokes, replay a favorite sitcom episode on your mental projector so you have a benign and dreamy look. and when he really gets in your face to yell-repeat his offensive question, say "Oh, I'm sorry, I wasn't listening." there's no limit to how many times you can do this in one evening.
posted by queenofbithynia at 5:08 PM on June 23, 2019 [24 favorites]

Absolutely if there are other men who can be recruited to watch this fucker, please ask them to just stay in his vicinity as much as possible, but don't start anything.

Don't engage him, if he talks to you don't engage/fight back/argue/"debate" - remember, he gets off on that. Just walk away if you at all can* if he tries to get at you in any way. Make eye contact with one of the men shadowing him. If you absolutely need to cut him off, drop your voice and say, "Do not do this here" or "Do not ruin this party for X." (And this should absolutely be The Line, if he tries to make a spectacle you burn the world down and your friend-who-has-not-been-much-of-one gets extremely lowered priority to the host/honoree.)

And that's it. There's no comeback that's going to fix him, no zinger that'll bring him to his senses.

*There's a non-zero chance that turning and walking away will provoke him to put his hands on you, because they're just itching for the chance. I personally would be prepared to take that risk, but you may want to do that genteel dopplering away backwards into the crowd/veering off on a diagonal waving at a random person thing that vulnerable people have always known how to do.

One of the many dangerous things about This Guy at big social occasions is, you know, the risk they'll follow a woman into an obstructed-view area or lure one outside, so I think you should treat this as the security risk it is, something to be managed quietly but significantly until he's left the premises.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:16 PM on June 23, 2019 [16 favorites]

Oh no, I am a total klutz and have a terrible habit of carrying way-too-full drinks while wearing too-tall heels and OOPS OMG SO SORRY!!!
posted by Little Dawn at 5:47 PM on June 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

“I’m gonna go grab some food/a drink” or “hang on a sec” and then walk off with conviction and purpose. Don’t engage! No clever line or snarky comment will improve anything. Look up “grey rock.” No content, no argument, no involvement.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 6:08 PM on June 23, 2019 [15 favorites]

"It's been so good to see you!" and walking away as though what he said was the end of a conversation. Plausible deniability. Miss Manners phrases it as saying whatever your half of the conversation would be if he had said something normal.

Like if he says "You hate me, admit it," you'd say "it's been great to see you again." If he says "all Jane's friends are horrible" you can say "it's always great to get everyone together." If he says "women should be seen and not heard" you can say "this party really came together well; whoever put a lot of work into it." Like you don't hear what he's saying. And then yes, escape asap.

I find that when I have to deal with someone who sucks, cultivating pity for them can help me. Like, overall in life, that's not how you feel about him, and that's fine, but while you're in front of him, think about how unpleasant it must be to be him, angry all the time and surrounded by people who hate you. It makes it easier to be calm and slightly condescending.
posted by gideonfrog at 6:32 PM on June 23, 2019 [6 favorites]

There's a non-zero chance that turning and walking away will provoke him to put his hands on you, because they're just itching for the chance

...I just wanna repeat/draw your attention to this comment (more than simply doing a +1), because I think it's a correct observation and you should keep it carefully in mind.
posted by aramaic at 7:59 PM on June 23, 2019 [6 favorites]

Yes, I’d also like to reiterate what Lyn Never and aramaic said—there’s a likelihood, from what you’ve described, that this guy would not hesitate to assault you or another woman at the party for any reason. It galls me to have to suggest it, but since it seems non-negotiable that he be at the party, can you ensure there’s no way the boyfriend can corner women in an isolated spot? Maybe task one or two male friends with tailing him the entire evening, or post them near hotspots like bathrooms, bedrooms, hidden corners of the backyard. But really, it sounds like the guy needs to be watched nonstop so he doesn’t start a fight or assault anyone.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:24 PM on June 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

Along with Grey Rock, Medium Chill may be a helpful tactic. If you keep it very vague and non-confrontational, it can help in situations like this. "Medium Chill keeps things light, fluffy, airy and breezy. There's no real substance to the conversation. You wind up doing a lot of listening and giving very uninteresting and inconsequential answers. You don't feed the supply, so you'll find conversations are shorter and not as frequent - because you're not giving the other person anything they can use. You are of no use to them and also quite boring and uninteresting."

I would definitely recommend recruiting some men to babysit him -- it sounds like that has helped to tamp down his bullshit in the past.

Not that you shouldn't be aware of safety, but -- sadly, I think the person at most risk of physical harm is your friend. She's the one who has to leave with him, and she's the one likely to take the brunt if he gets pissed off during the party. I'd certainly try to avoid contributing to any conflicts he tries to start, but obviously this jerk and his reactions are not under your control. Thanks for looking out for your friend, and for working to keep the door open with her. Good luck to you both.
posted by ourobouros at 11:43 PM on June 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

I've done the 'Oh, ... could you hold that thought?' as though there's something else going on that needs attention. And then I just don't come back to the conversation.
posted by honey-barbara at 11:45 PM on June 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

If he touches you it's a whole different situation. Then you yank yourself away and say, loudly and firmly, "don't touch me" and keep walking away. You also consider whether to involve the police.

Also your guy friends really need to step up and keep an eye on this guy. I don't know that they're not already doing this, but they really need to.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 5:15 AM on June 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thank you everyone! The “grey rock” concept is very helpful and will work well, I think. (But I will definitely fantasize about sweeping in and performing a flawless cut-direct!)

I thought anyone coming across this question in the future might enjoy this Miss Manners quote I stumbled across in my research: “Many relatives who do not get along use etiquette as a weapon with which to fight. Choose your weapon.”
posted by sallybrown at 7:17 AM on June 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

A long time ago, in response to this question, Mermaidcafe suggested the medium chill technique. I know other people have brought it up in other situations as well. I have been using it for a very difficult work relationship, and I have to say it works wonders for my well being. Be easy, breezy, and hard to pin down. Avoid feeding the drama beast through avoidance and cultivating nonengaging, nonconfrontational responses. Many of the suggestions seen here are part of the technique. It's worth checking out.
posted by answergrape at 8:34 AM on June 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've always liked Lorelai Gilmore's "Um, would you excuse me? I...see someone else." and then walk away.
posted by Aquifer at 12:58 PM on June 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

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