What More Can You Say Besides 'Leave Him'?

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Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

It's the third episode in a series about friendships. Today the hosts think about what a friend can do to help someone in a possibly abusive relationship. A listener writes that her friend's boyfriend "shows signs of being very controlling and also very jealous." What are her options, besides telling her friend to leave this man?


Dear Sugars,

I am having a hard time accepting my best friend's relationship.

"Annie" has been my best friend since our freshman year of college, almost seven years ago. We're very close, even though we live in different cities now. We talk about everything and agree on a lot.

However, there is something we don't see eye to eye on. She has been dating "John" for about two years now, and from the very beginning, I knew she could do better. He was in an "open relationship" with another woman when they started dating. Then, once they became exclusive, he started to show signs of being very controlling and also very jealous.

The straw that broke the camel's back for me was when she contacted me via Facebook Messenger to discuss flirty dreams she'd been having about a co-worker. When I asked her why we were having this conversation on Facebook instead of texting, she said it was because she did not want it in her text messages, since John had been known to go through her texts.

Some years ago, I was in an abusive relationship myself, and John shows a lot of the same symptoms as my ex-boyfriend. I have told Annie this numerous times, and she always seems to be in at least partial agreement, but they stay together.

I'm worried about her, especially because she's been talking about marrying this guy. I have two major fears. First, that something really bad could happen to her. Second, that their relationship might harm our relationship. I don't want to lose her for any reason. Do I have any power to do anything aside from what I've already done? Is there something I can say to her?

Signed,

Worried Friend

Cheryl Strayed: I have struggled with this same thing for many years. I have a close family member who has been in a number of relationships with abusive men. It's a terrible, difficult situation, and there's no one thing you can do to make Annie see the light and leave this man.

What you need to do is try to be as supportive and loving and truth-telling to Annie as possible. In my own situation with my family member, what I decided to do was to always speak the truth. I would say, "He shouldn't talk to you like that," or, "He doesn't have a right to read your text messages," or, "I'm really concerned about you." And it did drive a wedge between that person and me, but what it also did was it told her that I cared and I wasn't going to pretend the abuse didn't exist.

In the short-term, I think she felt like I couldn't be trusted because I was going to try to break up her relationship. But in the long-run, she knew I was always there for her, I was on her side, I was going to believe her. And if she ever needed a place to go to be safe, I was that safe harbor. So what I advise you to do is to make it really clear — don't play any of those games that Annie needs to play to pretend this guy's OK even though he does this. Continually say, "It's not OK, and if you ever need me at any hour of the day, I'm here."

Steve Almond: It might be helpful to spend an extended amount of time with her away from this guy, simply to allow Annie to have the psychic space to talk about her own internal misgivings in a way that doesn't feel prompted. It's like with kids — the more you listen the more they talk.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the full episode to hear more answers to questions about friendships, including how to end a friendship and how to respond when you're feeling excluded from a group of friends.

Have a question for the Sugars? Email dearsugarradio@gmail.com and it may be answered on a future episode.

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