I Think My Friend is Making a Mistake Due to Her History of Abuse

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Reader’s Question

After a history of childhood abuse, a friend of mine was in a 30-year emotionally, sexually and physically abusive marriage. She was made to feel guilty if she didn’t agree to a quick engagement, followed quickly by marriage. She was told she wasn’t pretty and that she wouldn’t find another man to love her. Now divorced two years, she met a guy eight months ago and hit it off right away. They began planning marriage just 10 weeks after they met. I firmly believe he’s manipulating her. She says she isn’t afraid of him. She lets him kiss her intimately on her lips and fondle her breasts because he is willing to set aside his desires for sex to be her friend.

What is this doing to this woman’s emotional state and her self-esteem? She knows I have strong feelings for her too. When she realized that, she said she wasn’t ready for a committed relationship and said she became a little afraid of me. I’m old fashioned and know about the abuse she went through. I won’t hold her hand, kiss her cheek, or even hug or put my arm around her without first asking. What can I do?

Psychologist’s Reply

It can be extremely frustrating to try to understand another person, especially when we care about that person and witness what we believe to be unhealthy behavior. As an adult, your friend makes her own choices. So, perhaps the best you can aim for is to better understand her experience and offer ways to be supportive and helpful. I imagine that what complicates the issue is the fact that you not only care about your friend, but are romantically attracted and desirous of the kind of relationship she is apparently planning with this other man.

We can speculate that, despite being out of her abusive marriage, your friend is not necessarily the confident, self-assured woman you might believe she deserves to be. Her experiences with men in the context of romantic relationships have been consistently negative, and her initial anxiety and withdrawal upon learning of your romantic interest is understandable. Why she’s apparently willing to maintain a romantic relationship with this other man may never be clear. However, as is true for everyone involved in a relationship, the needs it meets must outweigh the costs.

Sometimes people are drawn to a particular type of relationship, or partner, because that type is comfortable, even if unsatisfying or outright harmful. In other words, after extensive experience with a particular relationship dynamic, that pattern becomes familiar, and thus somewhat comfortable. The individual may recognize that the particular relationship dynamic is not typical, or satisfying, yet other kinds of relationships feel alien and anxiety-provoking. In the end, some people continue to re-enact the same unhealthy or unsatisfying relationship with each successive partner.

So, what are your options? You may decide it is too painful to vie for your friend’s romantic attention, only to see her become increasingly committed to the other man. In that case, the decision would be to invest your energy into finding a partner with whom to build a relationship built on mutual attraction and interest. A second option is to resign yourself to remaining her friend, regardless of how her romantic relationship plays out. The risk here is increasing frustration and difficulty being the type of friend she needs as you continue to feel slighted despite being the more considerate male in her life. Last, you could try to influence your friend to “see the light” and come to the conclusion that you’re the better choice for a long-term romantic partner. The risks include pushing her away, as she feels pressured and uncomfortably obligated. There is also the risk that she will come to agree with you. Given her history and tendencies you describe, you might wonder whether you could ever be sure her feelings and decisions were freely hers.

I encourage you to continue to examine your feelings and motives, and how these may be coloring your assessment of your friend’s situation. Being entirely objective about ourselves is impossible, but being as honest as you can with yourself may end up being best for both you and your friend. Healthy and long-lastingly satisfying relationships are difficult enough to maintain, and your friend’s history and involvement with the other man complicate matters even further.

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