My Best Friend’s Boyfriend Treats Her Horribly…What Can I Do?

Dear Liz,

My best friend is dating a boy who doesn’t treat her right. He has cheated on her multiple times, and recently she even walked in on him cheating.  From the start, I have warned her multiple times that he is not a nice guy and that I do not like him and that he is not good for her. He’s also extremely mean to me and her other friends and has no respect for anyone.  He is always getting “belligerent drunk” and is very disrespectful and hurtful to many people. She continues to stay with him even when I am constantly warning her about him. She says ‘you just don’t know him like I do’ and she also says that the awful things a person does, does not define them. It is becoming an issue in our friendship in the way that I am the “bad guy” because I will not accept  him. What do you think I should do? What do you think she should do?

Dear Friend,

I am so sorry for your friend, and I am so touched by your care. Unfortunately, given what you have shared, your friend is likely to push you away before she does him.  Hopefully I can provide some advice to prevent that from happening.

But first…

I’d like to address your friend’s justification for her boyfriend’s behavior: The awful things a person does, does not define them. I find that comment troubling.  Yes it’s catchy, and almost inspiring, except it doesn’t make sense, especially in the context of discerning how to respond to maltreatment in a relationship.

I’m not sure what she means by “define.” If she is suggesting that he has good in him, that he has  potential, that there is a light within him only she can see, or even that God loves him at his ugliest….then I would tend to agree with her.  However, such observation loses its relevance when we are dating someone who repeatedly behaves in a dishonest and abusive way.

If we allow someone to repeatedly cheat on us (she has given him permission to cheat by remaining with him after multiple betrayals) we are simultaneously giving that person permission to disregard our needs and feelings in any number of ways. Chronic infidelity, at a minimum, signals an inability for mature intimacy, but can often indicate potential for other abusive behaviors.  I am concerned that in time she will be “erased” by his disregard, and this relationship will become her sense of self…her addiction.

If she really sees his “light and goodness” and would like to help him abandon his poor behavior, heal, and become a man whose light and goodness shines regularly, then she needs to stop enabling him—that’s what real love looks like in this situation.  But you already know this, so let’s figure out what you can do in the meantime.

Do your very best to stay in your friend’s life.

It is only a matter of time before your friend’s boyfriend deliberately or inadvertently alienates her from you. He will either manipulate her (your friends don’t like me…they don’t support us…she doesn’t really care about you…) or, simply by virtue of his horrible attitude and behavior, will send friends running.

Please don’t. Do your best to stay in her life.  You can be present to her, while still avoiding him, even if the “contact hours” with her diminish.  She needs people who “see clearly” to stay in her life, so that when she does leave him (or when she is left) she has genuine support.

Avoid repeatedly pointing out her boyfriend’s issues.

Your friend already knows, at least on some level, how poorly she is being treated. She is already familiar with being manipulated (by him).  And if he is a “belligerent drunk,” then I am sure she has experienced his anger directed at her.  She also knows you know.  If you keep pointing out his flaws, she will feel ashamed and find reason to push you away.  Instead, be there for your friend, as a source of care and support—you can do this without condoning his behavior.

Try to understand why she isn’t leaving him.

While your friend is allowing herself to be treated in disrespectful way, and while only she can bring it to an end (by ending the relationship) her tolerance of maltreatment indicates to me that deep within she carries the belief, I’m not worth much, which results in the belief, I don’t deserve much.  Staying with him is a sub-conscious resignation to a “message” she likely internalized at a very, very, young age.

My guess is that her childhood was lacking in emotional availability and genuine respect, at least from one of her parents. It has been said, “we ‘marry’ our least available parent,” and “we will develop intimacies with people who confirm the most deeply held belief we have about ourself.” Unfortunately, while our conscious self says “I want a great partner who is kind, sober, responsible, and faithful,” if our worth is in the gutter, we will likely be attracted to just the opposite.  It’s a natural, psychological, pattern.

When we are fractured within, on some level, we know it, and our wound leads our way into the world of relationships. Dating a guy who is as wounded as we are is a perfect way to feel:

  1. Uniquely connected (I just love him…I see what others don’t…I see his heart through all his bad behavior…) and
  2. A perfect distraction from addressing our own fractures and wounds. It’s very difficult to nurse our own Self when we are attempting to nurse the Self of another.

How can my friend come to see her reality with clarity?

Feelings are wonderful, but emotions are a mere starting point for intimacy. If we can’t translate feeling into action, if we can’t demonstrate our love with acts of respect and fidelity and kindness, then we are not loving at all.

Unfortunately, many children fail to receive genuine love from their caregivers, though their caregivers called what they were giving, love.  When that happens, our adult experiences with relationships can be fraught with challenges.  The trick is to learn what love is, and we can begin this work by reconnecting with our authentic Self, for the Self is the very source of love (please see the gingerbread person sketch).  This effort can be supported by reading helpful books, connecting with a counselor, and my favorite, a good long hike on a chilly day.

At some point, the question your friend will need to answer, in a most safe and protective space, is why she is willing to barter her wants and needs for a watered down version of love.  This will lead her deep into the broken and hollow spaces within herself, and it will hurt.  But for true healing to take place, she will have to go to that vulnerable, heartbreaking space, in order to address what it is that got her to a place where being cheated on by a guy with a horrible temperament is good enough for her.

Once she is able to ask that question, she will be on her way to restoring her sense of Self, and her experience with her own worth and lovability will blossom. What’s incredible is that even a tiny step in the direction of healing is a huge step away from choosing partners who are incapable of loving well.

One last suggestion: I have written two other columns that might provide you with some additional insight into your situation with your friend:  Desperate to Help Friend Being Abused By Boyfriend and Struggling to Heal After an Abusive Relationship.  And maybe, just maybe, your friend will be interested in reading these columns.

Keep being the wonderful friend you are.

Love, Liz

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