Wednesday, 19 January 2011

In the Path of a Speeding Freight Train

Can you ever save your girl friend from a really bad man?

This is one of the toughest questions in female friendship. And it has gotten me into all kinds of trouble. I once got into trouble because a much younger female friend confided in me that she was being pursued by a man who did not share her religious values, argued for atheism, and had been sexually active. She was very worried about this.

"Beware," I cried. "Beware!"

But then she went out with him anyway, and since they later moved in together, I assume they eventually slept together, and guess who she sent inexplicably harsh friendship-ending emails to? Yes, me. She even suggested I was racist, which was ridiculous as her boyfriend, like me, was white. From a psychological point of view, it was fascinating, but at the time I was heartbroken. They were said to be "engaged." Haven't heard if they ever got married. But I will always wonder if my young friend was so nasty to me because it was easier than being nasty to her real mother.

Then there was the friend whose supposedly religious boyfriend was pressuring her for sex, and the rest of our set was wailing over it. So I called her and left a message of support ("We've all been there!") on her answering machine, and got back a furious email. I was out of town, so there was no way of patching it up face-to-face, so I just left it. I was very embarrassed and hurt by her rejection.

Then there was another friend whose definitely non-religious boyfriend was pressuring her for sex, but she adored him, so she wouldn't break up with him. Once again our set wailed and wrung their hands. Some went to meet him. They hated him. They couldn't see what she saw in him. But the girl clung on. Me, I could hear the freight train coming.

"What if she sleeps with him?" texted one girl.

"You can't stop it," I texted back.

"I think they're getting married," texted the friend.

"In that case, it won't be so bad," I texted back.

"But we hate him."

"You don't have to marry him."

In some cases, women simply cannot see what other women see in their boyfriends. The best they can hope for it that the man isn't an out-and-out toad. An otherwise nice man brought up to assume that sex is always part of love and the way you show love is to use a condom might be astonished to discover that his Catholic girlfriend's Catholic girlfriends think he is Jack the Ripper.

Meanwhile, there are very few people who can sit down with a woman and say "The man you love is an out-and-out toad" without ruining their friendship. The problem is, those who can often love the woman so much, they are not willing to risk their relationships ending. Even mothers are afraid because mothers know that their daughters are going to run right back to their slavemasters and repeat what they say, either to complain about Mom or as a weak form of rebellion.

Girl: My mother says you shouldn't talk to me like that.

Boyfriend: Your mother is a complete bitch who hates me because I'm [not her ethnic/social group].

Girl: Oh, don't say that. My mother isn't bigoted.

Boyfriend: Oh, yeah, right, sure. I don't think you should see her so much. Every time you go home, it's the same thing. Nag, nag, nag. We always fight afterwards. Is that what you want?

The ironic thing is that girls often do listen to and obey their mothers. My parents' generation was brainwashed into thinking that whatever they told their children, their children would do the opposite. However, my generation was actually quite biddable, which is why there are a number of Catholic women my age still mouthing "Spirit of Vatican II" type stuff. Heck, when I was in high school in the 1980s, we were listening to The Beatles. We were doing the Twist to "Twist and Shout." We felt bad that we had missed the Sixties. In university we sat, openmouthed, at the feet of the Sixty-Eighters. In that case it is to gag, but it is true.

So I think mothers should not be so quick to abdicate their responsibilities to their daughters, and start talking about what a good man is like when the girls are still small. A good basic line to repeat once a month is "If a man ever hits you, you must leave at once." However, this isn't enough. I used to hope a man would hit me so I would have the strength to break up with him, which is definitely screwed up. So another good line is "If a man isn't willing to wait, he doesn't love you." Another is, "If a man tries to isolate you from your family and friends, he's a dangerous power freak." The idea is to drum these ideas into daughters' heads, so that when dodgy guys come around, the ideas will spring spontaneously into the forefront of the daughters' minds.

Sisters, I think, also have a responsibility to each other, although like mothers they are also frozen into silence by fear of losing the woman they love so much. Sisters need to say things like "Are you happy?" and "I don't think I hear happiness here" and "Personally, if a guy ever said that to me, I would walk, and he would never hear from me again." Little tiny sisters, and possibly nieces, would exude a lot of power. If only it could be harnessed! Ah for a four year old to say "I don't like [X]--he scares me" and then burst into tears. Ah...

Brothers! Why are brothers such an overlooked commodity today? Back in high school, Sister Wilfreda told us always to introduce our swains to our father and brothers because they would know if they were bad guys. Of course, fathers and brothers often think that good guys are NOT GOOD ENOUGH, so it is hard to find the golden mean here. There is also the danger that brothers sometimes get banged up for assault. Still, many a man has been scared sensible by the idea of big, angry brothers. Listen, you brothers out there, have you met your sisters' boyfriends yet? Do the boyfriends know you exist?

Then there are best friends. Best friends, too, are in a position to say the right thing at the right moment. Best friends have probably had fights and made up again, and so of all people they are the ones who might have the most confidence speaking their minds. It still is tricky, though. I am not denying that. Sometimes all you can do is say your piece, make sure the woman knows that you are loving her, not judging her, and then scrape her off the tracks when the train hits her. Painful? You bet.

Other friends, in my opinion--I'd love to be wrong, believe me--can't do much. I suppose that they can orchestrate casual conversations about abusive relationships and books they've read about psychological, verbal, and physical abuse. Good luck.

And then there are complete strangers. Complete strangers have absolutely nothing to lose by saying to a woman--when the bad boyfriend is nowhere around, e.g. the ladies' room--"Listen, I couldn't help overhearing what that man said to you. You don't deserve that, honey. There are nicer men out there." The shock of being addressed by such a complete stranger may drive the ideas right into the woman's foggy mind.

Also, complete strangers have nothing to lose by saying, "My, that's some black eye you've got there." Battered women go through life wearing dark glasses and heavy foundation and yet wonder why nobody notices that they are being battered. I notice. And if I can, I always say something about a woman's black eye. Now I pretend it's because I used to box. Really, if you work with the public, safe behind a desk or counter, it is so easy to casually respond to bruises and then end the conversation with, "You take care of yourself now."

I recommend that all women read up on the cycles of domestic violence and the different ways in which abusive men get women under their power. That way, if it ever happens to them, it won't hit them like a freight train. I will NEVER forget the moment I read a pamphlet on domestic violence--I got it at church--thinking I'd like to work with battered women, and realizing that most of the checklist described my current relationship. At the time, I just thought I was a bad person who didn't deserve the really smart man I always made so mad.

I don't have time to get into it all, but I will say something about isolation. As a friend, you want to make sure that your friend can always get in touch with you after she begins a serious-sounding relationship. Control-freak husbands and boyfriends consolidate their power by separating "their women" from the women's family and friends. Good husbands and boyfriends have no problem with their wives and girlfriends spending time with family and friends. In fact, they often welcome this and plot some serious guy time.

Oh, dear. It's so sad. I sprang into the world after high school graduation convinced that my generation was smarter and better than my parents' generation, and that we would never become alcoholics, battered wives, single mothers, etc., etc. How very wrong I was.


Bernadette said...

Once I asked a group of girlfriends about exactly this situation: if you were about to get married to someone your friend thought was awful, would you want your friend to tell you or to stay silent & ready to pick up the pieces if/when it became necessary. I voted for the person telling me. I've been in a relationship with someone who was a pathological liar. It took me longer than it should have for me to get out because, since no one else seemed to think anything was wrong with him, I thought maybe I was the problem, not the guy.

Anyway, one of the girls told the story of a woman she knew who never should have married her husband. She was so stressed on her wedding day that the muscles in her neck had spasmed, so she couldn't hold her head up when she was coming down the aisle. We promised each other that we would watch each other coming down the aisle on our wedding days, and if any of us couldn't hold up her head, the rest of us would do whatever was necessary to stop the ceremony.

Nzie (theRosyGardener) said...

The answer to "Can you ever save your girlfriend from a really bad man?" is no. She has to make the choices. In a dysfunctional relationship, the power is usually concentrated in one person, and that's part of the problem. A woman (or man) who makes the decision to seek help is already a few steps ahead of someone who's rescued nearly deus ex machina.

What I tried to do when talking to battered women on the helpline was twofold. One was to affirm their value and dignity. The other was to undermine the normality of their relationship. Human beings are really adaptable- something consistent quickly becomes "normal" to an individual even though it's really abnormal. I even said it directly to some victims. The pseudo-reality has to crash before they can get back to the real world.

Urszula said...

Thanks for writing about this, Auntie. It's a difficult situation for a girl to be in, because you want to let a close friend know you are concerned for them without losing contact, so that they know they can still count on you once the train has rushed past.

Of course it's easier to see the red flags in other people's relationships because you see the character of the person not colored by emotions.

I like the idea of 'pacts' - my best friend and I gave each other the power of veto to be used in extreme cases, were we to find the other's partner objectionable (in regards to morality or character). She vetoed one of my infatuations quite early on and I was fortunately able to realize her clear-sighted analysis was correct and get out of it very fast.

Sheila said...

I had a pact with a friend that we would always be honest if the other was in a bad relationship. I followed through, too -- when she was all set to get back with her loser ex-boyfriend, I told her I didn't think it was a good idea.

We haven't spoken (more than hellos) in over a year. So sad.

All the same, I think a real friend has the responsibility to say at least SOMEthing, like, "Are you sure this is what you want to do?" at the very least. Because at least they will know that some people had their doubts. When we were in marriage prep, the priest actually asked us, "Has anyone told you your relationship is a bad idea?" It was quite a relief to say no. (If we'd said yes, I think that would have gone in the file in case of future annulment!)

dark but fair said...

I don't think that you can save a friend in the sense that you can pull her out of the way of the freight train. What one can do if not abandon her to her own devices and keep telling her the truth when she asks. Yes, some women will be angry and they will act like they do not want your help. But all you can do is tell the truth and hope that she will reach out for the life-line. If she won't be friends for you telling the truth and trying to help her, then you have done what you can. Some do save themselves though.

Seraphic said...

Bernadette, yikes! I've heard of(and had) bridal nerves, but that is just terrible.

Nzie, you are so right. I think the "You are a good woman/your relationship is not normal" technique is spot-on.

Heaven knows how many women (and men) put up with heaven knows what thinking that it must be "normal."

Urzsula, pacts sound great even though they don't always work, as Sheila found out. I think the thing to do is to remind the woman that you are her friend, and have loved her for X years, whereas she (usually) has just met this guy. You long for her to be happy. Does he?

Sheila, you are very right. If you really care about someone, and you think it might do some good, you have a responsibility to tell them what you think about something so important, ESPECIALLY if you've always agreed that's the kind of friendship you have. I hope your friend talks to you again some day. Maybe when her relationship with her boyfriend ends. If it does. Some people would rather be together, hating each other, than be apart, loving other people.

Dark But Fair, very true. You do your bit, and then you wait. It can be painful and make you feel powerless (I burned the cookies while waiting for NOFG to report on her date), but pain and powerlessness are part of life.

Sundancer said...

I have never seen the well meaning friend attempt to save go well. I refused to speak to my sister for a year for telling me to break up with my boyfriend in college*, and my cousin tried to disown me from the family when I suggested she should think carefully before rushing into a second marriage.

I currently have a friend who seems intent on self destruction with guy after guy, and she takes advice very poorly. I have found the only way to be her friend is to be there to listen and pick up the pieces and not judge, and hope one day she figures out things for herself.

*I've since decided my big sister is an excellent judge of character and she gets to screen potential boyfriends!

Sheila said...

Seraphic, she broke up with the guy, but still has been rather icy to me. >sigh< Some people just don't want to hear your opinions about their choices!

Seraphic said...

Well, that is sad. And you are absolutely right. I had a comment of the "This is why I prefer the company of men" variety snarling about the busybodyness of women. (It didn't make my new politeness standard, so I didn't publish it.)
What some women see as loving concern, other women see as not-minding-your-own-business. Fair enough.

However, it is totally unfair when women AGREE that they will ALWAYS speak their mind and then one woman backs out of the deal and pretends there was never any deal in the first place and you were totally out of line to speak your mind.

It is also very unfair when a friend publically complains that a man is pressuring her for sex, and when you agree that is terrible, she freaks out at you later.

Mindreading is so difficult. Perhaps the best policy is to say, when a woman complains about the bad man, "What do you think you should do?" and either "That sounds good to me" or "Would you ever consider X?" and "I understand." Advice-giving is perilous, a double-edged sword. (Why do I do it so much, eh?)

Wine in the Water said...

Don't forget fathers. I've gotten hooked on this blog - even though I am probably the furthest from your intended demographic - because I have a daughter. She is 2 1/2 and already I find myself freaking out about boys and men. If her husband is not Christ Himself, then I want him to be as Christlike as possible.

Besides my shotgun shell plan*, I plan to model the faithful husband to the best of my abilities .. and then encourage her to find someone better than me.

*Put a line of shotgun shells with names written on them over the door. Some are spent, some are not. Then show the young man the shell with his name on it.