Dear Dr. NerdLove:
When I was 14 or 15, one of my friends at the time told me in passing that her boyfriend had been forceful recently in their physical relationship. At the time, I didn’t fully understand what she was saying but I could tell she was upset so I tried to comfort her the best I could and we moved on from that conversation. A year later, they broke up and I gradually started becoming friends with this ex. In 12th grade, when there were whispers of what she had told me earlier, I am ashamed to say that I didn’t speak up. I remained “neutral”, a very harmful attitude to take, and in doing so I know I hurt her immensely. The other people she had told also didn’t speak up and I can’t even imagine how hard that must have been for her. He was dating someone else at that point. Their relationship also ended once school did but I never really inquired as to what went down there.
College started and I became much, much closer to him. We established a friends with benefits situation which slowly turned into a proper relationship. He was good to me. Always respectful, always a good person. I’m not saying this to negate what he did to others, but just to point out how stark the difference was between who he was with me and with them. I know that’s also typical of a lot of abusers.
Earlier this year, his second ex reached out to me. She told me that he had been emotionally manipulative and verbally abusive in their relationship. The things she told me were so terrible that I didn’t know what to say or do. We had just started dating at this point, she told me she was telling me also because she didn’t want him to do the same to me. I thanked her for telling me, and after a lot of deliberation I took the decision to distance myself from him gradually. I also spoke to my friend and apologised for my silence regarding her abuse at the time.
Very recently, his actions in the past have been brought to light on a public platform. He is obviously facing a lot of backlash from people in school for these actions and a lot of people have chosen to cut him out of their lives. From the scattered interactions I’ve had with him since his ex reached out to me, I know he’s been going to therapy more regularly. He’s also apologised to both of them, and obviously they haven’t accepted his apology nor are they under any obligation to. He has never tried to deny, justify or argue against what he’s done. He has unconditionally accepted that he has caused a lot of trauma to these people and he has told me and other people that he is fully ready to face the consequences of his actions.
I feel like I made the right decision by distancing myself for the time being but I’m still confused about what I need to do in the future. I believe that this is an experience he needs to get through on his own. If he doesn’t have people around him to prove to that he is a changed person, and yet he still changes, I truly believe that that won’t be a superficial change because it requires a lot of courage to keep on living and working on yourself when nobody else thinks you deserve anything. His friends don’t have a responsibility to make sure that he’s changed, nor do they have to hold his hand through the process.
As someone who knows him better than anyone else, I have faith that firstly, he truly wants to change and that secondly, he is taking steps to do so. None of that can ever change the hurt and trauma that he caused, nothing can at this point, but the step towards accountability and responsibility is not one that many people take in the first place. That in itself, coupled with the fact that this step is accompanied by concrete actions of therapy, possibility of enrolment in abuser programs, unconditional apologies, makes me think that though the process will be long and difficult for him, he will come out of it better.
If he does, then is it okay for me at that point to be his friend? To say that I have seen the change in you and I believe you are worth my friendship, possibly my love? Does it make me a bad person and does it serve as dismissing the trauma of the victims? Am I a bad friend for saying that I believe he will change but not being there for him?
Very Confused and Guilty
These sort of questions are always difficult, VCaG.
On the one hand, I’m a general believer that people can change and improve. I believe that folks can fuck up, own their fuck-ups and try to make things better, and I believe that there needs to be space for folks to actually do better.
On the other hand, folks love a redemption story and abusers know this. I can’t count the number of times that abusers and monsters have made a production of “Oh look, I’ve changed!” — especially as a way of returning to the public eye. Writer and professor Hugo Schwyzer was an almost archetypal example of this, using his supposed redemption both as a way of finding future victims and as a shield against new accusers. So there’s every reason to give take declarations of “but I’m different now!” with deep suspicion and a LOT of salt.
On the other other hand (yes, I have three hands) apparently this happened in high-school. And while that doesn’t preclude someone from being an abuser or a monster — all you have to do is look at Stubenville for proof of that — but high-schoolers also tend to be hormone-soaked bundles of frenzied confusion who’re often freaking out in multiple directions at once. It’s entirely possible for people to act badly without realizing that what they’re doing is harmful or abuse. Sometimes people are so caught up in their teenaged angst bullshit that they don’t realize the damage they’re doing to the people around them.
But the fact that they don’t know they’re doing harm, or don’t intend to, doesn’t change the fact that they still hurt people. As has been said in many places, many times: intent isn’t magic.
(And that’s before we get into issues like the high-school rumor mill, people adopting the language of social justice as a means of abusing others and all kinds of murky crap)
So my position in general is “…maybe. With many caveats.”
I would have a lot of very pointed questions that would need very convincing answers before I’d be willing to come down on one side or another. The first is very simple: does he understand what he did? Does he accept — without conditions or qualifiers — that his behavior hurt people? And as a follow-up: does he understand why his actions hurt people?
One of the first steps to change and growth is to understand how they’ve wronged others and why other people were hurt by what they did. Understanding the pain of others is the first step to empathy.
Next: does he accept responsibility for his actions — again, without conditions or qualifiers? Does he own his behavior without trying to explain why he’s not at fault or why he shouldn’t be fully culpable? Does he understand why he did what he did?
This is another important step; taking ownership of one’s behavior is crucial. It speaks both to their mindset: are they sincere, or are they trying to get out of trouble? However, it’s also potentially tricky. “I did X because I got drunk and didn’t recognize Y” and “I did X because I got drunk” sound similar, but are incredibly different. In the former, they’re demonstrating an understanding of how one mistake (getting drunk) lead to their behavior (…and so I did X). In the latter, it comes much closer to “you can’t blame me because I was drunk and that wasn’t who I really am”.
Next: if they understand what they did wrong and why they did it, what steps are they taking to avoid doing those things again? How are they proposing to be held accountable in the future?
And finally: what have they done to try to try to make things right? This may or may not involve a direct apology to the people they’ve harmed; sometimes trying to make amends actually causes more harm to the person who’d already been harmed by their actions. And — importantly — in trying to make things right, is he doing so humbly or in a manner that demands acknowledgment? Is he making a production of how sorry he is a way that pressures his victims to forgive him? Is he performatively penitent in a way that glorifies himself to others?
Even with satisfactory answers to these questions, I’d still proceed with caution. As I said: plenty of folks can put on the show of contrition, especially if it brings them back from the wilderness. Take it slowly and pay more attention to his deeds, not his words. Those will tell you far more about who he actually is and whether he’s actually changed for the better.
Dear Dr. NerdLove:
First of all, let me say thank you for being out there for people like me that is searching for some insight or some type of answer to a current predicament. I found your site in one of the many nights that I was searching for answers or suggestions to a similar situations.
Here’s where I stand:
My husband and I met about 4 years ago and we moved in together (married) about 8 months ago. We are 12 years apart and he’s older. I have a 24 year old son that lives with his wife and my husband doesn’t have kids.
Our sex wasn’t often but it was great up until we moved in together. Then came up all the different work schedules, routines, and learning to live with each other, so sex/intimacy started to suffer. I’m sure is normal for some, yet I feel for us is more than that.
For once, I would like to have sex more than just on a Friday night after a drink. How about when I’m horny on a Tuesday or a Sunday morning? I feel like our sex is only on his schedule and it does not matter what I would want or what I have to say about it. We used to have sex only once a week (his request) and now is nothing. I have a higher sex drive than him or so I think.
I’ve noticed he’s less interested in touching me or initiating and he rather spend his time in front of his computer. We have had conversations about our sex life. How I feel is lacking in our relationship and he seems to understand, yet things go back to nothing after a few days.
My concern now is lately he’s been into a youtube channel where porn stars are being interviewed and then he goes on searching the particular ladies, example L.Ann, K.Rx, etc. I also know that he goes into “live cam” sites to watch younger ladies masturbate. Does he pays for those? Who knows and I hope not, because I asked him and he said he wasn’t into that. Sure! (Note: Our computer is in the open for both of us to use, not in a separate room)
Another issue is his lack of respect to me when it comes to staring (very obvious) at other women when we go out (every Friday), to the point that I had to tell him to please stop. He’s gotten better, but is still happening and it makes me feel so inferior. How could you disrespect the woman YOU are taking out, why don’t you go out by yourself then. I’m a very good looking lady, who likes to dress up when we go out, and I love to have fun with others. I look younger than my age, yet he can take all that away by gawking at another lady’s ass.
In top of all that, I had to have an emergency hysterectomy in Dec. due to cancerous cells ( I see a therapist to help me deal with this major change). We were both okay with that since we were not interested in children (1 is enough lol). I know that penetration was out of the table for some time, but intimacy is more than just intercourse and I crave that close relationship with him. Why not play with each other until we both orgasm ( oh! wait, maybe because it feels like he doesn’t want to take the time for me, however I have to finish him off) The last time we had “intimacy” was a hand job, because he didn’t even want me to give him a blowjob, really!? I’ve been cleared to have sex again for weeks and he knows, however he seems like he could go on without it. How sad!!!
He has not stop making future plans for us like trips, dinners, theater shows, etc. I know he loves me, but maybe like some say he is no longer “in love” with me or maybe he just cares for me enough to keep me around just for looks (you know an older man alone again). We’ve only been married 8 months!!
Wow! sorry for the long note, but despite my looks, loving him so much and desiring him as a man, I get this lonely feeling sometimes like I’m alone in this marriage. I do all the outside things either on my own or with my friends. I have no problems being independent, nevertheless my time with him seem to be declining. Now what?
Has he become a porn addict or already is? I did asked him if porn was a problem in our relationship and he straight up told me “NO”. Is he no longer physically attracted to me to sexually satisfy me? Is it ED? and he’s afraid to talk about it with me? Clearly talking isn’t doing it, how many times can one tell a partner that we should have more intimacy and sex. I know so many questions!
I wish he could understand how much he’s hurting me by choosing to masturbate to porn instead of having it with me (I do not mean all the time), I understand we both need our “alone’ time for that too. I deeply love him and miss the warm of his body closed to mine when we connect with intimacy and sex.
Sometimes I’ll get letters from folks where it’s obvious from the jump what the issue is. Other times, I’ll get one where the problem doesn’t reveal itself until a particular detail makes things abundantly clear.
And then I’ll get letters like yours LW, where every couple of paragraphs, the circumstances continue to degrade and the apparent underlying cause also changes… right up until the end, where it becomes clear that it doesn’t matter what the problem is because the solution is painfully obvious.
It seems pretty clear that moving in together was the trigger. This, in and of itself, isn’t terribly surprising or unusual. There’re a number of couples where the single biggest cause of strife in their lives is the fact that they live together. Take cohabitation out of the mix, and they’d be a scorching hot couple, but living together robs their relationship of vitality.
But the trigger ain’t the problem, it’s just the inciting incident. Whether this brought issues to the surface that had always been there or accelerated things until they couldn’t be ignored any longer is, at this point, academic. The problem is that your husband doesn’t want to have sex with you. It’s pretty clear he still has a sex drive and is almost certainly still jerking off; folks don’t watch cam shows for the riveting plots or amazing cinematography. But the fact that he’s uninterested in orgasms from you — to the point that the only sexual intimacy he’ll accept is a hand-job — is as clear of an indicator of where his head’s at.
One question that needs to be answered is “why”? Is it a case that he’s been bored and that boredom has become disinterest? Is it that the domesticity of your relationship robbed it of the thrill he was getting off to? Did the stress of trying to adjust to living together throw him off his groove? Or — as I suspect is the case — is it that he’s just not attracted to you any more?
Now I want to be abundantly clear: the fact that he doesn’t seem to be attracted to you DOES NOT mean that you’ve done something wrong or that this is in any way your fault. He may be someone who needs novelty and new stimuilation to maintain interest. It could be that this is his pattern in relationships and this happens every time. Or it could be that his attraction simply faded on it’s own, through no fault of yours or his.
And while the lack of sex doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the relationship — there’re plenty of folks in companionate marriages, whose connection is about things other than sex — it’s pretty clear that your relationship has reached its end. To start with: you’re clearly hurt by the lack of intimacy in your relationship. That’s entirely understandable; it’s not unreasonable to want sex with your husband or to crave intimacy with them.
The bigger problem, however, is the seeming contempt that your husband is displaying. While it’s certainly possible that he still loves and cares for you, he sure as fuckery doesn’t seem to respect you. Openly browsing porn sites while also neglecting you sexually, ogling women in front of you, keeping sexual contact to just masturbation with no interest in reciprocating… none of that is good. None of that is a sign that they have concern for your feelings, nevermind your desires. That sort of behavior is the sort of thing that curdles even the strongest of relationships.
If I’m perfectly honest… well, I don’t know if there’s much to be salvaged here. I think that if you want to make a Hail Mary pass at trying to fix things, then you need to sit him down and have a very Awkward Conversation with him about all of this. You need to lay out everything: the way you’ve been feeling neglected, the way his behavior makes you feel, the fact that sex has been not just routine but almost robotic. Be incredibly clear about all of this, so that there’s no room for misunderstanding. After you’re done, let him share his side of things.
Following that, I’d suggest finding a sex-positive marriage counselor to try to hash things out.
But to be frank: I don’t know if that’s going to help things. It sounds like he’s already checked out; he may not be interested in divorcing, but he sure doesn’t seem to be interested in participating in a significant part of the relationship. If that’s the case… well, the kindest thing you can do for yourself is to love yourself enough to know that you deserve better than this. You deserve someone who actually respects you and cares for your feelings and satisfaction. And if that’s not your husband… well, then he shouldn’t be your husband any longer.