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