Readers respond to Dan Savage's recent advice for "Goodguy Really Emotionally Exhausts Nicegirl":
I've never felt the urge to write before, but the letter from GREEN struck a nerve with me. I was in a very similar situation when I was at the end of high school—slightly older guy, very sweet most of the time, but when he decided that something (me talking on the phone with a platonic male friend, me dancing with a male friend at a dance) set him off, it would quickly escalate into draining and upsetting arguments. Eventually, I realized I was 17—and I was wasting my time with an asshole that I could NEVER imagine spending my life with, let alone another damn week.
Your advice was on the mark: GREEN needs to get out, and get out now. Hell, my boyfriend was a jerk, but I don't think he would have been angry at me if I had been assaulted by a stranger in a nightclub. If GREEN were the victim of a more serious attack, would that have been her fault, too? Maybe he can get a handle on his feelings—but is it worth it?
Older And Wiser
In the years I've been reading [your column], I can count on one hand the number of times I have disagreed with your advice. This time, however, your advice to GREEN was so obviously fucked-up that I had to write to ask you if you could possibly remove your head from your ass. As you may or may not recall, GREEN was the girl with the "emotionally abusive" boyfriend, let's call him "Rumsfeld."
There were some glaring red flags in her story that you were too blinded by your own emotions to see. Did something strike a nerve in you with her story? Were you once 19, getting your ass grabbed, and getting glared at by your abusive asshole boyfriend?
First of all, one thing she left out is why she is hanging out with someone she once had a one-nighter with. Why is that friendship more important than her relationship with Rumsfeld? Guy friends that she's had since 13 are all well and good, but she obviously likes the attention all her guy friends give her. Also, if someone grabbed her ass in a club and she didn't slap him right away, then she probably tried to smile or laugh it off at first, making Rumsfeld believe she was flirting, yet again, with some guy. Yes, Rummy needs to grow up, but she is probably not as innocent as she portrays herself to be. If I were Rumsfeld in that club, I don't think I would be confused by "Get your hand off my ass, that's my boyfriend over there." It sounds like she meant, "Um, stop, my boyfriend is over there, so…" This is the oldest problem in the book. Young girl likes attention and likes to make boyfriend jealous so he will get all gooey when she turns on the waterworks at the first sign of his displeasure with her flirting.
Who is emotionally abusing whom, Dan? My advice to Rumsfeld: Dump the flirting, immature, won't-dance-with-her-boyfriend-at-a-club, emo-crying psycho. And stop starting wars in the Middle East that nobody knows how to win.
I so agree with the "dump him now" for GREEN. Yaaaawn, you say, so many people agree with me…
A useful observation to share is that you are only responsible for what YOU do. You are not responsible for the behavior of others… you are not responsible for guys hitting on you uninvited and unencouraged, you are not responsible for shop clerks being friendly, you are not responsible for guys looking at you, you are not at fault for being polite and civil to the waiter at a restaurant. You are only responsible for what you DO, not what some insecurity junkie wants to believe you did.
I spent eight months with a girl who was completely hung up with insecurity and jealousy. She understood she had a problem, refused to get counseling, knew she had to get her shit together as it was destroying the relationship and making her unhappy, but as soon as something triggered the jealousy, BAM!, back to screaming matches and accusations of the vilest sort.
You know what? You can't fix people like that. They either find themselves a doormat that they can make feel like crap, or they hook up with someone that doesn't get out in time, and is turned into a doormat that feels like crap.
Your advice and reasoning in response to GREEN was right-on. I am an attractive, outgoing guy with tons of attractive, outgoing friends, male and female, who was once trapped in a relationship with an attractive, outgoing, insecure, controlling, jealous woman for five years. It took me two years just to realize that she was abusing me. She knew that what she was doing was wrong—every time I confronted her about it, she'd apologize profusely—but her behavior never changed until I finally overcame my misplaced guilt and dumped her.
And it worked! She has since left those old behaviors behind in a new relationship with someone else. I've learned never to tolerate that kind of treatment, and have found a great relationship with a woman who respects my friends and respects me. It was a painful learning experience, but well worth it all around.
Loved And Learned
Your advice to GREEN will no doubt be deemed "overzealous" by many, especially your correlation between emotional and physical abuse. But I can assure your readers that your advice will save both protagonists a lot of heartache. In my first LTR, I was that crazy jealous guy. Totally overreacting to everything, I eventually drove the gal into the arms of another. ("As long as I'm getting all this grief for looking around, I may as well…") Only after a couple more LTRs did I realize what a muppet I had been. I put it down to youth, and I am now five years happily married to a different gal who probably secretly wishes I were a bit more jealous, but probably (even more secretly) is glad that I'm not. I thank Jebus for that first LTR who knocked some sense into me. Don't worry, GREEN, most of us grow out of it, but you're better off trading up than waiting and seeing.
Glad I Grew Out Of It
I'm a regular reader, and for the first time, I'm like the receiving end of a DTMFA.
I see where the miscommunication about the club scene went terribly wrong, but perhaps the way GREEN was phrasing those first two didn't make it seem as jealousy-causing as they might have been. When she says "hanging out," does she mean getting drunk and sleeping over in their beds (no sexual contact)? If she has no attraction to her old guy friends, or the guy she once had a one-night stand with, then this sort of thing is totally acceptable, right? But still might make a reasonable boyfriend jealous? How well does he know her guy friends? Does the guy spend a lot of time alone with old gal/girlfriends? If not, she might not understand his jealousy.
I've been the jealous guy in a similar relationship (as is probably clear by now). We discussed it openly, fought about it quite a few times (yelling on both our parts was the closest we got to physical violence), and we learned to deal. Getting to know her friends is step number one. That's not a quick process; guys often develop friendships very slowly. Learning to balance the relationship by feeling free to have beers with my girl friends (not girlfriends) is step two.
If the tables were turned and she had been tired of feeling like she was being run around on (or just tired of being jealous), and freaked out at a club, would you tell him to DTMFA?
We Humans Innocent To Emote
In response to your advice to GREEN, whose boyfriend is a controlling jack-off: Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for telling her so! I was with an emotionally abusive man who pulled similar shit on me. Although he never hit me (we went out for a year and a half before I finally ended it), he did unimaginable damage to my confidence and my friendships through his jealousy. I was not allowed (not an exaggeration) to spend time with my male friends that I had known for years, was reprimanded about any comment from any guy on my MySpace page that he interpreted as being too friendly, and he degenerated into a squalling, tearful mess when he found out that on a trip out of town, I was sharing a queen-sized bed with my GAY male friend—he demanded I return home THAT NIGHT if I "really cared about [him]." He would then turn around and stand me up for dates, leaving me home alone and unable to do anything without enraging him.
GREEN needs to know that there is nothing she can do to reassure this guy, and that it is only going to get worse. Her friendships will suffer, her emotional health will suffer, and if it gets very bad, she could be in extreme physical danger. Thank you for printing her letter and your entirely correct reply. I love your column!!
Been There, Dated That, Got Out
Pretty solid response to GREEN, but two things seemed overlooked: 1) There is a possibility her "outgoing" quality could also be characterized as "flirty" by those around her, and 2) the presumption that being moody is a precursor to physical abuse is false.
GREEN is, by her own admission, attractive, outgoing, and ambitious. What are the odds that her extroverted personality extends to being genuinely flirty? GREEN's guy is insecure and his behavior is a sure-fire way to lose a hot property like GREEN. Agreed. But that's a long way from saying he's prone to physical abuse. A LONG way. And while he is certainly doling out a form of emotional abuse with his pissy-fits, he may also be the recipient of emotional abuse by being cuckolded—or perceived as such—by his girlfriend.
Let me be clear: I would never suggest that a girlfriend should be permanently attached to her boyfriend's hip when they're out, but how much latitude does one give the other? Obviously, the answer is different for each couple, and they should agree on what's fair game before they go out. That's why I believe that a discussion should be their first step.
P.S. In the spirit of full disclosure: I've been in GREEN's guy's shoes, and I'm just trying to offer the other side of this story. Which I suspect you detected five words into my note.
I'm sure I won't be the only one to congratulate you on your advice to GREEN, but nevertheless, I wanted to write to give you my personal thanks for this advice.
My sister was involved in an abusive relationship that started exactly like the one described in the letter—even the events described are remarkably similar. I know because I was there, and observed many of these events. It didn't matter what men she was talking to—single men, gay male friends, childhood friends—he would get mad at her and play games until she was the one apologizing. The asshole behavior progressed until he had complete emotional control over her. She would no longer listen to me or our family when we tried to tell her she was in a dangerous situation. I found out later that he had been telling her she was fucked-up and her family was responsible for making her fucked-up, and that he was the only one who could help her. Physical abuse soon followed. She would come home with black eyes and lie about how they happened, and defend him when we told her to dump him and get away. Classic stuff. I am incredibly proud of her—she finally realized she wasn't the one who was fucked-up, and gathered the courage to dump him and deal with the harassment and police involvement that followed.
Girls who are young and naïve, like we were when this happened, desperately need to learn that they don't deserve abuse and that if a guy acts like an asshole, she should dump the motherfucker already.
Big fan of your column, but your response to GREEN was over the top. This guy isn't "emotionally abusive" or "controlling," he's just a passive-aggressive, insecure, beta-male crybaby who doesn't know how to handle or cope with jealousy. If this guy truly was "controlling," he would be telling GREEN that she can't EVER talk to or see another guy, or be verbally threatening her. Yet this guy can't even muster up the courage to talk to her about it. That's not abusive behavior, it's just being an insecure baby.
You are right for saying that she should break up with him, but you went a BIT too far by throwing in all that physical-abuse scare-tactic baloney. If this guy can't even talk to his girlfriend about what happened, I highly doubt that he would have the courage to raise a fist or foot at her.
Curb Your Alarmism
GREEN's story sounded all too familiar. I was in a four-year relationship with a guy, and about a year or so in, he started insisting that I was sleeping with my guy friends, and then pretending that he was joking when I confronted him about it. It progressed until he started getting angry and pouty whenever I hung out with my friends without him. Some nights he would go out to do some activity, then come back early and get pissed-off if I wasn't there waiting for him. Eventually I dumped him, and I've never regretted it. I call not marrying him "the biggest mistake I never made." GREEN, DTMFA. You deserve better.
Not sure how many others pointed this out, but if my girlfriend's ass was grabbed, and she got upset, and then referenced me as her boyfriend, that's my cue to back her up. That guy was an asshole for not defending his girlfriend when she was sexually harassed. Maybe there doesn't need to be a dance-floor-clearing brawl, but the offending asshole needed to be dealt with. And there have been DFCBs for a lot sillier reasons.
I think your recent advice to GREEN was somewhat useful, but a bit off-base.
You said so yourself: Perhaps you were being a bit too dark. Isn't sharing her feelings and the possible consequences a much better way to handle things? Do you just throw up your hands and quit when confronted with a problem?
Also, you didn't even mention her number-two issue: "me hanging out with a guy I once had a one-night stand with, whom we both know." She doesn't give much detail, but you didn't mention it at all. Were they a couple when she had the one-night stand? If so, isn't that grounds for at least some wariness and jealousy on the part of her new boyfriend? Ever been cheated on, Dan?
Expected Better From You
I was once in a similar situation, except that I was the "controlling" boyfriend. I don't consider myself controlling or abusive, and in fact I urged my (now ex-) girlfriend to go out and talk to people and make her own friends, male or female, instead of bugging me all the time. But I'd find myself automatically on the defensive whenever she interacted with most guys. Of course, I had my reasons. She was gorgeous and outgoing and flirty and interesting, everything that any sane guy would want in a woman. Who wouldn't hit on her? I'll admit to being the sulky silent guy when she'd get hit on at parties. As it turns out, I was right to be suspicious—mere weeks short of our one-year anniversary, over Christmas break, she began a tentative relationship with the drummer from some shitty band. Long story short, I had to find out for myself and dropped her ass.
Now, I know you're going to say that my controlling behavior drove her into the arms of another man, but I don't think that was really the case. I had gotten the "I need to be on notice" vibe from her since I began dating her. Was I right to be aware, or was I the fool for being too protective? Maybe this is a tangent, but it's something that I've been trying to sort out for months. So I guess this isn't a response at all, but a question from a guy who you would apparently urge a girl to dump: Is it wrong, across the board, to be watchful of a partner's interactions with others, and to act resentfully when those interactions cross some arbitrary line?
Perhaps the outcome of my particular situation validates my own thoughts on the subject, but I just feel like it's not necessarily abusive or controlling to get kind of upset when your partner transgresses. Now, I understand that GREEN's partner was definitely over the line. I never manipulated my ex, and was generally pretty communicative about my feelings when we were in those situations.
Thank you so much for your advice to GREEN. I was a 24-year-old attractive, outgoing, and intelligent girl with a 30-year-old boyfriend who seemed to be a lot of things I thought I'd always wanted. It started with a little jealousy about the guys I would talk to, and then it became regular. If he was in the mood to make me feel like shit, he would get sulky and jealous, and I'd feel terrible for just talking to another guy. As it went on, it got worse, and finally he started calling me all the usual horrible names. I was his emotional punching bag, and every success I had while we were together, he would ruin and turn it around to make me feel like a failure.
After a year and a half of this I finally had enough, and to the relief of my friends and family, I got rid of him. At the end, my self-worth and self-esteem were in the toilet, and it was only due to a long list of successes in my career, the end being a dream job in Europe, that I was able to see myself as the worthwhile and capable person I am. My only regret was that I didn't leave him sooner.
So, thank you for what you said to GREEN. They DON'T change, they DON'T get better, and they WILL ruin everything that is good in your life.
Recovering In Europe
I wholeheartedly agree with your advice to GREEN, whose boyfriend overreacted whenever she spoke to other men. She should indeed run the other direction as quickly as possible.
I'm a straight gal who married a man very much like GREEN's boyfriend. In the early stages of our 14-year relationship, he sulked for an entire weekend because his male cousin threw snowballs at me during a ski trip. In the months shortly before our divorce, he got angry because while he and I had a conversation with another man, I looked more at the other man than I did at him. And in between, he was having raging sulks if I talked on the phone with a girlfriend for more than a few minutes, went to bed more than five minutes before or after him, didn't initiate sex right after arriving in bed, talked to anyone while we were at parties, or didn't check in with him while I was out with friends (to name just a few specifics). He was emotionally withholding, cold, never complimented me or touched me affectionately, and rarely helped care for our child. He wouldn't even kiss me during sex.
By the time we broke up, we had a complex, unspoken system of rules that all boiled down to me needing to do what he said, or I'd face several days of the silent treatment from him. I was so isolated and cowed that the silent treatment was terrifying. Our sex life was really creepy and abusive—I didn't have any choice about having sex, the sex was often painful and never loving, and he dismissed any feedback from me as not being in sync with what other lovers had told him ("No one else complained about that hurting—you're just so sensitive"). For the last few years we were together, sex generally consisted of him just fucking me while he called me names.
I was exhausted and numb. I thought there was something deeply wrong with me. Everyone else thought we had a great marriage. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone that his pet name for me was "cuntola" and that he would storm out of the room if I came to bed after him. I was only 16 when I first started seeing him, so I also thought maybe this was all normal. And he was 12 years older than me, so I tended not to question him—surely he was right, as he was more experienced than me. Really, he was just a hugely insecure and not very intelligent asshole who had found the perfect victim.
When I left him, he assaulted me, of course. I was only 30 years old, the mother of a small child, and completely messed up. Interacting with men was stressful (was I doing the wrong thing? would I get in trouble?), I was having flashbacks, and I was nearly friendless. Ten years and lots of counseling later, I'm in a loving marriage with a man who is fun and kinky and tender in bed, who tells me he loves me and that I'm beautiful every day, who encourages me to have friends, and who never tries to shame or force me into having sex or otherwise behaving the way he wants me to. Consequently, we have a healthy, explorative, fun, and bountiful sex life—and married life. I don't think the scars of my first marriage will ever be completely gone (my last flashback was only about two years ago), but I'm grateful I got out of there in one piece. I'm not numb anymore; I can experience deep joy, and often do.
Sorry Dan, this was long, but I've always hoped I could help someone else avoid the mess I got into. I hope if you choose to use any of this letter, that someone recognizes their own situation and (very carefully) gets out of it.
Glad I Got Out