On being friends with someone who turns out to be an asshole

Sometimes, someone you’re fond of turns out to be an asshole. Holding them accountable is part of being a friend. It helps them be better. I have a colleague/student/friend who has been awful to other people. Not to me, and that isn’t a defense. Ever.

Their behavior is inexcusable.

Defending my asshole friend’s behavior would make me complicit in it, because then I would be condoning the problematic behavior. The question then becomes… do I remain their friend?

Let me use a more extreme example. I’m penpals with a convicted murderer who found me during the Month of Letters. Most of his friends dropped him and that leaves him isolated in prison except for his mom. He has to reach out to complete strangers to have human interaction. There’s a reason that solitary confinement is reserved as a severe punishment. Do I write back to him? Absolutely. Would I invite him to hang out with my friends? All the nope.

So… am I going to remain friends with this person? Probably, although in a very modified form because I recognize that my asshole friend is potentially dangerous and harmful. It’s on me not to put other friends or colleagues in harm’s way.

But I also believe that even assholes are allowed to have friends.

There have been other bad actors in SF that I go out of my way to avoid, but I don’t expect their friends to drop them. That does nothing to make the world a better place.

This doesn’t mean that I’ll fight my asshole friend’s battles for them, but I’ll help them parse what’s gone wrong.  Or maybe I’ll just model better behavior and hope they learn by example. It involves the person wanting to change. I would like that the case, even while knowing that the person in my head is not the person that other people met. It’s deeply disappointing.

I’m not convinced that dropping them will improve anything. Nor would excusing them. If they want to retain my friendship, they’ll have to accept my anger and disappointment. They’ll have to accept that I don’t include them in things.

And I’ll have to accept that I’m not a good judge of their character. It’s not a comfortable place to be. I think that’s why so many people come out to defend their own asshole friends, because no one ever likes being wrong. No one likes feeling as if they stay friends with the asshole that people will think less of them. (That, by the way, is the grossest of reasons to drop someone.)

It’s possible, I think, to both maintain the friendship while also not contributing to the asshole’s damage.

So, yeah… someone I’m fond of is an asshole. Holding them accountable is part of being their friend. And goddammit, I want them to be a better person. I don’t want to be friends with an asshole.

But I am.

(Note: We are NOT going to talk about the specific person because this isn’t about them. It’s about the moral conundrum of remaining friends with a problematic person.)

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22 Responses

  1. Marion

    Thank you for this authentic and thoughtful post. You capture the difficulty of maintaining friendship while honestly acknowledging bad behavior.

  2. Sharon Browning

    I just read an article from the Washington Post about Derek Black, the son of a white “nationalist” and formerly thought to be the young’un who would be “the heir” to his father’s movement. But when he went off to college, even though he tried to stay under the radar, other students found out that Derek had a weekly radio show about white supremacy and was considered an upcoming leader in that camp. They all turned against him – except one classmate, a Jew, who instead invited him over for Shabbat dinner. Slowly, Derek got to know other people who were not like him, and eventually he publicly renounced his upbringing. If everyone had ostracized him, he probably would never have had the opportunity to change.

    Not the same as what you are going through, no. But remaining this asshole’s friend gives you the chance to be a positive example for him. We all should strive for this, even though it’s really, really hard. Thanks for being bigger than the problem, Mary.

    1. Frank

      Sharon, that’s an utterly fascinating article. It also reminds me of a similar story about Megan Phelps-Roper, who was once a daughter of the Westboro Baptist Church. Based on the New Yorker article about her, she left the church partially on the basis of interactions with people (and one specific person) on Twitter and Words with Friends, of all places.

      Link to New Yorker article on Megan Phelps-Roper: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/23/conversion-via-twitter-westboro-baptist-church-megan-phelps-roper

  3. Mathieu René

    Good article.
    Here’s a similar situation, turned bad. To the almost max.
    My best friend was a manipulative, emotional bully asshole. But an extremely CHARISMATIC asshole, so no one suspected he was bad, even when faced with claims from his victims. He can’t be bad, EVERYBODY loves him! And he thinks he can do no wrong, because “Everybody agrees with me, everybody loves me, I’ve got a STRONG destiny.” People are attracted to confidence and the allure of success, and he exuded volumes of the superficial kind that fools most people.
    I was under his spell like most people for a while, but when I noticed how badly I was being treated, and how he did it to others (especially women, as he is a ladiesman), I kept finding excuses for him.

    But then I tried to help. I would tell him how it made me and others feel when he did those things. Sexist jokes, fat jokes, putting people down in social situations. I would explain, but he always brushed it off, usually with what he felt was an insult to my masculinity.

    I tried for 6 years, because I felt he was like a brother to me. I had learned a lot from him, including a bit of confidence, and some useful art techniques. Losing that friend was unthinkable! But humiliate someone often enough and for long enough, they MIGHT wise up about it. It took some physical violence to wake me up to how bad he could get, and then a one-two punch of professional AND personal betrayal (seasoned with blackmail, on my biggest job ever) for me to cut all ties with the guy.

    I lost money and a repeat customer in the ordeal. It took me years to get over the anger and the sadness, but what a liberation now!

    I’m still concerned about how much damage that guy can do to people. So I warn people about him whenever the occasion presents itself, despite the possible backlash. Popular people have groupies and friends in high places, and he’s no exception. If he ever starts a cult, or gets involved in politics, he has the potential to cause much evil. Once, he told me casually that he thought it would be perfectly moral to make your company’s startup money by selling hard drugs (even it meant destroying many lives) as long as he turned his company into something that would bring beauty to the world.

    So yes, I agree they need to WANT to change if it’s ever going to happen. But that guy definitely would not even admit to having a problem. So for many people’s sake, I hope he meets someone MORE charismatic than he, that will pull his strings, but do it for the side of good. Maybe I’m hoping for too much. Maybe he will just dig his own hole of loneliness and despair when he realizes he pushed everyone away, and that his mojo’s gone. I hope the latter option does not happen. Because part of me still insists that the guy is not all bad. BEWARE of charismatic assholes!

  4. Jessica Steiner

    I’ve spent so much time working with so many abused people and researched this topic so much that it’s difficult for me to contemplate being friends with someone who would do that.

    I have no difficulty with your original premise that just because someone has committed a crime or harmed another individual, that doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to have friends. I completely agree with that. Even a murderer, particularly if they feel remorse and have worked hard to eliminate the pressures in their life that resulted in them committing that crime, then they deserve love and companionship. Criminals can’t rehabilitate without support, and so they need to have loved ones who stand by them and help them to reintegrate with society.

    But an abuser doesn’t feel remorse. He’s not working to rehabilitate himself. He believes that HE is the victim of the person he’s abusing.

    Abusers are often extremely charismatic. Their behaviour can be very subtle, drawing healthy people in with minor transgressions and normalizing small microaggressions until they aren’t really noticed. People who are abused have a very hard time recognizing that they are being abused until they remove themselves from contact with their abuser.

    It’s generally my belief at this point that one of the few ways an abuser can have some kind of epiphany that’ll cause them to recognise their own behaviour and how damaging it is, is if they lose the people they love. All of them. Because those people have to refuse to enable them and refuse to accept them in spite of their abusive behaviour.

    The research I have read states that abuse is a failure of values, not a mental health disorder. Abusers have no respect for other people as individuals that are as important as they are. They truly believe that their victims deserve what they did to them and that they’ve done nothing wrong by hurting them. So if they believe their spouse or children or pets or other friends deserved the abuse, what makes me think that they don’t believe I deserve the same thing?

    And even if they aren’t currently abusing me, why invite that kind of toxicity into my life when there are so many other people in the world who deserve my friendship and love more?

    They can be my friend when they repent of abuse. Fully and completely. And are able to articulate why they were in the wrong without victim blaming or making it all about themselves. Very few abusers are capable of that.

      1. Jessica Steiner

        If you’re staying friends with someone who abuses, that doesn’t reflect badly on you in my opinion, Mary. It makes me worried for your safety (if only your emotional and psychological safety, rather than physical) but you have to make your own decision. The above is just my own personal perspective on it, because I’ve dealt with so many… I don’t personally think it’s worth the risk.

        1. Rachel Swirsky

          This all seems admirable.

          The only thing I want to say is just, we talked in Minneapolis last year, and you suggested I not continue to talk to/interact with someone who was manipulative and abusive toward others. In that case, you turned out to be right.

          I trust you to know what is right for you. I just wanted to recall you to that conversation, a touch, in case it reflects on how you feel about this, which it may not. Every case is inflected by particulars, and those are off this table.

          So, in a more general way, I guess, I think it’s admirable to hang in there with assholes. But also kind of risky and doesn’t always do much, or can backfire.

          Take care of yourself. Hugs.

  5. Elise Matthesen

    I’m not all that coherent on this general subject myself, having had my own brushes with it, but what you wrote gives me more bits to think about, so thank you.

    Your formulation, “But I also believe that even assholes are allowed to have friends,” is pretty close to what I came up with a while ago, when dealing with some fallout. It helped me not write some friends-of-assholes off; I think that was probably good.

    When someone came to me and said they had been giving the benefit of the doubt to someone “because you liked them, and I figured they must be OK if you liked them,” and then found out that person’s actions were not from the land of All OK-ness, I had a whole mess of feelings about that later. Still haven’t sorted those feelings into neat piles, either.

    Complicated and painful stuff, this, sometimes.

  6. Dave Goldman

    So you do realize, Mary, that right now a large number of people you know are asking themselves if they are assholes?

    (Though most likely the ones who would think to ask that are not the person you have in mind…)

  7. PeterG

    I can’t do that. I am either standoffish or loyal. The emotional complexity to be friendly with anyone who has hurt someone I like is beyond me. Politeness is the best I can do for them.

    I think what you are doing is good but beyond me.

  8. Donna Hutt Stapfer Bell

    I have been saved by monsters. Repeatedly. My very life – has been kept in trust, and preserved by assholes.

    I am also nearly always angry about their behavior, they know it and we repeatedly have to come to terms with it, should our mutual association continue. It’s a thing.

    This rang so true. Very true, particularly through this election cycle.

  9. Heidi Kneale (Her Grace)

    I’ve been friends with assholes. My experience with them demonstrated there are varying levels of assholery. I’ve also learned that, for me, I cannot and should not be friends with complete assholes.

    A healthy friendship should involve some kind of mutual nourishment. They should get something out of being friends with you and you should get something out of being friends with them. If one of you doesn’t get anything healthy out of it, then it’s not really a friendship, is it?

    Speaking generally to everyone, and not specifically about your relationship (as it sounds like you’re already answered this question for yourself): do you get something good out of a friendship with an asshole? If so, then be friends with that asshole.

    If not, why are you friends with an asshole?

    I’ve recently asked myself if I’m being nourishing to my friends. Am I someone worth being friends with? Do I give something back to them? I’d hate to discover that I was being an asshole to them.

  10. Felicity

    Thanks for this: it’s thoughtful and humane.

    I’ve had friendships where sticking it out and pointing out the (in that case, rampant sexism) problems worked fine for both of us.

    I’ve also gotten stuck in the position of asshole-whisperer, explaining for the Nth time why that behavior wasn’t cool and getting heaped with manipulative praise for helping him instead of just writing him off. Until when I did finally write him off it was with so much emphasis I tore through the paper, and still get grumpy and jumpy about it. So I know it’s a tricky line.

    People need to be aware of their own load tolerances and their own touchy histories when they make the decision, and know that they can always rethink it. Just because they said they were getting enough out of the friendship and had enough patience a year ago doesn’t mean they’re locked in now. Patience runs out.

    Your asshole friend is really lucky to have someone like you who decided she could handle still calling them ‘friend’ as well as the other thing.

  11. Ronnie Darling

    I find that when my asshole friends (and yes, I have a few) start acting and talking the part of themselves I dislike, I find myself saying WHOA…Whoa there…hang on. Because maybe they are only jerks when they are drinking, or maybe when they are in a hurry, or maybe only when they are in a car and they are driving. I’ve not had any total 100 percent jerks for friends since I was in my early twenties and hung out in dance bars. I feel like I can deal with entitled jerks a lot better now that I’m fifty something, but I can’t deal with them on a friends level. People who jerk-out, (much like a werewolf wolf-outs when he’s changing from man to wolf) are people I can be friends with, as long as I can counter their asshole statements and actions so that they understand I don’t condone that behaviour. If that makes sense.

  12. Mishell Baker

    I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately myself. So many people in my life refused to give up on me, even when I was a selfish, shortsighted person who used people and threw them away. On my worst days, I still treat certain people as tools to help me get through the day, rather than complex individuals with their own needs. Being a good friend did not come naturally to me, and I had to learn it deliberately when I finally ran out of friends. It did not come from any inherent, inborn selflessness or care for other people; I am a spoiled brat who was raised to think the world revolved around me.

    I think I’m a better person now. But I know that if there hadn’t been a couple of people who stood by me through my Asshole Years and kept telling me when I was being an asshole (but not going away), I probably would have just decided that I was Misunderstood and all people were terrible, and gone further down the spiral into being a misanthropic old harridan who lives alone and curses at passerby.

    Having a couple of sane yet infinitely compassionate people who acted as constants in my life, who told me, “That is not acceptable, but let’s talk when you’re not being an asshole,” is at least in my case what allowed me to make the transition to a reasonably-functional social entity with an assortment of friendships.

    One thing, though, that bears mentioning–there was never a time when I didn’t want to be good. I think maybe that’s the difference. I think what made it worth it for those people who stuck by me was that they could see potential, an undefinable “spark” of something that was just underdeveloped because of my mental health struggles and my lopsided, sheltered upbringing.

    Maybe that’s the key. You have to ask yourself, do I really believe this person wants to BE good? Does this person even believe in “good” as a real, existing concept (either spiritual or secular-philosophical)? Or does this person just want to APPEAR good so he can continue getting all the things he wants? Does this person really believe that everything is meaningless, and that morality is an artificial construct that only exists to preserve order (so it’s okay to dispense with it so long as you get away with it and don’t disrupt the flow of things)? Does this person get irritable and impatient when you try to talk about Bigger Picture? Some people are simply incapable of seeing beyond Self, and when those people misbehave, they may not be worth investing in.

    This is all just half-digested brainstuff I’ve been working on, so I don’t know if it makes sense. But it feels good to talk about it a little.

  13. A.V. Flox

    I have a friend who engages in extremely abusive behaviors.

    I use the present tense “have” because I have offered him my friendship and support when he is willing to do accountability for his harm and begin working on ways to change his patterns of behavior. For the time being, however, our friendship is effectively in cryo, as he has consistently engaged in gaslighting, misdirection, reality-twisting, attempts to control the narrative and blame the survivors of his abuse. An early accountability process for him was aborted as a result of these tactics.

    I haven’t given up on that process. I believe in him, but I also know that he has to be ready to acknowledge his harms and willing to change his patterns for the process to actually work.

    Supporting a person who harms has to be one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. I know from experience that supporting survivors is brutal (I’m currently involved in another intervention as support for survivors), but I had no idea what I was getting into in this other situation when I stepped up to support a friend who harmed.

    A lot of people don’t believe that it’s possible to be friends with someone who harmed — and I understand this. Sometimes people do things that we find so egregious that we simply cannot be there for them with the compassion required to help them change. But I believe as you do that it is possible to both support a person who has harmed and believe a survivor.

    I refuse a model of interpersonal violence intervention where two teams form and then fight it out until someone gets expelled from the island. Expulsion from the community should be seen as an absolute last resort in the event that a person refuses to accept responsibility, but it should be understood that doing this frees an individual with a known pattern of harm to go off and continue harming somewhere else (which they often do). Wherever possible, an attempt should be made to get that person to recognize harm and work to change their behavior. And this is where friends of an abuser can really shine to the benefit of the community.

    In transformative justice, we talk a lot about “pods” — a group of people actively involved in a situation of interpersonal violence. A survivor should have a pod, and an abuser should have a pod — and the people in supportive roles in those pods should have their own pod to help them work through the harder parts of support and accountability. It really takes a community to end harm.

    Just as having a pod makes it easier for a survivor to begin the process of articulating their experience of abuse and outlining the steps needed to begin healing (and even repair, should they wish to outline these for the person who harmed them), the abuser’s pod works to continuously call in the abuser about a reemergence of abusive patterns, such as attempting to control the narrative, blaming a survivor, delaying or controlling an accountability process, violating a survivor’s boundaries, or engaging in other coercive behaviors.

    The pods work together so the survivor doesn’t have to shoulder the work of ending violence, and so that the abuser actually knows what steps are needed for them to begin the work of addressing their harmful behavior. Very often, we see people get called out with no steps outlined for them to begin repairing the harm they’ve caused, guidelines for them to reduce the power they hold in the community as they work through rehabilitation, and mileposts for the rehabilitation to be measured by the survivor and the community at large, etc. Abusers aren’t going to change on their own just because they are called out for being abusive. Even people who don’t engage in coercive behaviors have a hard time spelling out what abuse looks like. This isn’t obvious.

    So friends who are willing to step up to help begin the work with an abuser is of critical importance.

    Supporting someone who abused does not mean enabling abuse, though this is a common pitfall. I’ve been there, too. It is alarming how easy it is to choose our own comfort and convenience over doing the hard work of stopping violence from continuing. That’s why one of the most important things one can do if they take on this role is get a pod of their own, of people who are willing to call us in when we start to veer in a direction that isn’t helpful.

    There is so much shame around violence intervention because it essentially shines a light in all the ways that everyone has failed — including ourselves. We will start to think of all the times we gave an abuser a pass, all the times a survivor tried to tell us something was wrong and we minimized it or ignored it, all the ways we inadvertently colluded along the way. All I can tell you is that you are not alone. Interpersonal violence would not be a thing if we lived in a society that taught us how to respond to instances of it. We don’t know. We are learning together. This stuff is hard, and many of us only begin doing this work when a situation comes into the open and we find ourselves in the middle of it.

    Be kind with yourself. Be gentle with yourself. And remember that you don’t have to do this alone. If you don’t have anyone with whom you can talk about this stuff, reach out to me. I’ve included my direct email address in this comment. You can also find me on social media as @avflox on Twitter, and /anaiis on Facebook (these two also have more information about who the heck I am. Full disclosure: I am not a part of your community and only very recently became aware of the situation you describe here through friends who are in SFF).

    I included in the link section of this comment a guide that I put together about addressing violence in our communities that relies on the Creative Interventions framework. It mostly focuses on supporting the survivor, but it has good points about supporting an abuser. I hope to create one that focuses explicitly for supporting an abuser soon (it will go on the same blog. That blog was created by survivors I mentioned supporting above, as part of an intervention in the science communication community, of which I am a part).

    Wishing you all the best in this.