Advice

On being a safe friend

My best friend has started doing porn with her ex-boyfriend. I take no issues with this part. She claims though that she’s only taking “trashy photos” for her OnlyFans, and categorically denies having any sexual relationship with her ex, although he’s still in her life for the sake of her kid. I only know because a mutual acquaintance came across it and it’s not exactly hidden from the public domain, albeit with the use of pseudonyms. I don’t know what I’m here for, I guess I’m just mad at being lied to.

You’re not mad about the lie. You’re hurt that your friendship isn’t as close or as strong as you thought it was, and you feel threatened by the potential implications of her deception. The emotion you’re really experiencing is jealousy in the face of a perceived betrayal. That’s okay. It means you care very deeply for your friend, but it also means that you need to do some damage control.

I’m speculating a bit, but it sounds like you’ve been through it with your best friend and this ex of hers. You probably have some strong opinions about him, and it’s pretty clear she no longer feels safe talking openly with you about her ongoing relationship with him. The quickest way to repair and then level-up your friendship is to directly address this dynamic and make amends for it. You are the one who will need to apologize here. 

If you don’t know how to apologize, here is a script you can make your own that captures the important points: “I want to talk with you about the OnlyFans content you’re making with your ex. You denied having any sexual relationship with him, so when I was shown the videos you’ve been making, it made me realize that you didn’t feel safe telling me the truth. I want to be the kind of friend that you feel safe telling the truth, and I sincerely apologize if you have ever felt judged by me with regard to the father of your child.”

The apology is only the first step. It’s not enough to want to be safe. You will actually have to be safe, which means you’ll have to start changing your behavior (not your opinions) about this ex of hers. As the father of her child, he’s always going to be a part of her life. You’re going to have to come to terms with that, and this seems like a good place to start.

The bottom line is that if you love and support your friends, then you actually have to love and support them, even when they’re making less-than-ideal life decisions. 

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14 thoughts on “On being a safe friend

  1. NP says:

    I have failed many times at this in my life, and could never name it or describe the dynamic happening. Coke, you can teach an old dog new tricks! Thanks for this solid advice. It will make me a better friend, which is what I aspire to.

  2. Jake says:

    As someone going through a similar situation minus the side hustle & kid, plus an affair/addiction, I want to thank you.

    You took a question many would have torn to shreds and brought dignity to all sides.

    Now comes the part where I flip this on my own life.

    God, why’d I quit weed?

    Bless you both, queens. And the ma/her man/their kid.

    • blah says:

      Yeah, I have the same question. Like, one of my friends had a tendency to fuck married/taken men and it’s just like ugh dude just go take care of yourself and make healthier decisions. I don’t want to be around it, but to throw the friendship away?

    • chupaacabra says:

      you being a safe friend doesn’t enable bad decisions, you as the friend have nothing to do with those decisions. You can’t enable them. As coke said, “The bottom line is that if you love and support your friends, then you actually have to love and support them, even when they’re making less-than-ideal life decisions. ” That means accepting that you can’t make others’ decisions for them, you are there to listen and provide aid in the way that they ask it of you.

      And if they’re a whirlwind of drama that constantly loads you up with their shitty life choices, then that’s a one-sided friendship on their part, and has nothing to do with you voicing or not voicing your opinion

      • Stephanie says:

        So when they are actively screwing up their lives and doing it over and over, as a friend we’re not supposed to say anything about it? I feel like being a good friend means pointing out when they are being self-destructive or that a different approach to something might be better.

        • chupaacabra says:

          idk, if someone is making themselves miserable I feel like its better to ask them why they’re doing that then tellling them they’re doing that

  3. Tangerine says:

    Meh.
    Coquette hits a ton of questions out of the park, but this is not one of them.

    There’s nothing in this message that suggests the OP owes an apology–there’s no self-righteousness or judgment in this question, only concern and frustration and sadness.

    I have a dear friend like this. She makes the same mistakes over and over, then gets out of the relationship and has a “come to Jesus” moment where she tells me all the stuff she didn’t tell me because I would “judge”, and admits that she didn’t tell me at the time because she was embarrassed that she was trying so hard to please a keep a guy who was inattentive/boorish/disrespectful/just not that into her.

    I am gentle. I do not lecture. I do not feel smug or self-righteous or superior. I feel ~worried~. I ask questions that highlight the gap between what she’s said she wants and what she’s actually getting. I build her up and tell her she has the right to expect better treatment.

    But while she’s in the relationship her pride is on the line. She wants to tell cute stories and have me admire them. She also wants me to totally emotionally engage with upsetting things the dude does–but only as isolated incidents. She doesn’t want me to point out that he seems to have a pattern–or that she does.

    Until she’s out of the relationship and then she Sees It All. Again. She remembers she’s a feminist! She remembers she is feisty! She remembers she is committed to self-respect!

    Until the next time. . .

    People who hide shit don’t always feel judged by you. Or they do, but there’s a strong element of projection because they are embarrassed by what they are doing.
    They may just not want to lose face by admitting that they are sacrificing their stated values and repeating a dysfunctional pattern they have repudiated.

    So no. Don’t apologize to your dumbass friend. You don’t need to be a tiptoeing doormat.

    Instead, find a good time when you won’t be interrupted and tell her in a calm neutral way and tell her that you know about something she’s been keeping from you. That you aren’t angry, but you don’t want to pretend you don’t know. Tell her that the two of you need to figure out how you are going to handle communication about this going forward.

    Then tell her what you know. Be calm if she tries to lie to you. Be steady through any waves of anger or mortification or hurt feelings. If you love her (or feel deep loyalty/affection/whatever), verbally reaffirm that.

    Once everybody is being honest with each other and calm, you have several options. My personal approach would be to tell her that I’m on the record about the boundaries I think she should have and my concerns about her well-being. And that I’m willing to drop that unless/until she wants to brings it up again (as long as it’s not harming her child, who I’d feel a responsibility to advocate for).

    But if she wants me to drop it, she has to drop it too–that is, I’m not here for her to endlessly vent about him without her doing anything to change the situation. I’m not going to be a rewarding recipient for “cute stories”. I’m not going to buy into her joyous proclamations that he’s turned over a new leaf. I’m not going to be part of the infrastructure that she uses to convince herself that something she wants to believe is true when it’s not. If she wants advocacy or practical support in dealing with the problem and figuring out a strategy or a game plan, I’m here, with no ‘I told you so’s. But I’m not here to be an outlet for her frustration that allows her to maintain the status quo. She can’t keep complaining to me instead of him.

    Obviously you want to take the possibility that he’s an abuser into account–that can alter the equation drastically. That’s an element to take seriously, and abusers can be good at covering their tracks. But in a close relationship of long standing you can be pretty comfortable following your gut.

    I disagree with Chupaacabra upthread that a friend cannot be an enabler. Friends who don’t call you on your shit can absolutely slide over into enabling. That’s not a friend, that’s a yes-man.

    And you can support a person without supporting their destructive choices. You are allowed to tell a friend that you are worried about them and disagree with a harmful decision they are making. That’s not disloyalty or lack of support for them as a person. That’s you being authentic and discerning and kind. And if they start lying to you because of that, they are the one who owes the apology, not you. You don’t need to request one if you’d rather let it go, but neither should you take on blame.

    I don’t buy the binary of “agree with or be silent about any decision your friend makes” or “whirlwind of drama that constantly loads you up with their shitty life choices, then that’s a one-sided friendship”. Shitty life choices and drama can be one aspect of an otherwise authentic and rewarding friendship. And everyone needs to be called out on their shit sometimes. The people with the insight, principle and courage to do that for me are the ones I value most and keep the closest.

    Not every friend offers accountability. We all bring different strengths and virtues to our relationships. What you offer may not be what your friend needs right now or is willing to accept. But the answer is a meta-conversation where you negotiate around that and find ways to continue to be authentic. Not assigning blame or shame to yourself and extending an unjustified apology.

    • Tangerine says:

      Coke’s and my differing approaches to life influence our answers, of course. She has a secret life, and I don’t. From what she’s written, Coke is still very close to her mother, who voted for Trump and it sounds like continues to support him. Her family has no idea how she lives her life.

      When my parents voted for Trump, I cut them off. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and I bleed over it. My family knows I go to protests to oppose white nationalists. I don’t hide my values or conceal myself from those close to me.

      I’ve lost friendships by gently but firmly pulling a friend aside to tell them they are doing something harmful or against our shared principles. But I’ve also had several of those friends get back in touch a year and a half or so later. They’ve said that I’m the only friend who was honest with them and they weren’t read to hear it then, but I was right, and the resumed friendship has been deeper and richer as a result.

      With friends like porn-with-ex-babydaddy, it sounds like Coke would go into her ‘secret life’ mode. Some people have that setting, and some people don’t. Some can do it and maintain a personal integrity, and some can’t. There are lots of different ways people are wired to operate, and lots of different ways to be a friend. I like to say that everyone needs a friend like me, but they don’t need *all* their friends to be like me.

      I’m wired to challenge. It’s not easy or relaxing, but it’s the only way I can function authentically and the friendships that weather it are deep and rich and sustaining.

      Other people are wired much more for comfort–for both themselves and for other people. They avoid difficult subjects, they keep their opinions to themselves. They are relaxing.

      And everyone needs a relaxing friend or three. You just don’t need them when you want someone to have your back. A friend who gets angry and is prepared to stand up for you when someone harms you is a pretty wonderful thing when you need it.

      In my experience it’s rare to get both those traits in one friend–fiery advocates are not known for their chill, and nonconfrontational people generally haven’t cultivated the skill to speak up since they haven’t felt compelled to do it.

      Coke may be one of the people who is able to do both, actually, since she toggles back and forth between camouflage and no-holds-barred confrontation.

      In terms of figuring out what is the healthy and sustainable and authentic way to show up as a friend in a situation like this, it’s worth asking yourself if you would want someone you loved to secretly camouflage themselves around you.

      I personally would feel devastated to have a friend secretly start hiding their true opinions from me. But I’m at one end of a spectrum there (and literally on the spectrum, in case that’s not obvious), so your own varying mileage is what matters.

    • chupaacabra says:

      I mean, aren’t all friendships built on navigating hard choices? We all struggle. No one is right 100 percent of the time. My main point is that taking a hard line can make the other person feel invalidated, because you are not in that relationship, in that moment, in that feeling. You’re getting one aspect. And that can give so so much perspective, and also so little. You can see a whole swath of things, but that doesn’t mean you feel the depth.

      I feel like when a friend starts hiding things from you that you would expect to know, its because they’re afraid that you won’t go that deep with them. They are afraid that you can’t meet them at their level. Sometimes that’s justified. Sometimes its not.

      I suppose my main point is that coming at something as “right” or “wrong” is already an ineffective stance with a friend who you love. They’re an autonomous human as are you – of course you want to prevent people from making “bad” choices but you’re discounting the value they otherwise get from “bad” choices. That’s what you should explore and work with- what they’re getting out of a situation, not what they’re losing- because its the battlefield they’ll meet you on.

      “I disagree with Chupaacabra upthread that a friend cannot be an enabler. Friends who don’t call you on your shit can absolutely slide over into enabling. That’s not a friend, that’s a yes-man.”

      What is the purpose of calling someone on their shit? What’s the goal? They stop doing the thing you don’t like or that annoys you (because they talk to you about it a lot,/because it hurts them and that by proxy hurts you)? Those are perfectly valid goals by the way- but when the issue is something that affects you so peripherally, I’d hardly say you’re being effective in trying to force their hand. What do you want, ultimately? If the answer is they stop doing this specific thing, well, that’s usually a more complicated answer than “I tell them to stop doing that thing.” To me, friendship is the stuff of you helping them work through the thing. If the answer is “they stop talking to me about this thing”, then telling them directly that you value judge them as “wrong” and they should stop doing that thing will probably fulfill that. That’s all.

      Feels like Coke’s point through the ages has been help your friends as much as you can, until you can’t take their shit anymore, then draw your line in the sand and accept the fallout. Feels like that’s echo’d here in this piece of advice.

      Tangerine, you commented below with stuff that I greatly respect – but you also seems willing to accept that by doing the thing you do, you will potentially lose your intimacy with some people.

      “But if she wants me to drop it, she has to drop it too–that is, I’m not here for her to endlessly vent about him without her doing anything to change the situation.”

      That’s a very valid boundary to hold. And it definitely holds true to what I said about someone’s constant misery.

      “I don’t buy the binary of “agree with or be silent about any decision your friend makes” or “whirlwind of drama that constantly loads you up with their shitty life choices, then that’s a one-sided friendship” ”

      No one is making that a binary except you – the severity of the situation dictates the severity of the response. I wouldn’t be able to trust a friend who couldn’t go deep with me sometimes on my dark side, who would immediately lay down judgement and not allow for a “wrong answer” – or another’s dark side who I’m relating with. Sometimes that has to happen. I do still appreciate the friends who call me out on my shit, but when someone goes deep with me on the dark side of myself, it builds up our trust. When someone won’t, it deteriorates. Do you want to go deep with someone, or not? That feels like the main question. And its ok to not want to go deep (or go deep again) if they want to fuckin sink you into the depths and keep you there.

      But if you find yourself sad that a friend won’t share their dark or secret side with you when you want them to, to me there’s only a benefit to you for investigating in good faith and rebuilding that bridge.

    • shady says:

      It’s clear from reading this that you have a firm moral compass and genuine love for your friend. Everything you said is correct, but I feel as though you’re missing the crux of the problem.

      OP’s question wasn’t about how to do the right thing. It was about how to save a relationship. The brutal truth is that you can be a supportive friend with the correct insights, but if you’re perceived as judgemental, even if that’s not the intent, you will become increasingly locked out of their life. That’s the tradeoff.

      In the past I’ve favored honesty over intimacy and accepted that if a friend makes shitty choices it is my duty to comment from afar or even to distance myself for fear of validating their decisions. I’ve regretted doing this every time (barring some extreme cases). IMO my presence is worth more than my opinions and insights when it comes to a struggling friend. It sucks to watch someone you love fuck up over and over, but if you want to have a best friend across years, that is what’s required.

  4. A Friend says:

    Dear Safe Friend,

    As a friend on the other side of this in an 18-year long friendship, I will share how I felt and interpreted the situation.
    I was in an abusive marriage and my best friend grew to despise my (now ex-husband) because of all the things I shared with her about the relationship. I realized this was too stressful for her, so I stopped sharing what was going on and discussed her life (the rough, the pleasant, and mundane) as well as my life events, omitting the pain I was going through. I should mention, that a couple of years prior, I supported and listened to her when she was in a 3 year-long abusive relationship. I made it clear that what her boyfriend was doing was cruel and unacceptable, but I remained a present and involved friend. Once things got extremely bad with my ex, I poisoned myself, was found by another friend, and committed for a few days for observation in the hospital. I did not share this with my former best friend. She found out through my brother, who apparently called her when I was in the hospital. About two months after the incident, I explained to her what happened. For many months before and after the hospital, I kept a calm and supportive disposition with her. When I finally told her, she simply said. “Oh yeah. I know. Your brother told me and I just can’t help you anymore.”

    We haven’t spoken since. I have felt since that day that she is the one who owes me an apology. I apologized in the past before that conversation and during, for putting her through any pain. It has been a year and 3 months since we last spoke after 18 years of close friendship. I feel like I was thrown away. It hurts to be there for someone, only for them to so flippantly state that they can’t help anymore. Mind you, I never asked for help. I only asked for an ear, some empathy, and for her to see me not as someone to “fix” but to be patient with and support. We need friends. We need to be able to cry, vent, and express honest pain without feeling like a burden or lost cause. Of course, there is a limit to this, no one should be laying all of their problems constantly on someone else. Therapy is important. I didn’t abuse the friendship, but I did get thrown away. I think often about sending her a message to say hello and express how much I care, but I don’t. It’s not pride that keeps me from this, it’s knowing that she no longer had the desire or the ability to be there for me. And so, that chapter ended.

    If you care deeply about your friend (and she cares deeply about you), don’t let that friendship go. Be supportive, be honest, create boundaries, be present. Be a friend.

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