Auntie SparkNotes: Is My Friend's Older Boyfriend Abusing Her?
So my problem is about a close friend of mine, "Astrid." Both of us recently turned 17, and I'm worried about her dating life. She's the kind of person who desperately craves attention, and she frequently dates men significantly older than her. She told me she lost her virginity to a 23-year-old when she was 15, for example, and her current boyfriend "Sam" is 22 as well as a manager at her retail job.
She and Sam actually seem to have a pretty healthy relationship all things considered. And I'm not one of those letter-writers who gets too involved in other people's self-destruction—to be honest, I tend to avoid emotional labor as much as possible. So I haven't said anything to Astrid about her boyfriends; her love life is none of my business, and if she wants to get into unhealthy relationships, then, well, it's her life.
But I read a letter from your column where the LW's friend was abusing his girlfriend, and you told the LW that doing nothing was by far the wrong thing. That letter was different from my own, but it got me thinking. Am I totally I off base here? Am I just sitting back and watching while Astrid is being sexually abused?
I care about Astrid deeply, and I don't want to see her get hurt. And I suspect she already has been; the story about the 23-year-old came up while I was telling her about my own history of sexual abuse, which makes me think she gets that the whole thing was a little dubious. However I also respect her autonomy and right to make her own decisions, Sam seems like a decent guy, and I generally have a good sense of my own boundaries.
Do I need to tell someone? Talk to her? Am I an unwitting accomplice to my friend's abuse?
Nope! And I want to get that out of the way right up front, not just because it's good news, but because it's extremely important. We're having quite a cultural moment of reckoning right now with abuses of power and sexual harassment, and that is a good thing! But it won't continue to be a good thing if, in our enthusiasm, we start lumping in as "abusive" every single relationship that doesn't align with the current moment's ideals vis-a-vis age discrepancies or workplace romances. And unless you, Sparkler, have left out a whole lot of damning and relevant information about how terribly your friend's boyfriend treats her, then there's absolutely no reason why you shouldn't let her live—which really is almost always the right thing to do when it comes to relationships that have nothing to do with us.
Of course, there are exceptions—like the letter you mentioned, in which the LW in question was not just an up-close-and-personal witness to a pattern of abusive behavior, but actively refusing to acknowledge it even when the Abusee solicited her advice, because she thought they made a cute couple (a fact which still makes Auntie SparkNotes want to barf every time I think about it, which is not infrequently). But surely you can see why that situation is not just different from yours, but so different that it defies logical comparison. In fact, the only thing that letter really demonstrates, in relation to your own, is that what makes a relationship abusive isn't a simple question of age or job titles or superficial markers of status and/or power. Even when the two people involved are on perfectly equal footing in all those respects, as they were in that case, one of them can still manipulate and hurt the other.
And conversely, even if one party is a few years older and a manager at the same store where his girlfriend is employed, that doesn't mean he or their relationship can't be perfectly fine. (No, not even if the girlfriend had an eyebrow-raising dalliance with a 23 year-old at age 15. Was that totally inappropriate? Probably! But it was two years ago and with an entirely different person; you just can't assume that her experience with that guy tells you something about her involvement with this one, except that it's in keeping with her overall lack of interest in men her own age—which also explains why she's).
In short, your only job here is to continue to use your good judgment, and continue to not involve yourself in your friend's business unless she asks you to (or you see something so egregious that non-intervention isn't an option). And while of course you care for this girl and don't want to see her get hurt, Auntie is duty-bound to point out that getting hurt is a risk in any relationship, even the healthiest ones, and that it's not your place (or within your power!) to keep that from happening. We can't stop our friends from experiencing pain, disappointment, or heartbreak, or from choosing to fall in love with someone who turns out not to be right for them. All we can really do is hope for the best… and maybe be there with ice cream if it ends in tears.
Got something to say? Tell us in the comments! And to get advice from Auntie, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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