Should Mutual Friends Cut Ties With Your Toxic Ex?
3 ways to respond when friends just don't understand.
Posted March 13, 2023 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
Reese had just ended an abusive relationship, and his ex partner's behavior was becoming terrifying. He was stalking him at his workplace, showing up at his apartment in the middle of the night, and even calling Reese's mother to ask about Reese. Understandably, Reese was scared. But he was also in denial. "He's just upset," he kept saying. "It will blow over. He's just letting off steam."
But his ex did not calm down, and it did not eventually "blow over." Instead, it continued to escalate. In my work with Reese, we explored ways to protect himself. Part of his safety plan was to remove mutual friends on social media for his own protection.
He reached out to mutual friends and politely asked that the friends delete and unfollow his ex, but one refused, saying, "It just seems like a bad breakup, and I don't want to be in the middle."
Reese was devastated—not only from the stress of the abuse from his ex, but also from the pain of not being believed or supported by a friend.
When a victim leaves an abusive relationship, it's often a dangerous time for them. The abuser may fear they are losing control and lash out. The chance of danger increases greatly if the abuser's behavior escalates. Mutual friends are often used by abusive people to obtain information about their targets.
“They’re just hurt and angry,” or “They’re just blowing off steam” are phrases I hear all too often from clients. Usually, such statements come right before an ex subjects them to extreme stalking and post-separation abuse. But mutual friends often adopt this same denial, refusing to choose sides when they feel it's just been "a bad breakup." And while this mentality is understandable after normal breakups, abusive breakups can be far more threatening.
It is common for people to mistakenly call a split a “bad breakup,” but this implies mutual involvement and conflict from both parties. This phrase, much like the legal term "high-conflict divorce," takes the responsibility off of the abuser and casts the victim in the same light, as if they are somehow contributing to their abuse. This is not “drama"; it is domestic abuse, and it is dangerous if not stopped. Placing blame where it is due by using appropriate language when we refer to abusers holds them accountable in an environment where others struggle to do just that.
In reality, one party is usually creating the conflict, and the other is trying to move away from it. The one trying to protect themself is often in the uncomfortable position of having to ask mutual friends to distance themselves from their abuser. Many friends will be happy to agree, but a few may refuse to "take sides," saying things like "I support you both," or, worse, just not believing the victim. When this comes from a victim's own friends, it can be devastating.
Here are three things I tell my clients when they have mutual social circles with their abuser:
- Decrease common links. Unfortunately, Thursday afternoon Bingo, or Friday night bowling may no longer be a good idea. Some mutual friends may have to go, lest they become "flying monkeys"—informants who give messages back to your abuser that they can use to further inflict harm. If friends do not want to "choose sides," make the choice for them, in a gentle way. At first, doing this can feel uncomfortable, but this is not a normal ending of a relationship and, under the circumstances, keeping mutual friends can be dangerous. It is important to avoid explaining your side of the conflict; instead, make it about you: “I need to take some time for myself right now” or, “I feel uncomfortable because of recent events, and I might not be as sociable. Hopefully, I can see you in the coming months. Good luck."
- Try not to take it personally when people do not stick up for you against your abuser. Most people will not speak up against someone because they would rather not get involved. Some might even believe the abuser’s lies, even if only initially. Remember how convincing the ex can be. Others have no way of distinguishing their claims from normal neighborhood social gossip, or knowing how much worse it can be. Those that do know might not want to risk becoming a new target.
- Assume that everyone has the potential to be a flying monkey until proven otherwise. As disheartening as this may feel, victims should accept this possibility from the beginning. It might seem harsh, but it's an appropriate safety measure considering the risk. Mutual contacts may not participate in an abuser’s behavior maliciously or even realize they are being used as a flying monkey. So, there's no need to react defensively or be harsh with them; just limit what you say and to whom until you know for sure who you can truly trust.
Excerpted in part from my book, It's Not High Conflict, It's Post Separation Abuse.
If you or a loved one is experiencing domestic abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-7233.