Ask A Therapist: I Found Out My Friend Was Abusive To His Ex

Photographed by Eylul Aslan
Ever wondered what you'd say to a therapist, given the chance? We asked Dr Sheri Jacobson, a retired psychotherapist with over 17 years' clinical experience and the founder of Harley Therapy London Psychologists, for advice on the things we worry about in private.
Have a question for a therapist? Submit yours for Sheri.
I need advice on how to talk to a friend of mine who has gone through a bad breakup. He and his girlfriend were in a toxic relationship for years and when they finally broke up, all the awfulness of how he treated her came out. I have received nothing but love and support from this friend my entire life. I had no idea they were an abuser.
Now that the breakup has happened, he's a wreck. Keeps trying to get back together with her, telling everyone that there are two sides to every story. I feel like I don't trust him anymore and have been distancing myself from him ever since. However, he obviously needs help (he's getting therapy for his issues) and support from his friends now. How do I navigate the situation? Can you be friends with someone who was hiding this part of themselves?
- Serena, 32
This is a hard one to answer without more specific details.
It's important to mind our own safety in this situation, if and when you see this friend. That takes a mix of intuition and lived experience – using your senses and prior knowledge to make an assessment of a situation. That's not only how you feel about the other person but the actions that you contribute as well. For example, where you meet, what kind of environment you meet in, what language you use, how physically proximate you are. We should take responsibility where we can but also use our intuition as to how comfortable we are around the person. Sometimes that goes a bit awry and it's either under- or over-calibrated. And I don't think we can be too hard on ourselves. When and where there's any doubt, keep away.
The difficult and complicated thing is that there are two sides to every story. So I think, depending on the closeness and nature of the pre-existing friendship, you should raise it with him and talk about it. If there are two sides to every story, hear what he says is his and you can then make an evaluation as to whether you are more inclined to believe his side or continue a friendship with someone of this nature.
For most people, abusive relationships are intolerable and something that we can't support within ourselves or with those that we love. So if we're going to make an assessment of situations with regards to our core values, it may mean that yes, the friendship has to die down or come to an end. Ultimately, we don't want to condone someone's behaviour if they indeed did behave that way. You can never really know the complete truth because there are different interpretations of events and people can lie either to you or to themselves, but you should hear it from both sides instead of thirdhand and make your own evaluation. You just have to make your best judgement from what you are told from primary sources.
You'll never know the real truth, however, we can make educated guesses or come to our own conclusions. It's not that we have to step back and say: "We'll never know therefore I can't take a view." Often we do make appraisals of what we think happened, even if it's being denied by one person, then that's our educated guess and the way that we respond will be in line with that. It's a complicated mix of gut instinct and gathered information. You're never going to get the same answer twice, no matter how similar the situation.
If you are experiencing domestic abuse of any kind, please call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247. All calls are free and completely confidential.

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