Dear Therapist: A Professor Is Abusing My Friend

Her relationship shows all the typical signs of emotional manipulation and physical harm, but she refuses to admit that there’s a problem.

An illustration of a woman looking on as her friend and a professor embrace in his office
Bianca Bagnarelli
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Dear Therapist,

My best friend is currently in a romantic and sexual relationship with a 50-year-old professor at our university. I'm extremely worried, since I suspect the professor is emotionally manipulating her so he can sexually exploit her.

Over the summer, my friend started working as a nanny for the professor and his wife. After three days on the job, he told her that he "fell in love with her at first sight" and suggested that she was his soulmate. Since this confession, they've been dating and having sex. I was disgusted by this, but refrained from criticizing the relationship, since I thought it could lead to the end of our friendship and also figured the relationship would be short-lived given the age difference.

Unfortunately, the relationship is still going on and I think my friend is being abused. She has been hospitalized twice due to BDSM activities like choking, cutting, and flogging. The professor has also started posting nude pictures of her on his pornographic website. In all of the pictures, she has deep-purple bruises and lacerations.

I have no idea what I should do to help her. She cuts off communication with any friend who denounces the relationship, and claims that everything she does with the professor is consensual and that she isn't being manipulated or exploited. She truly thinks she's in love with the man and that they're destined to be together forever.

I've thought about telling her mother and father and staging an intervention, but I feel like that would be an unforgivable betrayal. I also worry that her conservative parents would stop paying her tuition and rent if they knew about the relationship.

Early on, I thought about telling the man's wife, but they have an open marriage and apparently the professor's wife doesn't object to her husband sleeping with my friend.

I told one of our university counselors about the relationship and he told me that since my friend isn't taking a class with this professor, he isn't violating the university's amorous-relationships policy.

She’s told me that she talks to her therapist about the relationship but doesn't disclose that he's a professor who's 30 years older than she is. She says that the large age gap is irrelevant since she's an adult.

It should be noted that my friend suffers from depression, has a strained relationship with her own father, and was sexually abused by her uncle when she was 13. She's precisely the type of girl that a predator would prey on.

I don't know what I can do to get her to leave this relationship. I love her with all my heart and want to help her, but I honestly have no idea what course of action I should take. I'm praying that you'll answer this question, because I have no one I can talk to about this issue.

New York City

Dear Zooey,

I’m so sorry you’re dealing with such a difficult situation. I can see how much you care about your friend, and understand how scary and lonely it must be navigating this on your own while feeling helpless. But while you’re asking me how you can help your friend, I don’t think she’s the only one who needs help here. I think you do, too. In fact, there’s some overlap between your predicament and hers.

You’re right that your friend is being manipulated, but in a way, so are you. One hallmark of an abusive relationship is a kind of secrecy that goes something like this: We’re not doing anything wrong here, but don’t tell anyone. It’s just between us. Of course, if nothing sketchy were going on—if the professor and his wife thought it was fine for one of them to have a sadomasochistic sexual relationship with the woman who cares for their child, while keeping the relationship a secret (I assume) from the child who thinks of her as a trusted caregiver—there would be no need for secrecy, either on his end or your friend’s. A soulmate isn’t supposed to be a secret.

But many abusers are master manipulators, and the key point of leverage is the supposedly close bond that exists between an abuser and their victim: What we have between us is special, but outside people won’t understand. I imagine that this professor is using reasoning like that with your friend—but also that she, explicitly or not, is using it with you. You’re my best friend so I can tell you about this. But my conservative parents won’t understand, so don’t betray me.

Carl Jung called secrets “psychic poison,” and for good reason. Secrets are corrosive and go hand in hand with shame. And there seems to be a lot of secrecy around this. Your friend says that she doesn’t see a need to bring up the age difference with her therapist, because it’s a nonissue. But nonissues aren’t what we hide; it’s the issues we hide. I’m guessing that she rationalizes other aspects of her relationship as not worth bringing up with her therapist—and that these are the very ones they need to talk about.

The same thing is happening between you and your friend. You say you have nobody to talk to about this, but in fact, you do—starting with your friend herself. You can’t get somebody to leave a relationship, but you can show up in the relationship you have. Understandably, you care about your friend’s feelings, but there are two kinds of compassion. One is what’s known as “idiot compassion,” which is what we offer when our main concern is to avoid rocking the boat, even though the boat needs rocking, and which leads to your compassion being more harmful than your honesty would have been. Its opposite is “wise compassion,” which means caring about a person but also giving her a loving truth bomb when needed. In the strongest friendships, wise compassion is highly valued.

So you might try something like this:

I know you believe that you’re in love with him, but because of the intensity of your feelings, I don’t think you can see the situation clearly. You might end our friendship over what I’m about to say, but our friendship won’t survive anyway if I have to keep my true feelings from you. I want our friendship to be built on trust—that we’ll be honest with each other because we care about and respect each other, which means that we don’t always have to agree, but at least we’ll hear the other person out. And what I’ve been reluctant to tell you is that your relationship concerns me and I’m having trouble standing by and watching.

You can go on to explain that you support your friend and want her to be happy, but that you don’t support this relationship, which feels off to you. Tell her that you’ve been trying to understand her thinking about this—not being bothered by the fact that she’s engaging in actions that have hospitalized her; caring for a child who trusts her but having sex with the child’s father behind the child’s back; believing the professor is telling her the truth that his wife is fine with him having sex with their child’s caregiver, something that seems unlikely even in an open marriage. Explain that you’ve been trying to understand how she envisions a future with this man who calls her his soulmate—that it doesn’t seem as if he’s going to leave his wife and child to be with her exclusively, and so you wonder what being his soulmate means to her. Tell her that you don’t consider posting photos of a bruised and lacerated young college student on a pornographic website to be the way a person treats his soulmate.

You might add something like, “I’ve been racking my brain on how to be a good friend to you, and in thinking about what I’d hope for if the situation were reversed, I’ve come to the conclusion that I want to involve some outside support. And I want to do it with your participation, or at least your knowledge, and not go behind your back.”

At that point, you have several options. One is to suggest that you accompany your friend to a therapy session. You can explain that you think it would help her most if the therapist heard another person’s perspective on what was going on, and that you’d feel comfortable knowing she and the therapist were talking about all the issues in this relationship, not just the ones your friend decided to share. If she refuses, you could tell her that you’d like to write a letter to the therapist with your observations. Of course, the therapist can’t respond to you, but she’ll most likely tell your friend that she received the letter and talk with her about its contents.

You could also let your friend know that you’re considering seeking guidance from a female counselor at the college, who might offer a different (and more helpful) response than the one you got from the male counselor you spoke with. Another option is to tell your friend that your anxiety over her well-being is too much for you to handle if she’s not getting the appropriate help; that you find it upsetting to see her with bruises on her body; and that you might need to wait until things change before you can hang out again, as much as you’ll miss her during that time.

Will your friendship blow up if you do any of this? Maybe. But you have to live your life, not hers. By showing up and having this talk with her, you can be proud of the friend you tried to be and then put your energy into the more reciprocal, enriching friendships that often form during one’s college years.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.