Should I tell her this behavior is not normal and that it’s only going to get worse?
My college friend Hannah got married last year for the first time at the age of 56. She’s always been very focused on her career. She majored in Finance in college with a double minor in two different languages so that she could work in international markets. Also, the financial industry in New York is very competitive and so it’s not exactly a great place to meet a future spouse amongst the ranks of people who are all vying for the same opportunities.
Hannah told me that when she went through a professional program affiliated with J.P. Morgan, the guys all stuck together and wouldn’t even associate with their female colleagues at all. In later years, they all had accolades attached to their names that most of their female colleagues did not because they’d been so shut out of the inside track. But this isn’t a story about how alive and well the Old Boys network still is. It’s a story about how involved you should get in the personal life of someone you care about, particularly if you are concerned for them. The man that Hannah eventually married is a jerk who treats her like dirt a lot of the time and I just don’t know how much I should say to her about it.
After college, Hannah briefly dated Cole, and although they seemed to hit it off wonderfully, she knew she was moving to NYC to pursue her professional path and so they broke it off and on she went with her life plan. Hannah concentrated on her career but she also had a wide variety of friends and organizations that she was affiliated with. She dated some, but the sense of things I got from her was that dating as a young professional in New York was challenging, even if you weren’t in a cutthroat industry.
About two years back, Hannah and Cole reconnected because he was now living close to where Hannah’s mom lives. She was starting to feel a bit adrift as a long-time singleton, despite all the friends and organizations, and despite the professional success. Cole told Hannah that she’d been the love of his life and that it broke his heart when she moved and broke up with him. After years of being largely unappreciated as a woman, Hannah was very receptive to his attention and to feeling loved and wanted. Pretty soon afterward, they got engaged.
When Hannah sent me the wedding date to put on my calendar, I was very excited for her. She’s a lovely, kind, and warm person, and I was happy that she’d finally been able to round out that part of her life. I booked a plane ticket and waited for the formal invitation to arrive. A few weeks later, when I called the hotel where they were to be married to book a room, I was told there was no such event scheduled. It was a busy time for me and it wasn’t until several weeks later that I learned that the wedding date had been moved.
It turns out that Cole, who had been married once before, decided there was too much else going on around that time, and that they needed to change the date. Several of Hannah’s friends were not able to reschedule their flights and consequently were not at her wedding because of Cole’s selfish and flaky behavior. This should have tipped me off right away, but it wasn’t until I saw her recently that I truly began to worry.
Since the wedding, Hannah and Cole have settled into a huge house in suburban Pennsylvania. Until covid hit hard, Hannah was commuting back and forth to her NYC apartment and creating a lot of tension in their lives, not only because they had to maintain the cost of two residences, but because Hannah’s focus was not exclusively on Cole, where he thought that it belonged.
Cole, it turns out, is a big Trump supporter who seems to think that a woman’s main role in life is to take care of her man. She also needs to have a good job so that she can pay her half of the bills, but in general, her main focus and attention should be on keeping him happy and satisfied. When Hannah and I lived together in our college years she subscribed to Mother Jones magazine and she’s always been a very independent and non-traditional woman. How these two opposites came to attract, I’m not exactly sure, but beyond this disconnect, Hannah told me some things that really concerned me.
Besides being self-involved and believing that a woman is there to fulfill his needs, it seems that Cole is a very heavy drinker, and a mean drunk. She says that most nights he sits in front of the TV watching Fox news with a cocktail (or three) in his hand, getting whipped into an angry frenzy by what he sees on the screen. Part of the time he’s railing against immigrants and such, and part of the time he turns that ire on her.
They rarely eat meals together because he prefers to eat in front of the TV, and also because he’s got so many piles of stuff on the chairs and table in the kitchen that there really is only one good seat there. When she sits there, he accuses her of stealing his spot. After all, he’s the king of the castle, although he at least does do most of the cooking. Years of being single taught him how to cook, although it’s apparently a highly carnivorous diet. Hannah is not allowed to interfere with his food plans too much, although she does try to introduce some vegetables into the dinner plans now and then.
From what she’s said, it seems like she’s constantly walking on eggshells with him, constantly being treated as a second class citizen in the relationship, and constantly dealing with his irrational anger, racism, and general belligerence. He’s had some health issues lately (brought on in part by his lifestyle) and some troubles at work, and so Hannah brushes it all off as something that she can help him get through, but I don’t have much confidence in that.
What I see is a man who is well established in his beliefs, patterns, and habits who has no intention of changing. Being under less stress at work won’t make him into a kinder, gentler Cole. He may genuinely love her but that hardly matters when he treats her like dirt most of the time but it’s still hard to know what to say to Hannah around all of this.
I certainly have let it be known that some of his behaviors aren’t acceptable when she’s complained to me about them, but I’ve stopped short of telling her that if she thinks she can change him, or love him into treating her better, she’s sorely mistaken. She really wanted to be in a marriage, to be in a partnership with someone, and now that she is, I don’t know how to tell her that it shouldn’t be this bad this early in the relationship.
Living with someone else long term is always a challenge, no matter how well you get along, and how much you show respect to each other. There will always be misunderstandings and points of contention, but the person who supposedly loves you should not be calling you names and verbally abusing you. He should not be acting like your needs, career, and friends are incidental. And if that’s showing up when you’re supposed to still be in the honeymoon phase, that’s even worse.
Hannah told me the last time I saw her that she and Cole had recently been visiting near where my mother lived and that she had really wanted to stop in and say hello. Hannah lived with my parents one semester when she was doing an internship and she’s long been close to my mother. It would have meant a lot to both her and my mom to get to spend some time together, but that wasn’t what Cole wanted to do, so they didn’t do it.
It breaks my heart to see this strong, self-confident woman who has really made her way in a tough industry letting this guy steamroll her because he claims to love her. She’s a good person and a good friend, someone who always seeks to be a peacemaker and to get along with everyone, but in this instance, I think that she’s doing herself a real disservice. The question remains, however, should I tell her that or not?
She hasn’t asked me flat out what I think of all this, and as I’ve already said, I have expressed dismay at some of the things that he’s said and done. I do think that she’s told me about some of it because she does want to know if she should tolerate it or not. “Is this just a part of marriage? Dealing with this level of moodiness and anger?” Still, she hasn’t truly asked for my opinion.
They are going to be moving shortly and Cole will be starting a new job that hopefully he will like better than the last one. They’ll be moving into a smaller place that needs less upkeep and maintenance, and Hannah will no longer be commuting back and forth to New York. I know she hopes that all this will improve things for them, but I seriously doubt that it will. Still, that’s a realization that she’s largely going to have to come to for herself, I think.
I learned a long time ago that no-one else really understands someone else’s marriage and so it’s not really my place to judge hers. And at the same time, I am worried about her. Cole’s behavior seems very controlling and emotionally abusive to me. She seems to spend an awful lot of time placating him and trying not to be hurt by the way he treats her. My friend deserves better than that — but it’s also not my call — at least not at this juncture.
Perhaps after they get settled from the move I can check in with her about things, and see if it makes sense to at least put a bit of a bug in her ear that this really isn’t normal marriage ups and downs. I firmly believe in not telling other people how to live their lives, particularly if they haven’t asked me, but on the other hand, she does seem to be probing at least indirectly around this, and it breaks my heart to see her getting hurt. Now that she’s out of NYC, I think she’d have a much better chance of meeting someone else, but what do I know? It’s not my life or my decision to make.
© Copyright Elle Beau 2020
Elle Beau writes on Medium about sex, life, relationships, society, anthropology, spirituality, and love. If this story is appearing anywhere other than Medium.com, it appears without my consent and has been stolen.