Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.
Dear Ms. Opinionated,
I am an outspoken feminist, my best friend from high school is decidedly not. Like, as in "living with her ultra-conservative, religious family until she marries because a young woman shouldn't be on her own not a feminist." We manage to make it work, most because I stifle a lot of how I feel about the way her family treats her and she knows that I have a different world view and she doesn't try to convince me that I am going about my life in the wrong way. Essentially we respect our differences and don't make our disagreements known. However, she is now engaged and I am a little concerned that her fiancé might be controlling in a scary way. For example, he told her his plan to propose, but held off on doing so almost six months because she had started mentally planning, and he wanted to be sure the engagement was "on his terms". How do I convey my concern to someone with completely different ideas about gender roles? How do I make clear that I am not attempting to impose my beliefs on her, but this is actually a red flag? How do I make clear to someone who has lived with very conservative representations of gender that she might not recognize that such behavior is not healthy or okay? Basically my fear is that even though her family is not abusive, her experience with gendered expectations might not lead her to recognize signs that most people will see.
Let me start off on a bit of a tangent. It's great that you and your best friend can respect one another's differences and remain friends despite the natural urge to proselytize to one another. But agreeing not to proselytize and never actually openly disagreeing is not really the same thing. Never airing the stuff that comprises your differences leads to surface politeness, not a deep relationship, and it means that, to some extent, while you both think you know where the other is coming from, there are almost certainly ways you don't.
Why the tangent? Because this might well be one of those ways.
Do I agree that his I'm-going-to-propose-eventually shtick sounds really annoying, somewhat controlling and fairly creepy? Sure. I wouldn't sign up for that sort of game, but neither would I start mentally planning a wedding when someone told me that he planned to propose eventually. (Propose, don't propose, marry, don't marry -- all these waiting periods totally seem contrived to me regardless.) At the end of the day, for whatever reason, essentially he said that he held off because he wasn't sure or he wanted to be sure that the proposal was the right thing for him. Which, in the absence of any other context (like, for instance, him grossly telling her which ways she needed to "improve" for him or "prove" herself to him to "earn "the proposal), seems fairly reasonable. So it's hard to me to assess how valid your concerns are by that one example.
And it's not clear that you have that needed context, either -- just that he's as conservative as she and her family apparently are, and he says some icky conservadude things, which she probably doesn't really discuss in depth with you that much because you guys have a tacit arrangement to avoid stuff that might cause arguments.
So, it might be time to set that arrangement aside a bit and ask her to open up -- not about her fiancé being a jerk per se, but about what she expects and wants out of a relationship and a marriage, whether she thinks he can provide it and whether she has concerns about some of the behaviors she's seen from her fiancé. You mention that her family isn't abusive, so she seemingly has a model for religious conservatism that isn't tinged with abuse -- so ask her about how her father treats her mother, how comfortable she is being treated that way and which ways she thinks her husband-to-be's behavior carries on that tradition or departs from it.
And then listen, really listen, to her answers. If there's no chink in that happy-relationship armor, it's going to be very difficult for you to create one given the circumstances you describe. One of the hardest things to learn as a friend is that even when you can see someone else's trainwreck coming from a mile away, you'll never shout loud enough to alert the closest engineer in time -- and if you step in front of the train, you're just going to be the first casualty of the wreck.
It's maddening, I know.
But if you do listen and you do hear her being at least a little concerned about her fiancé being more controlling than her dad, or weirdly jealous or inappropriate possessive, especially in contrast to her parents, encourage her to talk more about it. Tell her you know she might not have thought you would be the right person for her to bounce those concerns off of, but you're glad she confided and you weren't sure how to express your own concerns with those issues within the framework of her faith and moral values. Suggest talking to her mother, or even her father or pastor about her concerns. And make sure she knows that, no matter what, you'll be there for her.
Familiarize yourself in advance with this checklist of some signs of an abusive relationship, and listen for whether she expresses fears or concerns. Keep the number for (and this more serious checklist from) the National Domestic Violence Hotline handy, and offer to call with her if you are hearing signs of abuse but she wants or feels she needs a more objective opinion than yours.
And if after your conversation, you're more scared for her safety and physical well-being than before, and more convinced she isn't going to do anything to end the cycle, it might be time to go to her parents (assuming your conversations don't reveal heretofore unknown familial abuse). I know it'll feel like narc'ing on her, and it might not be effective, but where your differences might be too great for her to follow your advice -- and if you have solid things that point to him not just being an icky conservadude but an abuser -- her parents might well be able to help her understand that their shared values do not include accepting abuse.
On the other hand, if you don't think they're going to help or that your conversations with your friend are solid enough to take to them, the best advice I can give you is to keep the lines of communication open and the judgment to a minimum. If he is borderline abusive, and his behavior does escalate, she's going to need a support system to help her leave, and you might be able to help provide that. But you're always going to need to be asking questions of her, not explaining things to her.
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Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com