Can (And Should) You Ever Remain Friends With Someone Who's an Admitted Sexual Harasser?

Can (And Should) You Ever Remain Friends With Someone Who's an Admitted Sexual Harasser?

If they were your friend before, and you really didn't know, what do you do now?

By Marianne Garvey

When once-beloved Louis C.K. admitted and publicly apologized for sexually harassing women in the comedy community, not many people came to his defense. All of the men who’ve been recently outed as sexual harassers have been publicly shunned by the Hollywood community, their friends, and even their own families. But is it right  to leave someone you once loved in pain at their lowest? 

WTF host and longtime comic Marc Maron took a different approach to dealing with Louis C.K. The two are close friends, comedians who came up together in the scene nearly thirty years ago. Taking the first 20 minutes of his Monday podcast to address the scandal, Marc revealed that he had asked Louis point blank about the then-rumors over the years, and that Louis lied to his face. But Marc's feelings were complicated.

“Obviously I'm referring to my friend Louis C.K.’s admission that he did some vile, inappropriate, hurtful, damaging, selfish sh**. Some sexual misconduct, some awful behavior. There was a report in The New York Times, obviously you know about that, and then a day later Louis copped to it. And copped to it late, but he did it. And he's my friend and it's a difficult position to be in because I certainly can't condone anything he did. There was no way to justify it, and there's no way to defend it, there's no way to apologize for him about it, there's no way to let him off the hook.”

And while Marc expressed his disappointment in his friend, he still called him just that — a friend.

“Look, I hope this doesn't come off as any sort of apology for anything, you know. I'm disappointed in my friend. He did some gross s***, some damaging s***, and people are like how are you gonna be friends with that guy? He's my friend. Now he f***** up and he's in big f****** trouble, so, well, what am I gonna do? I'm just — I'm gonna be his friend. What do you want me to do? I mean it's probably the best time to be his friend, when he needs to make changes in his life. I can learn from it, he can learn from it, I hope.”

On Howard Stern’s SiriusXM satellite show on Monday, the King of All Media admitted he was “confused” over the whole scandal, and revealed he sent Louis, who he has socialized with in private, an email telling him he was thinking of him. Nothing more, nothing less.

One of the hardest parts of being involved in a public scandal where the person has done real damage to others, is that when the news comes out, most people bail when you need them the most.

Shawn Meghan Burn, Ph.D., explains why most people tend to distance themselves from someone who has hurt others in a horrible way — especially publicly.

“When a friend does something that goes against our own moral code, it creates cognitive dissonance,” Burn says. “Our experience and perception of our friend are at odds with new information of their unethical behavior. We have to reconcile this disconnect by rationalizing and justifying their behavior, denying the behavior occurred, minimizing the behavior, or by believing that they have changed and won’t do it again."

“But sometimes the dissonance is resolved by dissolving the friendship. This is probably more likely when association with the friend harms our own public image and the social costs of the friendship are too high, or when what they did is at odds with our own strongly held values. Louis C.K. will lose some friends who believe that their association with him will hurt their own careers or reputations. He will lose some friends who strongly support women’s rights and believe sexual harassment is a serious problem. Some friends may support him on the ‘down low,’ in private ways that won’t harm their own social standing.”

New York-based therapist Liz Lasky says that while humans have the capacity for empathy, the gatekeepers to our empathy are often our own boundaries.

“There are no hard and fast guidelines about navigating friendships when our friends cross the moral line,” she says. “We each need to make a decision about fostering friendships against the backdrop of our own values and morals. It is up to us to choose if principle outweighs empathy.”

In the case of Louis C.K., she says it’s difficult to reconcile the guy everyone loves with the guy who lied and covered up his sexual misconduct for years.
“The impact of the Louis C.K. case becomes more complex than the results of a simple white lie because perpetrators of sexual misconduct and violence are often seeking power and control over their victims. This situation brings about the question of how do we reconcile friendship and moral deviance?” Lasky says. “None of us are blank slates. Each of us has a different relationship with the idea of lies and lying. Some people tolerate non-truth telling while others have no patience for it.”

Lasky says remaining friends with someone in deep trouble — that they caused — is a personal choice.

“On one hand, I believe we must not choose friendships at the detriment to our relationships to ourselves,” she says. “On the other hand, I believe that all people benefit from love and acceptance including the classroom bully, the queen bee, even the old mean neighbor next door. Remaining friends is a personal choice.”

When people do not share their truth, “it has nothing to do with us,” she adds. “People lie when they are hiding, full of shame, or committing a crime that is unacceptable to their ego.”

If you do choose to remain friends, it can be an “honorable action,” she says.

“Deciding to maintain a friendship after a lie is entirely up to the individual. You should maintain friendships with others if you feel your connection benefits you both. Relationships are two ways and multifaceted. Being there for a friend in crisis can be an honorable action.”

So how can you bet there for a friend who has repeatedly lied and done harm to others, who has been leading a double life?
“Being honest about our wrongdoings does not automatically open the gates to friendships,” Lasky says. “The outcome of support after a friend commits a crime or [tells] lies may be influenced by the attachments and bonds that have been established from the beginning the friendship. For some, being a good friend may be to support someone through mental health treatment like sex addiction treatment. Many people believe that the human spirit heals and being a good friend may include support this time. The type of people who stay around when you are in a crisis are often those who are committed to your wellbeing through thick and thin.”

Psychotherapist and wellness coach Jason Eric Ross says empathy is everything when it comes to still calling this person your friend.

“This is where empathy comes into play. When you display empathy you likely espouse that humans are fallible and make mistakes and are willing to tolerate that in others. What seems to be the dividing line is how egregious the acts related to the lies are,” Ross says. "Marc Maron for example, admittedly says he has had trouble with empathy at times, personally. In this podcast you can hear him become tearful as he says that he feels that the time to be the friend is now. One could infer that he senses the pain of the victims at a bare minimum and he divulged some experiences of his own that were painful too.”

Ross adds that even though you are trying to be there for your friend in trouble, most likely the dynamic of the friendship will change.

“Especially if you had some suspicions beforehand,” he says.

Remaining friends is certainly an individual choice, he says, and most people draw the line when it’s “too much of a challenge for their moral compass and/or their reputation.”

“In a situation where someone has been accused and you’re friends with the accused perpetrator and the perpetrator is denying the charges and you believe your friend; well ultimately you’re going to stay friends at that rate. However, if you have suspicions about your friend, that will likely change the outcome and direction of the friendship. Morals and values being challenged usually directs the outcome.”

If you do want to remain friends, you don’t need to go hand-holding all over town if you are concerned about how it will look. You can do it on your terms.

“Again, empathy and sometimes just being there to listen and understand whatever pain they are going through,” Ross says. “Listening with no judgments comes with empathy generally. Being honest with someone. In the new age of tech and social media, empathy is a lost trait, and if you think otherwise take a look at all the types of trolling and bullying. I think it speaks volumes about who we have become as people.”

The kind of person who will stick with you at your lowest depends on personality, among other factors, he says.

“A friendship can be damaged even as someone says they are still friends with or a supporter of the accused. Someone could say ‘Well he did something really terrible and he needs a lot of help and I hope he gets it. In fact our friendship will likely hinge on that factor!’”

People who are “self-absorbed” may bail, afraid of taking a stance and being afraid that they will be perceived as condoning the behavior, Ross says.

“People who may have an axe to grind or stuff of their own to hide might bail. In what we might call a dialectic, one could condemn a behavior and support the persons getting better.”

Life coach Ellen Schweitzer, who has dealt with clients in difficult friendships, has a more open-hearted approach, saying if the offender is a friend that you care for and they admit to their actions and work to change the behavior you should try and be supportive.

“You should remain friends when the relationship is worth holding onto and the person is someone you love and care for,” she says. “I would put any judgement I may have aside and help them find the right professional to aid them in their pursuit of change. As a coach I believe that people have great potential for change.”

Schweitzer says that people that will stay are those friends that are loyal and love deeply.

“Those that choose to leave the relationship were either never fully committed to the friendship or fear being judged for staying in a relationship with someone capable of doing wrong.”

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