Sex

Reading Reddit Drama Helps Some People Leave Bad Relationships

Whether or not the posts are fake, commenters on the subreddits r/AmItheAsshole and r/Relationships don't only offer help to the people posting for advice, but to readers looking for objectivity about their own romantic lives.
July 27, 2020, 11:00am
Reading Reddit Drama Helps Some People Leave Bad Relationships
Illustration by Hunter French

The other day, I happened upon a post that made me stop scrolling. It was a screenshot from the subreddit r/AmItheAsshole, where people explain the details of a personal incident and ask other users for a judgement on whether they were, in fact, justified in a given response to a conflict or other fraught situation.

Most r/AmItheAsshole posts describe everyday disagreements. The questioner ("OP," or "original poster") lays out the issue, the action they took in response, and whatever blowback they received. Internet strangers then comment to collectively deliver a verdict: "YTA," ("you're the asshole"), "NTA" ("not the asshole"), “NAH” (“no assholes here”), or "ESH" ("everyone sucks here").

A few—a lot—of these submissions are so weird, tone-deaf, or egregiously wrongheaded that they go viral. Sometimes, the posts and their commenters even expose toxic or abusive behaviors so clearly that, for people in manipulative or abusive relationships themselves, they can strike a chord more powerfully than the support of and feedback from friends, family, or even therapists.

The jarring post I came across was purportedly from a man asking if he was the asshole for charging his girlfriend $24 per night to stay over at his apartment, his reasoning being that she was using his utilities and owed him for them.

The OP said he didn’t want to be seen as a meal ticket, and since his girlfriend was spending over half of her time in his apartment—where she took long showers and used his subscription services—charging her for only a week out of the month was a great deal for her.

What startled me about his arguments was that they sounded very familiar. I could remember a time in my own life when I'd even found them convincing.

Not so long ago, my (now ex-) boyfriend, like the OP, accused me of taking advantage of him by staying over most nights, rent-free. Also like the OP, he said he didn’t want to be in a relationship where bills weren’t shared equally. He told me I could either give up my own apartment, move in, and pay half of the rent, or he would limit the amount of time he allowed me to come over. He did not agree to come to my apartment occasionally instead.

In this situation I so identified with, the commenters' judgment of the OP was swift: YTA—you're the asshole. One person said, “Just another shocking scenario where the person with the age gap is trying to take advantage of the younger partner.”

Another wrote, “It constantly amazes me how posters here define ‘love’ in a relationship. This doesn't sound like love at all.”

On Reddit, I was able to recognize the poster's logic as unkind—though I hadn't been able to see my very similar situation for what it was when I was living through it. When my boyfriend used my financial disadvantage to victimize himself and strong-armed me into moving into his apartment (where he had even more control), I had reached a point where I no longer trusted my own judgment, or even my feelings. I told my friends we made the decision together for me to move in, knowing, if I told them the truth, they would say I was being manipulated and that my boyfriend was toxic, as they had many times before. They would have been right. I couldn’t see it.

“A lot of people who are in toxic relationships gaslight themselves,” said Ramani Durvasula, a psychiatrist specializing in narcissism in relationships, referring to an emotionally abusive tactic where a victim is made to doubt their own feelings and experiences. “They've been gaslighted by their partner for so long that they start doing it to themselves—like, Maybe I'm being too sensitive. Maybe this isn't a big deal.”

The shame of admitting the truth, along with distrust in a person's own judgment in abusive or difficult relationships, can make absorbing the advice of loved ones difficult. I didn’t even believe my therapist when she pointed out serious red flags—after all, she’d only heard my side of the story. It wasn’t until I saw this r/AmItheAsshole post, years later, that I saw his ultimatum clearly: as a cruel arm-twisting maneuver and part of a larger pattern of control.

“A person who is gaslighted for a long time no longer puts any credence into their own story,” Durvasula said. So it can be helpful to come across posts and conversations on subreddits like these, which “take the facts of your story, but depersonalize them." The idea is that when someone unrelated to you lays out the details of the same story that’s happening to them, you can finally see it from the outside, which can be especially helpful to people who don't feel equipped to speak with friends or loved ones about their bad or abusive relationships.

When I posted a tweet asking if others had ever had a lightbulb moment about their partnerships when reading r/AmItheAsshole or r/Relationships, responses flooded in. Many said certain posts and comments illuminated toxic behaviors they hadn’t even realized were present in their relationship. Seeing that they weren’t alone in their experiences validated their sense that they were being abused, as if to say, See, you’re not imagining things. That really is messed up.

Michelle, a 29-year-old living in New York City who asked that her name be changed for her privacy, said she had a moment of clarity when she read a post that reflected an experience from her past. The OP wanted to know if she was the asshole for disapproving of her sister’s boyfriend, a man the OP knew to be abusive and manipulative to previous partners. The community advised the OP that if her sister really was being manipulated, there was probably no way to talk her out of it—so it was OK if the OP wanted to keep some distance from her sister instead of confronting her about her misgivings. (As Durvasula explained it: Confronting a loved one about their partner when you notice signs of mistreatment or abuse is delicate because it can backfire, in part by making them feel defensive or shamed.)

Michelle said that, when she was in her early 20s, she was in a relationship with a significantly older and emotionally abusive man just like the one described in the post, and after the relationship ended, she wondered why her family never said anything overly critical about it. “I was like, _Oh, that's the reason that my family wasn't, like, mean to him when he was around_—_because they knew what was going on from the outside and they couldn't really explain it to me._”

A Reddit board is not a structured form of group therapy, and its commenters are not licensed counselors (unless incidentally), which can make using it as a tool for managing abuse or mental health risky. Another complication is that many of these posts are fake, written by bored Redditors in search of a laugh instead of earnest advice-seekers.

But even fictional posts can helpfully decontextualize a situation while also leading to a thoughtful conversation in the comments; Durvasula said it’s similar to the way posing a hypothetical question to people can often produce a moment of clarity.

“I go through this with clients all the time: I say, What would you tell your friend if they were going through this? Nine times out of 10, they’d say, 'Get the hell out of there.'” Removing yourself from a situation and seeing it as someone else's, according to Durvasula, can be illuminating in a way self-reflection sometimes limits.

Whether a post is real or fake, the conversation around it is what matters most—though that's not without its pitfalls, either. Many posts come with an unavoidable-on-Reddit coterie of trolls, and even commenters acting in good faith can sometimes fail to see through cultural biases or note important subtext, instead excusing abuse or assigning blame to people who have been wronged.

This can be hard to read, not just to the OP looking for reassurance, but for someone simply scrolling past. Jenna O., who is 24 and lives in West Virginia, didn't feel the same sense of identification and support as some have found when she discovered an r/AmItheAsshole post that felt similar to her life.

Three years before, Jenna had ended a relationship after it took her a long time to recognize the emotional abuse she experienced within it. As a part of that: She once accidentally hit her boyfriend in her sleep and he made her sleep on a mattress on the floor.

The post she came across was written by a light sleeper whose girlfriend also slept on a mattress on the floor so as not to disturb him in the night. She was hurt to see comments defending the OP: “It's his apartment, she's staying over because she wants to, even on the floor matress [sic],” read one.

“It's your relationship, and all that matters is you're both happy,” said another. “She is not sleeping on the floor, she is sleeping on a memory foam mattress. That's a lot better than what I am sleeping on.”

Jenna said the comments saying that the OP was NTA because he asked his girlfriend if she minded sleeping on the floor hurt the most. “Like, it’s OK because you got her consent. I think I didn’t really see at that time [in the relationship] that’s not really OK, because you kind of twisted her into saying that,” she said. “I remember seeing that and just crying, because so many people were validating this guy for his decision.”

Durvasula called negative community reinforcement of this kind “gaslighting by tribe,” and said it could set a person back years. “It might have taken you years to finally say, 'Whoa this is gaslighting.' Then someone else comes along, and they say, 'Don't be ridiculous'—you go right back to the beginning,” she said.

“If you have a bunch of people who comment on that thread in a way that is toxic, or there’s some sort of ‘bro’ thing happening—like, 'Yeah, that’s cool, bro'—the person being gaslighted might go there and say, 'Oh, I see this is what all guys are like,'” said Durvasula.

As Durvasula noted, a psychological abuse victim’s response to the stories in advice subreddits like r/AmItheAsshole and r/Relationships depends not just on the situation described in the post or the tenor of the comments, but also on their own psychological state. For a person who has been gaslighted for too long and too severely, such posts might not be enough to jar them out of their victimized mentality. But in other cases, even just one particularly resonant story can spur a person to leave their abuser.

Ellen, a woman in her 20s whose name has been changed for her safety, said that she needed to read r/AmItheAsshole to leave her first relationship, when she was too deep in denial to recognize that she was being abused and she didn’t feel like she could talk to anyone.

“I had a breakdown over an r/AmItheAsshole post that eerily mirrored something my partner had done to me—and seeing all the comments on the post saying it was sexual abuse, when I never considered that to ‘count,’” Ellen said.

Sometimes, if you're experiencing psychological abuse, you may not realize it’s abuse at all without help from others. For Ellen, the perspective of outsiders on Reddit helped her come to the realization that she was being mistreated and needed to leave, and the posts continue to be a source of both revelation and validation for her. “It’s been eye-opening how many small things constitute abuse of one kind or another, and realizing how many had actually happened to me,” she said.

Follow Kathleen Walsh on Twitter.