Dear Lala, my friend has fallen for a US prisoner – what shall I do?

In a new twist on Lalalaletmeexplain's hit column, readers ask for her expert advice on their own love, sex and relationship problems

Here, she offers advice to a woman who doesn't want to be a mum but her boyfriend wants a child.

Dear Lala,

My best friend has started talking to a US prisoner for the past few months. He’s serving 25 years for aggravated burglary (he has 9 years left – possibly less on review). I’m struggling to be happy for her because I feel like this is a bad choice, when she should be finding someone more – 1. Local 2. Her own age and 3. Maybe not a criminal.

She is 28, 29 in January. She doesn’t have kids. She recently (last two years) spilt up with her long-term boyfriend who she was with since she was quite young. She managed to get her own flat, then she quickly started seeing an older guy in his 40s with a 12-year-old child. He was mentally unwell, and emotionally abused her a lot to make her feel unworthy and useless without him.

When she finally saw the light, I was over the moon, it was a messy breakup which has recently involved her filing a police report as he won’t leave her alone. But now I know the reason she was able to move on from him was because she has started regularly talking to a prison inmate in Washington.

They call each other hubby and wifey already and it’s only been a few months. She’s taken herself off all dating apps and she thinks this guy is perfect for her, and she was so confused when I told her she deserves better. I have not said anything to her like that since.

I’m quite confused, as everyone deserves love, but she deserves so much better. Please help me decide what to do. Should I just be happy for her and pretend it’s not happening, or do I sit her down and have a serious conversation with her about how problematic this could be for her? Because she’s recently got out of an emotionally abusive relationship and she started talking to the US inmate before breaking things off, she hasn’t had time to fully adjust and be happy alone.

Lala says:

Well, this is a complex one! Firstly, I think it’s important to think about why she might have chosen to start speaking to an inmate on the other side of the world in the first place. Starting at the extreme end, there is a paraphilia (a mental health condition characterised by sexual arousal to abnormal or dangerous things) called Hybristophilia.

Hybristophilia is a sexual attraction to those who commit violent crimes. Most people who suffer with hybristophilia are women. It is the reason why men who have been convicted of horrific crimes, like Ted Bundy and the Soham murderer Ian Huntley, receive piles of letters and explicit pictures from women who are hoping to connect with them. It is a mental health disorder, and if you were worried that she had a sexual obsession with violent criminals, it is something that she would likely need psychiatric help with. Though it doesn’t sound like this is a pattern of behaviour for her.

The more likely explanation for her attraction to a man who is locked up thousands of miles away is that it’s safe and he cannot hurt her. She has recently experienced the trauma of an abusive relationship. Abusive relationships can leave long lasting damage to our self-esteem, confidence, and ability to trust others in the future.

Your friend seems to have managed this by choosing a relationship that she can be in complete control of. Her ex won’t leave her alone, but with the new partner she can control when she speaks to him or opens his letters. She can have the romance of a relationship whilst also knowing that he cannot get anywhere near her. She knows where he is at all times, she is safe.

Some women are attracted to relationships with prisoners because it gives them a sense of purpose. Many of us were raised to believe that our biggest value comes from being carers, nurturers, and fixers. Women are often born and conditioned into that role because of societal and cultural expectations of us. Having a man who we can fix, and support, can feel extremely validating. It may be a boost to her self-esteem to be able to send him money or help him to fight for his case to be reviewed. It means that she is important and needed.

The thing about relationships with serving prisoners is that the whole thing is a fantasy. You do not experience the normal mundane things that you experience in relationships on the outside. She never has to see his dirty boxers on the floor, smell the bathroom after he’s pooed, or see how he handles road rage, she doesn’t even have to worry about shaving. It’s easy and fun. He can remain the perfect man.

He has all the time in the world to write love letters and spend hours on the phone. They can have constant romance and build intense desire without having it spoiled by the reality of everyday life. She is unlikely to view him as a violent criminal, she may have convinced herself that he is innocent, or that he is a changed man. Because it’s all a fantasy, he can be whoever she wants him to be. This is very appealing after being in an abusive relationship.

I’d be interested to know the backstory to find out how all this came about. They can’t have just bumped into each other. Did she actively go looking on a prison pen pal site? If she sought out an incarcerated man, then it’s very likely that she is seeking the perceived safety of a fantasy relationship. The other thing that prisoners can be attractive for is a sense of protection. He can’t hurt her, but he can make her feel like she is protected from men who might.

You can’t judge or berate her for her seemingly crazy choices because it probably all stems from the damage of her past. She may be being naïve, but there are a lot of good reasons for her naivety.

Because she has recently experienced an abusive controlling relationship, and it is that which is likely to have contributed to her choice of current partner, you must be very sensitive to the fact that the last thing she now needs is more control from you. You talk about struggling to be happy for her, but your happiness in relation to her love life is kind of irrelevant. Her happiness is all that matters, for you to make your happiness the priority would be controlling. You don’t have the right to approve of her relationships. You can point out your concerns, but you can force her to agree with them.

There is also a possibility that she has really thought things through, he really is a soul match, and by some miraculous chance she has managed to meet the love of her life in the most random of places. Occasionally, prison pen pal romances do blossom into something real. And not all prisoners are bad people. Aggravated burglary is a burglary that involves violence or intimidation, but burglaries are very often linked to drug use or poverty.

If his conviction was for rape, or violent offences against women I’d be telling you to persuade her to run. But I wouldn’t apply that to an offence that wasn’t a red flag for her immediate safety. People can change and reform. But I think it’s extremely important that she knows his full criminal history and that she doesn’t just take his word for it before making any commitments to him. The circumstances of his offence, and any previous offences, are important to know.

I think it is also important for her to know that it is quite common for prisoners to entertain numerous women at a time. Whilst this is not going to be true for all of them, and her man might be loyal and faithful to her, it is quite usual for prisoners to have several girlfriends at once; especially if they have met via a prison pen pal scheme. It helps to pass the time and it increases their ability to get money and goods sent in. It really benefits prisoners to have relationships on the outside, but there is little benefit to her.

Remaining in a relationship with an inmate means committing to years without proper affection, sex, and intimacy. It’s really hard work, even with someone who you love deeply. There is a big difference between maintaining an already established relationship with someone who goes to prison and starting a new relationship with a prisoner you’ve never met. It is important that she is mindful of the fact that she doesn’t actually know him so putting her life on hold for him is pretty risky. I can see why you would be worried about a friend potentially wasting 9 years of her life for someone who may be using her to make his prison life easier.

I think it’s also important for her to think about how things will work out after his release, will he be on licence? Will he ever be able to travel to the UK? He may not be eligible for a visa. Does she want children? Will they automatically be referred to children’s services due to the nature of his offences if they do end up having them? What is the future going to look like? Has she thought this through? I would hope so, but maybe she doesn’t give a sh*t about the future and she’s just enjoying the whirlwind attention?

I completely understand your concerns though, in all honestly if my best friend started writing to an American convict, I would think that she had completely lost her mind and I’d want to get her some serious help, but the reality is that it is not your place to do anything other than offer support and gentle guidance. I don’t think it would be out of turn for you to let her know that you are worried about her, but I do think you have to plan how you’re going to raise it so that you’re not controlling or confrontational. Often, when we are involved with people who our friends and family dislike – the expression of that dislike can make us defensive of our relationship.

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You don’t want to put her in a situation where she feels embarrassed or where she must defend her choices. From the outside everyone can see how mad this is, but when you’re in it, and you believe that you know and love a person, it can be very hard to see the woods from the trees. You can’t save her, you can only gently advise her of the potential risks, the rest is up to her.

She may benefit from therapy to process the trauma from her last relationship, so, you could help her by supporting her to access it if she wants it. Aside from that, all you can do is be there for her. You can tell her that you are worried, whilst also letting her know that you support her no matter who she chooses to love. It’s a tough one, but ultimately, her love life is her choice, and it doesn’t need to affect your friendship.

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