Debra Newell's 'Dirty John' Relationship Is All Too Common, According To Experts
Spoilers ahead for this week's Dirty John episode. In the latest episode on Dec. 23, Bravo’s Dirty John drives home just how difficult it can be to leave a partner you know isn’t good for you, and how frustrating it is for friends and family to watch someone be swept back into an unhealthy relationship. Much to viewers' chagrin, Debra takes John back on Dirty John this week, and the ripple effects are felt immediately throughout her family.
Even after Debra finds out about the restraining orders, drug use, legal problems and all the other things in John’s life that he either neglected to tell her or straight up lied about, she still feels some responsibility to take care of him. She makes progress by moving out of their shared home and leaning on her family, but it doesn’t last long. It might be easy for those on the outside to become frustrated with Debra’s decision to stay in John’s life — it certainly infuriates her daughters, and her nephew even asks her to leave a family function because he won’t have the relationship around his wife and children. John's attempts to isolate her completely have finally worked.
John promises to do and be better, apologizing and saying that she’s got it all wrong and he’s not the monster she thinks. “He said he could prove that it was all wrong,” the real-life Debra Newell told Megyn Kelly of her family’s accusations against John Meehan. “He took me to a lawyer that said, 'It’s all wrong. He's the victim.' There were multiple things, and he had an answer for everything.” According to the Los Angeles Times, he’d even tell her she couldn’t abandon him amidst his health issues, and that God had put him on earth for her.
As experts, and those who have been in the thick of it, know, it’s incredibly difficult to leave a manipulative partner once and for all, even when one is very aware of how dangerous the situation is. There are so many reasons why people stay in unhealthy relationships, even when it might look to those of us on the outside like an easy decision. Dr. Chloe Carmichael, a clinical psychologist who specializes in relationship issues, says that one of those reasons is the idea of a sunk cost. “Sometimes, the more drama and bizarre, inappropriate behavior we have tolerated from someone, we sometimes ironically feel more committed to work things out,” she tells Bustle. “Otherwise, walking away after all of that, people sometimes get the idea that that would feel worse."
"Even small moments of trust or decency can feel that much more ecstatic and exciting because you’re comparing it to where you’ve been in the relationship. So you always have this feeling that you’re on the cusp of things getting better, because there’s almost nowhere to go but up after the terrible lows."
Carmichael also mentions something called the “halo effect.” “When we have a really positive first impression of someone, we often have a very difficult time revising that,” she says. That likely may have come into play in Dirty John, as John seemed like such a perfect breath of fresh air when he first came into Debra’s life. Remember how intently he listened on the first date?
There's even the possibility that the lows Debra experiences with John make the good moments and successes stand out even more. “For example, if your leg were broken and you couldn’t walk for, I don’t know, 6 months ... then the first time you took a step it would feel so amazing, because you’ve been deprived,” Carmichael says.
“Something you would normally expect was just a given, would suddenly [give you] a heightened sense of pleasure. The same thing can happen when you’re being really mistreated by someone... Even small moments of trust or decency can feel that much more ecstatic and exciting because you’re comparing it to where you’ve been in the relationship. So you always have this feeling that you’re on the cusp of things getting better, because there’s almost nowhere to go but up after the terrible lows," she adds.
Though Debra is the one in a relationship with John, her family feels the pain of watching her make decisions they are so desperately against. They consistently fight about whether Debra should continue to speak to John or play a role in his life, and ultimately it causes huge rifts in their relationships that don't work to anyone’s advantage, except maybe John’s.
Care must be taken when supporting someone in Debra’s situation. Sarah Beaulieu, founder of The Uncomfortable Conversation, says a way to combat these kinds of issues is for all of us to learn to be better engaged bystanders, and consistently practice the best ways to approach people in our lives about concerning relationships. “My advice would be to intentionally develop that as a skill,” she tells Bustle. “The first time that you want to be practicing that conversation is not when your mom is in an abusive or threatening or scary relationship.”
“When the woman is talking about [it], basically asking for your support, and reaching out to say ‘I can’t believe it, he’s cleaned out my bank account,’ or ‘I can’t believe it, he abandoned me [somewhere],’ instead of jumping to ‘Why don’t you leave him?’ sometimes it can be helpful to just reflect back,” Carmichael says. “Say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe he would abandon you there. What did that feel like?’ Or [it’s helpful] to ask questions like ... ‘Do you have a limit? Do you think there is anything that could happen that could cause you to leave him?’"
Beaulieu says having those check-in conversations from the get-go and learning how to approach the people you’re worried about is essential to being a source of support when the need truly arises. And it doesn’t always have to be those closest to the person in question, she says. “It’s not just on a person’s immediate family to be the ones to say, ‘I’ve noticed that your boyfriend has a few credit cards in somebody else’s name. That concerns me,’” Beaulieu says. “The willingness of — I don’t care if it’s the postal carrier or the person’s family member — the more people who are willing to speak up and be that engaged bystander [the better].”
Carmichael says it’s also important not to push too hard on the person in question, because that can create a sense of isolation that just makes it more difficult for them to leave the relationship. She suggests opening a dialogue with the person, and being a source of respectful reflection.
“When the woman is talking about [it], basically asking for your support, and reaching out to say ‘I can’t believe it, he’s cleaned out my bank account,’ or ‘I can’t believe it, he abandoned me [somewhere],’ instead of jumping to ‘Why don’t you leave him?’ sometimes it can be helpful to just reflect back,” Carmichael says. “Say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe he would abandon you there. What did that feel like?’ Or [it’s helpful] to ask questions like ... ‘Do you have a limit? Do you think there is anything that could happen that could cause you to leave him?’ I think you would have to couch that question in saying, ‘I just want you to know I respect you. You can make your own decisions.’ Because ironically, that’s what this is about. We’re concerned about a woman being disrespected, but we also don’t want to suggest that she can’t make her own decisions.”
Obviously, once physical safety is an imminent issue, more dire methods should be taken as needed, but that’s a line John thankfully hasn’t crossed with Debra just yet. The unfortunate truth is that it’s easy for those of us on the outside to look at Debra’s situation in Dirty John and wonder why she can’t make a clean break from John. But it’s important that we recognize there are more nuances and complexities feeding into situations like hers, and everyone involved should approach them with care and empathy.