Q I am a 17-year-old girl with an uncle in his forties. He is mildly retarded and has never had a girlfriend. He grew up with a lot of abuse and hasn’t been able to have much of a relationship with women. He is very sweet and, in many ways, kind and innocent. I empathize with his struggles and have always been kind to him. I also feel sorry for him because he is so lonely. I know he feels very comfortable with me and seems to find me attractive and likes to get close to me and put his arm around me. It seems he expects me to be his friend. I get a little uncomfortable around him and don’t totally trust his impulses. My parents expect me to be accepting of him and not make him feel bad about his needs. However, I get scared that he will touch me sexually and will get upset or angry if I tell him not to. So there are times when I don’t want him around at all. I don’t quite know how to feel safe around him.
A You are clearly being very sensitive about this issue and your uncle’s challenges and the familial-cultural expectations around you. When you care about someone and the inappropriateness is more subtle, it’s quite challenging to set a clear limit. Nonetheless, you are pointing to enough infringement and lack of safety that you need to take some measures. First, letting your parents and family know that you care about your uncle, but that you need to trust that you won’t be touched in a sexual way is absolutely necessary. Unless they are negligent, think you are lying, or want to stay in complete denial, they need to support you. Ideally they need to speak to your uncle about what is okay and not okay in his relationship with you. This doesn’t have to be done in a harsh or crude way. They simply need to let him know that you feel uncomfortable in certain ways, and therefore, he needs to stop.
Your parents need to find out if there is any history of him being inappropriate with other girls. They can ask other relatives and other people who know him. If he has been inappropriate then parents of these girls will need to be notified, so they can take appropriate measures to protect the girls. This can be a very delicate situation and you don’t want to accuse anyone falsely, however, it’s too important an issue to take lightly.
You also have a right to set boundaries around how anyone touches you, no matter how lonely they are, how much they like you or you them. For any relationship to sustain, that clarity and boundary has to be honored. What do you fear in his anger?
For now, you ought to not be alone with him in any room, so he is inhibited and you have support if you need to say something and he has an outburst. You can physically hold your distance or stand close to another person when he is around. This will make it harder for him to have immediate access to you. Lastly, you can make a simple statement such as: “Please don’t put your arm around me.” Every person needs to learn such boundaries so they can relax and be themselves. Some assertiveness training could be helpful for you.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in the Bay Area. 650-325-8393. Visit www.wholenesstherapy.com