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‘Can you love someone who did bad things?’: Angst in sex misconduct scandals extends beyond victims

Co-anchors Hoda Kotb and Savannah Guthrie embrace on the set of the “Today” show on Wednesday in New York after NBC News fired host Matt Lauer. (Craig Ruttle/AP)

The visibly shaken TV hosts tried to keep their composure behind the desk as they announced that their colleague Matt Lauer was fired for sexual misconduct allegations. Last week it was Charlie Rose’s co-anchors who looked like deer in headlights as they announced accusations against him. Before that, the public saw comedian Sarah Silverman struggling with the news of Louis C.K.’s transgressions.

As famous man after famous man is accused of sexual misconduct — Garrison Keillor was also accused Wednesday – the victims who are speaking out bear the brunt of the emotional trauma and professional backlash. But the friends, colleagues and loved ones of the accused are also left to make sense of what happened, sometimes in a very public way.

“All we can say is we are heartbroken,” said Lauer’s co-host, Savannah Guthrie who appeared to be close to tears as she disclosed his firing. “I’m heartbroken. . . . How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly?”

They are in what is known as “secondary trauma,” experts say, meaning they were not the person allegedly harassed or assaulted, but they experience a deep sense of betrayal from a person they thought they knew.

And it raises the question: What does someone do if a friend, colleague or loved one is accused of such a thing? What happens to that relationship?

NBC announced the termination of "Today" host Matt Lauer on Nov. 29. The following morning, Lauer issued an apology. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Silverman spoke about it on her Hulu show “I Love You, America” when C.K., her close friend, apologized after he was accused of masturbating in front of young women.

“I love Louis, but Louis did these things. Both of those statements are true, so I just keep asking myself, can you love someone who did bad things? Can you still love them?” Silverman said.

A revelation like this can be difficult to handle for anyone and even more so when they’re in the public eye and their emotions are on display, said Angela C. Esquivel, co-founder and chief executive of the nonprofit As One Project, a support organization for friends and family of survivors of sexual abuse.

“It shakes us to our core when we learn that someone we are close to or we’ve known for a long time has been doing these acts or crimes against other people,” Esquivel said. “It can cause us a feeling of ‘If what I knew before is no longer true, what is true now?’”

She said people might have different reasons to either keep or end the relationship. Family members, for example might have more incentive to hold onto the relationship, while someone who always thought the man was creepy might be happy to let it go.

“Are relationships salvageable is such a tough question,” Esquivel said. “Depending on the relationship, both parties might want to salvage what’s there. [But] there definitely would be a great barrier.”

She said there’s not a wrong way to approach it.

“Shunning the person that did this might be helpful for some, and for others it might not be,” she said.

When Charlie Rose’s co-anchor Gayle King was on air the morning after The Washington Post revealed that eight women had accused him of sexual harassment, she was candid about her feelings.

On Nov. 21, "CBS This Morning" co-hosts Norah O'Donnell and Gayle King weighed in on the allegations against Charlie Rose. (Video: Reuters)

“I really am reeling,” King said. “I got one hour and 42 minutes of sleep last night. Both my son and my daughter called me; Oprah called me and said, ‘Are you okay?’ I am not okay.”

The best chance of saving a relationship is if a person offers a sincere apology both to the victims and secondary victims, is generally remorseful and works to make amends to the people they’ve hurt, experts said.

The recent tide of apologies by famous men has been ‘awful.’ Here’s what the men should have said.

And, of course, figuring out if or how a relationship can withstand such a situation has a lot to do with the depth of the relationship in the first place.

“If a person feels like they can see something bigger beyond the behavior they might think it’s worth it to maintain the relationship,” said Dallas-based sex therapist Michael Salas said. “If there’s a core that’s bigger.”

Experts say it is important not to make excuses for the behavior or put the allegations in a hierarchy of bad behavior by other men.

Violent behavior is in its own awful category but experts say nonviolent misdeeds should be taken very seriously as well. Don’t try to figure out what’s worse, for example, for a man to pat a woman’s behind without permission or for him to walk around naked in front of her. That, they say, can be a form of minimizing the misdeeds, even denying them.

“People are missing the point when they compare the allegations,” Salas said. “What’s happening when people come forward is that we say we are no longer going to pretend these things are okay.”

He said the common theme of all the allegations is men who misuse their power and women who for a long time thought they had to endure it in silence.

“They’re all speaking to a similar stream of power and silence around sex and people not always feeling safe to come forward,” Salas said.

If a person is feeling brave and thinks it could be helpful, they could reach out to the person who has been accused of misconduct, Salas said. That person might not call back, or be willing to talk at all, he said, but if they do, there’s a few things you can say.

“You can say ‘I don’t want there to be silence, I want to get this out in the open,’” Salas said. “You can say ‘I want to know where you are in this’. That can help you unpack your own values and try to figure out: Do I want to continue to talk to this person?”

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