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How much does my friend's boyfriend have to suck before I'm allowed to say something?
By Cait Robinson
Have a question? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters may be edited for length, content, and clarity.
Dear Miss Information,
I'm a forty-one-year-old woman in a long-term relationship. My concern is over my lifelong crush. We met around age twenty. Both of us were dating other people, and somewhere in our late twenties, we had sex once. During that weekend he revealed his years-long love for me, and asked me to move in with him. I sensed he wasn't over his ex, so though I admitted all the feelings I'd been harboring for him, and couldn't resist having sex with him, I passed on all the other commitments, and told him why. He shut me out, acting hurt. Six years ago, we reconnected online, and have met in person, and been friends since then.
We've both since admitted to being closeted polyamorous folk, and that we're still attracted to each other. But when I asked my significant other for an open relationship, he flat-out refused. I accepted, and explained the whole thing to my friend; I apologized for everything, told him I still had feelings for him, and that I'd just have to live with it. He found a woman to have a monogamous relationship with, though I know that doesn't suit him any better than mine suits me.
Since then, he's been increasingly callous and cold with me — not at all the caring man I was holding a torch for all these years. He makes plans and doesn't show, takes my money and just expects more. He even asked me to buy expensive concert tickets for us to use, didn't show, then pretended he knew nothing about it. Every time, I do what he asks, and it just breaks my heart when he lets me down, every time. I keep hoping to mend the connection we once had.
Recently, I walked out. Literally, figuratively, de-friended, all that. I've gotten two emails. "Hey, what happened," and "Hey, things have been shitty for me these last two months, so I apologize if I did or said anything to offend you." This tells me he just doesn't get it, and worse, he may just not give a damn at all like I thought he did. Is it best to remain incommunicado, as we clearly can't see eye-to-eye on this? I still love the friend I thought he was — I'm just not sure if he still is or ever was that person. What would you do?
— Perplexed Poly-Anna
Dear Perplexed Poly-Anna,
This is a Russian nesting doll of a question, so we'll crack open a few of the bigger issues before we get to the center. Is it possible that the reason you're fixated on this guy at all is because your current relationship isn't doing it for you? I'm glad you respected your boyfriend's wishes, but, generally speaking, if you find yourself gazing out the window to a slow-motion montage of the good times you and this dude had, then you're almost definitely not present and happy in your current relationship. I'm not telling you to break up; I'm just suggesting that that might be an area for introspection.
Now, on to the crush. Unless he suffered massive head trauma in the last ten years, it is highly unlikely that your formerly thoughtful, kind friend has somehow become unable to grasp basic etiquette principles like "show up when you say you will." I would argue that the sepia-toned anecdote from yesteryear doesn't exactly paint him as an emotionally healthy guy, even then — what you told him didn't warrant him shutting you out in response. That's not the behavior of a good friend, let alone a good lover.
I don't think that he "doesn't get it" or that he "doesn't care." I can almost guarantee that he is playing dumb in a bid to slip out of blame. If he didn't get it, he wouldn't have the capacity to be, as you say, "callous." Manipulators are highly socially aware; they just use their powers for evil, not good. He obviously cares enough to keep you around, but not enough to stop disappearing on you, lying to you, and dragging you through the mud. As a cherry on top, the brief emails he sent you were about him ("these few months have been shitty for me"), with no acknowledgement of your well-being. That is some Blue Ribbon Selfishness, and he wins a $25 gift certificate to Cracker Barrel.
I want to stress that this is not about you. This isn't an issue of, "If only he loved me the way I love him, he wouldn't do this." This is an issue of, "I am a level-headed person trying to interpret the movements of a deeply wounded individual." He has not proved himself to be worth the effort. Your sticking around will only subject you to more bad treatment, and will validate to him that he can keep you in his life while making no effort to be kind, decent, or even so-so.
Dear Miss Information,
My best friend recently met a guy who's "as screwed up as she is" (her words), and they became intensely close friends. He would turn to her for help with his then-girlfriend who gave him hell. After a few months he broke up with the girlfriend, and he and my friend had the "we're just friends" phase for about two weeks, until they decided that they are completely in love and should be together.
I don't trust her boyfriend for many reasons. I told her when he broke up with his girlfriend to wait — it was too much of a mess — and now she feels amazingly insecure every time the ex's name is mentioned. He and the ex are still friends. When her friends call, she jokingly says, "I don't have permission from him." Even if she's "allowed" to go out, he sends her all these guilt-tripping texts ("Go, have fun without me, I'll stay here alone," or "Hope you're enjoying your time while I'm here...") and she ends up feeling bad. She stopped wearing heels or wearing her favorite shirt because he doesn't like them, and she drops whatever she is doing to comfort him at any time.
She's a caring person and she's willing to diminish herself for the sake of people she cares about. That's why I feel like I need to step up. I think her boyfriend is emotionally abusive and possessive, but I feel like I'm blinded by my worry for her sake. Is this just me being paranoid? Or should I confront her? She seems happy usually, and I know my opinion will affect her, and maybe even poison her relationship. I'm scared to move.
— Helicopter Friend
Dear Helicopter Friend,
If your gut reaction is that this guy is possessive or even abusive, then trust it. You should always feel entitled to express concern for a friend's well-being, so don't lose yourself in worry about your rights.
The much dicier issue is how to approach her. You are much more useful as a friend than as a narc, so tread lightly. Outside relationships are acutely important when there is a possible abuser in the picture, so ensuring that she considers you a confidante and a source of support is vital. When you broach the issue, take the angle of her behaviors, not his. "You never wear your favorite T-shirt anymore! Why is that?" is much less accusatory than "He told you to stop wearing that shirt, didn't he?" The former will open her up; the latter will shut her down.
Use this method to address all of the changes you find unsettling. Try talking about how her changed personality affects you: "Hey, it worries me when you say he doesn't give you permission to come out with us." Even if she laughs and makes excuses, knowing that her friends have noticed a change in her will likely stick in her memory. She may not be able to see these things herself, but if she hears them from enough people, she may start develop a more critical eye.
You say you know your opinion will affect her relationship. So lead her toward positive things: toward remembering the good people she has in her life; toward knowing that she doesn't need to compromise herself to get affection; toward recognizing her own strengths. If that affects her relationship, it'll only be for the best possible reasons.