Friends and girlfriends...ugh.
September 15, 2009 3:21 PM   Subscribe

I am in what is, for all intents and purposes, a great relationship. But there is one recurring issue which to me is a big deal, and I’m out of ideas of how to deal. This is going to be a bit long…

We are both women in our mid-to-late 20s. We’ve been together for 4 years, living together for 3. We have a ridiculously good relationship most of the time: similar values, similar vision for our (presumably shared) future, no conflicts around chores, that kind of thing, plus we’re still into each other and just generally totally in love. Now here’s the problem: there is some big issue around my best friend. My best friend is my ex from forever ago, who I dated for two years and then we broke up because we had NO chemistry and realized that obviously we were just meant to be friends. She is not the easiest person to like, but is not a bad person, either. My partner moved to live with me, and to the same city where my friend also lives, though my partner and I have now moved a few hours away. At first, my partner would sometimes hang out with us, usually in a group of other friends of mine, but would be really silent and withdrawn. Then, she decided to stop hanging out with those folks. Fine. While it would have been nice for everyone to get along, I don’t expect someone I’m with to be friends with my friends. But then she started freaking out every time I went out with my best friend. Like, crying (which she rarely does otherwise), being really needy, etc., and because I have some serious guilt issues, it would make me feel awful and eventually meant that I was hanging out less with my friend, which then of course caused issues with said friend.
So, cut to now: we live in a different city, it’s been 3 years since the start of all of that…and nothing seems to have changed. She still gets all weird if I want to call my friend to talk on the phone for a bit, and it’s pretty much impossible for me to plan to go and visit. I try to talk to her about it each time it comes up, but she’s not good at communicating what she’s feeling, so it always ends up with me feeling like I’m talking at her. I’ve tried to reassure her over and over that there is absolutely nothing other than friendship between me and friend, and that partner is the one I want to spend the rest of my life with. And I’m actually okay if she’s feeling jealous because of friend and my shared history or whatever; it’s the not taking responsibility and not dealing with it, and making me feel awful (okay, I know, she can’t *make* me feel anything) that’s the issue. I don’t know what to do. It feels really controlling to me, and while it now doesn’t come up all that often, because I avoid talking about friend or calling or whatever, because the situation’s so stressful, it’s the kind of thing that could eventually lead to a relationship breakdown.
So what do you think? Is there something I’m missing here, in terms of what I’m doing wrong? Do you have any advice that could help me to get her to change? Am I being an asshole? I really, really love her and want to make our relationship great, but I can’t do it alone…
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Is she interested in changing? That is, does she believe she has a problem with neediness, or does she see the problem as your outside friendship? If the former, you could gently suggest therapy or other strategies that could help ease her anxiety. But unfortunately, if it's the latter, you are unlikely to change that; after all, she sees it as she sees it, and in general, attempts to change people who do not want to change are likely to end up with everybody feeling frustrated. You are doing nothing wrong, and it would be a grievous mistake for you to accommodate her fears by changing your behavior. By doing so, you'd be reinforcing her mistaken notion that it is okay for her to control your behavior by exhibiting out-of-control emotions. Maybe couples therapy would help you set mutually acceptable boundaries.
posted by Wordwoman at 3:46 PM on September 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

What are Partner's objections to best friend? And does partner voice having anything against that set of friends you referenced?

One possibility is that Partner simply doesn't like or trust that friend or group of friends. She may sense or know something that you don't. You'll have to ask your partner.

What you are missing is that you live with your Partner, and these folks are a few hours away. I'm wondering where your priorities are, because people you don't see that often do not trump the person you share your bed with.

The more I think about your ask (since you probably can not respond to my questions) the more I think there is something you don't know. Maybe these folks snub your partner when you aren't looking. Maybe someone did or said something behind your back, and because your gf loves you, she didn't bring you into the drama.

I say this because although you complain of feeling controlled, you only reference this one situation involving this one friend and her crowd. You don't say this is a situation that repeats wherever you move and with whatever crowd of people you befriend.

Since we can't dialogue (and because I've kinda been in your gf's shoes) that is my best guess!
posted by jbenben at 3:49 PM on September 15, 2009

Am I being an asshole? I really, really love her and want to make our relationship great, but I can’t do it alone…

Nah, I don't think you're being an asshole at all. But....your partner may be. About this one thing. It's a flaw. The question is, what are your priorities here? Because I think that this flaw isn't going to change unless your partner realizes it's ridiculous and wants to change it. So I feel like there are two paths here:

1) you accept that this is a flaw that your partner has, that she's ridiculously jealous about your friend, and that being that everything else in your relationship is so good, you explain to your friend the situation as clearly and gently as you can and resign yourself to seeing a lot less of her.

2) you explain to your partner, as gently and clearly as you can, that you value you friend a great deal and are planning on keeping her in your life even though you know it upsets her, and offer to do anything you can --- counseling, whatever -- to help her see she can trust you, and resign yourself to having some fights over this issue for so long as you're together.

Which is kind of a long winded and wordy way to say...I think you have to either decide to put up with the fights and see your friend or put up with the bullshit and don't see her. Because people don't change unless they want to change, and your partner already knows how you feel about this.

Everything has a price. Pick the cost you're willing to pay. It's possible that your partner may come around someday, but there ain't no guarantees, so decide based on the worst case scenario, e.g., that she never will.
posted by Diablevert at 3:52 PM on September 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Try talking to your partner. Ask her straight out, but gently, why this friendship upsets her so.

- Is there something about the way you and your friend act when you're together that threatens her? I knew someone who tended to act... girlfriendy... towards attached people and it's crazy-making for a partner to be around. You might be unconsciously acting out "coupleish" phsyicalities with this friend as a holdover from your friendship, and maybe need to keep a bit of physical proximity (not stating this is the case, just suggesting one possible thing that would make her reaction more understandable).

- Did she have a previous relationship where she was cheated on? She might still be feeling a bit fragile.

- etc.

Just talk to her. Be frank but again gentle in stating that you find her to be reacting quite strongly in a situation that doesn't seem to warrant it in your eyes, and ask her to share with you where the strong feelings are coming from on her side. Maybe she needs to adjust her perceptions, maybe you need to revise your relationship with your friend to friend-not-ex levels... but above all talk.
posted by Billegible at 3:55 PM on September 15, 2009

The World Famous, it can and does happen. It's not usually quite so neat and clean in the moment, but it is often apparent in hindsight. (It may be more a lesbian thing...)
posted by restless_nomad at 3:56 PM on September 15, 2009

She is not the easiest person to like, but is not a bad person, either.

This caught my eye. What does this mean? In what ways is your friend not the easiest person to like? Is she rude, abrasive, or hurtful? You may be able to overlook these characteristics (or she may not act that way towards you), but I wouldn't expect your GF to do so. Especially in regards to your ex. I am friendly with some of my exes, but I certainly don't consider any of them "best friends" and wouldn't drive hours to hang out with them. I wouldn’t be thrilled if my husband wanted to do that, either. Female friends are ok, but things get complicated when it’s an ex. Are you sure you’re being fair to your GF?
posted by yawper at 4:18 PM on September 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I feel the need to gently point out that it is normal and usual for lesbians to remain friends with their exes. It's a cultural difference. Bowing out now.
posted by Wordwoman at 4:22 PM on September 15, 2009 [4 favorites]

As someone whose wife is now, 15+ years later friends with my ex-girlfriend who I dated on and off for 10 years, I think it unusual to be best friends with an ex. If I had told my wife that I was going to visit my ex for the weekend 3 years after we met, but don't worry, we are just friends, let us just say that that dog wouldn't hunt. While I think your mate is being overly dramatic with the crying, I think you are putting her in an unnecessarily bad spot.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:23 PM on September 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I try to talk to her about it each time it comes up, but she’s not good at communicating what she’s feeling, so it always ends up with me feeling like I’m talking at her.
See, that's some bullshit. She fucks up your vibe with your best friend, refuses to talk to you about this big issue four years into your relationship, and you're feeling something other than manipulated and put upon? The term fellas use in this situation is sack up.

Your GF is 'not good at communicating,' but that's too goddamn bad. Talking to you about this is one of the requirements she has to fulfill as your girlfriend. Three years living together and she still goes to pieces over a woman you dated half a decade ago? Ugh. You asked what you're doing wrong. Well, I'd suggest a couple of things:

* Be direct with GF. What you want is happiness all around, right? So confront her with the possibility of happiness. 'Honeybabycakes, what would make you happy here?' 'This is my best friend and I want to see her. How can I make you more comfortable with the fact that I'm going to visit my friend?'

* Bring them into contact (even just metaphorically). Hiding from another human being because you're jealous of them is craven and lame, but it's also just stressful and tiring. I think we fear what we don't understand (or misunderstand); help increase her understanding. Talk to her about your past with this woman; help GF understand her as a more complex person rather than a Symbol of the Inevitability of Your Leaving or whatever bogeyman she's imagining.

* Enrich your life in other ways. The more robust your web of relationships, the less likely one paranoid imagining is to screw things up permanently. Take her someplace comfortable, maybe with friends, drink a bottle of nice wine, and talk candidly about all kinds of things. Let your XGF be one of those things. Let your GF see how small her fantasy is in comparison to just life.

Jealousy is a preoccupation; it blocks open-minded engagement. You can reopen GF's mind to the just-plain-humanity of your relationship w/XGF the same way you'd expose someone to the good things about any scary experience or idea. The fact that you and GF sleep together doesn't mean you should put up with her being babyish about your XGF. You have to teach her.
posted by waxbanks at 4:31 PM on September 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

(There's also the possibility that you're wrong about your XGF and you being, er, entirely broken up in her mind, and your GF sees it. I suppose that's something to consider, however briefly.)
posted by waxbanks at 4:33 PM on September 15, 2009

So what do you think? Is there something I’m missing here, in terms of what I’m doing wrong?

Not really. If you were in a hetero relationship you'd have a bunch of handy tropes about "crazy jealous girlfriend" or "insecure jealous boyfriend" that would be running up the flagpole about now. This doesn't seem that different to me; it would be unreasonable of you to demand that your ex and your partner be best buds, but your partner throwing passive-aggressive, manipulative tantrums to cut you off from your ex and circle of friends places her firmly outside the bounds of decent relationship behaviour.
posted by rodgerd at 4:50 PM on September 15, 2009

I think it's reasonable to be uncomfortable with the idea of one's SO visiting and staying with an ex in another city. I also think it's reasonable to be wary of an intense emotional connection between one's SO and her ex.

Not discussing this, though, is unreasonable, particularly given that you and your ex had established a post-breakup friendship before you began your current relationship. I think you should consider making an offer (if you can do so honestly) that you would like to have an actual, emotionally honest conversation with your partner (perhaps mediated by a therapist) in which you discuss this friendship and come to an agreement about its place in your life. In other words, if it matters enough to be a deal-breaker for your partner, you will consider ending this friendship, but the two of you need to hash out the assumptions and emotions that are contributing to this conflict even if it's a hard conversation for your partner to consider having.
posted by Meg_Murry at 4:51 PM on September 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

I try to talk to her about it each time it comes up, but she’s not good at communicating what she’s feeling, so it always ends up with me feeling like I’m talking at her. I’ve tried to reassure her over and over that there is absolutely nothing other than friendship between me and friend, and that partner is the one I want to spend the rest of my life with.

This strikes me as the root of the problem. Why can't she communicate? I don't want to read too much into your description, but it almost sounds like when she tries, you end up dominating the conversation. But whatever exactly happens, it sounds like you two don't have yet have a way to talk through these issues, and that's going to make it hard to spend the rest of your life with her.

On the ex, from what you've told us it sounds like your partner is making unfair demands-- making it hard to even call your friend, for instance-- though it's not always easy to deal with exes. But it sounds like your partner can't articulate exactly what the problem is, so I think that needs to be dealt with first.
posted by zompist at 4:57 PM on September 15, 2009

My first thought is that your current SO thinks your ex-girlfriend/now best friend is still interested you in a romantic and/or sexual way. She may see things you do not. It is common for a partner to notice crushes on or someone else's interest in her SO before the SO does. If that's the case, it doesn't mean she doesn't trust you, it just means she feels threatened and may not appreciate someone else trying to undermine her relationship. It's an uncomfortable position to be in, and she may be looking for you to be more protective of your relationship.

Do I think it's reasonable that you are friends with your ex? Sure, but best friends? That should be your current SO. Is it fair that she is not voicing her concerns or dealing with the emotional fallout when your ex pops up in your life? No, of course not. She needs to have this conversation with you, no matter how unpleasant it may be. You should also consider what you are willing to give up. Can you scale back your friendship with the ex? Are you willing to let this one issue poison your current relationship? Know the answers to this going into the conversation, because it will help you navigate an emotionally turbulent exchange. Ultimately, does this mean you have to choose between these two people? Absolutely, and if your current SO is the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, it should be a relatively easy choice. Good luck!
posted by katemcd at 5:08 PM on September 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

Do you belong with each other or to each other? Answer that and act accordingly.

Anyone who purports to love you, and whose trust you have earned wants you to have strong community, abundant friends, and close connections with the world.

Absent those factors, I would question the 'love' part rather strongly.
posted by FauxScot at 5:41 PM on September 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

I really, really love her and want to make our relationship great, but I can’t do it alone…

I feel like this is the key, right here. Can you have a sincere conversation where you ask your GF about this issue, and put the emphasis on what you've said in that sentence there?

Relationships aren't one-way streets. You seem to be putting forth the effort to work this out; let her know you want to work it out, but you both need to fully engage to do that.

Counseling might also be a good place to iron this out, particularly if you both feel that this relationship is one you want to keep for the rest of your lives.
posted by dryad at 6:25 PM on September 15, 2009

the thing that caught my eye was "I try to talk to her about it each time it comes up"

when is this? when you want to make plans to go see the Ex? when you were living in the same city and just leaving for the evening with the Ex + friends? when the ex comes up in conversation? these are all bad times to try to figure out what your girlfriend is really feeling.

have you ever had something that just made you irrationally angry/scared/frustrated/threatened? maybe something as simple as public speaking - you wring your hands for a week, you don't sleep well, you try to practice your speech, but you keep forgetting the words - and then 10 minutes before you're due to finally have it over with, someone asks you why you're so freaked out. that'd probably end in stress, maybe tears. you've already freaked yourself out so badly and thought about all the ways it could go wrong, that being forced to talk about it would just send you over the edge.

here's my point, if you have the conversation when she's already feeling emotionally charged about, it might be keeping her from being open and honest about how she's feeling. it could be that she's unable to tell you what's up because she's surrounded with how angry/scared/frustrated/threatened/hurt she's feeling. i liken it to fight or flight, she's resorting to emotional blackmail and then shutting down as her way to deal.

so. what to do? you need to prepare yourself for a tough night and sit her down. try to pick a time where other stresses aren't weighing and no other fight is hanging in the wings. ask her, as patiently and as kindly as you can, "i believe there is nothing in this world that we can't overcome as long as we face it together. however, it seems that my friendship with the Ex causes turmoil, and since i struggle to understand what troubles you, i have a hard time facing this problem with you. i really want to be sensitive to your feelings, but i need your help in identifying them."

then, wait. maybe prod just a little bit, but let her collect her thoughts. let her start talking. don't interrupt, don't jump in to disagree or correct her. give her minutes of silence between her answers. don't try to fill the gaps in the conversation. the point of all this is to give her a safe place to work out a way to talk to you. she might resist at first. she might try to change the subject. she might try to escalate it into a fight. don't let her. that's the fight or flight again. gently, but firmly, restate that you really love her and that you need her help.

what you do after that really depends on what she says, but until you know what bothers her you won't be able to fix it. if you guys really have the relationship you describe in the first part of your question, you'll find a way past this.
posted by nadawi at 6:46 PM on September 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

I feel the need to gently point out that it is normal and usual for lesbians to remain friends with their exes. It's a cultural difference. Bowing out now.

It is also normal and usual for straight folks to remain friends with their exes.

Not to the same extent and with the same regularity as it is for lesbians, it isn't (in my experience, from what I know, YMMV, etc etc.).

And I think this is relevant because (again, in my experience), the VAST majority of lesbians who hang out together have ALL dated each other at some point, it's just the way it goes in very, very small communities. It's very much the norm, which is why your GF's reaction seems so odd to me.

Do you guys not have a group of other lesbians you socialize with in your town? If not, maybe that's it, she's just experiencing this dynamic for the first time and it's scary to her?
posted by tristeza at 8:01 PM on September 15, 2009

Your partner should be your best friend. You should make it clear to her that she is.
posted by naplesyellow at 8:22 PM on September 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, in my experience, it can be horrible to spend time with my partner and his old friends. Well, at least, it used to be. We've been together 12 years now, and it's not at all like it used to be.

The first half of our relationship, it bored the hell out of me. Mind, there was no language issue, as his friends all speak good English (partner speaks Dutch). The problem is, old friends have a tendency to talk about old times. Old times from before you were involved. And that's usually totally boring for those that weren't there. Add this to the tendency to spend more time than anticipated. Or a partner (mine!) who is terrible and disengaging and saying "good night", when the other half has had enough.

Or my partner's best friend, the worst one, who is/was extremely bad at disengaging, and worse, will change plans and self-invite. If I send my partner to visit him by himself, he's sure to come back latter than expected. No jealousy involved, friend is straight!

Looking back, it's rather funny how different things are now. Now, "old times" include times with me. Said best friend has changed a lot, too. He's more laid back. It's not that I ever especially disliked the guy, he's actually quite interesting. (All my partner's friends are interesting to some degree, and nice people).

It was worse with my first partner, but we had an imbalance when it came to social life. He was much more interested in social life than I was. Now, I don't have that issue. Is it possible that your partner is just more introverted than you are?
posted by Goofyy at 10:09 PM on September 15, 2009

If this is an ongoing issue of jealousy and control that comes up in other areas, that's an issue for you and your partner to work on together, maybe in therapy or maybe good old DTMFA.

If she just has this one issue with this one friend, if it were me, I'd drop the friend. I'd prefer not to be asked to, but I'd be willing to do it. Sometimes people have irrational crazy feelings about one thing or another and in a big deal long term committed relationship, that person comes before everyone.

That said, it'd better be that one person, that one thing, that one time, and not a whole raft of crazy behavior that involves cutting you off from your family, telling you your clothes make you look fat, and removing your friends from your life, one by one.

But this friend is an ex of yours and my opinion is that friendships with ex's continue only with the approval of your (committed) partner, at their discretion.

That's my personal belief. Both Mr llama and I have friendships with ex's, me with my ex-husband. We check in with each other before having lunch with them or whatever and make sure the other person feels okay about it. But if he told me he hated the thought of my ex coming over to to say hi or whatever, that'd be that for that particular friendship.

And part of the reason we've been comfortable with those friendships continuing is that it's understood that it's with the other's approval, it's not something that we force on each other.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:23 AM on September 16, 2009

We can't say, of course, what is really going on with your girlfriend and your ex, and unfortunately, your girlfriend can't either, because of feelings or observations that she can't articulate. In no particular order, the most likely probabilities are:

1. She's irrational and imagining Bad Things where none exist. Is this borne out by other behavior on her part? Does she display irrational jealousy about anyone else? Does she often feel insecure about your relationship generally (not necessarily to do with your ex)?

2. She has perfectly rational reasons that you don't recognize, but she can't explain. It can be terribly difficult to relate to someone else how certain things like body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, even choices of words and certain subjects of conversation can be "attack-y" or undermining. Doesn't mean it's not completely real, but one feels like a fool trying to communicate such seemingly vague data that is likely to be entirely discounted by the other person.

3. The "difficult" ex is innocent of consciously or subconsciously trying to cause trouble with your girlfriend, and your girlfriend is not generally insecure or irrational, but because of fundamental differences in personality/behaviors/beliefs/communication styles between the two, they are water and oil, and will just never mix in a way that will feel comfortable to you. It happens.

There are three pieces to this puzzle that you must evaluate as best you can in order to determine which is the likely scenario. If your girlfriend tends to be insecure, you tend to be a bit oblivious of feelings sometimes, and your ex can seem prickly/catty/cold, it may be #1. If your girlfriend tends to have good instincts generally, you are basically an optimist and usually see the best in people, and your ex can sometimes be possessive or likes to be the center of attention, it could be #2; if you fairly frequently feel like a person who "bridges the gap" among people/friends who otherwise have different sensibilities/habits/behavior, someone who can mix and mingle among very different groups, while your girlfriend and your ex are more likely to stick with their own selective group of friends, it might be #3.

All that is ridiculously simplified, of course, but, in shorthand, those are the sorts of things you need to evaluate here, both in getting it straight in your own head, and in discussion with your girlfriend. In the case of #1, even if you never see or speak with your ex again, the situation will recur in some other form, and your girlfriend needs counseling and your patience to overcome the problem. If it's #2, you need to trust your girlfriend that things probably aren't as simple and innocent as they appear to you, and modify your relationship with your ex accordingly. If it's #3 you need to push forward with some resolution of what level of friendship, under what conditions, are okay with both you and girlfriend, possibly with the help of a third party.

In any case, putting your relationship with your girlfriend above your relationship with your ex is the minimum that you do for love.
posted by taz at 2:55 AM on September 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Couples counseling might help, especially since your conflict has been going on for several years.

From personal experience, some lesbians remain friends with their ex-partners, some don't. My ex (18 year relationship) assumed we would be friends, but I just couldn't do it. People are different.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:38 AM on September 16, 2009

Seriously consider that after you talk to or hang out with your ex, you behave differently towards your girlfriend and it scares her.

I don't think it's fair to call this behavior controlling unless she is controlling in other areas.
posted by kathrineg at 9:39 AM on September 16, 2009

I came in to basically say what taz said but she said it much better. If your girlfriend isn't insecure and jealous about other women in your life (anything from random women in the street to female co-workers) that I would say the problem isn't really the girlfriend but the ex. It sounds like your girlfriend trusts you but doesn't trust the ex (for whatever reason).

Reading your question, the line about how this has caused issues with the ex made me wonder what the ex has done to mitigate the situation. If I was hanging with an ex and found out their current SO was unhappy with that I would non-confrontationally write a letter to the SO assuring them my behavior would always be exemplarily and fade into the background if my friendship continued causing difficulties in their relationship - or, if I wanted to be a shit-disturber I would pressure my ex to see me and subtly insult the new SO and her insecurity.

it’s the not taking responsibility and not dealing with it, and making me feel awful
So she is jealous and insecure about your ex, how do you propose she takes responsibility of it and deal with it? Jealousy and insecurity about an ex is pretty normal - even in the lesbian community. It sounds like you want to have your way (jealous-free girlfriend and friendship with your ex) without taking her feelings into consideration.
posted by saucysault at 11:01 AM on September 16, 2009

it’s the not taking responsibility and not dealing with it, and making me feel awful
So she is jealous and insecure about your ex, how do you propose she takes responsibility of it and deal with it?

well - for one, the girlfriend could admit to those feelings and not use emotional blackmail to get her point across.
posted by nadawi at 1:43 PM on September 21, 2009

well - for one, the girlfriend could admit to those feelings

So if the girlfriend admits she is jealous then what? Either the girlfriend has to ignore her own feelings (which she has tried and it is upsetting to both of them) or the OP has to modify the behaviour that is causing the jealousy. Oftentimes jealous pops up because one person in a relationship feels threatened; insecurity can be a valid and rational response to someone trying to break up a relationship - especially an ex. Right now she feels insecure that you will choose the ex over her and your behaviour (continuing to talk/visit the ex despite upsetting your girlfriend and reassuring her with words but not actions) bears out her fears. Although the OP makes it sound that the ex is from a long time ago ("forever") the math of their ages and length of relationships probably mean there was only a couple of years at most between relationships - very recent and still very fresh to the girlfriend.

Characterising the girlfriend's behaviour as controlling seems such a drastic, irrational response to the girlfriend's valid feelings makes me think this is a huge communication problem between the two where the OP isn't really listening to the girlfriend (or giving her a chance to talk) and the OP isn't willing to make changes but expects her girlfriend to make all the changes instead. nadawi gave a great template for talking the problem out and deciding what your mutual next steps will be. Maybe the friendship with the ex can be picked up after some real time has passed. Conversely, if you decide to break up, I guess her feelings of jealousy and insecurity were valid after all.
posted by saucysault at 6:52 AM on September 22, 2009

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