How do I handle my girlfriend's "ex-boyfriend"/cousin/roommate?
August 21, 2011 12:28 AM   Subscribe

How do I handle my girlfriend's "ex-boyfriend"/best friend/ male cousin/roommate?

If you read my last question, my girlfriend was having a borderline inappropriate relationship with her male cousin.

It turns out that he has romantic feelings for her, but she does not have that for him. He confessed as much, and moved out because the pain of being near her was too much for him. He has never wanted to meet me.

It has been a source of tension for us because although she realizes what the cousin feels is wrong, she still wants a friendship with him. In the meantime, they have had sporadic email communication, over practical matters mostly. But he is a musician, and has been sending her mp3s of love songs that he writes and records.

Now, after 3 months of him out of her apartment, we are all invited to a family function. Should I go? Her? How should I handle her having contact with him? It's clear that he still has feelings. I've accepted that as a cousin, he will be in her life, in some way. But what do I do?
posted by antipode12 to Human Relations (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
At this point, all you can do is drive her away or trust her. She's made her desires clear, so you should trust her there. Treat her like an adult, and I doubt you'll be disappointed.
posted by Gilbert at 12:37 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's actually a well-known phenomenon that close blood relations who meet for the first time as adults sometimes feel strong attraction.

However, that doesn't mean at all what she/they are doing is okay.

It sounds like you have been shockingly patient. I think most people would have bailed a long time ago. I think you need to set the boundaries that should be set no matter who this man was.

They want to be friends? Fine. He needs to get over his feelings for her, never mention them, stop making family functions awkward, stop making you feel unwelcome, and for fuck's sake, can it with the motherfucking love songs. Essentially his behavior needs to be 100% platonic and that include being normal towards you.

I would show up at that family function and if he caused a problem, I would consider it her responsibility to deal with.

And just because he's a cousin, doesn't mean he HAS to be in her life. Especially not if he's going to keep acting like this. She can make her own choices about who she wants in her life, and you can make yours about where your boundaries are and at what point you call it quits.
posted by Ashley801 at 12:40 AM on August 21, 2011 [14 favorites]

Response by poster: Ashley, thanks for the support.

Sometimes it's a strong voice that really helps.
posted by antipode12 at 12:51 AM on August 21, 2011

I had one situation that wasn't quite so fraught, but which I consider terribly similar in many ways: my husband's first girlfriend, who was also his childhood and neighborhood close friend, and also his sister's best friend... and who also felt she had claims on him, and who resented me.

I won't go into the whole long story, but she was terribly rude to me and treated me like an outsider among insiders (and encouraged that view of me among others), and even though she was with someone else, still viewed my partner (live-with-SO then, husband now) as "hers." I didn't concern myself too much because we lived far away, and I was secure about the relationship... and then we moved to the same city.

Ultimately, husband and I had a Very. Serious. Talk. and this is what I told him: You don't have to recognize or understand or even acknowledge the dynamic of what is happening here, but you have to trust that I do, and you have to do what is needed to protect us from threat/trouble from this area.

I didn't demand (or expect, at all) that he not see her, but I told him she would like to break us up, and that he should act very carefully... I would say that I also sort of threatened that if, after telling him this, he allowed himself to become entangled in her maneuvers (not even necessarily sexual stuff at this point), that I would take that as a choice on his part – that he was choosing her over me. (Which flabbergasted him – "I would never... how could you even imagine that??!!")

We had also been together for seven years at that point, and he knew I wasn't a jealous person at all, so this was helpful. But it was still a struggle. They were like family, plus, being each others "first," and still all belonging to the same close group of friends whose family members belonged to the same group of friends. But in the end, it all turned around, and she began seeking my friendship and being very insistent about integrating me into the circle (circles, really – many, many, many intersecting circles)... But this was Plan B. Plan A was cut me right out, with great Alpha Female incisors.

My husband did the needed. He didn't stop seeing her (which I never asked, and which would have been weird and awkward), but he resisted efforts to separate us in any way, and efforts to make him feel that I was someone from the "outside," and efforts to take up his time and attention and undermine our relationship. (and also, I'm not exactly a Beta Female myself, which is not very immediately obvious because I'm a very laid-back, low-key, low-motivation sort – until you start fucking with my happy life.)

But my thing was, if my husband was unwilling to understand or respect my feelings about the matter, then he wasn't the person I imagined him to be, and I was better off knowing that.

Sometimes you just have to say how things need to be. I think you must tell your girlfriend that she needs to straighten up her cousin: no more love songs, no communication that doesn't respect your relationship, no overly intimate "emotional-affair" type communication.

If she's unwilling, I'd be unwilling to stay with her. Otherwise, go to the family function, absolutely! You are her boyfriend, you are pre-family, likely to be family; go, and be your wonderful self, just as you are.
posted by taz at 5:05 AM on August 21, 2011 [41 favorites]

You've been dating her since around February, yes? Recognize that despite how well you feel you know her, you've only been together for half a year. You're stil in the boundary-setting portion of your relationship. And she is already past the big problem, that is, living with the guy who says he's in love with her. Great! Onto the next problem. Tell her that you're uncomfortable with someone who says they love her sending her love songs. This is something she needs to put a stop to and she can, since communication with her is so valuable to her cousin.

Additionally, he has been avoiding seeing you pretty persistently in the past. Why do you think he'll let up at the family function? I'd say GO, and make it very clear that you'll both be going. I'd bet there is a very high likelihood that he won't show.
posted by arnicae at 5:45 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

It has been a source of tension for us because although she realizes what the cousin feels is wrong, she still wants a friendship with him.

As a girl who has a hard time letting go, I'd say she misses the closeness of her friendship with him. I don't think this is a huge problem, but it's probably something she doesn't realize. At the same time, she has obviously already chosen you over him, and he's probably jealous and hurt and trying to "get her back" by pretending to be okay-ish with your relationship while sending her constant "read-between-the-lines" messages to her that he isn't okay with it. And she probably fears losing him completely.

Do you ever talk to him? It might be time for you to have a heart to heart with him. She sounds like she's too unwilling to set the boundaries with him (which isn't necessarily a bad thing -- that can be very hard, especially since you guys haven't been dating that long in the grand scheme of things). If you have a chat with him and really make your intentions clear, without being accusatory of his actions, he might realize that you guys have a serious relationship and that his furtive attempts to undermine it are not only pointless, but wrong.
posted by DoubleLune at 6:34 AM on August 21, 2011

I would say to go to the gathering. It's his problematic behaviour, not yours or hers. He needs help, not you guys, though obviously you can't suggest it to him

If you do go, you should probably act as a unit, and not show any signs of tension while together. Creepy stalker people will latch onto anything that reinforces their crazy notions. If it gets too much to bear, I'd probably make a prior decision to leave together.
posted by Magnakai at 7:54 AM on August 21, 2011

Why would you not go? Don't send that message unless you want to encourage this inappropriate behavior. You are her boyfriend, you are invited. Go. Do not confront cousin though you should stick up for your girl if necessary. I have a feeling this will work itself out. I hope she's able to draw the line with cousin more distinctly. This event may help her do that.
posted by amanda at 8:18 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Everyone else has addressed the big pieces, but about this get-together, I would take her lead. Five months is early enough that the question of how you relate to her family can't be assumed. I would have a talk similar to what taz describes, but then I'd ask her how best to handle this event.

Myself, I don't think I would go. It's his family, and if he doesn't want to see you, I'd leave him that space. Fundamentally, it's her job to clean this up, at least to the point where you feel welcome and don't even think to ask this question, and if she hasn't finished that cleaning, you don't need to walk into the middle of the mess. Publicly, you two could make up a convincing cover story to avoid seeming like it had anything to do with him.

But you have every right to, so if you want to: go! His awkward feelings are fundamentally his problem. It's not like the other family members are going to gang up against you ("why don't you get out of her life so she can get with him?" no), and you were invited and are welcome. If you guys RSVP early, he'll maybe stay home or with luck, man up and decide to get to know you.
posted by salvia at 9:58 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

He's family, so they're going to have a familiar relationship. I guess you have to deal with that. But I would not put up with him sending her love songs. She needs to tell him to cut it out.
posted by xammerboy at 10:03 AM on August 21, 2011

Response by poster: A few points to clarify:
-- he *will* be going
-- he has emailed her saying so
-- he has *never* seen or spoken to me
-- i've met all of her family already.
posted by antipode12 at 1:49 PM on August 21, 2011

What everyone else has said about the relationship stuff: sounds like she's chosen you but she's missing all the loving attention she had been getting from her cousin and probably doesn't realize. You're perfectly within your boyfriend rights to ask her to set more boundaries with him. As taz said, "no more communication that doesn't respect your relationship" is a perfectly reasonable thing to ask your girlfriend to ask of her friends.

As for the family event, I think salvia above is being very kind and generous suggesting you allow him space and not attend since you know it will probably ruin his time. I don't really think you owe him this, but if you're feeling real nice, it's a nice gesture. Maybe take your girlfriends lead here. Otherwise, I think the family event would actually serve as a great time to go, act normal with your girlfriend and her family and show the cousin that you don't necessarily mean any harm but you're not going anywhere, you're in the mix now and he needs to get used to it. Maybe seeing you guys together in an environment where he will be socially required to act relatively normal will help him face facts.

Final note: it may also help your girlfriend move on. if she's going to be wishy-washy about this and draw it out, favor his feelings over yours, it's a bit of a red flag.
posted by dahliachewswell at 3:21 PM on August 21, 2011

What does she say about the idea of you two going? Your follow-up left out a number of variables, but to me, that's the most relevant one.

In your last question, you said she thought he was the codependent one. To me, his behavior sounds potentially "controlling," while it's her behavior that sounds potentially "codependent." The burden is on her to structure her life in a way that makes her boyfriend feel welcome. And it sounds like she's been putting up with inappropriate behavior as the apparent price of keeping him in her life. Putting up with unwelcome crap rather than drawing a boundary is not a hallmark of a healthy relationship.

That explains your discomfort here. It would be best if you could turn to her and say "hey, should we go to dinner with your family? Or do you want to go by yourself?" But it's hard to trust that her decisions would navigate the two of you to a comfortable relationship with her family where your own needs (both of your needs) have their proper place. It sounds like she accedes to inappropriate requests to avoid upsetting him (and others?), and at times has expected you two as a unit to do the same. This makes this hard on you, because neither of the easy options -- put up with a bunch of crap, or intercede to create better boundaries -- are very sustainable.

A better option would be to support her in getting more familiar with her own needs and putting them first, and also to model good behavior by non-aggressively speaking up for your own needs. (I say non-aggressively because you don't want to become the next person she takes crap from.) So I'd work with her to come to a decision that respects her needs and yours. I'd incorporate a realistic assessment of how Mr. Cousin might behave, but not focus so much on protecting his emotions.
posted by salvia at 4:48 PM on August 21, 2011

Go. Maybe he'll back off if he you become "real" to him. When you meet him, shake his hand and look him in the eye... for slightly too long.
posted by spaltavian at 7:53 PM on August 21, 2011

Response by poster: A few more things to add:
-- yes, my gf *is* cdependent, which is how she ended up in such a dicey relationship with him in the first place. She has copped to this already.
-- Also, she fears conflict, and "just wants her friend back," even though the relationship she had with him is built upon the wrong feelings.
-- She craves family desperately, because hers is very very shattered.
-- We've talked at length about her respecting my needs... the catch is always that she doesn't view him like you might view an ex-boyfriend. I often say, "If one of my exes were to text me saying 'I hope you're doing ok. I love you'." But she sees him as a cousin, so...

I convinced her to let me meet with him. She emailed and requested that he and I meet for a beer, alone. Maybe it will make the relationship "real", and maybe help him move on?

What should I say to him? I don't want anything getting back to *her* that will really upset her.
posted by antipode12 at 2:03 PM on August 22, 2011

I convinced her to let me meet with him. She emailed and requested that he and I meet for a beer, alone. Maybe it will make the relationship "real", and maybe help him move on?

What should I say to him? I don't want anything getting back to *her* that will really upset her.

Jeez. So much drama. In my mind, the rule for ex-boyfriends is that they need to move on. The rule for ex-boyfriends who are also somehow related? They also need to move on. You know whose responsibility it is not that this ex moves on? The current boyfriend.

What is the pretext for you two meeting? Does this cousin even know about you? I mean, really? It sounds like she has never been direct about the romantic stuff and is sort of hoping that he'll get the hint... somehow. It's ridiculous. If I were in your shoes, I'd treat it not like confronting some guy who is trying to steal your girl but rather like you're meeting one of her family members. Take control of the atmosphere by stating, "Hey, so you're X's cousin! Nice to meet you. What do you do?" Etc., etc. Don't stay longer than one beer.

If you must draw a line around your girl, save it for a moment when you can get in close, out of earshot and eyesight of your girlfriend and say, "you know, girlfriend says you send her some pretty romantic emails. I'd like you to knock that off." Hopefully, you have the swagger to pull that off. But, if not.... I don't know. Don't get drawn in to this unfortunate love triangle that your girlfriend has created.

Good luck.
posted by amanda at 2:58 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Waitacottonpickinminit! I totally missed the "alone" part.

Ha. No way. She goes with you or forget it. This makes no sense.

Don't get drawn in to this unfortunate love triangle that your girlfriend has created.
posted by amanda at 3:00 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Haha -- actually *I* insisted it be alone. I want to speak with him more firmly and frankly than I could with her there.

I was thinking something like... "Look, we both know what your deal is, and she can't say this because she cares about you as her cousin, but you need to knock *all* this shit off..."

Swagger. Yes please.
posted by antipode12 at 8:38 AM on August 23, 2011

Best answer: I know it's frustrating for you that she doesn't stand up for herself or set boundaries with her cousin. I really don't think the solution is to set them yourself, though. He knows that regardless of what you say, she makes the final decision about herself. As an intermediary, putting up a tough front when the real decision maker won't back you up risks making you look like a foolish blowhard. Recognize how powerless you truly are here.

If you do go, which I wouldn't, you have to start from a place where your only power is your decency as a human being. If you really respect him, you might be able to bond over your mutual respect for her, then explain to him how much she really wants to stay connected as family and that it's been hard on her to have distance from him. If you are an advocate for what she truly wants, and say true things, and treat him in a respectful way, he'll have more respect for you as a straight-shooter. You might be able to give him a fuller picture and thereby change how he sees the situation.

But you're heading down a bad path with her. How can you respect someone you can't trust like this? How much do you want to hve to micromanage your partner's life? Ugh. I think you should have higher expectations that she'll handle her own business.
posted by salvia at 7:28 PM on August 23, 2011

Response by poster: @amanda: the cousin knows about me. He moved out of *their* apt because he was jealous (he said as much). BUT we've never met. He's been avoiding it and the subject with her. And she's so afraid of conflict hat she avoids it with him, too.

@salvia: you're right -- i am pretty powerless, and she is so afraid of so much, that it's hard to get her to draw lines, advocate for herself, etc. The word I use for her is "fragile." Your advice for how to speak to the cousin sounds pretty high-minded. It's going to be hard to control my anger.
posted by antipode12 at 10:55 PM on August 23, 2011

Response by poster: Just as an epilogue:

I met with the cousin. Nice kid. Lost, pathetic, emotionally unstable. *I* felt bad for him.

He was pretty forthright about his feeling for my gf. I pressed him in places where he tried to whitewash the truth. And he owned it. In that way, he was pretty admirable.

I told him that he was hurting her with his passive aggressive communications with her. He agreed.
We left pretty comfortably -- he said he was glad we did this.

he also said he was not ready to meet up with her -- the feelings are still too raw and unprocessed.

My gf was grateful to both of us for meeting up.

In the end, yes, my gf should've done any number of things to make everyone feel better. But she couldn't, and I was willing to. Overall, there's been more good than bad that came out of it.

I'm really grateful to everyone here who weighed in. It made me feel less alone, and less insane, so that I could see forest for trees. Thank you.
posted by antipode12 at 8:11 AM on September 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

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