Why can't we just all get along?
January 19, 2012 1:36 PM   Subscribe

How do I navigate this potentially dramatic work/friends situation? Snowflakes and a long backstory ahead.

I need advice on how to deal with this situation. I'm totally at a loss here, hive mind.

Last year, I met my best friend, Sam, at work. I became an informal mentor to Sam as he developed in the profession. We started hanging out a lot - both at work and outside of work. We both left that job and took jobs at separate places, where I was pretty happy and Sam was miserable. A few months ago, he supported me when I left an abusive relationship. At the time, he and I talked about how we dealt with conflict and difficult situations - we both tend to withdraw. We had conversations about how we would try to work past that so that we didn't hurt the other person. We had a codeword for when we felt like being alone and didn't want the other person to think something was wrong. He promised that his allegiance was to me and that we'd talk through our problems if any came up.

Well, around that time, he quit his horrible job situation and applied for a mid-year opening at my work place. At that point, he also met the girl I'm mentoring, Jenny, and with whom I stayed while I left my husband. Within a few hours, he asked if I thought Jenny would date him. So Sam asked Jenny out that night via text. She said yes via text. Then we all hung out together. Pretty soon, it was apparent that I was on their first date, so I started hanging back and disappearing. They confronted me, and I told them how I felt. They agreed that it was probably a good idea if we didn't spend time as a group for a while.

Then Jenny told me that she was uncomfortable pursuing a relationship with him for a few reasons, one of which being that she didn't want to affect our friendship or my friendship with Sam (the other reasons had to do with a prior relationship that was unfinished and various personal stuff). She went out with Sam once, so she could tell him that in person. That's the last I heard about their relationship so I assumed they had decided not to pursue anything.

About a week later, Jenny casually mentioned that they were going out again, and that was when Sam began to withdraw from our friendship. It caused a fight between Sam and I, because he felt like he had to hide his relationship with Jenny and I felt like he was going against the promise he had made me about NOT withdrawing from our friendship. We both apologised and worked it out. Things were then going really well between us.

They went out a few more times after that conversation, including one time where I caught him lying to me about where he was going (he said he was with his parents, but confessed he was actually with Jenny when he found out that Jenny and I had plans that night). Sam came over the next day and we talked about it, and he apologised for lying. He said he wasn't really interested in Jenny, and didn't see it going anywhere. He was concerned that it was affecting our friendship. He showed me a personal ad he had created on a few different sites and it seemed like it was just going to fade away...

...until his first day at our work. He was really weird around Jenny at lunch and again when we saw her after work. He and I talked for a while, at which point he said that he was taking Jenny out that night. I was a little shocked, but didn't say anything. And then Jenny came in and stood there for an hour and a half while Sam and I talked (I tried to end the conversation a few times, or try to include her, but Sam kept drawing me back and wouldn't look at or talk to Jenny the whole time). They then left together.

That night, I texted him that I had felt a little weird about the situation and thought that maybe I should step back. He sent several enraged messages and emails, accusing me of various things, including trying to get attention, hating that he was in a relationship with her, trying to manipulate and control him, and expecting him to never make plans with anyone else. He said that I was the only one who thought it was weird and that it was my obsession with him abandoning me that was causing the weirdness in the first place.

I tried to explain. He just stopped responding.

I spoke to Jenny the next day, and she apologised for how weird the situation had been the previous day, and also offered to step back and to eat lunch by herself. I told her I didn't want that to happen and anyway, I know Sam would resent me if she did that.

Sam didn't talk to me for a week. When he saw me at work, he literally walked as far around me as possible. Finally, I texted him five days later to ask if we could work it out. He said that he didn't know what I was talking about, and he point-blank refused to talk face-to-face (I requested that five or six times because fighting via text message is not helpful). Hours of angry text messages later, and I finally got to the point where I told him that I didn't think we could be friends if he doubted me and my intentions and that it didn't seem like he gave a shit about the friendship. He finally invited me to come over and talk about it.

So we did. I apologised for not trusting him. He apologised for the tone he had used. He was convinced (and still is) that the problem with the three of us being in a room originated with me, and said that he and Jenny had decided to be in a serious relationship. The best solution we could come up with was to say that we would all eat lunch together and try to talk about it all together if it got weird. I left at that point. I texted him later and said that I hoped we could be ok and talk later. He didn't respond.

It was his birthday a few days later, so I left the gift (which I had bought before this all started) for him by his car. He texted to say thanks. I texted him later with a work question and he ignored it.

That's the last I've heard from him. It's now been a week and a half since he stopped talking to me at all. My relationship with Jenny has been a bit strained as well. I'm really sad that I've lost my best friend, especially when he promised that this wouldn't happen. I'm also pretty emotionally vulnerable, having just left my marriage and having my entire life change. It's hard for me to trust people and I feel stupid for having trusted him so much, despite a history where he's been flaky, especially when he's dating someone.

But I also have a professional responsibility to be in this mentor position for both of them. They're basically my only close friends at work, and it's really hard to imagine not having them around. If I could leave and get a job elsewhere, I would, just to avoid this. But there's absolutely no way I can, and I actually love my job and work situation.

The best case scenario would include Sam stopping this withdrawal from our friendship and starting to talk to me again. It would also include Jenny remaining a friend but with a more distant relationship to preserve the friendship between Sam and I. Worst case scenario is to lose both of them as friends and still have to be their mentor (I agreed to mentor Sam at a high personal cost to me, mostly because his career would be set back if someone didn't, and no one else would). Losing Sam freaks me out, although functionally, that's what has already happened. Sam really is the only friend who really understands me and has been there through the divorce, so has seen it all. That's hard to walk away from. But I really do want him to be happy and if cutting off our friendship is what it takes, I'll do it.

If it matters, they're mid-twenties and I'm nearly thirty. We're on the West Coast of the USA. They are both in their first two years of "having a real job" whereas I'm closer to a decade.

TL;DR - after a period of personal and emotional upheaval in my life, my best friend, who had previously provided strong support, has started ignoring me; not-coincidentally, it happened at the same time that he started dating my other close friend. I am in a professional mentor role to both of them, as we all work together. It's awkward and I'm really lonely without them. Hope me.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
1. You've known Sam for a year. He may be your "best" friend, but you don't have a long history together.

2. "He promised that his allegiance was to me"

This creeps me the hell out

3. "felt like he was going against the promise he had made me about NOT withdrawing from our friendship"

You're FRIENDS. Not dating. This is what often happens when people get into new relationships - they're in the stage of being focused on their new partner.

I went through a divorce, and I know what you're going through. You MUST learn to find strength and support in yourself and not depend upon it from outside sources. Until you do, you'll constantly be trying to extract promises from your friends that they may not be able to keep. And you'll drive them away, which is what's happening here.
posted by HopperFan at 1:51 PM on January 19, 2012 [10 favorites]

I get the impression that you're unhealthily dependent on these relationships. You're trying to control the way these two relate to you and to each other, for your own comfort. It can't work. You need to find a way to be okay with whatever they choose. You can't achieve that by texting and talking things through with them; you do it by investing yourself elsewhere, in other interests and other people. You don't need to cut anybody out of your life, you just need to back off and let things settle without trying to orchestrate both sides of every relationship.
posted by jon1270 at 1:52 PM on January 19, 2012 [6 favorites]

Since these people are your mentees, I would let them go and make some non-work friends. I know that doesn't help you right *now*, but I think it's an important long-term strategy. Sadly, you've discovered why being personal friends with your mentees (or mentors--it works the other way, too) can get messy...and I'm sorry to say this, but I also think it's pretty inappropriate.

To get you started, why not propose a MeFite meet-up in your area if you don't already have some venue to meet new folks? And there's always the usual answers for these things--classes, clubs, volunteering, etc. I know it's probably going to suck for a while as you build up your new social network, but you'll be better off. In the meantime, stay super classy and professional with these two and stop thinking about them as friends: think of them as mentees. Good luck.
posted by smirkette at 1:55 PM on January 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

It sucks, but this is completely normal when people get into romantic relationships. It especially sucks to be the friend who introduces the lovers and then gets ignored and basically loses two friends at once. But it happens to a lot of people, including me. You just have to smile and let young lovers be young lovers. You can't make them spend more time with you.

Accept human nature for what it is and hopefully you'll get invited to their wedding and you can tell everyone you introduced them and give a heatwarming toast, and dance with some other single friend.
posted by stockpuppet at 1:57 PM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

You should probably ask Sam calmly if you two can talk. Ask him during this conversation what you can do to improve your friendship with him. Listen to what he has to say, even if he has some outrageous demands, just nod and listen. Tell him you'll think about what he said and thank him for being honest with you. Take some time and think about your whole situation.

Do not mention Jenny at all. This isn't about Jenny. This is about you and Sam. It's okay if he brings her up, but you shouldn't talk about her at all.
posted by royalsong at 2:09 PM on January 19, 2012

That night, I texted him that I had felt a little weird about the situation and thought that maybe I should step back.

At that point, I would have started to feel harassed too. Texting someone about stepping back may not be manipulation, but it isn't stepping back either.

I think you should really pull back and leave them alone beyond what is necessary for work.

In the future, I strongly recommend that you don't get into social or confiding relationships with your cow-orkers.
posted by tel3path at 2:09 PM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Or maybe Sam's in a weird place where he enjoys dating one woman while also trolling online for more and also getting attention from you and Jenny is being played and wondering how much you might know about the rest of Sam's love life.

Too much drama. You should just pretend that you have no idea that either of them are sexual beings.

You can probably all get along if you associate with them as people instead of a maybe couple with various loyalties Don't you have friends and co-workers with whom you never discuss food or religion or politics or whatever someone (maybe you, maybe then) cannot be reasonable or rationable about ?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 2:10 PM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah, all the references to promises, allegiances, code words, withdrawal, "the only one who really understands me" etc. do not strike me as hallmarks of stable friendships with healthy boundaries among independent adults (even adults who have supported each other through something traumatic, such as divorce and professional upheaval). This is magnified exponentially when you throw in a workplace setting and a mentor/mentee dynamic.

You cannot ultimately control Sam or Jenny -- not how they feel about each other, and not how they wish to interact with you. They have the right to get involved (or not), and to spend whatever time they want to spend together based on that decision. No friend is obliged to limit their romantic pursuits in order to be present for you in the way you seem to expect.

I think it's crucial that you develop some non-work relationships (it's a cliche, but whenever I've felt at a loss in terms of making new friends as an adult -- especially after my own divorce when I moved to a new city -- I've taken a class or joined some other type of regular group activity). Regarding Sam and Jenny, I think you need to treat them pleasantly and professionally, but must pull back out of their personal lives to let them make their own choices about themselves and, yes, about you. It may be that the friendship(s) can be reactivated down the road, but that's not on your plate right now. I know that it's hard.

I would also suggest that you may want to consider seeing a therapist, so that you can develop a safe, reliable space for you to explore the important issues you've identified (leaving an abusive relationship, dealing with conflict, etc.) with someone who is there to support you in a steady, professional way, without the complications of a friendship dynamic.
posted by scody at 2:11 PM on January 19, 2012 [8 favorites]

Aw hon, you are going through a period of intense need. A lot has happened to you with the divorce, etc. Totally understandable. You are also, though, clearly putting this intense need unfairly on Sam and Jenny.

When it became apparent that they were on a first date - the true good friend thing to do would be to blithely see your way to the door with a grinning, winking "Well, *yaaawn*, what a day! I'm beat! I'll see you two lovebirds tomorrow at the office! Tee Hee!" instead of passive aggressively "disappearing" to the point where they have to "confront" you. Rinse, repeat with every interaction that seemed to end in a standoff and raise the stakes for awkward confrontation.

You are the more grown up person here. The mentor. The teacher. And the best teachers are the ones whose students learn so much that they don't need them anymore. You are the one who should express in your behavior, with all gentleness and tenderness, "My how you've grown, I'm so proud of you, I love knowing you can stand on your own two feet now - I'll be rooting for you... from down the hall."

If he is truly your friend and you care about him as a protege, you don't clutch him closer or demand that he do your friendship justice and swear not to "withdraw." You should be proud to watch him fly free and find his own happiness - in his own relationships and his own career.
posted by sestaaak at 2:14 PM on January 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

This probably goes without saying, and isn't me dumping on you but just pointing out something that seems obvious to me -- you have way, way overstepped appropriate boundaries here with both Sam and Jenny. And to counter that, you need to back off significantly. The whole dynamic here from start to finish is unhealthy.

I think your best case scenario is actually to stop trying so hard to force these friendships to work in a way that is comfortable for you and distance yourself from the new couple: expand your support group, and Sam and Jenny need to branch out and gain new friends/mentors. At best, maintain a professional distance. I do not think any of these friendships are sustainable in any real sense.

The thing is that Sam is right in some way - the problem in this began with you and your reaction to their relationship, and I think both sides handled it inappropriately and that's why this has all blown up as such.

I wish you the best. It's a painful learning experience, no doubt, but you will survive it.
posted by sm1tten at 2:17 PM on January 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

You need to step way back before you cause serious problems for yourself at work. You sound like a harassment case waiting to happen.
posted by yarly at 2:36 PM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hey there, I think you're going through a really emotionally vulnerable stage right now, and I think a lot of the baggage you've probably developed as a result of your divorce is I think coming out in this friendship, and your feelings about Sam etc.

It sounds like Sam is one of the only close friends you've got right, and a lot of the language you seem to be using about the the friendship - the constant negotiations and status conversations about the relationship and what things mean etc etc - are I think a very natural response after what you've been through, but also they strike me as being very clearly part of the discourse and narrative that comes from a dissolving marriage or romantic relationship, rather than a friendship.

This kind of thinking and its associated insecurities may have become ingrained in you during the process of divorce, where you're forced to question everything, and ambiguities more often than not hide horrible, hurtful negatives; simple things in the relationship require exhausting negotiation and re/assurance. But, they are not healthy in a friendship, for either party, and if Sam is aiding and abetting this - for whatever reason - then the shape the friendship is currently taking, is not a good one. It sounds like Sam has realised this and is attempting to reset, maybe because he's concerned about you, maybe because he's a little freaked out, maybe because he thinks you're interested in him romantically, maybe because these co-dependent friendships are something he does. You need to let him re-establish a new boundary.

When friends are going through a difficult time, they often have high and particular emotional needs; it sounds like you do now. The danger - as the person with needs - is when you put all your eggs in one basket and attempt to satisfy the majority of those needs with one person. It can be a very tempting and easy thing to slip into, especially when that other person is actively assisting and you are feeling wounded and distrustful.

But you need to share that load out. It could be with a therapist, or other friends, or a diary or a dog or whatever, but Sam is unable/unwilling to shoulder the burden you're asking of him right now - and remember he's younger than you, too, and probably has his own shit going on. I also think you need to acknowledge that you are jealous of Jenny. Perhaps not romatically, but it's very clear in this question that you resent her intrusion into your relationship with Sam and blame her for the deterioration of your "special" status with him. This is perfectly natural and not really surprising, but you need to acknowledge it, and at the same time acknowledge that it is irrational and unfair and that - as romantic partners - Sam and Jenny are well within their rights to have a special relationship that you will not be a part of and that in turn, larger parts of themselves will be inaccessible to you.

The other thing you need to accept is that now that he has a romantic partner, your 'special' status with Sam will have to recede for a while. There are few new girlfriends that would be comfortable with their boyfriend having a friendship with a woman that is so intense, and they are well within their rights to feel a bit, "That's mine!" about it. That's a fact.

I think the best way to get this ball rolling would be a simple, in-person (stop texting anyone), apology to both of them at the same time, where you essentially say, "Hey guys, I'd just like to apologise for all this weirdness since you started going out. I'm still in a bit of a bad place from the divorce, and I'm not reacting to things how I should. I'm so happy that two good friends are getting together, and I think you two are great together. I'm sorry I was so strange about it."

And leave it at that, for a few days at least, just keep it to chitchat. Maybe in a week or two, ask them both out to catch a new movie or something. Super casual. And start building other friendships. This divorce will not be your primary definition for much longer, I promise you, and other new friendships will not be the poorer for having been through it with you.

Hang in there.
posted by smoke at 2:54 PM on January 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

It doesn't sound proper at all for you to have relationships this extremely personal with people that you are in a professional mentorship position over. This could be leading to situations where your mentees are extremely uncomfortable and don't want to be this personally enmeshed with you, and feel trapped because of the professional relationship you have. I think the way you have been going about this (starting a professional mentoring relationship with someone and then letting it become extremely personal) was practically asking for a really uncomfortable situation.

I think going forward you are going to have to pick whether you want to be friends with someone, or mentor them professionally, and if you pick the latter you are going to have to keep your relationship strictly professional.

Worst case scenario is to lose both of them as friends and still have to be their mentor (I agreed to mentor Sam at a high personal cost to me, mostly because his career would be set back if someone didn't, and no one else would)

You don't have to mentor Sam just because his career would be set back otherwise, or because nobody else would. You only have to mentor Sam if your employer is requiring you to do so. If that's not the case, I think you need to end the mentoring relationship ASAP with both him and Jenny. If you can't do so, you have to dial WAY back on the personal friendship, no two ways about it.

He promised that his allegiance was to me and that we'd talk through our problems if any came up.

This is a highly unusual thing to say in a platonic friendship of this length. Friends of less than a year don't normally promise eternal allegiance to each other, maybe with the exception of soldiers who are literally being shot at. I would say that this is not a realistic promise to make and isn't a realistic promise to hold someone to, in your particular circumstances. The two of you just don't know each other well enough yet for promises of eternal allegiance. You don't know how each other behaves in all circumstance. You don't know what each other will expect out of the friendship and if it's something you each really can/want to give.

It makes me think he isn't realistic about what promises he can make and keep, and maybe your feelings about what can be reasonably expected from friends are somewhat out of the mainstream.

Pretty soon, it was apparent that I was on their first date, so I started hanging back and disappearing. They confronted me, and I told them how I felt.

I am really, really not trying to be harsh here, just trying to say what I think one of the problems might be. This sound like you might have been passive-aggressive about their relationship. Your response to realizing you were on their first date should have been, "Time for me to call it a night guys, have fun! Talk to you later." Not "hanging back and disappearing" and waiting for a "confrontation" before just saying how you felt. And honestly, there shouldn't have been a negative way you felt, when two other adults who happen to be your friends start dating each other. I understand feeling left out an excluded, I really do, but at the same time it's really not a very mature reaction and when we have less mature reactions we really need to keep a lid on them. I wasn't there so I could be interpreting this wrongly. But it sounds like when they started dating, you became upset and felt excluded, and got kind of passive-aggressive about it. This is probably why they felt like they had to hide their relationship from you.

Then Jenny told me that she was uncomfortable pursuing a relationship with him for a few reasons, one of which being that she didn't want to affect our friendship or my friendship with Sam (the other reasons had to do with a prior relationship that was unfinished and various personal stuff).

The proper response to this would have been, "Please don't worry about that at all. Your relationship with Sam is none of my business, and won't affect our friendship or my friendship with Sam." And the proper thing to do afterwards is make sure that that is true.

WHY did Jenny think her dating Sam would affect those friendships? It sounds like she had the impression that you would be upset if she and Sam were close to each other in a way that you weren't, or that you would be upset if Sam had less time for you or was less close to you?

If that's it, that's just not cool, that's totally boundary overstepping on your part. Again, I know it sucks when two friends suddenly become closer to each other than you, or have less time for you. But it's not okay for you at all to interfere with that in any way, and it's just something we have to deal with in life. It's really, really none of your business. It's interfering in their lives in a way that's really inappropriate and detrimental.

If they wanted to date each other, if they wanted to become close to each other, you should not have stood in the way of that in even the slightest way, even just by letting any upset feelings be known. That's what they wanted to do. And if you stand in the way of what people want to do, what they want in their lives, they WILL withdraw from you and resent you.

They went out a few more times after that conversation, including one time where I caught him lying to me about where he was going

Honestly, this just seems ultra unhealthy. He's a fully grown man who's not your child, but you're "catching" him lying to you about seeing his own girlfriend? He doesn't owe you any complete accounting about what he does and where he goes! Again, I'm not a mind reader so I'm not going to say this is what you are thinking, but it really seems like you do feel he owes you that. He doesn't. I would feel extremely controlled in a really inappropriate way under these circumstances if I were him, and I would feel an extreme need to extricate myself from the friendship with you.

Sam didn't talk to me for a week. When he saw me at work, he literally walked as far around me as possible

Yes, Sam is using some pretty weird and immature coping methods, both here and what happened on the first day of work. But that doesn't change anything. What he is communicating, however immaturely, is that he needs you to Back Off. Way, Way Off. He is trying to communicate that you are way overstepping the normal boundaries of friendship WRT him and his relationship with Jenny, and he can't handle it anymore. He is having a meltdown because he can't handle it. It's less crystal clear to me but I would still bet that part of his meltdown is over the level of allegiance and emotional support you are expecting him to provide.

The best case scenario would include Sam stopping this withdrawal from our friendship and starting to talk to me again. It would also include Jenny remaining a friend but with a more distant relationship to preserve the friendship between Sam and I.

I hope here you mean a distant friendship between YOU and Jenny, that's fine. But deciding that you-and-Sam will have a more distant friendship with Jenny is not fine, you don't get any say over the closeness of their friendship. And honestly to get what you want, for Sam to stop withdrawing, I think you would really to best to not try to push Jenny away at all or behave in any way that's less than completely welcoming.

Here is my absolute best advice for getting what you want, a situation where Sam is not ignoring you any longer.

1. Completely stop talking to Sam and talking to Jenny about their relationship. Not one single word. If either of them bring it up to you, say the following, "you know, I thought a lot about this, and I realized that I didn't handle this situation well at all. Your relationship with Jenny is between you and Jenny and it was so wrong of me to interfere with that. So we can talk about it if you really want to, but maybe it would be better if I butted out for a while."

2. Leave Sam alone for a while. Don't text him at all. Don't try to talk to him unless it is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY for work, as in you have been directed to do so by your employer. Do this for like a good two weeks. If you must interact with him, be totally pleasant and mature no matter how he is acting but don't try to draw him into any conversations. Also do not talk about him with Jenny during this time.

At the end of two weeks say to him, "Sam, you were right. I handled myself so badly when you and Jenny started dating. And it was none of my business to interfere at all. I sincerely apologize. I would still love to be friends, and I will do my best to not interfere with things that aren't any of my business, and make you feel uncomfortable about things you shouldn't have to be uncomfortable about."

And then leave the ball totally in his court. Don't try to keep going after him for friendship, and hold him to his promises of allegiance.
posted by cairdeas at 3:31 PM on January 19, 2012 [14 favorites]

cairdeas makes some good points. Not only are you mixing the personal and the professional but you are relating to your best (male) friend like a marriage partner in some ways. Not only this. it his girlfriend is checking with you before dating him, as if to make sure he didn't have a girlfriend already in you. (I have had best friends who were guys, but not one of their gfs has ever asked me anything like that.)

You may not be the only one with bad bou caries and strange interpretations of relationships in this triangle. I also think it's theoretically possible that Sam is playing you for female attention after taking advantage of your vulnerability. But, and I never say this so pay attention, if Sam is playing you that's not what's important here. What's important is that you seem unaware that you have such strange interpretations of relationships. If you were able to tell apart the roles of friend, coworker, husband and. boyfriend it would be much more difficult for Sam to play you (if that were his goal).

I'm going to say yeah, therapy. which I do not say at the drop of a hat.
posted by tel3path at 4:01 PM on January 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think you need to step back completely and reset these relationships back to office acquaintances and get some counseling on how to form healthy non-romantic relationships. Your behavior is bordering on being a stalker and is very clingy and needy. That is what people are trying to tell you with nicer worded answers. You sound like a very caring and nice person so I think you can learn to form healthy friend relationships quickly, hardest part will be looking at what you are doing now and seeing it as everyone else does.
posted by meepmeow at 6:32 PM on January 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

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