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This week, we're tackling the drama that friends can bring to our relationships. What do you do you do when your relationship is amazing, but your girlfriend's BFFs hate you? How do you handle things when you and your best friend cross the platonic-friend line and things get awkward?
It's time to bail out of the plane and get into the thick of it. Let's do this thing.
Hi Dr N,
I am 51 and have found genuine, true, deep and abiding love for the first time. It's been almost two years. I think we are perfect together. She thinks we're perfect together. Her family thinks we're perfect together. My dog loves her dog, and vice versa. Really, it's perfect.
Except... her two closest friends do NOT think we're perfect together. So much so that they have basically ghosted her. Because of me. I know this sounds like high school stuff, so let me say again: I am 51. My girlfriend is 47. This isn't high school, but it sure feels like it.
I know there are valid reasons why a good, protective friend might not like the boyfriend. Going down the possible list: I'm not an addict or a drinker. I'm not and never have been in trouble with the law. I've never declared bankruptcy. I don't have a ton of money, but I do OK. I love my dog. I love her dog. I love her family. I essentially have no temper, and I have a pretty decent sense of humour, I think. I was once a professional athlete, pretty much still have that body, and all my hair. I'm no model, but, well, actually, when I was in grad school at NYU, I was asked to do some modelling. This is just to say that it doesn't appear that I'm hideously ugly or anything.
I've got that master's degree and have written two well-received books. I say this only to note that it's not like I'm a guy who never left his hometown and has no ambition. I understand that someone who lacks self-awareness would fail to see their own flaws. I don't think I'm perfect. But I don't think this reaction is justified.
There is a hint: Apparently, one of them told my girlfriend she was worried that "we didn't want the same things". This was after we'd been dating just a few months. I kind of suspect that refers to the fact that I've never been married, nor had kids. But my girlfriend had been married for 12 years, does not want to marry again, and has never wanted kids.
I don't take any of this too personally. I barely spent any time around these two before they decided we weren't right for each other. I've spent a lot of time around her family, who are very high-quality people, and they seem to think everything is great. But I don't know what to do.
My girlfriend is devastated. She is deep, thoughtful and sensitive, and this rejection hurts her deeply. She cried in my arms last night, saying, "I didn't do anything wrong! You didn't do anything wrong! Why are they doing this?" It broke my heart. But the lines of communication are shut. They simply won't talk to her. My guess is, they both feel she has rejected their advice, and therefore (somehow) their friendship.
I know I can't fix these broken friendships. I want to know what I can do for my girlfriend. She is hurting. It hurts her even more when I try to take the blame for what has happened, so that doesn't help. Deep down - or, really, not so deep down - I think these two were never really great friends. One of them is a bully, and the other is a sycophant, so they work great together, but not in conjunction with anyone else.
Is there anything I can do? Is there anything she can do?
Hurtin' in NC
Y'know, HiNC, sometimes I think one of the biggest lies we tell ourselves is that high school bullshit gets left behind in high school. Sadly, it doesn't, because… well… frankly, for some folks, high school was an instruction manual for life. And while a lot of times those people are easy to avoid, sometimes you don't find out that there's a Mean Girls wannabe in your life until they have put you in the crosshairs.
But let's talk about the dynamics of friendships, and how they can interact with our relationships before I get to what to do about this. One of the continual tensions in life is the careful balancing act between our platonic friendships and our romantic and sexual ones. Both are incredibly important parts of your life, and giving them the right place and right priority is actually crucial to the long-term success of your romantic endeavours.
There's always a question of just which relationships get priority; do you prioritise your platonic friends, especially when they have seen your lovers come and go while they have been there for years? Or do you focus on your partner, since they're the person you want to share your life with - even if not your whole life, at least a significant part of it?
(The answer is both, actually. Your partner can't be all things to you, and trying to put all your emotional and social needs on them is a great way to stress everyone out and sink the relationship.)
While we always hope that our lovers will mesh smoothly with our social circles, sometimes they just don't. And when that happens, where do you turn? Whose side do you choose? The friends who've known you for years, or your partner, who you've given your heart and other bits? How do you decide which is the correct path?
It can also be tough for people on the outside, looking in. It can be frustrating, for example, when someone gets caught up in the highs of a new relationship and basically ditches their friends. Doubly so when it seems like your friend has gotten fuck-drunk with yet another arsehole and started the timer on a drama bomb that's going to explode, messily and all over the place. Or worse, has taken up with someone who's abusive, yet doesn't yet recognise it.
Even under the best of circumstances, when we can assume good faith on all sides, the tension between friends and lovers can be tricky at best. But then we have the other breed of friends. The frenemies. The Mean Girls and Douchebag Boys. The toxic friends who ask for your favour with one hand and stab you in the back with the other. The people who like you best when you're a self-destructive mess with no self-esteem.
These are the "friends" who are invested in keeping us under their thumbs because they like having someone they can fuck with. They're the ones who will do their damndest to drag us away from anything good and positive in our lives because it means we may finally outgrow them and recognise their bullshit for what it is. They will subtly insult your hopes and dreams and tell you how you're just going to fail at the thing you're trying, so why bother? They will insult you to your face, then tell you it's just a joke and they love you, really.
Some of what you describe sounds like toxic friends plying their drama. Toxic friends will rarely be up front about what they're trying to do. They'd much rather drip poison in your ear, subtly prod your insecurities and doubts and let your own anxieties slam the fist down on the relationship self-destruct button.
The nebulous "I don't think you want the same things" is a great example of that. That's an incredibly vague objection, and it's vague by design. After all, if there was something concrete to point to, your girlfriend could push back with concrete counter-arguments. But vague, concern-trolling is harder to refute. It wraps the manipulation in the drag of "a friend who's looking out for your best interests". It gaslights the victim into not being able to trust their own judgement. And if done correctly, it plants the seed of doubt into a bed of confirmation bias that will eventually fracture the relationship like a tree growing out of a footpath.
Cutting ties without warning is another way they're trying to damage the relationship between her and you. It's like the "freeze-out" technique that pickup artists teach; cut off contact and let the fear of your disapproval pressure the other person into giving in. Do it for long enough and the question becomes which will give out first: Her affection for you or her desire to have her friends back. It's needlessly cruel, and a damning indictment of the people who use it.
It may help her get some closure to ask her to interrogate her friendships with these people. Were they always giving her "playful" insults? Were they supportive of her goals, or did they keep reminding her to "be realistic"? Were they prone to giving ultimatums and the silent treatment? Did she feel drained after hanging with them for very long? Answering those questions may help her recognise the nature of those friendships.
Unfortunately, though, there's not really anything you can do here. Your girlfriend has suffered a loss, and she's going to mourn. Even if her friends were toxic arsehats and her life will be better by kicking them to the curb, losing a friendship hurts. The best thing that you can do is love her and support her as she mourns the end of this friendship. Be the shoulder that she can cry on and the arms to hold her, the voice to remind her of how amazing she is. Encourage her to find her team - reconnecting with old friends or finding new ones - who can support her as well.
At the end of the day, all that will heal your girlfriend is time. Just be there to loan her the strength she'll need, when she needs it. As much as things hurt now, this will pass.
Hey-o, good doctor!
I've been having quite a emotional roller coaster lately with my best friend.
I divorced my wife of four and a half years around September last year. We left each other on very good terms and without any hard feelings. But ever since then I've been really missing the intimacy and closeness you get from a relationship, things like long walks with our dog, holding hands, snuggling, and so on. I've been having hard time learning to love the single life.
In comes my best friend. We've always been really close, even before I met my ex-wife. I even used to have a crush on her. Her boyfriend passed away unexpectedly over a year ago and we've been giving each other a lot of support over these feelings of loss. I would at least once a week invite her over, cook some nice food for her (I'm a really passionate chef, although not a professional) and we would talk about things that have been bothering us for hours . She's quite open with her sexuality and has started having quite a lot of one night stands during the last few months and we would talk about those sometimes. I thought that it was a good thing that she's been able to have new relationships since her boyfriend's death, I thought it was a clear sign of her moving on. The problem was that I started developing feelings for her once again, I think because it felt so good being close to someone again and having some company.
Last Thursday, we decided to go watch The Last Jedi, after which we went for a pint, and then I invited her over to my place. After some food and wine I happened to confess to her about my feelings, and she responded that she has a crush on me too. Next thing I know we're making out, but I tell her that I don't want to have sex with her just yet because I wanted to be careful. I ask her if she wants to stay the night because it was late and she lives on the other side of the city. She decides to stay and invites me to share the bed with her. You can probably guess that the "no sex" rule didn't hold.
Now we've been processing what happened that night, and she says she doesn't want to start a relationship with me because she still wants to be free for now and that she thinks what happened was a mistake. She even said that she considers me as someone she shouldn't have touched, kinda like a brother (her exact words). That made me feel kinda awful, I don't think anyone likes to be told that being with them was a mistake. I'm already really bad at approaching women and I don't have a lot of confidence, so that left a dent on my self-esteem.
Still, I don't think I would want a relationship with her either, because I'm still processing my divorce and I don't think we would be very compatible. For one, she clearly has a very different relationship to sex than I do. She doesn't really mind having one night stands and just having sex for the fun of it, but I'm a bit more old fashioned and sex has a lot of feelings attached to it for me.
The main issue that we have is that we don't want to lose our friendship because we're so important to each other. We provide each other a lot of support and I would feel awful losing her over this stupid mistake. While I do have other friends, none of them are as close as she is. She's told me that meetings with me have helped her immensely. I don't wanna take that from her.
I would very much appreciate your thoughts on our situation.
Crossing The Streams
There's a lie that we tell ourselves as a culture - one that I hate with the fire of a thousand suns - and that's the idea that friendship and sexual attraction are antithetical to one another. It's part of the same toxic morass that leads to ideas such as being in "The Friend Zone". Being interested in somebody sexually doesn't mean that you can't also be their genuine friend, nor does it mean that attraction has to be acted upon.
However, emotions are tricky things. Humans are bad at understanding why we feel the way we do, and intense emotions tend to lead to decisions we might not make otherwise. The idea that there's a thin line between love and hate isn't wrong - passion is passion, after all.
Grief is another emotion that can cause people to act in ways they might not normally. When two people are feeling intense loss - even if that loss wasn't recent - there's a natural instinct to seek comfort and to push back against the void. Sex, in some ways, is the antithesis of grief; it's a celebration of life and connection at a time when you're feeling the opposite. Which is no small part of what happened here.
You two have a close friendship, some intense emotional processing and some mutual attraction. Putting that all together can blur lines that seem otherwise clear-cut. Throw in a little booze and… well, that's how you end up doing things that seem like a great idea in the moment and you regret in the cold light of sobriety the next morning. But one intense night and a kind of awkward morning after doesn't mean the end of the friendship.
Here's the thing to keep in mind: She doesn't think that you are a mistake. It's clear that she cares for you deeply and values you as an important part of her life. The mistake was getting caught up in an intense moment and crossing a line that clearly has meaning for her.
While sex and friendship may not be antithetical, there are people who prefer keeping certain aspects of their lives separate. Many people appreciate having someone they can be close to without a sense of "will we/won't we" and worrying whether things will get weird and awkward afterwards. Others worry less about how they would feel after tumbling into bed than about how their partner would feel. As you said: Sex and love are pretty intertwined for you. Catching feels that she doesn't return would run the risk of damaging the closeness and intimacy you two have, and that would be a shame to lose.
But y'know, shit happens, decisions were made, and now it's a question of what to do. The good news is that your friendship is almost certainly strong enough to hold up… as long as you don't panic, like so many people do. It helps the two of you are on the same page here; you may love each other as friends but you both think a relationship would be a bad idea.
What you both need to do is not to make more of this than actually happened. It's not a referendum on your relationship, so much as "well, maybe we shouldn't get drunk around one another" kind of thing. Losing your inhibitions and needlessly putting yourself in temptation's way is how you end up with fun nights followed by incredibly awkward mornings.
But you also don't want to pretend that it didn't happen. It's better for the two of you to sit down and at least say, "Hey, so that was a bit awkward, and I want to know where your head's at now that we're not in the immediate aftermath." Tell her what you told me: You like her but you don't think the two of you could work as more than friends because you have different views on sex. And then see what she has to say. Odds are, she's more or less in the same place you are.
Then have a laugh about it, resolve not to drink so much together (and one of you gets the couch if they stay over) and then carry on like you did before. And if you still have those flare-ups of "Well, I kind of have feels for her"... just feel the fuck out of them and let them pass through you on their own. It's fun to have crushes, even when you know they can't go anywhere.
Just remember: This is only a friendship killer if you two let it be one. Shit happens and sometimes friends have one-night stands they probably shouldn't have. Focus on the core of affection, respect and support you have for one another, and you should be fine.
Did your relationship get caught up in friend drama? Have you had an awkward encounter with a good friend? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. We'll be back with more of your questions in two weeks.
Ask Dr Nerdlove is Kotaku's fortnightly advice column for matters of the heart, hosted by the one and only Harris O'Malley, AKA Dr Nerdlove.
Harris O'Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr NerdLove and the Dr NerdLove podcast. He is also a regular guest at One Of Us. He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and on Twitter at @DrNerdLove. Dr Nerdlove is not really a doctor.