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Question #181: “I’m afraid if I end my relationship I’ll lose all of my friends.”

Boromir meme, "one does not simply join the weekly d&d game."Dear Captain,

I’m writing because I’m scared to break up with my boyfriend. Not scared of him, he’s a lovely person and would never hurt me, scared of what would happen to the rest of my life if I did. You see, I’m at university, in my second year, and have been going out with him since a month or so after I got here in first year. He’s my first boyfriend – I had never even kissed anyone before him. I’m pretty nerdy and awkward, and he is too, so it was just great that I got to be with him and to meet a whole circle of mutual nerdy/awkward friends. The problem is this: if I ever decide to break up with him, what on earth happens to my friendships with them? They’ve basically never known me as a single person, always with him, and some of them are friends of his that I met through him – we have a D&D group that both he and I take part in, and I really like all of the people there, but they are more his friends than mine and he knew them first. If I broke up with him, would my social life implode too? I don’t want to make people have to choose between being friends with me or with him, and I don’t want to lose friends.

What could I possibly do? I know I’m infected with numerous geek social fallacies about this, but I think our friends are are too and would react accordingly (feel like they had to choose).

When we went through a troubled patch this thought first came to me, and it’s never really gone away even though the problem at the time got better. I don’t want to break up right now, I’m happy as I am, I think. But I’m worried what might happen in the future. It would be hard for him too, and I don’t want it to be. I’m the only person he feels like he can talk about sex with, for instance, and I’ve tried to encourage him to find someone else to confide in but he hasn’t. I’m freaked out that I’m getting more and more entangled in this relationship and it’ll just be worse further along the line if we break things off. I’m also worried that my worrying about this is going to sour what we have now, and I don’t know how to feel better about it. I don’t want to be that person, the no self esteem person who breaks off a good thing because she was sure that it wasn’t going to last. I do want this to last. But I want to have some kind of parachute for if it doesn’t, and to know that the rest of my life isn’t going to run away from me.

Help?

Social Circle is Too Small

Whoa, Social Circle, I feel you on your anxiety about what will happen in your friend group because breakups can in fact be awkward, but the way you keep using the phrase “the rest of my life” makes me want to hug you, feed you a little something, and give you a good talking to.

Whatever qualities that made this dude like you and that made all his friends like you and want to play D&D with you (which as we all know is kind of a big social commitment?) are qualities that you had before you met him, that you have now, and that you will have after you break up with him. You = likeable. These friends will probably still like you? But if they don’t, you will make other friends. And you will have other boyfriends (yes, I’m using the Statistically Probable Plural here).

I have been in love – really truly in love – at least 5 times. If I were to count crushes and flings we’d be here all day, so I’ll leave it at five. Some of it was Bad Idea Jeans love. The rest of it was This Is Pretty Great But Not Quite It love. I feel really qualified to tell you about the end of things. Here’s some stuff I know for sure:

  • Even if the relationship was a bad idea from the start, completely impossible and unworkable in every way, and/or involved Darth Vader, you still grieve when it’s over. Even if you’re doing the breaking up. Build in a grieving period where you will feel awful and like that was your one shot at happiness.
  • That grieving period does not last forever. Time does its work and you move on.
  • You don’t have to be friends with your exes! But it’s totally possible to be friends with them, and it’s totally possible to keep the friends you made when you were together. Some exes get (rightly) sent to the cornfield. But one advantage to not dating anyone who isn’t as cool as your friends is that your exes tend to be as cool as your friends.

For example, my brilliant friend L. called me last night from NYC to wish me Happy Birthday and generally catch up. We dated 16 years ago. The end was not awesome, and there were a few years we didn’t talk at all. But listen. He is one of my people forever and ever, he has totally been there in times when I needed him, and we are friends now because we let all the past bad stuff go and just focused on the awesome stuff (It helped that we became grownups, developed boundaries, and stopped “accidentally” doing it).  I know I can count on him to never, ever make small talk, and to jump right into what’s real. And through him long ago I became part of the message board where I met about half of my current closest friends.

To give you another case study? 8-10 years ago I dated someone who introduced me to all his friends (though I declined to join the weekly Dark Conspiracy game even though at the time I thought “Wow, he must really like me if he’s inviting me to that!“). Those people are now my friends. His wife is now my friend (and listens to me babble on about crushes on her lunch breaks). Due to some kind of transitive property of exes and friendship, those friends are now also Intern Paul’s friends! And someday he will bring a new lady to a party at their house and they will like her and I will like her.

So yeah, a goodly portion of the people I love most in the world – the people who have stuck by me and believed in me through everything, the ones whose kids will grow up knowing me as Auntie, the ones who took me to Paris, the ones who helped me move, got me jobs, worked on my movies, pulled me out of my shell during sad times, cheered me on during great times, who first encouraged me to write, this amazing urban family – came to me directly or indirectly through ex-boyfriends. I’m getting a little weepy (in a good way) as I write this. Maybe our specific kind of romantic love didn’t last forever, it still changed the whole course of my life profoundly for the better. Love is not wasted in the end.

The advice I have for you isn’t about how to break up with your boyfriend or survive a breakup – the archives here are full of scripts for that, and as long as you are honest and kind and own your feelings fully you’ll do fine. Obvious rules like “don’t cheat on him” and “don’t bitch about him to members of the mutual friend group and make them choose sides” apply.

But your letter is a cautionary tale about what happens when you let your partner become your whole social world, and I think it will be very helpful for you to put a lot of time into making some new friends and developing closer bonds with this social circle. Seek people you already know out outside of gaming, and get to know them. Invite them to things one on one. Pour some love into them. Don’t wait to be asked or chosen. Choose.

Being in your second year of university means that you are surrounded by other people your age, and it will never be easier to find people with common interests. By getting into this particular relationship and this particular friend group so soon, you maybe didn’t try as hard as you might have to form your own social connections, but there is still plenty of time to fix that. Commander Logic (who I may never have met if not for an ex-boyfriend) is a master of friend-dating people and has lots of good advice here.  Speaking to your concerns about “the rest of your life,” use your time at university to build your social skills and become better at connecting with people. It’s never too late.

If you make a conscious decision to make more connections with people, it will lessen some of your anxiety about your boyfriend. Obviously your hope is that you will work it out, but it is 100% a-okay if you break up with your first ever college boyfriend, I swear. You don’t need an ironclad reason. “Not feeling it” is a reason.

As one commenter said recently in the TERRIFYINGLY AMAZING thread: “Go out. Meet people. Be awkward. Because you rock.”

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20 comments
  1. Latining said:

    LW, I’ve had the worst-case scenario happen. I broke up with a horribly abusive boyfriend and he spent the next three years destroying my social circles.

    Best thing that ever happened to me. I “lost” one group of GSF-carriers with boundary issues and no desire to grow as people because they have games instead (ten years later, only one of them has gainful employment, out of a group of fifty or so). In doing so, it freed up my time to find other, cooler people who won’t ditch others because their friend says so. We listen to eachother. We care about eachother. We have fights that we resolve instead of stewing. My point is, if the worst-case scenario happens, it frees up your time to find a group of people that doesn’t suck (because people that dump ex-girlfriends along with the boyfriend? Suck.) I’m living proof that not only can you survive it, but it turns out to be a positive experience.

    So do your thing, focus on being cool, and read the Captain’s TERRIFYINGLY AMAZING post. Because you are.

  2. Esti said:

    Two very, very important things for you to do:

    1) Go out and meet some non-boyfriend-affiliated people! Not because your current friends aren’t awesome or won’t still love you if you do break up, but because it’s good to have multiple social circles, and especially to have some friends who don’t know you primarily as one half of a couple. Sometimes you really do need friends to complain about your boyfriend to, or who you can ask for advice on whether to break up with him, or who will help you sort out that maybe-a-crush you have on a guy in your Monday afternoon class, and as far as possible you want to avoid doing that kind of talking with mutual friends. Some mutual friends clearly “belong” more to one person than another — my college roommates became great friends with my last boyfriend, but they were obviously still Team Esti when push came to shove — but for many it would be really awkward to talk you through a “should we break up?” moment and then go have drinks with your boyfriend that night. And from one shy girl to another — when you make a lot of friends as a couple, it can be easy to coast along on that instead of forcing yourself to get out there and make friends all by your awesome self. But it’s amazingly empowering, too, and a skill you want to have. So go, make friends! Conquer!

    Relatedly:

    2) Spend less time with your boyfriend. When you start dating someone a month into college, that can get intense and all-consuming very quickly. College is an amazing time, and you don’t want everything you did there to have revolved around the guy you met in the first few weeks, whether or not you two stay together forever. So make your new friends and take classes you’re interested in and join clubs that sound fun and volunteer somewhere and spend some time just by yourself. Maybe doing all that awesome stuff will calm your worries about your relationship by reassuring you that you’ve still got your own life going on. Or maybe it will make you realize that this isn’t the relationship for you. Either way, you’ll know a lot more about yourself and about what you want in life if you spend some time on your own growing as a person.

  3. I’m noticing that the LW says “if I ever break up with him,” which makes the letter feel like more of a free-form anxiety of WHAT IF rather than something actually concretely coming down the tubes. So I would add: “If you’re not in danger of breaking up today, don’t worry about it today!” I don’t mean don’t be attentive to any issues in your relationship, but until the time is upon you, don’t stress. If it’s a month from now, you will probably have the issues you’re concerned about (not enough non-his friends), but if it’s 3 years from now, you will have gained and lost friends along the way enough to make today’s worries moot.

    I was the one who introduced my boyfriends to their friends, for the most part. My last ex is currently friends with one of his college friends and all the rest are people I introduced to him. A few of those people I decided I didn’t want to be friends with at all, and gladly ceded them to him. A few we share, because we are amicable. And one or two I lost to “his side,” which was appropriate under the circumstances. Insert all brilliance above here. Then just know that you don’t know how the social circle will shake out if you break up. Maybe the end will come because he was a bastard, and his friends will rally to your side. Maybe the end will come naturally and inevitably, and you will segue into only-friends like my ex from the late 1990’s and I did, causing zero social ripple. Or you will divorce yourself from that whole world and jump into a whole new world of exciting people who only know you as YOU and not as Y’ALL.

    Finally, if you’re the only person your fella can talk to about certain things, that is his obstacle, and not your obligation to stick around beyond your expiration date for. If he lacks the skills to find a new confidante, don’t let that be the reason you stay, to protect him from himself.

    UNICORNS UNITE!

  4. Jessie said:

    This letter could have been written about my group of college friends. Rest assured that after years of first-boyfriends, break ups, betrayals, and friends-with-benefits, we stuck together and currently enjoy a much more bonded relationship. Looking back, it was an exciting ride of maturation. So don’t be scared! If anything hits the fan, it will suck for a little bit, but good friends always come back :)

  5. Tinpantithesis said:

    Yay, the return of Dating Darth Vader! (Which should totally be the web-sitcom version of the Captain’s advice column.)

    LW: Many of my friends also meddle in the affairs of wizards geek social fallacies, and have gone through bringing significant others into our group, followed by breaking up, followed by either DRAMA or healthy adult interactions, depending on the people. So the good news is: it’s totally possible for this to work!

    As Commander Logic said in the linked post: if you like these people, friend-date them! If you like spending time with them WITH your boyfriend, you (and they!) can find other activities to do together. That way, you’re not just “awesome girl I know from the game,” you’re “awesome girl I know from the game who likes bad horror movies and pie and is allergic to raspberries and kickass at karaoke and who listened to me when I needed to vent about my sister.” That means, if you and your boyfriend break up, you can spend time with your friends doing those things, and not just see them once a week for D&D. The more real connections you have with someone, the easier it is to stay friends with them even if one of those connections (the boyfriend) drops out. And if it turns out that they’re awesome gaming friends but not-awesome in other contexts, then guess what? You just figured out that in the event of a breakup, they won’t be helpful people to have around, and you can instead stick with the people who DO care about you.

    On the other hand: listen to your feelings! If you break up and the prospect of seeing him once a week to kill monsters just sounds way too sucky, it’s totally okay to sit out a campaign to give yourself time to heal. (If your boyfriend starts turning every enemy you encounter into a rehash of y’all’s relationship, however, then FUCK THAT NOISE.)

  6. [I]t’s totally possible to keep the friends you made when you were together.

    The thing to keep in mind about college is how absolutely fluid the social milieu is and how much less important who is “dating” who and who is “hooking up” with who will seem years later than it does then.

    The second or third young woman I hooked up with freshman year ended up liking my fraternity brother better than me, and they have now been married about twenty years and we are all still excellent friends who see each other regularly. A young woman who I dated for two years in college–and who then ended up hooking up with two other fraternity brothers of mine–is still a very close friend, as are the two fraternity brothers.

    All of us were together at a cocktail party about six months ago, and we were laughing our asses off about how important all thatte shitte seemed back then, and how much more important it is to grow yourself and forge real friendships than who you “date” or “hook up with”. Any college friends who “choose sides” are very, very unclear on the concept, and most likely not candidates for long-term real friendship anyway.

  7. Sarah said:

    My friend E is the poster child for being awesome friends with her ex’s. So much so that later this year she will be a bridesmaid at one ex’s wedding. I am grateful for this as she tends to date within the social circle and thanks to her lack of drama, we all get to avoid the drama.

    Me? Not so great at that. Definitely recommend expanding your social circle a bit, not just for the “just in case” scenario but also for the awesomeness of making new and wonderful friends!

    Good luck!

  8. Ariel said:

    Oh LW, I want to grab you by the shoulders and stare deeply into your eyes and say clearly, “It will be okay.” Because it will.

    Your letter reminds me of me SO MUCH. It’s almost like someone took your letter out of my head a few weeks ago. (It’s a little creepy, to tell the truth. For the past month or so, Captain Awkward’s posts have been eerily helpful to my current life and problems. Strange coincidence.) I’m in my junior year of college, and I have a serious tendency to get romantically entwined with a man and then get really involved in his social life and his friends. It works most of the time – I’m pretty shy and awkward, so it’s very helpful to have a boyfriend take me by the hand and make me meet cool people who like me. But then, when the relationship ends, I’m left feeling like I don’t have any friends of my own. In the past, I’ve dealt with this by diving right into another relationship, but right now I’m not letting myself have that option.

    Recently (within the last couple weeks) I realized I desperately, desperately wanted to be single. I haven’t been single for longer than about two weeks since high school, and I feel a burning need to just be by myself for a while. I think I read a phrase that speaks to me in the comments on this site actually, someone called it a “happy single girl movie montage” or something like that. That’s what I want. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with my (now ex) boyfriend, he’s a great man and I care a lot about him, but it just wasn’t working and I want some time to figure out what kind of person I am, without a man in my life.

    But my biggest fear, apart from my fear of hurting him (which I did, and which I grieve for, but there’s nothing else I can do but be sad for a while), was my fear that it would turn out I don’t have any real friends, that all my friends are just relationship-friends, who hang out with me because of who I’m dating and because I’m half of a couple, not because I’m me. I worried that the people I had made connections with because of my boyfriend would abandon me, and sometimes that happens.

    And I’ve discovered something amazing. I AM AWESOME. I am a cool person. I am funny, and smart, and witty, and nice. And people WANT to hang out with me. I have barely felt lonely at all since the breakup. Friends call me to hang out, all the time. When nobody calls, I call them! Or I make new friends. I’ve started introducing myself to people in my classes who I think seem interesting. “Hey, I liked what you said in class today, that was really insightful. I’m Ariel. What’s your major?” It seemed so hard the first time, and then suddenly it became the easiest thing in the world. And sometimes I just do things without anyone at all, because it’s okay to be alone sometimes. I go to movies alone, I eat brunch alone, I go to hip coffee places alone, I go shopping alone. And if anybody looks at me funny for being all by myself (they always do at brunch), I make a special point of NOT CARING.

    So, LW, I guess what I’m trying to say in this SUPERLONG comment is, don’t be afraid. Friends are not something to be afraid of. If we’re scared of being abandoned, we are paralyzed and we can’t move or grow. Sometimes you will be abandoned, and it will hurt — I know, it has happened to me. A lot. Sometimes you will feel alone and sad, and it will hurt. But you’ll be okay. Because you are awesome.

    • wondering said:

      Like x 1,000.

  9. Ensign Perception said:

    GIRL!!! You will be fine.

    There is something to be said for cultivating some friendships that have little or nothing to do with your relationship, and I think you should do that. Keep in mind that you don’t want to find yourself farting around in a relationship you’ve checked out of, just because it’s socially convenient. Best way to ensure that is to have a satisfying social life of your own.

    However, that is like the Super Worst Case scenario, so take a deeeeeep breath, congratulate yourself on having realized that this could hypothetically become a problem, and adjust accordingly.

    And remember, every friend group has to deal with this issue sooner or later. It won’t be the end of the world, and it most definitely won’t be “the end of your life”, if you and your boyfriend happen to break up.

    You’ll be fine, seriously.

  10. Jessie II said:

    When I was 17 I’d had my first boyfriend and he introduced me into his social circle. Then he went for a 12 month exchange to Germany and we broke up quite bitterly. I remained very good friends with his friends, even when I was still at the bawling-when-I-got-home-from-school stage. It would have helped that he wasn’t around for another 9 months, but my original friendship circle intertwined with his so it was likely to happen that way anyway.

    And it is from that scenario that gave me a freakin’ awesome group of friends for my last year of high school.

  11. Rosie said:

    What will happen is some of the friends will choose you. They just will. I’ve seen a few Game-Shattering Nerd Breakups in my time and the truth is if you feel connected to people and enjoy hanging with them, they usually feel the same way and it doesn’t matter if they met the other guy first. And eventually people will calm down and you can all hang together again, provided nobody sets anything on fire.

    But say goodbye to your halfling Ventrue starship captain. The tabletop game is toast.

    Isn’t your relationship so much more fun now that it’s voluntary?

  12. Caroline said:

    I was once in a remarkably similar situation: I started dating a guy (my current boyfriend) about a month after I arrived for my freshman year; he was a sophomore and already had a group of friends. As a socially shy person, I was happy to join with his group of wonderfully nerdy people. Four and a half years later, we’re still dating and they’re some of my best friends. So even though I can’t give any thoughts on what to do if you break up…

    *Make your own friends anyway.* I made friends my senior year, when the bf was off doing his own thing, who I had known the whole time and just never clicked with; they had been in the category of “I should get to know ____” — but I didn’t until most of my friends had graduated, and I sometimes regret the time lost with them. If you don’t know where to start looking for (un-shared) friends, I would start with a club devoted to something your boyfriend isn’t interested in — it’s good for your own social life and for your relationship (yes, it is good to have time apart, at least in my book).

    As a side note, don’t worry about the future. Things change and develop, for good or ill, in ways you can’t even imagine, and so it can be fruitless to worry about them. Take things as they come and enjoy what you have now. If it works, wonderful, it works! If at some point it stops working (and as has been said, *you don’t need a reason* to end it; it might just not be working anymore), then hopefully you enjoyed most of the relationship, had many new experiences, and hopefully a few friends to boot.

  13. Social Circle said:

    Thanks for all the helpful advice, you guys. I’m glad to hear other people have been in my situation and made things OK. I’m a bit crap at making my own friends, I know I have to improve on that anyway, so this is giving me more impetus to get out there and try. I’m also going to get in touch with a couple of friends from my home town – we’ve kept in touch on and off through college and it’s always been nice to see them when I’ve been home. I’m terrible at keeping in touch with them when I’m at college, but whenever we do speak it’s awesome. So I’ll do that, and I’ll try to ‘friend-date’ some people from D&D, too. I don’t have any actual problems in my relationship at the moment, other than feeling a bit trapped by the friendship circle thing – I feel like, if I have an escape button things are less likely to go badly relationship-wise because the stakes won’t be as high (and if I end up breaking up, it won’t be the end of the world). Thanks again

  14. xenu01 said:

    I just got a save-the-date in the mail from a lovely friend who I reminisce with sometimes about the old days when I am in his city and we decide to grab a beer with. He is also someone who at one point was The Most Important Person In My Life and who featured (much to his chagrin, I’m sure!) in many depressing poems and also fantasies in which we got back together for a year or two after we ended things between us. When we broke up, I thought my heart was exploding. I was so full of sadness! I thought I would never love anyone again, not with that sweetness.

    A couple of things. First of all, no one cared too much when we broke up, except to helpfully (!) tell me when he was spotted out on a date with someone else (this has been covered in other Captain Awkward posts, but this type of “helpfulness” can be dealt with in a constructive manner!). This is because people are amazing in many, many ways, but for the most part are Too Wrapped Up In Their Own Shit to really care about yours. Except insomuch as it will inconvenience them, as in the instance of you breaking up with that other member of their social group and Drama! and now they have to worry about who to invite where! And hurt feelings and stuff!

    All of that can be avoided, especially in socially awkward nerd situations, by seeking out your favorite of people in said group and being all, “Straight up, Laura and I broke up, but since we are grown-ass adults, we did it in a sensible manner and we are not going to make you choose sides. Can you share this with anyone who is concerned?”

    On friend-dating people on your own from the group, I want to second, third and fourth this concept! Guess what? Not only could you maybe forge some great friendships that manage to weather the storms of growing up and graduating and etc etc with those people in your group, but this great thing happens when you invite people to things where you get to know them, and then maybe they introduce you to THEIR friends, and maybe you don’t even remember that person in five years but if you hadn’t gone to that party that Kevin threw you would have never met Monique, who is the absolute shit and will be your bestie forever and ever ahem. It may sound manipulative, but for serious- think of any new person you meet as the potential link to a network of people. This may also help you when you are looking for a jorrrrb!

    • My first breakup, badly as everyone involved behaved, led to me meeting my second and current girlfriend.

  15. xenu01 said:

    By the way, thinking about the unofficial collection of posts which deal with that difficulty of how to make friends, I am seeing this pretty rad narrative about how to be a cool, networked human being. Which is awesome.

  16. solecism said:

    It’s great that you’re thinking about the big picture and the long term and running what-if scenarios through your head (unless that simply leads to anxiety loops) so that if shit (good or bad!) ever happens you’re maybe kinda sorta prepared. This is a great time in your life, your first taste of adulthood and adult relationships independent from your family as you explore the world and yourself.

    My longest and closest friendships are with people I met in college, with a single exception. And most (but not all!) of those people I met in my first two years. However, in my junior year, I woke up, looked around, and realized that all of these (dozens! scores!) of people that I called friends were in reality little more than friendly acquaintances. I spent the remaining two years making an effort to deepen some of these (and new ones!) into true friendship following much of the advice followed above. I didn’t have your situation because I did not date in college and didn’t really have any meaningful sexually intimate relationships. In my first semester, the dormmate and gaming fellow who courted me for a few weeks, had very painful sex with my virginal compliant-but-not-consenting naive self, and dumped me the next morning pretty much scared me away from intimate relationships for a few years. But I had various friends who met in their first or second year and quickly became a couple. Some broke up before graduation, some broke up after graduation (whether that was undergraduate or subsequent grad school), and some have gone on to get married with or without kids and have been together for decades (now I feel old). And all of those are okay outcomes, depending on the needs and desires of the parties involved. Well, gotta run and catch the bus. Good luck!

  17. Seph said:

    xenu01 said what I had planned to say- geeks love information, so you can just tell your friends what you need from them if you do end up breaking up with your dude.

    Or, you can do what one of my friends did, which was to break up with her bf over summer break. By the time fall rolled around enough time had passed that they could hang out again, and the friend circle was uninterrupted.

  18. Kate said:

    My story:

    I met my college boyfriend on the third day of our freshman orientation. We hit it off instantly and spent a lot of time together. We were both dorky nerds who spent a lot of time in the library, worked part time, didn’t like drinking, and had a small circle of friends.

    My mother told me it was okay to date other people. My grandma told me it was okay to date other people. Numerous other guys suggested I date them.

    But I really really loved my boyfriend. He was my whole world. It wasn’t always super, there were fights that we had over stupid things, or big things (like what would happen after college), but we had a grown up attitude toward it.

    Nine years after we met, we got married. And this year will be our 5th anniversary. So, just to say, from the other perspective, it can work out, and it can be awesome.

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