Dear Captain Awkward,
Here is my problem. I made a bunch of friends when I was in my 20s. Then, when I was 30, I went back to school to finish my BA, and because my GPA from my first round of college was so very low I told all my friends I was going to have to really concentrate on school because I had to get all As in order to raise my GPA up high enough to qualify for the professional program I wanted to attend after school. (Long, tangential story about the GPA – please accept that I really did need to get all As.)
I spent three years as an undergrad, then two years as a grad student, then one year in the professional program, and now I am finishing my first year in my new career. I love my career. I love my job. It is everything I ever wanted. I was also highly successful at school, was published, got awards and fellowships, and basically rocked academia.
My friends all left. I didn’t have time to maintain my friendships, but I had assumed we were all adult enough that they would understand why I wasn’t around as much and would still invite me to do things with them once I was free again. This hasn’t happened. I now hear about all the crafting circles I’m not invited to, the dinners, the fun events, etc. I have hinted and then pointedly told people I’m available again and even though they all swear they’re still my friends, I don’t get the invites.
I don’t regret school – I was terribly bored and got minimum wage at my pre-degree jobs – but I do regret not having spent more time with my friends even though realistically I did have to spend all that time studying. My old friends no longer have time for me.
And then there’s my boyfriend. He’s sweet, kind, loving, awesome, communicative, not afraid of feelings, and everything a girl could ever want. He totally supported me (emotionally and financially) through six years of school and has been my chief cheerleader for fifteen years. However, during the first year of grad school I gained over 100 pounds very quickly due to stress (yes, I am going to the gym, and yes, I have seen the doctor). He loves me very much, but now I look different and he had a hard time reconciling my new look with our relationship.
We didn’t have sex for several years. He loves me and is in love with me but is not attracted to me. I love him and am in love with him and am attracted to him. We tried couples therapy and for a variety of reasons, that didn’t work. (Too expensive, I hated the therapist, etc.) He also got tired of waiting around for me to become available, so he started playing World of Warcraft and made a whole bunch of new friends I don’t know.
Now I am trying to make new friends. I am being myself. I was always told, “be yourself, and eventually you will find someone who likes you.” Unhappily, the stress of school and getting basically 120 semester units of straight As has given me an anxiety disorder in addition to the fat and has made me rather introverted. No one seems to want to be my friend and I feel stress in group settings, so I lose my cool easier and quicker during parties.
The last new friend I made had a party two years ago that I was invited to. There, at the party, outside in her back yard, her conservative next door neighbor insulted me and my chosen profession openly and to my face. I got upset and argued back (and politer, too!). Then I went into her house and sat on the couch, angry and trying to calm down. My friend’s wife came in and told me that their neighbor had been really great and accepting to them and they didn’t want any trouble. I haven’t been invited back to any parties.
It always seems to happen this way – I am at a gathering of people, some friend of a friend says something horribly offensive, and I say something back and then I am no longer invited. (And I’m talking really bigoted things, too, like “all Muslims should die.”) I am too uptight, too self-righteous, too impolite, too emotional, and way, way too blunt. And I can’t take a joke. My new friends don’t stay friends for very long.
So now I’m at a point where my boyfriend is in a hotel room with another woman. She’s a WoW friend who is not local, and she’s flown out here to visit all her friends in the area. He volunteered to pick her up at the airport and put her up at a local hotel for two nights because she’s his friend and he’s awesome. He is staying the night – he got her last night and won’t be home til Monday. They’re spending the day with WoW friends. He swears up and down that they’re not a couple and not having sex and he is a very truthful man – but he also tends to apologize instead of ask permission. (All of this was arranged and then I was told about it, for example.) He doesn’t understand why I don’t trust any of this.
At the risk of sounding whiny, I feel very alone. I am lonely. Being myself doesn’t seem to get me anywhere. I don’t know how to make real friends and I’m not sure I ever did know how. I love my job, but all my friends there are work friends – none have invited me over or have come over in response to my invites. I worry that I’m losing my boyfriend of 15 years because I’m no longer good enough. My self-esteem is in the toilet and I wonder if choosing school and a great career was worth all of this. I think the problem is me, and I know that can’t be entirely true, but I wonder to what degree it is true.
No More Friends
PS – folks, please don’t ask me to go to the gym or suggest the endorphin benefits of exercise or say I’ll somehow magically solve all my problems if I lose weight. I’ve heard all that and I’m trying to and I really don’t want to be fat-shamed.
Dear No More Friends:
Let’s start with your postscript. We’re not the fat-shaming sorts around here. Done and done.
I’m really sorry you’re feeling these relationships slip away from you. Let’s deal with the old friends first, and some assumptions:
- “I had assumed we were all adult enough that they would understand why I wasn’t around as much and would still invite me to do things with them once I was free again.”
- “I have hinted and then pointedly told people I’m available again and even though they all swear they’re still my friends, I don’t get the invites.“
I’m sorry, while your friends may in fact have been very supportive of you following your dreams, it’s unrealistic to expect that you could disappear from their lives and still maintain the same place in the social circle (automatically invited to everything!) when you returned. Whatever awesome stuff you’ve been doing (and it does sound awesome), they’ve been doing equally awesome stuff, or differently awesome stuff, or not-so-awesome stuff, and I sense this idea that you went away and changed your life completely but expected that they stayed the same and were maybe waiting for you a little bit?
I realize that the changes are hurtful and that you can know rationally that your friends will have moved on somewhat and still feel excluded. But if you’re approaching this from a standpoint of seeing all of those sewing circles and dinner parties as things you SHOULD be invited to and AREN’T and how they OWE YOU, that chip on your shoulder is going to be visible in your interactions. Guilt and entitlement don’t make you a more exciting party guest. Also, hinting never works, and blanket “You should invite me to stuff from now on, probably?” probably won’t work, either. You have to get more specific about connecting.
Here’s a small challenge for you. Call up one of your old friends, the one you like the best and who you think is the most supportive and welcoming, and say “I haven’t seen you in a while and I’d love to catch up. Can I take you out to breakfast this weekend or next?” Go to breakfast. Have a good time. And here’s the “challenge” part: Ask her about her life. Talk about old times. See what you have in common now. Do you still laugh at the same stuff? Is she easy to hang out with, or is it awkward and forced? Do NOT mention your hurt feelings and your wishes to be invited places. Do not have any agenda beyond “seeing my old friend who I like and want to reconnect with,” eating delicious pancakes, and having a good Saturday morning.
If you have a good time, and things are not awkward and forced, keep inviting her to stuff, about once a month or so. Maybe reach out to 2 or 3 other people from that group and try the same thing. Yes, it feels like you’re courting/dating your friends a little bit, but IF there is still a genuine connection with them and IF you can find things in common and enjoy each other now, that effort you put into making them feel good and letting them know you’re interested in them individually as humans (and not as gatekeepers to a group you feel excluded from) is going to pay off for you. They are going to start including you in things because you obviously like each other’s company and you are making an effort to be a part of their lives and not because you guilted them into it. Give this a lot of time, like 3-6 months.
If things are weird and stilted? If it’s impossible to make plans? You’ve learned something sad but valuable: You and these friends have truly moved in separate directions. You can wish them well and stay in touch on a superficial level, but they aren’t your people anymore. Tell yourself “At least I tried,” grieve for them and move on.
Now let’s talk about your Uncomfortable Party Persona. I, and a lot of readers here, TOTALLY FEEL YOU about being at a gathering and then someone says something awful and we feel like we have to speak up about it and all the air gets sucked out of the room and maybe people will blame us for “drama” and “trouble” when really it’s the unbelievable racist/sexist/homophobic/downright genocidal thing that the other person said that caused the trouble. I don’t want to tell you to not speak up, and you probably don’t want a group of friends who say terrible things to you and then expect not to be called on it anyway, but since this has happened more than once and is actively interfering with your happiness I do have a couple of suggestions.
- Some people, especially Geeks, are allergic to “trouble” or “drama” and will go so far to avoid any sense of conflict that they will cruelly police people for disagreeing and stating that disagreement, and there is this unwritten rule that hangs over everyone’s heads. If you feel like this is the kind of group you’re involved with, really modulate your statements and tone of voice. Don’t get drawn into an argument, just say in a calm tone, “I’m sorry, I disagree with that, but I’d prefer not to have an argument (this is your offering to the Household God of We Geeks Are So Enlightened That We Never Argue). Can we change the subject (back to a fun thing)?”
- Even when the other person says something really horrible, you don’t have to “win” the conversation or prove them wrong. You did the right thing in that one case by disagreeing politely and removing yourself from the conversation as quickly as possible. But I think it helps to recognize that, like it or not, there is a hierarchy at work here. “My neighbor who I have to live next to forever and want to stay on his good side” vs. “The person I just met.” As the New Guy, if there is conflict surrounding you, people will be quicker to see you as the problem (even if you’re right on the merits). If you can tell yourself “this person is being a jerk, but I’m choosing not to fight with him and choosing to say ‘Hmmm, interesting’ and then go get some dip” you gain some power back.
- I’m NOT saying don’t stand up for yourself or just let horrible statements go and never challenge them as the price of friendship. A group that’s infected with “All Conflict = Drama and THAT IS BAD” and “She who raises her voice is automatically in the wrong” sounds exhausting to hang out with, so you’re probably not going to want to spend a lot of time with these people as a large group anyway. But if you can ride out a couple of gatherings without getting into an argument you may gain some social currency as “a cool person who can hang” and figure out if any of the group members are Your People. More importantly, it will help you break this pattern you feel like you have going on to know that you can choose to engage.
As far as finding new friends, think about a) volunteering somewhere with a strong social justice agenda, b) taking a class in something totally fun that you’re not already good at, or c) finding a regular activity through Meetup.com. That gives you a set activity, out of the house, doing something you like, with new people who may become friends, in a totally low-pressure situation.
I’m also going to recommend that you revisit therapy (not couples therapy – get someone just for you) when and if it’s possible for you. You’ve got a lot of emotional stuff going on and a lot of big changes going on your life, and having someone you can vent to will help you manage your stress levels. Think also about using a paper journal or a site like 750 Words to write daily “morning pages.” That’s a good ritual I use when I’m feeling down. It helps me just vomit out anxieties in a safe place so I can get on with my day.
Now, your relationship stuff made me really sad, because I think you’re spot on to think the whole “We’re staying in a hotel together all weekend but not in a sexy way” thing is fishy. Men and women can be just friends, sure, absolutely. I myself have shared hotel or floor or guest-bedroom space with dude-friends in a totally platonic, not-sexy way many a time! But this is still fishy. You know why? Because you know this guy really well and if your spidey-senses are tingling and telling you that it’s fishy, or at least borderline fishy, like it-used-to-be-fishy-but-isn’t-anymore or isn’t-fishy-yet-but-is-about-to-be, it probably is. Or, at least worth a conversation along the lines of “I trust you, and want you to have a good time with your friends, but I still felt really alone and weird about the idea of you staying in a hotel with another lady all weekend. Can we talk about that?” I see you making all this effort to be the cool, non-jealous girlfriend when really you are jealous and not cool, and maybe getting in touch with some of that anger and anxiety will be healthy. I really, really hope you don’t have to have a conversation involving the words “We didn’t mean to, it just happened” this coming week, because that conversation also involves the part where he created the circumstances where it was very easy for things to just happen. Gah.
So, I know you’re probably WAY unready to hear this and in the midst of feeling lonely and adrift friendwise it may actually induce panic, but…
What if you broke up with the guy who doesn’t really want to have sex with you and who spends all his free time playing World of Warcraft (rarely an aphrodisiac, in my personal experience) with shiny new friends?
I’m not saying you *should* break up.
I’m not saying it’s impossible that you’ll work it out – he sounds like he’s been willing to do anything and everything to keep the relationship going and maybe you can figure out a way to reconnect with each other sexually, though going years without sex is not a good omen, even without fishtastic out-of-town guests.
But I think your low self-esteem has put you in the mindset that he is GREAT and you are FAT and that somehow makes you UNWORTHY (as if bodies never change in a long-term, let’s-grow-old-together type of relationship) so I have to ask…is he making you feel great right now? I know he supported you through grad school and you feel gratitude for that, but is he treating you how you need to be treated right now? Some journaling and talking with a therapist on the subject of “My relationship: What do I want and need from it, and am I getting those things?” is in order. Because you deserve to feel good. You deserve to feel good right fucking now.