I’ve got a post up at Feministe today about movie casting and stereotypes. In retrospect I should have called it “Stop boring the shit out of me, Hollywood.”
Major Mishap is here once again to answer today’s question and take this letter writer to post-divorce friendship school, aka, don’t fuck that lady!
Dear Captain Awkward:
I’m recently divorced. (just over a year or so) My ex-wife was originally from out-of-state, we met on-line, she moved to my town to be with me, and we had a good near-decade run. At the end, she was pretty lonely, unsatisfied, and miserable. I was never a “bad” husband. (no substance abuse, no infidelity, no physical/emotional abuse of any kind). I aint sayin’ I was good husband, I just wasn’t horrible. She was miserable and a saint to put up with me, totally justified in leaving, but this wasn’t one of those “put his clothes in a box, tape it shut, and light it on fire” kind of divorces. No kids, no money issues, no real animosity that couldn’t be suppressed.
My friends and I have a monthly get-together at a bar, and one month we chatted up a husband-and-wife there. Next month rolls around, we’re chatting again with the same couple. He’s a nice guy: works in a garage, loves his car, watches UFC but isn’t a macho douche’. He looks a little like me, except he’s younger, in better shape, has more hair and less of an aura of despair about him. She’s nice too: relatively smart, works in the same field I do, knows how to be a girly-girl but is OK “hanging with the guys” and being foul-mouthed.
So the husband starts hanging out with my circle of friends other times. (We have a weekly get-together for a common hobby) Husband’s interested in the hobby, wife isn’t. But the wife hangs out because it’s social. I see the wife is lonely and bored and doesn’t really connect with what’s going on, so I make an effort to include her. For example, we do a beer tasting, but she doesn’t drink beer. OK, so I suggest to the group we do a dark chocolate tasting next. That’s all I’m doing: little changes so she’s included, but not things people wouldn’t enjoy anyway. (I think. I hope. Probably. I dunno.)
Wife helps out one hobby-day when husband can’t make it, and puts in a lot of work for a hobby she doesn’t enjoy, so I offer to treat her to a meal at some future time, as a thank you. I swear that was all I was thinking; it was a “Hey, thanks for doing all that. You really didn’t need to. I owe you one” kinda thing. (Yes, in hindsight if it was a guy, I would have offered to pick up the tab at the next bar night; the gesture was a mix of gratitude and friendship). A month or three go by, and she texts me about that dinner, because her husband is working late.
We sit down at the restaurant, and she just starts opening up about how unhappy and lonely and despairing she is. How she’s thinking about leaving him next spring, about how how she moved out here with him from another state, and how she doesn’t have any friends out here. All I can do is listen, nod, try and offer vague but helpful remarks. She’s venting. But in my head, I’m thinking “this is probably what my ex-wife sounded like a few months before the end”…
What the hell do I do? I’ve got options, but none of them seem terribly good. I would like to be her friend and his friend. (I like them both, for different reasons) If there’s any way my experience could help someone else avoid divorce, I’ll take it. Divorce sucks under the best of circumstances; mine was almost a best-case scenario and I still wouldn’t wish it on my enemies.
Is it even possible to help this situation? Is helping her as a person going to run counter to helping her marriage? (if it even can be helped… the sinking feeling in my stomach suggests it can’t) I think I’m being a friend to her, but am I really, or am I just greasing the skids on her marriage? If I am deluding myself about my motives and/or effects, should I just stop trying to be a mensch, and instead be a bastard about the whole thing and try and get into her pants, knowing she’s leaving the state in the spring anyway? Should I just pull back from contact with her? (because that would involve pulling back from a circle of friends, and these days, I value my social contacts).
Help me Captain Awkward, you’re my only hope,
Probably a Bastard in Denial
Thank you for writing to Captain Awkward about this issue. Major Mishap has a lot of serious things to say to you because I’ve been in something of a comparable situation. It’s great that you have Real World Experience in relationship awkwardness. I’m counting on you to reach back into your memories and utilize all of the painful lessons you learned from your divorce. As I said: this is serious.
I want to congratulate you on your positive outlook towards marriage. It’s an institution that, when operated properly, performs miracles. Major Mishap can see that you drink the Kool Aid (as do I), but let’s say that again. Marriage is one of the most powerful things on the earth. It’s up there with giving birth. It’s isn’t to be tinkered with.
You, my caring friend, are tinkering.
You are surprised to hear Major Mishap say this. You’re a committed friend to everyone in your social group. I’m betting that when you went through your divorce, some of those friends you cherish were very much there for you. But let us think back to those days. What did your friends REALLY do for you?
Major Mishap has a theory. Your friends listened. Good friends do that. Your friends helped you move, or your friends invited you over for dinner when you could not stand the thought of eating alone. Your friends called you, they said Happy Birthday, they said Chin Up, they said It Will Get Better. None of them, however, I am guessing, tried to tinker with the broken marriage. No one tried to help. No one tried to save it, or give advice on how to fix it, or recommend a marriage therapist, or said Take A Vacation Together, It Will Make You Closer. No one did that. They just listened, and they waited for you to get through it.
No one did that because they respected the process that needed to happen between you and your Ex.
And if someone did do those things, did you value that stuff? No. It probably irritated you and you might not even have known why at the time. Truth: no one can help you – or anyone – get through a divorce. Everyone has to do it alone. Those who try to help are banished from the island, always, eventually.
PABID, you are inadvertently insinuating yourself into a situation that not only can you not help, but also has sexual overtones. This should be a major red flag for you – I suspect in your heart you already know it’s going to be a problem. Fact: you cannot. You. Can. Not. be friends with the woman in this picture. Not right now, and most likely not ever. Your male friend has been with you longer, and you have never thought about what it would be like to have sex with him.
But her? She has the unfortunate disadvantage of having breasts. Look, not everyone is going to like this but it’s the truth. Men and women can indeed be friends, but not under these circumstances. Someone’s gonna get their feelings hurt. Someone’s gonna read body language wrong. Someone’s gonna get more attached to the other one because she’s going through the end of her marriage (fact: it’s happening) and she’s going to develop feelings she hasn’t had in a long time and then, my sweet man, you are going to feel much more awkward than you do now.
Captain Awkward is a hero of Major Mishap’s. Captain Awkward is a true friend because the Cap. taught me a long time ago this word: boundaries. The Captain said: use them. I encourage you right now to employ your boundaries with the lady who appears in this story. (Here’s how you do that: You never mention the dinner conversation you have again, and if she mentions it, you say “It was really nice to see you. I’m really sorry for your troubles, and I don’t want you to feel weird about our conversation, but (husband) is also my friend and I’m not the right person to talk to about this. I’ll see you at next (group social event).” And you don’t hang out with her alone, ever. – CA)
Second: if the time comes that the marriage fails, and it will because your lady friend is absolutely gearing up for it, then stand beside your man friend. Invite him to dinner when he can’t stand the thought of eating alone. Tell him It Will Get Better. Listen more, talk less. But find a way to let him know that you’re there and you’re waiting for him to be through his hell ride.
I want you to view this as a very black-and-white situation, and make a very black-and-white decision. And then let me know what happens.