Dear Captain Awkward,
I have this friend, and he’s pretty great. He’s been with his girlfriend for almost 5 years, and she’s pretty great too. Their relationship seems to work really well for them, at least from my outside perspective. What they have looks really different from what I tend to have with partners (note: simplifying a bit, I am a lady who monogamously dates dudes), which is good, because what I have had with my partners wouldn’t work for either of them, and what they have wouldn’t work for me.
The problem is, my friend seems to think that his relationship style is the One and Only Good Relationship Style, and every time I start seeing someone he starts passively-aggressively chiding me for not doing things The Right Way. I think it’s an ego thing; we met when he was 20 and I was 16, and he was older and wiser and worldlier and all of that stuff. I think that felt good for him, and he got used to it. But I’m 23 now. I know myself, and I’m learning what works for me. I’d like to be respected as a capable adult, and as the #1 expert on my own life.
It’s frustrating, because we talk about almost everything else; but I’ve been dating my boyfriend for about 10 months now, and I’d like to talk to my friend about that part of my life. But every time I do, he finds some irrelevant detail to pick at. “Huh, good story. Hey, do you know you almost always refer to yourself and your boyfriend as ‘we?’ You’re separate individuals, right? Just checking.” Or, “and you had that whole conversation over text message, you say? I dunno, it seems like you guys text a lot. You could probably get through a day without contacting him, you know. You probably won’t die or anything.” I’d like to get through a cute story about how me and my guy reacted to a passing puppy dog without hearing about how we hold hands too much in public, or something.
What makes it worse is that, while we’d been doing really well up until a couple weeks ago, me and my boyfriend are actually going through a something of a rough patch right now. I’m confident that we can work through it, and he’s said that he is too, but it’s going to take some time and effort. It would really help if I could confide in this friend, but I don’t want him to use it as an opportunity to judge me. I don’t even feel comfortable talking about it with mutual friends, because I worry that it will get back to him. It’s bad enough that things are a little awkward in my relationship right now. I don’t need to hear that it just proves I can’t date right.
So, my question: how do I talk to my friend about the way his little jabs make me feel? I’ve tried before, but he’s always retreated to the tried-and-true hiding place of the passive-aggressive: the closet of “but I never actually said that in those exact words!” And then he gets really condescending, because ha ha isn’t it cute she’s having feeeeeeeelings. I really want to be able to talk to him about this honestly.
I can see why you are frustrated. Your friend is acting like a dickhead.
In this case, do not use politeness or wait (because it will only result in “I never said that” gaslighting later). Ask him directly to stop doing the thing immediately. Pretend you’re squirting the cat for jumping on the kitchen counter – the cat won’t remember that’s what she did an hour or a day later, but she will get off the counter right then!
Next time he critiques you, screw up your courage in the moment and say, firmly:
“Hey, that was out of line. Stop critiquing the way I run my relationships.”
Then be quiet. He will do a big song and dance and claim that’s not really what he’s doing and it’s your fault anyway for doing that thing he needs to critique. Trust me. That is what he will do.
Be quiet more. Let him finish.
Then say: “I really need you to hear me and to get it. Stop critiquing my relationships. It makes me feel shitty, and you are not my love-mentor.” DON’T get into specifics. This kind of person will always try to get into nitpicky “tell me exactly when I did that?” bullshit, and you’re not in a courtroom. Let him talk more. Then you can say “Listen, we’re not in a courtroom. I don’t need to ‘prove’ it to you in order to tell you that you make me feel shitty when you do that, and I need you to knock it off. When I tell you things about (partner), I’m not looking for advice.”
If he opens his mouth again, tell him “Look, the next words I want to hear from you are ‘I am sorry, I won’t do that anymore.’ Can you do that for me?”
If he can’t? That conversation is OVER. End it. Change the subject firmly, and if at all possible, leave as soon as you can. You can try again in a couple of weeks. Or not. What he is demonstrating to you over and over again with his behavior is 1) he thinks he’s smarter than you and 2) he’s not a safe person to talk about your love life with because he will always make you feel crappy and like you need to second-guess yourself. So even if he apologizes, I would keep the discussions of your relationship to “Things are going great, thanks for asking!” in the future. He needs to unlearn some behavior around you before he’s back inside the circle of trust.