Dear Captain Awkward,
I hope you and your army of awesome readers can help me! I’m 28 and I find myself in the awkward position of getting divorced and simultaneously losing my best friend. Long story short, I was also dating my best friend and we broke up so she can go back to her Darth Vader Husband. I’m really hurting, but I know that I created a lot of my hurt by my own choices because I was blinded by happy pants-feelings and my own need to fix/nuture the people in my life.
What I need help with is this: I have a long history of picking people in my life who need fixing. Specifically, I meet and quickly become close friends with beautiful, intelligent, articulate women who either have relationships with Darth Vaders or end up having relationships with Darth Vaders. And I’m talking baby daddy doesn’t have a job and gives you a curfew and tells you how to spend your money (uses your paycheck to buy pot, etc) and maybe hits you Darth Vaders. I then keep my mouth shut for months (years) attempting to keep the peace because I care for these women a great deal and value their friendship. Eventually though, I end up telling them how I feel about their partners because I get so frustrated with the situation. Then, my friend inevitably leaves me because her relationship with her Darth Vader is more important to her.
Okay, so I probably should keep my opinions about other peoples’ relationships to myself, and if I’m not going to I should use my words instead of building it all up. But this is my question, how do I find people who don’t have exceptionally dysfunctional relationships? Is that even possible? Because while I’m rebuilding my life (I tend to have only a few close friends and my friend tally is very low right now), I’m hoping to invest in some relationships that have staying power. I don’t want to lose a friend in 3 or 5 years because she likes to date assholes. And even more importantly than that, how do I stop picking people who need fixing? Are there signs? Like big neon flashing ones that say “broken and in need of a codependent relationship” so that I can avoid or keep at arms length?
I’ve lost two friends to Darth Vaders in the past year, and I don’t know how many more losses of friends I can take. And when I start dating again, I’d really like to have a better way to determine if the person I’m dating is capable of being my partner not my project. Also, is it me? Am I just that fucked up and I don’t even know it? Are there really that many Darth Vaders in the world?
Keeping company with Darth Vader’s wife
Dear Keeping Company:
Second, I think it is both helpful and unhelpful to look at your past friends/lovers as part of a pattern.
It’s unhelpful because they’re not dating horrible people AT YOU. They’re all separate people who are doing it for their own reasons, and if you read the original Darth Vader Boyfriend post, they’re getting something out of it that you can’t see. You can’t really prevent someone from making a terrible decision. What you can do is honestly voice your concerns, listen with as open a mind as you can manage, and when you can’t listen to it anymore, say “I’m sorry, I want to be here for you, but I can’t listen to you talk about Darth anymore. Consider talking to a trained therapist who can really help you work through everything. Do you need help finding someone and placing the initial call?”
It’s tough to think about the possibility of leaving a friend hanging and refusing your support, but you get to draw boundaries about how much of their problems you will take on as your own.
A few years ago I read Melissa Banks’s The Wonder Spot, which is about growing up affluent and kind of directionless and feeling lost (kind of like a prequel to Lena Dunham’s work), and there is a section that struck me like lightning. Our heroine is taking an art class, and she meets a wolfishly sexy dude who asks her out, and then stands her up for their first date. He circles back later to apologize and reschedule, and she is sorely tempted, but she realizes that she can already see the entire pattern of their relationship unfolding: he will be unreliable and shitty, and then apologize and charm his way back in. She realizes that just because someone likes her and wants to sleep with her doesn’t mean that she has to like them back. She can just choose not to sign up for the whole thing.
That passage has helped me so many times? When I meet someone who is sexy and interesting but not all there somehow, someone who seems to be using a first date as a therapy session, someone who casually admits to many, many problems in a self-deprecating “you probably won’t like me once I tell you this” way that’s designed to make me reassure them that no, it’s okay that they are still sharing a house with their ex-wife, I don’t mind!, someone who, let’s face it, would have been catnip to me in my 20s for being all “complicated” and “deep”, and even though he totally wants to put his sexy-Darth-Vadery vibes all up in me I decide nope, I don’t have to sign up for this. I smile and say “Thanks for a nice evening!”, put some money on the table and walk myself to the train.
It also reminds me of a great passage in Tana French’s In The Woods when our emotionally stunted, would-probably-be-played-by-Clive-Owen-in-a-movie detective gets dumped after a few dates with a colleague. I’m paraphrasing the exact quote because Sweet Machine has my copy, but when she dumps him she says:
“There’s a fine line between ‘interesting’ and ‘really fucked up.’ You should date younger women; sometimes they can’t tell.”
So how do you figure out where that line is? Some of it comes with age and experience, and the fact that you’re asking this question is a good sign that you will be more able to tell going forward. You can break patterns! I had one where I kept dating men who lived in New York when I did not live in New York, and then I moved to New York for a short spell and spent all my time on the phone with someone in Chicago = NOT GOOD. There was something in there about being unsettled where I was. There was something in there about wanting a lot of time to myself and not feeling ready to have someone in my life all the time, and since I also liked fixer-uppers that was probably a self-protective instinct. There was something there about liking fantasy more than a real day-to-day, and then I grew up and met better people and realized that the day-to-day is where it’s at.
Maybe the commenters can help generate a list of signs of a fixer-upper that you can look out for early in your relationships. A substance abuse problem is one! As is always being a few $ short when it’s time to pay the check, or being chronically late, or oversharing really soon after you meet them. Constant bitching and complaining is a sign. Having no other friends but you is one I’d watch out for. One “possible sign” alone might not sink a relationship, but a combination of them should tell you that there are rough seas ahead. Maybe there’s some good stuff here.
Maybe you can use this classic Tomato Nation post about how to behave like an adult as a rough guideline. It’s certainly not an absolute standard I hold other people to (and I flinched when I re-read it recently and saw some areas that I could definitely raise my game), but there is a lot in there about being reliable and taking care of yourself and not expecting others to pick up your slack. I love this, especially:
“19. Take care of yourself. If you are sick, visit a doctor. If you are sad, visit a shrink or talk to a friend. If you are unhappy in love, break up. If you are fed up with how you look, buy a new shirt or stop eating cheese. If you have a problem, try to fix it. Many problems are knotty and need a lot of talking through, or time to resolve, but after a few months of all complaining and no fixing, those around you will begin to wonder if you don’t enjoy the problems for the attention they bring you. Venting is fine; inertia coupled with pouting is not. Bored? Read a magazine. Mad at someone? Say so — to them. Change is hard; that’s too bad. Effort counts. Make one. Your mommy’s shift is over.”
You don’t need your friends to be perfect (no one is perfect), but when you’re making friends look for signs that they know how to take care of themselves and put their best foot forward in their relationships.
So, let’s look at the pattern you have of choosing people who need to be saved or fixed. Maybe that is something you should chew over at length with a trained professional (and if you’re in the middle of both a divorce and a sad breakup, therapy is a good call). I can tell you, there are plenty of people who are not entangled with Darth Vaders out there, and your perception has been radically skewed by recent experiences.
What I can also tell you is that we don’t stay in relationships, even really dysfunctional relationships, if we aren’t getting *something* out of them. So it’s time to examine what you get out of fixing people. I suspect that at least some of it has to do with a feeling of control, competence, and superiority. It feels good to be the smart one and to feel like you’re in a position to help people (o hai, my blog!). It can feel good to be needed. There are little jolts of attention and drama that keep life interesting. And it might do you good to examine to what extent you’re bringing a sense of entitlement to these friendships with women. “I’ll listen to you endlessly and save the day, and in exchange you owe me making better decisions and leaving that asshole (for me).” You’re angry at her/them for not picking you after all of that work you put in, and the terrible things that are happening to them feel like terrible things they are DOING to you. That’s also a bit skewed.
Recently on Mad Men, Don Draper and Joan Holloway Harris hung out in a bar and the subject of why they never got together came up. Don admits that it’s because she scared the shit out of him, which makes total sense. Joan is so polished and competent and awesome at work. She’s pretty close to Don in age. She doesn’t look up to men, not one bit, and if she pampers and flatters them sometimes everyone knows it’s part of a game where she holds the upper hand. Both of Don’s wives have been substantially younger than he is, and he loves the role of benefactor/protector/mentor (even though when he steps out on them, he goes for badasses). The most recent episode is all about wanting to “control” women, and some of that manifests in wanting to save or rescue them. (Spoilers abound at those links, FYI. But Amanda is doing some of the best recapping of the show. See also Tom & Lorenzo’s Mad Style posts for amazing criticism about costume & character. Sorry about your plans for the rest of the day!)
I can’t untangle all of this stuff for you in one blog post. This is deep-seated stuff. But to leave you with one practical tip, maybe the next time you start hanging out with someone you like and they launch into a sad terrible story about their problems, you can say “Whoa, that sounds really terrible. You should probably dump that asshole.” And if they continue, expecting you to listen to the whole sad story, say “Sorry to interrupt you, but have you tried talking to a therapist about it? Because that’s definitely above my pay grade.” And if they still continue? Put some money on the bar and get yourself home. And if the friendship does not grow closer? That’s a bullet you dodged, right there.