In essence, I absolutely adore this girl, but there’s someone else, and she has problems being away from home. As a disclaimer: this isn’t some crush, or the case of a naïve adolescent. This is my fifth relationship (though I wouldn’t call myself experienced in relationships). I’ve dated this girl, and known her for over a year, during which we’ve been comfortable friends for long stretches of time. I want her in my life, at least as a very close friend.
Lets call her Emma. We met last August in college, and very quickly, naturally, spilled all our feelings and pasts to each other. Emma was emotional and had a troubled history of depression. I’m an open and helpful person, so I was more than happy to be there for her. She didn’t need me, but felt much happier with me around. She was single, but had lingering feelings for her ex, who she’d gone out with for two years, but had broken up with because she didn’t want to do long distance in college. His presence was visibly ruining her emotionally. At this point I had no intention of going out with her – I was more than happy to have her as a close friend. Eventually, I had a sit-down with Emma, explaining to her she wouldn’t truly be happy if she didn’t let him go.
About a week later, Emma stopped contact with him. She was noticeably happier, and I was proud to have helped her. I started to develop feelings. She had had feelings for a while, before she broke things off with her ex. The natural progression of our friendship led to us going out. This lasted over 3 months, until break. She went home to her closely knit friend group, which included her ex. My family had just moved to a remote location with a harsh winter, and was alone for break. It was hell.
This took an emotional toll on me. When we returned to campus, things weren’t the same. She broke up with me after a week with no clear reason. Emma got back with her ex shortly thereafter. It was because her ex was more accessible over break than I was, by default. It wasn’t my fault.
Two-three months later, she texts me. We start talking again. She had stopped talking with her ex. Emma talked about how horribly he treats her. He refused to call her his girlfriend, but insists that she doesn’t see anyone else. Basically, he wants her for sex, and is too embarrassed to call her his girlfriend in public. He sounded like an absolute douche, based off her own first-hand account. To the extent where the bad things he’s done for her greatly outweigh whatever good he’s done for her. She tells me I treated him better those three months than he ever treated her during their two and a half years together. I’m flattered, but more importantly, I’m glad she’s happy with the way I treat her.
We are well on our way to going out again, but I don’t let it happen, because summer break is coming up. I feel it wouldn’t be practical to attempt long distance for three months after going out, at most, for a few weeks. Emma tells me she plans to stay single over the summer, and is by no means going to resume contact with him. I’m thrilled for her and I’m glad she’s taking that initiative to figure herself out by finally being single for an extended period of time.
We continued contact, as friends, but I found out she resumed contact with her ex. He badgered her and she ignored him for the longest time. I guess she gave in. This took a toll on our conversations, and I’ve stopped talking with her completely. I just don’t trust, or respect her as much as I used to. Not as a girlfriend, not as a friend.
There’s a certain duality to her life – the one back home, and the one at college. She wants me at college, but she wants him back home. Her relationship with me, platonic or romantic, can’t coexist with her relationship with him – though that is what she’s going for. She resents long distance, so in truth, she can’t have a healthy relationship with anyone because she spends months every year in two different places.
First off, how do I properly react to this, in the way that is healthiest to me? I’m not speaking with her until we arrive back on campus, when I plan to express my disappointment about her actions. What do I do until then?
Secondly, as her friend, how do I help her? I’ve helped her so much up until this point. But If I can make her as happy at college as she is at home, it would mean the absolute world to me. First and foremost, we are close friends, and as such, I want to help her. In addition, the aforementioned duality hinders our friendship. Is there anything I can do to help her with it?
I care about her immensely. I want her to be happy.
Any help is much appreciated, thank you in advance!
Confused but Hopeful
P.S. There was really no way to shorten this to 450. I tried. I hope you can omit what you find unimportant, and retain what is important. Any additional info can be attained by contacting me.
Dear Confused but Hopeful:
I left in all of the text in your letter. The anonymized name you chose for your friend/crush has to be a coincidence, but your letter would remind me of the linked article that spawned this post even if you hadn’t accidentally stumbled on the same Nom de Plume. You are not displaying the same level of entitlement (or apologia for violence, thank goodness) as the author of the Medium piece, but you are doing something that he also does, something that I think is harmful and controlling: You are making an argument that what you want just happens to coincide with “what’s best for Emma”and in that light you are attempting to diagnose her decisions and discarding the ones that you don’t like as stemming from pathology/depression/deep-seated issues/distance as a way to invalidate them. The giveaway is in statements like “… in truth, she can’t have a healthy relationship with anyone…”
Here’s what we actually know about Emma’s decisions, so far:
- She likes you and finds you easy to talk to about emotional stuff.
- She broke up with you (in the absence of a given reason, assume “She did not want to be with me” as the reason) and doesn’t seem to want an exclusive relationship, romantic or otherwise, with you.
- She is okay with being in at least some kind of contact with her ex, especially since he is big a part of her social circle back home.
- Emma is the A+ #1 authority on what Emma wants to do and what will make Emma happy.
The ex may very well be bad news, but she will interact with him until she decides to be done with him. You cannot logic her into making a different choice. You may well be an altogether better man than he is by every standard of measurement. But you cannot logic her into making a different choice. Her decisions may have some basis in homesickness, depression, the thrall of an unhealthy relationship, or what have you. But they are still hers, and you cannot logic her into making a different choice. She doesn’t owe you her love, she doesn’t owe you all of her thought processes and reasons, and she also doesn’t owe you making decisions in her life that make sense to you and that you 100% agree with. Why would you want to be with someone whose judgment you trust so little, and whose love for you can be shaken by a brief visit home?
One of the biggest red flags for me is this one: You have cast her as the illogical, irrational, “troubled” one and yourself as the “open, helpful” one, and you cast your role in her life as the unselfish Helper. Your question isn’t “How do I find some kind of normal way to hang out with my friend after a weird intense breakup limbo times”, it’s literally “…how do I help her? I’ve helped her so much up until this point. But If I can make her as happy at college as she is at home, it would mean the absolute world to me. First and foremost, we are close friends, and as such, I want to help her. In addition, the aforementioned duality hinders our friendship. Is there anything I can do to help her with it?” (Emphasis mine) while also saying ‘and “I just don’t trust, or respect her as much as I used to. Not as a girlfriend, not as a friend.”
Has she asked for help? What if she came back to college and she didn’t need any help from you? What if she didn’t tell you all about her bad boyfriend back at home and actually had a counselor and a wide network of people to rely on? What if your friendship with her weren’t based on “helping” at all? Because THAT is the answer to your first question, “how do I properly react to this, in the way that is healthiest to me?” Answer: QUIT HELPING. Remove yourself from the dramatic love/help triangle. Disengage from dealing with her around what you perceive to be her problems. Script: “Emma, given our weird quasi-romantic stuff, I don’t feel comfortable talking about your relationship with your ex with you. Can’t we just go to lunch, or study together? Maybe take the serious stuff to student counseling where they can really hear you out without being biased.” Change the subject. A lot. Tap out of conversations that make you feel disappointed or rejected. See if there is a friendship left here when you remove yourself as a helper and remove the idea that she is a romantic possibility or in need of rescue.
That might make you less close, and that might make you seem and feel less important, but it’s healthy to have boundaries with your friends. If you’re not down for endless discussions of this dude back home, why not draw a line there? That seems way better to me than “I’m not speaking with her until we arrive back on campus, when I plan to express my disappointment about her actions. What do I do until then?” I mean, who wouldn’t be looking forward to that? “I can’t wait to get back to school, where my ex is waiting to tell me how disappointed he is in me and punish me for hanging out with old friends over the summer.” You’re not her parent, or a teacher, or a mentor. Why is it up to you to be “disappointed” about who she talks to? Why would that make you a good or helpful friend? You describe her ex as badgering her until she gives in and talks to him again, and I would submit that the cycle of helping/disappointment can be another form of badgering.
I know I’m being a little hard on you, and that’s partly because I used to be exactly this brand of creepy. “You’re just so troubled and sexy, you don’t even know what you want, let me show you how happy I can make you.” I would invest a lot of time in troubled, sexy dudes, wanting to hear about their problems and nurse them back to emotional health and groom them into my perfect (grateful) boyfriend, and be utterly confused when they would rather spend time with the people they actually wanted to be fucking instead of (objectively so much better and cooler and nicer) me. The dudes in question DID like me a lot, and they liked the attention and home-cooked meals and occasional no-strings-attached* sex and comfort and sounding board, which I offered up because I am so very, very helpful. Who wouldn’t enjoy that kind of attention and adulation from a basically likeable person? I was so very good at rationalizing away any information that I did not want to deal with. I would give and give and give all this stuff that they never asked for, and then close the trap of entitlement and disappointment around them. Hadn’t I done so much for them? Hadn’t I been a good friend? Didn’t I “deserve” to be loved? It turns out that you cannot logic people into loving you back, even if you make a really good case complete with chapter headings written out on the good stationery. “He’s so fucked up and confused, he doesn’t even know what he wants” was my rationalization when I didn’t want to deal with the fact that whatever “he” wanted, it was Not Me.
You didn’t use the words “Friend Zone” once in your letter, which I appreciate, but it’s clear that that’s where you see yourself. You clearly want to be with Emma as more than a friend (boyfriend, or you’d settle for chief advisor and confidant and authority on what she should do), and you lay out the arguments: You’ve put in the time with this chick. She is objectively “happier” when she excludes the other dude from her life. She says that she’s happier, which is evidence! But when she says stuff like “I don’t want us to be together anymore” that is not really evidence of anything, because she didn’t even give “a reason.” She vacillates wildly in what she wants, for instance, when she gives into pressure from the ex to be back in contact. But you don’t see how pressure from you (like the current silent treatment) might affect how she describes their relationship and her intentions there. You are seriously describing a situation where you are “punishing” someone for their “disappointing” behavior, and planning future interactions months ahead of time, yet you say this person is a friend. This is not healthy! This is very controlling behavior, actually, where you are monitoring her excessively and Emma must conform to what you want her to do in order to have your attention. No bueno!
Let’s conclude with some positive steps you can take:
- I think it’s entirely reasonable to not want to date someone who is still hung up on their ex, and it’s reasonable to want a monogamous relationship with someone if that’s how you roll. You should date someone who actively and passionately chooses you. Since Emma is still entangled with her ex, and has a pattern of re-engaging with him, you have all the information you need to know about how this will go. So remove the possibility of dating her from the table, yourself, by not dating her and not trying to. Admit that’s what you’ve been trying to do, grieve the breakup and the loss of what you had, and put all of the energy you were putting into “helping” her into meeting new people who might be good dating partners and meeting new friends in general.
- The way you are worried that Emma’s time at college might be too tied up with ex-boyfriend/home worries? I worry about yours being too tied up with Emma and her Stuff. You wrote to me in June about something that’s not even really going to happen until August/September. Refrain from planning out how your next meeting with Emma in the fall will go or from expressing your “disappointment” to Emma. Keep your questions about her summer to “How was your summer?” Let her decide how her own summer was. Use the school break to focus on everything that is not Emma.
- Write this down somewhere: Emma is the #1 Authority on Emma and What Is Best For Emma (Even If She Makes Mistakes Sometimes). You don’t have to get it or agree with her to be her friend, but if you try to control her decisions and her perceptions of those decisions you are not being a friend.
- Consider a no-advice policy with Emma. When and if she wants to unload troubles on you, you can recommend that she see a counselor at school, or you can simply say “Emma, I’m sorry you’re going through a rough time, but I need to be the friend-who-distracts-you.” It’s ok to articulate your own needs. It’s not good for you to hear all the ups and downs of her relationship stuff, especially not right now, so disengage. Do it kindly, but do it. Find other stuff you have in common. Video games. Movies. A weekly show. If you don’t have That Thing that you can just hang out doing, and you cannot find a basis for your friendship that isn’t intense emotional conversations/advice/helping, maybe you’re not meant to be friends at all.
- Consider talking to a close friend or school counselor yourself about your helping impulses and getting an ongoing reality check to see when and if they cross over into controlling behavior.
- As you meet new people and maybe date them, watch yourself for patterns and the impulse to combine dating + helping/halping/helpiness. Are you always seeking out the “troubled” girl who has boyfriend problems? Are you always looking for ways to make yourself useful/indispensable to win someone’s love? When you look at your five past relationships, do you think of yourself as the logical, together one and the women as troubled/irrational/emotional, etc.? I say this from the heart and from experience: Focusing on other people’s problems can feel like a distraction from your own and make you feel healthier and competent in comparison…for a while. But you will eventually have to deal with your own stuff. You can make yourself seemingly indispensable to someone and still find yourself dispensed.
Everyone has issues, so it’s not about looking for some perfect person, but maybe right now it is about looking for people who have their stuff mostly together and who don’t seem to want or need any help from you. Bad simile time: When you adopt a cat from the shelter, the volunteers will always try to sell you on the ancient one-eyed cat who needs 4 injections a day and an expensive diet of special food. It is okay to keep saying “I’d like a healthy, young cat with no known medical issues.” That one-eyed cat is somebody’s special perfect cat, but you don’t really even know that cat yet, you don’t already love it, and it doesn’t have to be yours. All cats will eventually need expensive vet visits, and we all help our romantic partners at some point, with something, even if it’s just reaching for heavy things from high shelves or formatting a resume. But maybe it’s best for people like you and me to stay away from romantic relationships that are built from the start on a principle of “I, the competent and wise one, can help/save poor problematic you!” Look for people who are really available, look for people who don’t need help right out of the gate, and look for reciprocity.
I truly wish you well in resolving this. It is possible to recover from a Helping Addiction (or at least channel it into blog form) and have relationships that are reciprocal and not based on control.
*SURPRISE THERE WERE SO MANY STRINGS