Dear Captain Awkward:
I used to hang out with Friend Group, and dated a guy in that group for two years. When we broke up five years ago, I moved to a different neighborhood and saw them less because I needed space and because I was starting to move away from them socially.
Since then, I hang out with this group less and less, but still come out for big get-togethers. My ex-boyfriend and I were on good terms. He’s more socially awkward than I am and in our relationship and after, I took on the burden of smoothing any awkwardness over. We hooked up at one point, and I suspected he wanted to get back together with me, but I wasn’t interested. We hung out in group settings a few times since then, and all was well.
Then I got engaged to someone outside of Friend Group, and ex-boyfriend started ignoring me at these Friend Group events. Avoiding eye contact. No talking. Looking the other way when I was standing in front of him. Since I don’t see this group much, I tried not to let it bother me. I also didn’t want to talk about it with anyone, because I didn’t want to come off like an obsessive ex.
I don’t think he bears me any ill will or anything. I just think he’s kind of an awkward guy who just didn’t know how to react.
The problem is that a) mutual friends started mirroring his behavior and b) he started becoming a more integral part of that group, so I got pushed further out. When I show up to a party someone is throwing and he’s with a group of people, most of them are his friends, so no one greets me. I don’t get invited to Friend Group parties at his house (understandable!) but then mutual friends surprised when I don’t attend. It’s made me pull even further away from Friend Group, and now I get super nervous before attending if I go at all.
I KNOW that I should have just ignored any weirdness, jumped right into the middle, and started chatting like normal. But I was tired of shouldering the burden of being the outgoing, socially adept one (despite social anxiety) YEARS after our relationship ended that I just didn’t. And it really, really sucks feeling rejected whenever you hang out with a group of people.
So I’ve been married a year now, and have been with this group maybe five times since then. This last weekend was the wedding for my oldest friend in this city, and it felt really weird to be there, two feet away from my friends, being avoided. People came up to us individually to say hi, but since I haven’t been around much, we weren’t included in any pre-wedding parties or weekend group activities. We left the wedding early because I just felt really weird about it. Everyone else went on to go bar hopping, after parties, etc.
I know no one can make me feel small except me, but is my only choice to avoid this group moving forward? Am I just blowing this feeling out of proportion? Should I be the bigger person and step in, him be damned, and have a good time no matter what?
Some of this is about your ex. It sounds like he felt really uncomfortable after your breakup and was fronting that he was more okay with staying friends and socializing with you than he actually felt, and then when you got engaged the wheels of pretense came off. It’s hard to tell if he’s actively shunning you or if it’s just become an awkward habit that he doesn’t know how to break out of. The one way to find out is probably for you to brave the lion in its den and, the next time you see him, say a quick hello – ANYTHING to break the silence – and see if you and he and the others exhibit signs of profound relief to have the standoff at an end or if they double down on their weirdness. It takes a lot of effort to blank someone to their face. It’s actually much harder than small talk.
However, not all of this is about your ex. It’s natural for social groups to change as people get older and develop different priorities, so some of what you have going on is plain old social entropy. And some of this is about you, and how you relate to the people in this group and think about the group as a whole. There is a chicken-and-egg thing going on, where your ex was uncomfortable, and his obvious discomfort you uncomfortable, and you needed space, and you wanted to give Ex some space, and you moved on with your life and made some new friends and met a new dude, so you stopped coming to as many things. This is all understandable! These are good reasons to not be around so much! But the fact is, you have been around less. And, for whatever reason, you are not on the radar of the person or people in that group who are the chief organizers/planners/herders/maintainers of the invite list or the Facebook (what my friends call The Alsatian, like Paul was for The Beatles) of that particular group. The behavior you describe from your ex and his close friends is weird enough that I’d believe it was happening on purpose, as in, the Alsatian doesn’t really like you or is acting out of loyalty to your ex, but it’s also possible that the it’s just this vague inherited Thing, where the current Alsatian(s) started organizing stuff after you were no longer around so much and they honestly just don’t factor you into their social calculus when they call the herd together.
These things can all be true or factor into how people see the situation at the same time, depending on whose point of view we’re talking about:
- “LW doesn’t come to things because they aren’t invited or don’t find out about them in time.”
- “LW comes to big things sometimes (like weddings), but I haven’t seem them for a while (at smaller get-togethers, like after-parties). Do they still even want to hang out with us?”
- “LW stopped coming to things frequently a long time ago. I guess they weren’t comfortable after the breakup with Ex and needed some space.”
- “Lemme invite all the people who come to mind.” (forgets about you/doesn’t think about you at all)(you don’t come)(keeps forgetting about you)
- “I like LW, but Ex is always so upset and awkward when they’re here, and since they aren’t around much anymore anyway, I don’t see the harm in having it just be Us tonight.” (Ex’s closest friends who aren’t really your friends)
- “It was so nice to see LW at the wedding. I wish they were around more!”
- “Who is LW, again? Oh, right. They seem nice.” :shrug:
I don’t think there is much, if anything, to be gained from seeking redress for past slights or teasing out the why of the situation. There IS no one “why,” and even if there was, nobody wants to field questions from Party Smeagol about why they aren’t being invited somewhere. I’m not sure you would even get an honest or useful answer from your Ex or some of the people who are shunning you if you asked them what was up. I don’t think you can necessarily resolve anything that’s already happened, but if these friends are important to you and you want to actively fight the drift that is occurring, it may be possible to reconnect.
I think the best way to reconnect is to pick the people in the friend group who you feel closest to and miss the most and to invite them to stuff. Go to lunch or breakfast with them one-on-one and catch up. Periodically host a dinner party or board games night with your husband and invite two or three of “his”-your friends and two or three of your friends from this particular group. If they enthusiastically accept invitations, and you all have a good time, and it seems like you want to keep hanging out, great. If they invite you to stuff, go to that stuff. And if you can’t make a particular event, make sure you reach out and tell them “Hey, thanks for inviting me, that sounds really great! We have a conflict that day, unfortunately, but please do keep me in mind the next time you organize something like that. Also, are you free x day? We’d love to see you.” It’s a tiny, tiny thing, but it matters. Over time you’ll very likely be back on their social radar and be included in more things, and it won’t be about your Ex or membership in any one social group at all. And you’ll be friends with them in a way that works with your life now and who you are now.
If communicating with them feels like a lot of work, and they don’t make the effort to see you socially, or you find that whenever they are hosting an event it conflicts with something you’d rather be doing (including and perhaps especially when that something is “staying in and catching up on TV/sleep/reading/sex/laundry”), consign them to the category “Sometimes People,” where you happily see them occasionally at events or interact with them ambiently on social media but they are not the first people you think of when you want to be social, and you are probably not theirs, and that’s okay.
The older you get, the more jobs you work, the more exes you have (& the more blog posts you write and lit readings you perform at, the more students you teach) the more Sometimes People you tend to accumulate in your life. It’s awkward and painful when there is a big disparity, like, you realize that someone you really want to be close to sees you as a Sometimes Friend, or, you can see someone making a lot of effort to be your friend and you know that you just don’t the emotional processing power or time to do the same. Rejection of someone’s sincerely-offered friendship or being excluded from someplace you want to belong will never happen without emotional friction, and I think it’s good to be able to acknowledge those feelings within yourself and grieve for what might have been. But I’ve found that it’s sometimes possible to find equilibrium with minimal social friction, and I think there is a lot of good that can come from learning to be okay with having some people be just Sometimes People in your life and in being other people’s Sometimes Person without a lot of negotiation or discussion.
To elaborate: When I want to be closer to someone, I will invite them to do stuff or engage them in conversation. If they always say no or postpone or cancel frequently, I will stop inviting them and try not to focus on them at all until or unless they make an overture to me, and I will let my hurt feelings (if any) be my own to deal with.This doesn’t mean I empty myself of expectations or needs or hurt, it just means that I don’t make the other person responsible for managing those feelings. Fundamentally, someone who doesn’t want to hang out with me as much as I want to hang out with them isn’t doing anything wrong. They don’t really owe me an explanation or comfort for that. They are not on the hook for times when other people have rejected me and made me feel sad. They may be disqualified (or, heh, disqualifying themselves) from being my close friend, because I need something different from my close friends or have certain expectations of how a close friend acts, but there is nothing to be gained by asking them whyyyyyyyy or digging deeply into it with them. I also pay attention to where I put my own time and energy. Have I been distracted or depressed or hermit-y? Have I been neglecting someone where I really do want to reach out to them? Or are my “meh, not today” reactions to invites an indication that this friendship isn’t really meant to be? That’s why reciprocity is one of THE keys to leveling up in the social skills arena: If you can pay attention to and mirror the effort someone else is putting into a relationship, and learn to reset your expectations and your efforts accordingly, you can devote more of your energies to people who want to pick up what you are putting down and stop chasing, running from, or doing all the emotional work for people who aren’t giving you what you need or playing on your level.
I don’t think that being someone’s Sometimes Friend, or Situational Friend (Con Friend, Nice Coworker from 3 Jobs Ago, High School Friend Who You Don’t See Except on Facebook, Ex From Before The Dawn of Time, College Roommate, etc.) is a failure or a bad thing at all. We can’t all take up all the space in each other’s lives, and I think it’s pretty cool overall when people try to stay somewhat connected to the extent their time and energies allow. That said, I don’t think there are good scripts to say “I think you are great, but I see you more as a Sometimes Friend, wherein I would be delighted with seeing you at monthly intervals at social events but I will likely decline all one-on-one invitations. Is that cool?” “You’re neat! But I can only fit 10 people in my apartment at one time, and the last 10 times I had people over you were the 11th-infinityth person I thought of.” Explicit communication along these lines is risky because it codifies what’s happening as a rejection. This is one of those frustrating unwritten things where it seems like the people who get it just kind of get it (“It” being the ability to perceive and act within the bounds of reciprocity), and if you don’t get it you don’t know how you could possibly get it.
What I can tell you (as someone who used to be constantly confused by matters of reciprocity and mismatched intensity in my relationships and who isn’t so much now) is that it’s all trial and error. You don’t automatically know how someone will feel about you, or how you will feel about them. You try to connect, you see how they react, you pay attention to how you react when they try to connect, you ask questions when you don’t understand something, you try to keep a generous and open heart, you guard your own heart from mistreatment and fuckery, you make mistakes and recover from them, and over time, and little by little, you teach yourself to be okay with whatever happens. You let go of the people who don’t belong in your life and you forgive yourself for faux pas and missed connections. You let go of the idea that perfect congruence between how you feel about other people and how they feel about you is possible, or even desirable. You trust that the people you want in your life are the people who will make this as easy as possible for you and the people who will try to help you feel good and find your way.You learn to trust yourself more. It is a process, and it’s a repeatable one, but it’s not an experiment where you will ever be able to predict or replicate results. Every new person you meet will be a universe unto themselves, and the process of getting to know them will be its own journey.
Back to the LW, one sense I have is that you’re feeling the rejection of finding out that you are most likely Sometimes Person in a group where you used to be an Always Person. UNDERSTANDABLE. But I think that if you look at the pattern of how you’ve interacted with the group, you turned them into Sometimes People, too, at least as far as your actions and priorities went when you started attending fewer things. You had your reasons! They were very good reasons! The sadness you felt at the wedding and the frustration you feel is real. Just, as you go forward, keep in mind that we prioritize the people who prioritize us. If you want these folks to prioritize you, stop thinking of them as a group where you wish to always be a Member Emeritus when it suits and start looking at them as individual friends. Pick your favorite people, cultivate their presence in your life, weed out the ones who give you the silent treatment, and see what blooms there.
The summer Pledge Drive is concluded which means, you can donate anytime you like but I will stop awkwardly reminding everyone about it until the winter sometime. A million thank yous to all who donated, and thank you all always for reading and commenting and for making me look forward to showing up to “work” at this space each day.