Ahoy, Captain Awkward!
Looking for some relationship advice and hoping you can help.
Background: Boyfriend and I met through a mutual friend, I’m in my mid 20s(first serious relationship) he’s in his late 30s(and been around the block a few times, though never married). It’s been an awesome two years and we’re looking into moving in together(though for the record, I haven’t slept in my own bed since March and it’s now July). I’m excited about the whole situation save for one major issue; his ex, M.
M and boyfriend basically grew up together and have always been very close. They dated for a couple years but broke it off because (according to him) it was too much like siblings dating.
She has a history of serious panic attacks and boyfriend seems to be the only one who can calm her. She was suffering so badly at one point that her baby daddy got boyfriend a job in their state(2 states away from where boyfriend was living) to help calm M down. While this was all before my time, it always struck me as odd that they were all so close.
M has always had constant contact with boyfriend the entire 2 years we’ve been together, whether it be emails, FB posts, texts, calls, kissy emoticons, etc. And now with another wave of serious panic attacks brewing, the phone calls are getting more frequent and the visits more lengthy. I’ve talked to boyfriend about maybe suggesting professional help for her as M’s constant contact is taking its toll on him(to the point where he says he’s exhausted and he’s starting to freak out a bit just listening to her freak outs). But he brushes it off with “People who’ve never suffered don’t understand” and “She’s family. I can’t just ignore it”.
Don’t get me wrong, M is super sweet but it also feels like she’s co-dependent on boyfriend and he either doesn’t see it or just chalks it up to being “family”. M, baby daddy and co have since moved back to their home state (5minutes away from boyfriend). And having been here for 3 or so years, M has yet to make any friends of her own, hence the tight hold she appears to have on boyfriend to help her deal with things.
All that to say, what do I do? I love boyfriend and I’ve always heard you marry the man, you marry the family, but am I wrong in thinking this is too much family? I want to build a future with this man but I don’t know if I’m ready to build a future with him AND M. Previous relationships he’s had he said “worked” because the women were “mature” enough to understand the relationship he and M have. So am I not being mature enough? Do I try and make some sort of ultimatum? Break it off til he gets his priorities back on the relationship?
-Sidelined In California
I don’t know if this will solve the issue long-term or answer the question “should I move in/forward with this person I love?” but I have some short-term suggestions for you. More here, if you’re interested.
1) Admit to yourself that you don’t like M. at all right now. That doesn’t mean “be rude or mean,” or “share every thought you have about her with her/your boyfriend.” It doesn’t even mean “don’t have empathy for someone who is obviously suffering” or “be unfriendly when your paths cross.” It just means that it’s sometimes easier to be polite and behave kindly toward someone you don’t like if you aren’t also tying yourself in knots to make yourself feel a certain way about them. You think M. should leave your boyfriend alone and handle her shit better. Admit it to yourself and to us.
2) Admit to yourself that M. is not your real problem. You’re absolutely right that she most likely needs professional help to manage her anxiety. The good news here is also the bad news, in that you already have all the information you need about how this is likely to go in the future. Your boyfriend sees M. as family, as a priority, and his way is to drop everything when she needs him. He has straight up told you that this is how it will always be and that if you don’t like it it’s a failure of “maturity” on your part.
3) A thing you can control: Make M. and talking about M. a very boring part of your life and very boring for your boyfriend. M. calls for a 4-hour long phone counseling session that your boyfriend wants to recap for you or commiserate with you about? “Hmmm interesting”
“That sounds really hard to deal with.” + [SUBJECT CHANGE]
“Well, that’s M. in a nutshell.” + [SUBJECT CHANGE]
“Heh. I hope that all works out.” + [SUBJECT CHANGE]
“I hope she can get some help. Panic attacks are no joke.” + [SUBJECT CHANGE]
Express empathy, and then ask zero follow-up questions about M. Stop being a place where your boyfriend comes to process things that go on in M.’s life. In the best possible light, he is being a true and loyal friend to someone he cares about in the best way he knows how, and he has failed to see that his caring is not a substitute for the professional help that she most likely needs. In a weirder, less flattering light, something about him feeds on the drama of being needed so much and feeds on the drama of your & past girlfriends’ jealousy. “Jeez, jealous much? There’s nothing SEXUAL going on, she’s just, like, my SISTER, my ex girlfriend/sister who happens to NEED ME WITH HER ALL THE TIME and who can express herself only in TYPED INTERNET KISSES and CONSTANT CONTACT. I don’t see what the BIG DEAL is or why you would be annoyed, unless of course you are a JEALOUS PERSON who LACKS MATURITY.”
Double Extra Bonus Points if the above all gets delivered as a backhanded compliment to you, like, “she is so weak whereas you are so great and strong and you don’t need me like she does, baby, which is why I like you!”
If you can disengage to the point where your boyfriend bringing up M. and whatever is going on with her today gets a flat “That sucks, I hope y’all work it out” or a “I want you and M. to have whatever friendship you want to,” it won’t magically make him stop running to her rescue, but it will stop feeding the FEELINGSBEAST so much in a way that gives you a break.
4) Choose your battles. Stuff about M. that only really affects your boyfriend = the most boring topic in the world. Stuff that affects you directly? Not so. Like, if boyfriend is flaking out on stuff he planned with you to go hang with M., or if she’s always around when you’re together, that is a different thing, and you don’t have to be detached about it.” Script: “I’m sorry M. is going through a hard time right now, but we had plans, and I am annoyed when plans with you get hijacked by M.” Don’t get sucked into a discussion of her exact issues du jour (i.e. an excuse to center M.’s feelings in all things), just say, “Well, you do what you feel, but this is the third time recently I’ve sat in a restaurant watching your food get cold while you’re outside on your phone. That does not count as a fun date in my book, so I’m gonna peel off for the rest of the night and let you give M. your full attention.”
It’s more than okay to ask your boyfriend to:
- Turn his phone off during date times with you.
- Talk about things other than M.
- If he seems to not be able to do that, say “I think M.’s emotional state is occupying your thoughts to a point where maybe YOU need a pro to help you process everything. I can love you, but I can’t process it with you.”
- See also: “I’d like M. to get some help, but that’s not really my business. But when you tell me you are exhausted and freaking out about her, I feel bound to remind you that there are people who are specifically trained to treat symptoms like the ones you describe.“
- Understand that if he gets drawn into a conversation with M. while you’re spending time together, you’re going home.
- Ask him bluntly to not invite her over when you are planning to be over. When it’s “friends all hanging out together,” she is invited. When it’s date night, she is NOT invited and perhaps DISinvited.
4) A thing you can control, Part II:
It’s time to start sleeping at your home again sometimes.
It’s time to call up your friends, family, and/or other people who delight you and who make you feel awesome and do stuff with them.
It’s time to cook yourself a meal, or go dine out by yourself with a book, or go to the movies alone.
It’s time to feed your social self with companionship that is not your boyfriend.
It’s time to come up for air.
That doesn’t mean you break up, that doesn’t even mean you disengage emotionally from this guy that you love or that you won’t eventually set up house together. It means: you are a nifty person on your own and you need to kind of fall back in love with yourself and your own life, so that you can make all decisions about whether to combine your books with someone else’s books from a position of strength. I think you need a reminder that there is a corner of the world that is not consumed by M. or the drama of M. Spend some more time in that corner before you make any big decisions.
I say this partly because one of your questions was “Am I not being mature enough?” and I have to tell you that an older man talking to a younger woman about her “maturity” when he’s trying to get her to endorse something that makes her uncomfortable sends a red flag up in my peripheral vision and causes immediate and severe side-eye. Your boyfriend may have good reasons for behaving as he does with M., given their history, but the “I thought you were more mature and could handle it” defense is straight out of the manipulative asshole playbook. If you need a tutorial on how to appropriately react to such patronizing bullshit, here’s Prince:
If you decide to learn to live with this whole M. package, that’s one thing. If you decide that it’s not for you, that’s also legit. Your maturity level is not a factor, and it’s not in question here.