Dear Captain Awkward,
My husband, “John”, is currently studying for a graduate degree. He has exams coming up so is spending all day every day in the library and then when he comes home he just wants to eat dinner and go to bed. It sucks and I miss him but we are dealing with almost never seeing each other properly because these exams are important right now.
My husband has a friend, “Martha”, who is doing the same course. Martha is taking the same exams. Martha lives in the building across from us. And I just wish Martha would fuck the fuck off and leave him alone.
Martha is incredibly psychologically needy and seems to have latched onto my husband as a target for her emotional vampirism. She doesn’t have a boyfriend or may other friends here. I am all for my husband having friends and for him sometimes needing to be there for them, but Martha wants his attention all the time. She messages him constantly about trivial chatty things and ‘needs’ him to reply immediately. They go to the library and spend all day there together, and then when they get home he feels he needs to invite her in for a drink or even sometimes for dinner because she’s “so lonely”. Then five minutes after she leaves (which is always well after I thought she ought to have left) she is messaging him again. This happens all day every day.
The thing that kills me is that my husband will come home and say how tired he is of Martha and how he wishes he didn’t have to see her again all day tomorrow. So I say, “You don’t! Just say you’re not going to that library and go somewhere else to work! Or when she makes her sad face and talks passive-aggressively about how she’ll just go and spend the evening alone again, just let her go! The world is not going to collapse if you ignore her stupid messages!”
But he doesn’t. He says how fed up he is of her (and I think he really is) but then nothing changes! He still gets guilted into spending all his time with her and getting sucked into her emotional neediness. I don’t want to turn this into some huge drama when he’s focused on his exams, but I cannot stand to hear about Martha one more time, I cannot stand to see Martha ever again and I cannot stand to know that she’s stealing his time and energy that he needs for himself right now (let alone for me!).
Please help me before I do or say something I regret!
Dear “Hateful” Wife,
I don’t know what Martha’s deal is – there’s one story where she’s a clingy, terrible, emotional vampire, and another story about how she is best friends with a man who constantly spends time with her, invites her over to his house, texts her, and talks about her all the time. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Here’s what I do know:
- Institutions of higher education tend to have: a) classmates, plural b) social events, clubs, and meet-ups for students looking to connect with others, c) counseling & student affairs offices for students who are struggling. None of those might be perfect or Martha’s particular cup of tea, however, one classmate is not the sole source of study buddies, emotional support, or human companionship on the planet. If Martha tells John so, that’s a lie. If John tells himself or you so, that’s also a lie.
- While manipulative people are very good at using guilt and pity to get attention, and people who can’t let go choose people who can’t say no, John has choices in how he deals with Martha, and the less you treat him like a hapless victim the better. You don’t have a Martha problem, you have a John problem, and the way to address that is to deal directly with him and those choices. That’s a harder road than hating or banishing the Other Woman/Annoying Friend is, but it’s the road you’re on.
- You’re worried about “turning this into some huge drama”, but being “cool” and “relaxed” and hoping it will all blow over hasn’t worked – Martha, and your husband’s constant catering to her, has only grown more entrenched in your lives. You are upset and annoyed and jealous and that is okay! Your husband is constantly prioritizing another person over you. It’s okay to be hurt and annoyed by that, and it’s okay to say something about it. There is no prize for being the world’s most accommodating person. No prize except…more Martha!
So, what to do? Someone wrote a song about your question (Iron-Man/Pepper Potts/Steve Rogers version is here). Time to play it for John and say:
“John, this Martha thing is really bugging me. She is taking up way too much space in our lives and in the time we get to spend together, and I’d like you to stop inviting her here and to stop messaging her/texting her when you and I are spending time together.”
Then, whatever John says (whether it’s to try to make you feel bad for him, or to feel bad for Martha), stick to your needs and feelings.
- “I don’t like Martha, and I’m tired of having to make small talk with her in my house at the end of a long day.”
- “It’s annoying for me to try to watch a movie or eat dinner with you when you’re constantly messaging and texting Martha.”
- “I’m sure she does need some sort of friendship/help/attention/companionship. I also need your attention sometimes, and I hate feeling like I’m competing for that with someone you say you don’t even like.”
- “When I look forward to seeing you all day, it completely ruins my evening if Martha is here or if you’re too distracted to even talk to me because you’re messaging her the whole time.“
- “Yes, I’m sure Martha will be sad/lonely if you don’t message her right back. I am also sad and annoyed at having yet another conversation with you totally hijacked by her.“
To enforce the boundary, try:
- Making it very boring when he brings her up. John: “I had the worst day, because: Martha…” You: “Huh. What do you want to bring to the pot luck on Saturday?” John: “I just wish Martha would stop…” You: “Me too. What time are you taking a shower tomorrow? I need to be in and out by 7:30.” John: “Martha said that…” You: “Interesting. Do you have time to see a movie this weekend?” It will be weird and awkward and throw off the entire expected rhythm of your conversations. That’s the point. He’s not allowed to BOTH let her intrude on all your time together AND get your sympathy about that.
- Stop performing when he (inevitably) brings her over. Being openly mean or rude to Martha or confronting her is not the answer (you seriously don’t know how much of what is happening is because your husband encourages it), but do drop the fig leaf that she is friends with both of you as a couple. You come home and Martha’s sitting in your kitchen for ‘a quick drink’? Say “Hi honey! Hi Martha,” and breeze right through that room to somewhere else – to bed with a book, in the living room to watch TV, out for a bike ride or run, anywhere but there. Do not socially rescue his ass, and drop all the training you might have been raised with about what a good hostess does – no “Can I get you anything?,” no putting another plate on the table, no small talk. You’re ready for Martha to leave so you can go to bed? Go to bed anyway. Martha’s here again? John is on his own.
Watch out for:
- Derailing in the form of elaborate, pre-emptive defenses against (non-existent) accusations of cheating. You: “I don’t like it when Martha is here all the time, please make it stop.” John: “Well, we’re not sleeping together, if that’s what you think.” You: “I don’t think you are sleeping with her…well, I didn’t until you brought it up just now! I don’t like her and don’t want her here all the time. Please make it stop.” In my experience, doth-protest-too-much “I would never cheat on you with her” responses to you setting a boundary are a big red flag – like, he probably hasn’t slept with her, but the topic has come up in some way between them, and it’s not a completely ridiculous question anymore.
- Derailing about how sad/lonely/upset/annoying/clingy Martha is. Does he genuinely not know how to set a boundary with her, or does he just love the sound of her name in his mouth? Who knows? “John, that’s sad for her, but let’s talk about you and why you can’t say no to her but you can say no to me.“
- Derailing that make it seem like there’s something wrong with *you* for having an issue with this. Anything along the lines of “You’re jealous, you’re controlling, you’re insecure, you’re crazy for thinking she could ever come between us (even though she’s sometimes quite literally coming between you spending an evening alone with him), I’m allowed to have friends, why can’t you understand that it’s a stressful time for me, why can’t you see that she has no one else, I am the real victim here,” etc.
If you bring up an issue and your husband dismisses your feelings or displays contempt for you, that is very bad. I very much hope that it’s not the case, but I wanted to put those warnings out there so that you can be alert to them and say, “Hey, stop derailing. I love you, I don’t think you’re cheating on me, but I do think you are having trouble setting healthy boundaries here, and I’m sick of Martha taking up all this space in our lives. She’s not my friend, so I can’t deal with it for you or instead of you. Please, find a way to say ‘no’ to her. I need you to know that I am not okay with how things are right now.”
Finally, a note on self-care:
I think it’s imperative that you reach out to your friends and nurture a social life for yourself that does not center around John right now. And, since you want to wait out his exams before having Big Discussions, doing this might be the very first step. It’s counter-intuitive, but hear me out:
John’s busy with grad school (& Martha), you’re busy with work (& Martha). You get so little free time with John while grad school is in session that it’s totally natural to want to reserve all your free time for him. When he does not reciprocate (i.e., he lets his free time with you be hijacked by Martha), it increases your resentment and bad feelings around the whole situation. That is normal and understandable, and it’s also understandable that you feel powerless about this. The only person you can control here is you, so, what can you do to reclaim a feeling of control?
Please, one night a week, go do something with a friend or friends or by yourself. Make a weekly standing date to take a class, go for a swim, see a show, try a new restaurant, listen to some live music, cook something great, Skype with someone faraway. John is drowning in exam stuff, but you don’t have to be. Reclaim a tiny bit of your life from this whole thing and remind yourself that hey, your company is pretty great, there are people who love you and have your back, there is life outside of and after grad school. Build a boundary around this time for yourself, practice defending it from all who would invade it, including your husband.
You need a sacred weekly date night with John, too. You need Order-Delivery, Shut-Off-All-Communication-Devices, And-Have-Sex-Like-Newlyweds-Fridays. You should absolutely make something like that a tradition in your house, especially if you’ve lost the habit and the knack of putting that time aside for each other. By giving it a definite day of the week, maybe you give yourself and John a tool to protect that day from interruptions. “It’s Friday and we agreed that Fridays are just for us, but you’re on your phone with Martha, so why don’t you tell me what’s really up?”
I really hope you can work this out, dear Letter Writer. Be nice to yourself.