I have a friend of 20 years who got married a few years ago to a man who has a total lack of boundaries. Their marriage coincided with a lot of bad things happening in my life (horrendous breakup and various other life circumstances), so when I relocated back to my home state I started seeing a lot of them. I’m an introvert, but at that time I really needed to have some people in my life, so it was nice to reconnect with my friend and get to know her husband.
Flash forward a few years and her husband is obsessed with me and considers me a really close friend. He doesn’t have many friends of his own and it’s easy now to see why- he’s intense, demanding, and expects a lot. As in, he sulks if I don’t visit with them for hours every weekend. If I tell him no or I’m busy, he makes catty remarks about it the next time I see them, and tells me he cares about me more than any of my other friends would.
It’s really gotten to a point where I’d rather avoid them both entirely than deal with him. I miss my friend, but I don’t even get to see her without him around because he gets mad and jealous if she does “too much” without him, especially if I’m involved. Surprise of all surprises, he also dominates the conversation 100% of the time, leaving me almost no time to just connect with my friend. All they do is fight and complain about each other, which is exhausting. And if they don’t fight, they pat themselves on the back about it.
What I’m struggling with is guilt- I love my friend, and I do care about her husband. But I’ve reached a point where I am angry and resentful and feeling suffocated and possessed. How can I draw boundaries when I want to maintain a relationship with my friend and they’re a package deal?
Third (and fourth) Wheel
PS I’m single, there’s no way any significant other I would have would enjoy this behavior. not that it matters because I don’t either.
There’s no perfect way to handle someone who won’t respect boundaries, so, get ready for some trial and error.
If you want to fade out on listening to their arguments and being talked over and sulked at by the husband, I’m sure you know how to do that. If you’d like to salvage this friendship in a way that works better for you, here’s some stuff you can try.
Start with your friend. The husband is the one annoying you, but the friend is the one who is important to you. She’s the one who is gonna have to sign on if you start enforcing boundaries here.
Aim for face-to-face or a private phone conversation with her. Don’t use texting, instant messaging, email, or anything that can be easily monitored/read/snooped on and/or easily forwarded to the husband.
Have an honest conversation with her. “Friend, sometimes I want to see you and not you + husband. Can we try alternating group hangouts with solo plans?”
See what she says. Maybe she’s hungry for solo plans with you, too! Maybe she hasn’t known how to bring it up and needed your help and permission to do it.
Maybe this request will make her really uncomfortable. If she fusses about how her husband will feel left out, that’s unsurprising. He puts a lot of friction around her doing stuff without him, and it’s reasonable that she’d feel anxious about such a request because he’s groomed her to react that way.
Give it time. Be gentle and remember that she doesn’t know this is has been an ongoing problem for you. This might be a series of conversations.
Try to stay positive. Don’t get sucked into a discussion of whether you like husband or how he’ll feel, and don’t fall into a trap of complaining about him (see above re: not using a textual medium). She’ll feel obligated to defend him if you do, and it will go nowhere. Keep regrouping back to “Okay, I don’t want to hurt his feelings or make him feel left out, but also, sometimes I just want to hang out with you and only you. That’s not something I’m doing at him or about him. How do you feel about that? Is that something you’d be interested in?”
Be flexible. See if you can get her to agree to alternating solo & group hangouts. Or agree to checking with you to make sure he’s specifically invited to something before assuming that he is. Or maybe just get her to agree to think about it and put the topic down for now. Planting the seed might be its own victory at the start.
Ultimately, she’s the one who has to make this work for herself and inside her marriage, but if the husband does consider you a friend you could try talking to him, too.
“[Husband], I need to talk to you about something that’s bothering me. I care about you and consider you a friend, but sometimes I just want to hang out with your wife, solo, like we’ve done for years. Last time I invited her to do something solo, you [insisted on coming along][made it really hard for her to accept][said some very strange and hurtful stuff to me afterward][implied that I was doing something to hurt your feelings on purpose]. That was not okay! What’s going on with that?”
He’ll say some stuff. One possible response, depending on what he says, is “I shouldn’t have to ask the permission of one friend to hang out with another. Can I count on you to be cool about this going forward?”
Once you’ve had a conversation or conversations, the rest is finding some ongoing tactics for setting and enforcing the boundary. Stuff like:
Lower the dose. Every weekend is way too much to spend with these friends. Howabout once a month for a joint hangout and once a month for a one-on-one outing?
Change up the venue. Stop going to their house to hang out. That seems like the default thing that you do with these folks, and you don’t enjoy it, so, stop for a while, or stop going so much.
Issue specific invitations. “Friend, I’d love to see you on Saturday. Could you meet me for lunch, or a movie?”
When the invitation includes him, be specific about that, too. “Friend, do you and Husband want to join me for _____?”
Accept that he’s part of her package…sometimes. If you can be more intentional about including him sometimes and not other times, he may grate on you less over time. Whenever he’s involved, definitely schedule something with a defined beginning and end time rather than “come over and hang out.”
Issue very specific invitations. Get a theater or concert subscription for two for a nice night out every couple of months, or snag only two tickets to an event. “Friend, I have one extra ticket to [event], can you join me?”
Make the invitations *even more* specific and directly refer to your conversation about solo hangouts.
You: “I’ve got an extra ticket to a show Thursday night, want to join me?”
Her: “Sure, can we get a ticket for husband, too?”
You: “Huh, I’d really rather spend one-on-one time with you this week. Is that cool?”
If it’s not cool and she insists that husband be included, here’s where boundary enforcement becomes a thing. You could cave in and have husband tag along and grind your teeth with resentment the whole evening, or you could say “That’s okay! I’ll find someone else to take the other ticket (or go solo), and we can all do something together another time.”
Anticipate some friction and some weird feelings after you enforce a boundary. She will be bummed out. You will be bummed out. Compare that bummed out feeling to the feeling of yet another night of conspicuous sulking by her husband, and hold fast. Their feelings aren’t yours to manage, especially since you’ve already asked her specifically not to automatically invite him along to stuff.
Once you’ve had a conversation or two and started changing up how you interact, here are some possible scenarios and troubleshooting tips.
Best Case Scenario: Your friend agrees to hang out with just you sometimes. It’s easier to hang out with her and her husband when you do include him because you get breaks and feel like you have a choice. Over time things smooth out to a place that is manageable and happy for you.
Awkward Scenario 1: Your friend is not down for solo hangouts and is defensive of husband at your expense.
If this happens, comfort yourself with the knowledge that you tried. Stop trying to fix or manage the situation. Think instead about leaving the door open for things to change in the future. If you throw a party for people you know, invite them and see if things are less intense in a big group. Send the occasional card or letter to her. Wait a few months for things to die down, and then issue the occasional solo invitation to her and see if she picks up what you’re putting out.
Awkward Scenario 2: The husband continues and/or escalates his sulking, catty remarks, and/or strangely competitive statements of how much he cares about you.
Respond but don’t engage. “Heh. I had other plans last week, but I’m glad to be able to catch up with y’all today.” Act as if he said something very mundane, like, “These potato chips are crunchy.”
Respond and engage briefly. “I wasn’t aware it was a competition.” Or “I care about you and friend very much – you’re not in competition with my other friends.“ “I like having lots of different friends.” “That’s a very strange thing to say.” “That makes me feel uncomfortable.” Keep whatever you say pretty short, but indicate that you don’t think his statements are cool.
Ask him exactly what he’s looking for. “You’ve said that a couple of times now. What is it that you want me to say in return?” “It’s clear that something is upsetting you. Want to talk about it?”
In my experience, adults who sulk want attention, soothing, and compliance with their (unstated) wishes but do NOT want a real conversation. Hence the “What’s wrong?” :GIANT SIGH: “Nothing.” cadence of the Official Sulking Call And Response Ritual.
Awkward Scenario 3: When you do see your friend and her husband together, they continue to have arguments and complain about each other in front of you.
Cut the visit short! Unless I am in a theater, I would rather chew my own leg off than watch people performatively argue with their spouse. Actually, even in a theater, this is one of my least favorite genres of movie or play. Sounds like you feel this, too!
So, what if, when the arguments start, it’s time for you to go home?
It’s tempting, probably, to sneak out the back door and then text them later: “You seemed like you were in the middle of an important conversation. Catch up soon!”
Instead, try standing up and saying “Good seeing you, this sounds like a private conversation, good night!” Move toward the door. Never sit back down or stop moving.
What will most likely happen is that they’ll stop arguing and beg you to stay. And as soon as you sit back down, they are gonna passively-aggressively snipe at each other all evening – each blaming the other for making it weird in front of “company,” and pretty soon they’ll be back at it like you never said anything. Or the husband will decide to take whatever it is out on you, with more snark and sulking. Once you decide to leave if they start arguing, commit. “That’s okay, it’s time for me to head out anyway. We’ll catch up soon, take care.”
The first time you do this will be the hardest. There will likely be some mopping up of hurt feelings in the aftermath. But if you say you’re leaving and actually leave, chances are they will be a lot less likely to argue in front of you going forward.
Awkward Scenario 4: Your friend agrees to meet you solo but the husband insists on tagging along and whoomp, there he is!
Your friend will want you to just roll with it. She will be silently begging for this with her eyes. She likely did her best to get him to stay home and he sulked or browbeat or otherwise manipulated her until it was easier to let him join. His needy ass will be watching you like a hawk, too, for any sign of weakness or any excuse to form a grievance.
This is so hard.
I think you gotta address it somehow in the moment, just, for your own sake, but you don’t want the blowback to get all over her.
What if you said, neutrally:
“[Husband] what a surprise. I didn’t know you’d be joining us.”
What if you cut the outing pretty short?
What if, throughout the meal or whatever, what if you kept directing all conversation to your friend? I’m writing this out like a scene in a movie, in which you’d keep asking her questions that are about your shared interests – “What did you think of The Book of Joan?” “Did you see that [mutual friend from when you were growing up] posted photos of his new dog?”
If the husband tries to dominate the conversation, say “Interesting!” to whatever he says and then change the subject back, like, “Interesting! [to Husband] [To your friend] How’s the planning for your work conference going? Will you get a day to yourself in Atlanta before or afterward?”
In the movie in my head, this is gonna make the husband stew and try to butt in again aggressively, and your character would keep doing the same thing. “Neat! But [Friend] was in the middle of saying something. What are you planning for Atlanta, again?”
If he doesn’t get the hint [he won’t get the hint], and he says something about y’all being rude by not including him, that is the opening you’ve been waiting for all this time.
“[Husband], sometimes I want to hang out with you and [Friend]. Sometimes I just want to hang out with [Friend], and hear what she has to say, unaccompanied and uninterrupted by you. That is a completely normal thing to want, and it was my plan for today! It doesn’t mean I don’t like you or care about you, but I am very annoyed that you tagged along on what was supposed to be a solo outing. You’re putting [Friend], who loves both of us, in a really awkward and embarrassing position! How can we solve this in the future?”
If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. This entire question is about him trying to displace the emotional labor of feeling lonely and wanting attention and connection onto his wife and onto you. He’s not a bad person for having those feelings: It’s okay to feel lonely. It’s okay to really really want your friends to pay attention to you and to want to hang out all the time. It’s okay to feel left out and weird if people do stuff without you. It’s just really not okay to use those sad feelings to manipulate and dominate others. He’s gotta learn how to self-soothe and how to manage those awkward feelings without trying to reserve every one of your weekends and trying to make you a constant audience for his marital show.
You don’t have to facilitate that healing and soothing for him. It’s also not your job to fix their marriage. It’s completely okay for you to figure out your own threshhold of how much of That Guy you can tolerate in your life for the sake of your friendship. As long as you are clear and consistent in communicating what you need with your friend, you’ll have done the best you can.