Dear Captain Awkward,
Short Version: I (she/her) have a friend (she/her) who is irrationally jealous of her boyfriend, and it’s driving all our friends apart. I don’t know whether to try help her, or just to distance myself from our friendship.
Longer explanation: She and I have now been friends for about five years, including during grad school. Overall, she can be a kind, thoughtful, and generous person. However, when it comes to her boyfriend of one year, she transforms into someone I don’t even recognize. Based on what she has said in the past, her relationship is stable and he has never given her cause to doubt his fidelity.
But recently, whenever he talks to another woman, even casual chat at a party, she becomes incredibly jealous. She has made scenes, calling women out in front of everyone, or sending messages that say “stay away from my boyfriend, bitch.” She insists that all the women in the friend group (even married, much younger, much older, etc.) want her boyfriend. I think I’ve escaped her jealousy only because I’m gay. Sometimes after one of her scenes, she apologizes and tries to smooth things over, but more often she remains convinced that someone is a “bitch” and expects everyone to agree with her. But everyone does NOT agree with her, and people are starting to distance themselves.
I’d like to remain friends, but I’m starting to seriously rethink the relationship. I believe that a lot of this is coming from her anxiety/depression, but I can’t stand to hear her reduce all these lovely, smart, funny women to “scheming bitches,” and I can’t let her believe that I’m on her side in this. Nobody else actually wants her boyfriend! I know if I confront her, she might get really angry with me, too, and I don’t do conflict well. We all work in a similar niche field (science-related), so I’d like to somehow maintain friendly relationships with all these people, if it’s even possible now. What do I do?
What a rough situation!
I want to be clear from the beginning that someone who is behaving this way may not take kindly to any attempt to address it, even the most friendly, mild, benefit-of-the-doubt-assuming inquiry might get a pretty harsh backlash and it may not be able to “maintain friendly relations” with her after you bring this up.
However, how “friendly” are the current relations if they mean putting up with this behavior?
One avenue you (and the associated friends) have is interrupting this in the moment where it happens, “Listen, nobody wants your doubtless-one-of-a-kind-godlike boyfriend, you are being really really weird about this, what are you doing?” Given the way she’s behaving, returning the awkwardness to sender in the moment is not out of line. It might lead to another big blow-up, but is that really worse than having all the not-argument-starting people quietly ghost?
If you want to have a private conversation, maybe start by asking your friend what’s going on. Here’s a script:
“Friend, I keep seeing you snap at almost every woman we know and accuse them of trying to steal your boyfriend whenever we hang out and it’s leaving a bad taste. Where is this coming from? What is this based on? Are you doing okay?”
Listen to what she has to say. What does she think is happening? It might be a skewed perspective but it would be helpful to know where she is coming from.
If her clinical-sort-of anxiety/depression are in a flare that can be a factor here (not an excuse, but a contributing factor). It would be interesting to see if she brings that up.
I’m working on a longer post about how to handle conflict with someone who has disclosed a condition like this to you that’s not quite baked yet, but one hands-down rule is “Do not automatically associate or assume negative behavior is a direct result of another person’s mental health diagnosis, even if you think you know” and another is “You ask people how they’re doing, you do not tell them.” If she’s talked explicitly about her mental health with you before, something she tells you might give you an opening to ask, “Hey, if this is all stressing you out so much, do you have all the MH support you need right now? Is it time to see a counselor/check in with your team and see if there are ways you can feel better?”
If her boyfriend is cheating on her, has cheated on her, is constantly flirting with or has mentionitis of other women, etc., lots of people aren’t comfortable going after the partner who is causing all their anxiety about a relationship so they blame everyone else. Alternately, there might be history with one of the other members of the group that you’re not fully up on.
Hyper-monitoring a partner for signs of cheating and constantly accusing them of cheating can be an abuse dynamic, (though so can making it seem like a partner is in constant competition with everyone else all the time to keep them off-balance and paranoid). Without knowing these people neither I nor the readers can tell you which is going on (depressingly it might be both), nor is it your job to be the Relationship Detective and get to the bottom of this decisively, especially absent your friend confiding in you. Ergo, your best bet is probably to speak in terms of behaviors *you* are observing and how that is affecting *you.*
“From what I can see, nobody wants your boyfriend! Is there some history I’m missing?
See what she says. Follow-up could be:
Ok, but if your boyfriend were to cheat on you, that’s probably a BOYFRIEND-problem, not a every-woman-on-earth problem, right?
I really look forward to our time with [career-adjacent social group], I generally find it relaxing and supportive, which is rare in our field. Can I count on you to stop calling people out about this when we’re all together? If Women-In-Science Happy Hour becomes Fighting-Over-A-Disappointing-Dude Happy Hour my gay ass is going to have to find a new place to hang, and I would really hate that.
I hope you know that I care about you a lot and I just hate seeing you so unhappy.”
Key points: You care about her, this behavior is annoying you, you’d like her to stop doing this stuff. You can also ask more questions like “Is there something your friends can do right now?” and/or “What would allow you to relax and feel comfortable again?”
Avoid traps: Keep it focused on your observations, your needs, your friendship with her, do not invoke the feelings of the group (“Everyone agrees with me…” “You’re alienating everyone…”) even if that’s true and you are scared and want the cover of other people. It’s such a tempting thing to do, right? You can lend yourself the authority of the group while you do this scary conflict thing! Unfortunately, as soon as you switch from “I have noticed a thing you are doing” to “Everyone feels the same way” you risk switching the entire discussion away from your friend’s behavior over to “Who is everyone? What exactly did they say? Why are you on their side? See, everyone is against me!”
I think that’s the kindest, most direct, most giving-her-room-to-be-her-best-self approach I can generate. It might get you good results, or she might decide to shoot the messenger, she’s shown already that she’s volatile and willing to throw blame everywhere. If that happens it’s not your fault. Sometimes the best kindness we can give someone if they are in the middle of a crisis or emotional flare-up and don’t handle a conversation like this well is the gift of a reset at some later time. It doesn’t mean you have to put up with shitty behavior, it just means that if this is normally a good friendship and the person is behaving out of character, you’re in a better emotional place to make no drastic decisions at this moment.
Moderation Note: Comments are open, though I meant what I said in the paragraph about the Letter Writer and us not being Relationship Detectives who have to solve the “Who is the asshole?” mystery. Generating worst-case scenarios or placing responsibility on the Letter Writer to somehow solve the relationship dynamics or save the people in the couple from each other is off-limits.
Instead, tell us, have you ever had to have a difficult conversation with a friend about them behaving badly that went well? What worked?