Dear Captain Awkward,
I fear I put my boyfriend into uncomfortable situations over my friendships with others.
I (she/her) have a close friend (he/him) that I am very cuddly, friendly and open with. My boyfriend (he/him) and I have been together for many years and we have great trust, transparency and communication. We discuss boundaries and help each other feel comfortable always, including on this topic. I was always »cuddly« with my friends in other settings, and in my main friend circle, it’s always been the norm. He never felt bad about this.
However, I moved to a different country, and I’ve been struggling with expressing my non-romantic affection. Since it’s a new environment, I don’t have as many close friends, and I mainly spend my time in the company of my boyfriend or my best friend. People who don’t know me / us so well sometimes ask really inappropriate questions about me and my friend. They make remarks about our chemistry, ask us why we’re not together, »ship us« and I know it really hurts my boyfriend. He mentioned it multiple times, and he says it’s not my fault, but I really don’t want him to feel bad over this.
I understand that some people reserve certain behaviours for romantic relationships, and that casual friendly touch can be interpreted differently. But I don’t want to stop being cuddly with my friend, or telling him I appreciate him openly in front of others when it’s relevant. We are university students, we spend a lot of time doing group projects together, and we like to stick together. I have never hidden or obscured the information that I am in a long-term committed relationship – I speak of my boyfriend enthusiastically and frequently. But often remarks come where people say »Oh, I thought you and -best friend- were a thing. You guys really confused me.«
There was a really bad situation where an ex-friend that I haven’t seen in a long time saw me interact with my best friend and went to rant to my boyfriend about how horrible I was for ignoring him. This really hurt my boyfriend.
Am I in the wrong for being affectionate? Is it cultural difference? Do you have suggestions on how to shut these remarks/questions down without coming across as too defensive or making them worse?
Cuddly and Sad
Hello Cuddly and Sad,
Story time! I once made a student film about a mother and a daughter that was loosely based on a true story. I cast age-appropriate actresses who strongly resembled each other. The film did a small festival run, and every single time I screened the film publicly, during the audience Q&A someone would mention how well-cast the sisters were, how much chemistry they had together, etc. It was an early lesson about the limits of intention. Whatever I intended, people would inevitably draw their own conclusions from what they observed on screen and how that compared to their own experiences and other stories they’d seen, and I wouldn’t be able to personally “correct” every single person who saw the film.
Over time, when it became clear that absolutely nobody was reading the two of them as parent and child, on the advice of my teacher, I changed the synopsis and marketing materials so they would be sisters in the official version, too. If it were absolutely important to me that this be a mother-daughter story, my other options were: 1) Remake the movie, and run the new casting by multiple people before locking the actors into roles to make sure they were seeing what I was seeing 2) Leave the movie alone, and find a way to be okay with multiple people not fully getting what I intended.
Another story: I’m adopted, neither of my parents is a biological relation. But whenever I’d be out and about with my mom as a kid, people who met us would remark on our (nonexistent) resemblance to each other. “The spitting image!” “I’d have known you were her daughter anywhere!” Mostly, we would not correct people. My mom would wink at me, and we’d smile and say thank you, and go on with our day. What did it matter? It didn’t change what we knew about our relationship if a passerby was slightly wrong about us. But with people who were closer to the family, people we knew we’d see often (teachers, pediatricians, Scout leaders, Mom’s co-workers), my mom would indicate that I should tell them the truth, or she’d say something herself, “Oh, that’s so funny, she’s adopted, but we hear that all the time.” No big explanation, no implication that the person was wrong to make the assumption they did, just, “Here’s why you might have assumed that, but no.”
I tell you these stories because people who observe you and your best friend together can’t see your intentions or the agreements you’ve made with each other or with your respective romantic partners, they can only see your behavior. When you get consistent, across-the-board feedback that people are having the exact same set of assumptions about a well-defined set of behaviors, that’s probably worth paying attention to while you craft your strategy going forward. If you can’t control what people will assume about you, what can you control, and what is it worth even trying to control?
A) Let people assume whatever they want. People will make assumptions, you know what your own boundaries and agreements are, and as long as you know that you’re behaving with integrity, maybe everybody you meet doesn’t need to hear your whole life story. “It’s weird to assume that every opposite sex friendship or act of physical affection between friends is sexual.” “It’s weird to pay this much attention to how much two people who aren’t you touch each other.” “Why do you care so much anyway?”
Not all opinions or uncomfortable feelings require action, and other people’s opinions and uncomfortable feelings definitely don’t always require your action.
B) Dial back the touching during Group Project Study Time. If what you want is to actually change people’s assumptions, changing the behavior that reliably generates those assumptions is the most obvious way. Is that fair? Maybe…a little…yes?
As both student and teacher, I’ve observed many an awkward vibe when a pair of close childhood friends or siblings or an actual couple are in the same group for every single class project. Even if nobody’s doing anything technically “wrong,” when two people are utterly inseparable and direct all of or most of their attention to each other while in group settings, they can come to operate (and be treated) like a single entity in a way that throws off the balance in the group and can inhibit each member of the duo’s ability to collaborate and form relationships with other students. It’s not…dire? But it is definitely A Thing.
Your classmates aren’t passing strangers, so if this is coming up a lot in your interactions with them, it might have less to do with “My boyfriend’s okay with it, don’t worry!” than with your peers communicating some version of, “Whatever, but it’s all a little distracting while everyone’s trying to get work done.”
Could they mind their own business? Sure. Could you also not touch your friend during study sessions, while still maintaining a close bond and getting tons of hugs at other times? Probably also yes. Do with that information what you will.
C) Find a routine way to correct people that doesn’t gaslight them or punish them for daring to wonder.“We hear that a lot, but no, just friends.” “I can see why you’d think that, but no, I’m just a big snuggler.” Be very boring and consistent. Don’t get into the details. Change the subject often. “I thought you and x were a couple, you really confused me.” “Oh, it’s understandable, especially since you haven’t met [Boyfriend], but no, we’re just close friends. How are you enjoying the course?”
It’s fine to acknowledge both cultural differences and personal quirks. “I realize that here only boyfriends-girlfriends are like this, but at home I’m like this with all my friends of all genders and orientations.” “I’m considered pretty touchy-feely by some people back home, but I’m used to it.” Then change the subject to what you wish you were talking about.
For people who get weird about it (to the point of “shipping” you and your friend), it’s okay to be like “You know we’re just friends, so please stop being weird about it.” “That’s an inappropriate question.” “Yikes, this again?” “I’ve already answered that.” “It’s insulting to assume that men and women can’t be friends, or that I’m a lying cheater, stop bringing this up.” The speculation isn’t coming from nowhere, but once you’ve dealt with it, you can put a limit on how much you’re willing to discuss it.
D) Periodically review the situation with your boyfriend and with your friend to make sure the people closest to you are still cool with all of it.
It sounds like your former friend was just being a nasty shit-disturber by raising the issue with your boyfriend, but “It’s not what I think, it’s what other people might think” is a classic way of displacing concern when it feels too risky to say, “I wish you would ______.” If your boyfriend is expressing dismay about this topic “multiple times,” it’s probably worth asking him, does he actually feel ignored or sidelined? What (if anything) does he want you to do that might give him the reassurance he seeks? Before you change up your whole deal to anticipate and manage his feelings, invite him to spell out what he actually wants, and then decide whether whatever it is something you’d be willing to accommodate.
Is your bestie comfortable navigating this whole study abroad experience while literally joined at the hip? It’s fine to be a (consensually) snuggly person, but that doesn’t mean that all situations are ideal or appropriate, so maybe one way to think about this is: How often is he the one who initiates the public cuddles vs. accepting yours? When the weird speculation cascades happen, how does your friend handle it? Does this come up as a friction point in his romantic relationships with others? Is he getting asked about it by peers the way you are? In a perfect world, how would he prefer to handle all of this?
In the end, you cannot control everything that other people will assume about you, and you don’t have to manage how your boyfriend or your best friend feel about every passing incorrect assumption. But if this is coming up routinely in a way that’s hurting people’s feelings, or making your university life be more about “Will they or won’t they?” than about your research and ideas, then that seems like a sign to at least make sure the existing agreements are still holding steady and check that the people whose opinions you care about are all operating with the same information.