Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don’t.
Dear Ms. Opinionated,
My friend began dating her boyfriend about seven months ago. They met online and she was excited to have found a seemingly ambitious guy who shared her interests, specifically, not having kids. When I met her boyfriend I got a feeling that something was “off” with him. One day, shortly after they began dating in earnest, my friend came home somewhat distraught. Her boyfriend hadn’t contacted her in several days. She had been okay with keeping some distance in their relationship but she was concerned for her boyfriend’s safety and so she googled his name, wondering if he’d been in an accident and a newspaper had his name.
Her boyfriend turned out to be alive, but it also turned out that he had a lot of secrets. My friend was conflicted because she hadn’t expected him to disclose his whole life to her, but he had kept a lot of need-to-know information from her (example: he has two children from two different women and he was going to marry one of them before they broke up and he started dating my friend a month later). I volunteered to do some more internet sleuthing and she accepted. She expressed to me that she was happy with her relationship and would be lonely without him around, but these secrets and his deliberate actions to hide them from her bothered her. When she confronted him about it (with all of the calm of a saint) he had a number of excuses and took zero responsibility for his actions (I know this because I was in my room while they were talking.) Nonetheless, my friend forgave him and they’re still dating.
My dilemma is as follows. My friend rebuffed me via a passive-aggressive Facebook status when I pointed out that he was still lying to her. Since then, I found out that he’s still lying to her and making things up. It’s eating me up inside to know she’s being lied to but I can’t do anything about it because she made her choice. I have a feeling that it’s my own self-righteousness getting in the way, too. My friend is her own woman and can make her own choices and I don’t have the right to interfere. So I guess my question is, do I ever tell her? Do I tell her if she asks me about it? If she finds out on her own and tells me about it should I pretend like I didn’t know? Should I let her get deeper into this relationship with the possibility that she’ll be with a liar?
If there is one situation in my own life that I have been most likely to fuck up, it is this one. I totally feel you: when your friend is dating someone who is just The Worst, all you want to do is shake your friend and make her (or him, but let’s use “her” as the default) see that person as you know them to be.
And, I feel that way even though I actually had a friend years ago who Googled the guy who pulled the disappearing act only to find out that, in fact, he’d been in a terrible highway crash and Medivac’d to a hospital an hour away. (They broke up anyway, only much later.)
But the one thing I’ve learned by ruining friendships over my inability to keep my mouth shut about my former friends’ truly terrible significant others is this: you can never, ever get involved. Fucked-up relationships are fucked up enough with only two people, and adding a third to the scenario just allows the original two parties to blame their problems on someone outside of the relationship.
I mean, it sucks, I know. It’s the relationship equivalent of knowing those pants don’t flatter her ass (to say the least): everything in you knows it’s your job to tell her to keep her from buying those terrible, ass-embiggening pants! She can’t buy them! They will be horrible for her! But, with the truly terrible significant other, the truth is that she already bought them because she loved them, overpaid for them, took the tags off of them, got her period early in them and the store is going out of business anyway so she can’t even return them for store credit. If you tell her those pants are nonetheless terrible for her, she’s going to feel stuck with them, defensive about them and like she doesn’t want to be around you when she’s wearing them because you’re the only one who thinks she doesn’t look good in them.
Your friend, frankly, didn’t hold up her part of the friend bargain when it comes to The Worst. It would’ve been one thing to tell you her boyfriend has been lying to her (and you) and talk through how that really made her feel and what she might or might not still want, and it was another thing to encourage you to dig up more dirt, keep you in the room when she mildly confronted him (WHAT?) and accepted his excuses and then get mad when you want her to walk away and can’t stop looking at the pile of shit you dug up
But you know what your clear warning sign should’ve been? “She expressed to me that she was happy with her relationship and would be lonely without him around, but these secrets and his deliberate actions to hide them from her bothered her.” Even as she was allowing you to be her personal private detective about her boyfriend’s (dumb and easy-to-discover) lies, she was telling you she had basically zero intention of allowing them to interfere with the functioning of her loneliness-preventer and that his lies didn’t interfere with her positive view of the relationship.
Are those healthy things? Probably not. For me – and for you, it sounds like – honesty is one of the biggest things that makes me happy with the state of a relationship I’m in, and the lack thereof is one of the biggest things that makes me feel disrespected and unhappy (and filled with rage). And I’ve been in and seen enough terrible relationships to know that just having a significant other doesn’t prevent loneliness – you can be so much lonelier in a bad relationship than you can ever being single. But healthy or not, that’s how she feels about being in a relationship with someone who pulled a disappearing act, lied to her about (or at least managed to somehow avoid mentioning for weeks or months) the existence of his children and got the relationship started before the corpse of the last one was cold without mentioning it to your friend.
And, as with all people, you’re not going to be able to change her. She’s made her choice. So you make yours.
Do you want to be friends with her? Can you be friends and keep her boyfriend’s secrets for him? What kind of friendship is it when she’d rather you keep secrets from her than encourage her to leave a relationship? If you tell her, is she going to cut you off anyway (which seems likely, if we’re in the passive-aggressive Facebook status stage) and what kind of friend to you does that make her? Is there an mature way for you to say your piece, have her really hear you and then drop it?
The best way I’ve come up with to address this kind of situation is to sit your friend down – in person and in private – and say something along the lines of this: “You know, I hope, that I love you and I care about your happiness. And I know that you find value in this relationship and feel like you’re getting out of it what you need. But it has been really hard for me as someone who cares about you to know about how dishonest he’s been and is being and believe that those things really don’t matter or shouldn’t affect your relationship. I know, though, that expressing that is now affecting our friendship, which is more important to me than being right about this. So please understand why it’s been hard for me to hold my tongue, and I’ll do my best to back off and let you do what you think is right, and just know that, whatever happens, I am here for you – but please don’t ask me to play investigator again, for the sake of our friendship.”
And then let what happens happen. If she drops you, make your peace with it and maybe she’ll come back around eventually. If your friendship survives, hold yourself to your promise. And if she tries to make you the third party in her two-person drama again, politely decline.
[Question shortened for length]
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Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com