Dear Yours Truly,
My boyfriend and I are monogamous and we have lived together for a
year. I love him and our life together so much, but there is one
recurring problem: his ex.
Since the beginning of our relationship, his ex has made it clear to
me that she claims him as her “territory.” What I mean by this is that
she has a stake in who he dates (she’s hated / disapproved of everyone
he’s dated after their breakup–she told me this the single time we
had an actual conversation and she was VERRRRY drunk), she constantly
finds ways to involve herself in his projects and events in his life
and, likewise, finds ways to involve him in her life.
At the beginning of our relationship, I gave her the benefit of the
doubt, I thought perhaps it was ME who felt intimidated by her
presence, that maybe they did have a healthy, close friendship and the
three of us could coexist (and she and I would be friends) in some
way. I also thought thought that as our relationship progressed, she
would eventually begin to consider our love a “legitimate thing” that
was maybe not going to go away and then she would back off.
Instead, she’s gotten increasingly worse and attempts to become even
more territorial. I imagine she thinks she might be losing her footing
and feels threatened that she cannot keep him on a string for whenever
she might need him. My instinct is that since their breakup, she has
felt that her psychological or emotional relationship to him was
superior to any romantic relationships that might exist on his end.
Even though she’s been in a relationship with someone else for the
last two years (and, for your context, it’s someone who isn’t known
for being emotionally or mentally stable), she still sees the two of
them (herself and my boyfriend) existing as some kind of non-sexual
Unit. She might not come out and say it, but she wants to be the Most
Important Person In His Mind, In His Life.
For context: They were together for three years, hated each other for
one year, and have resumed a strange, dramatic, co-dependent
relationship for the last 2+ years, which I will now attempt to
What my boyfriend said to me about her when he and I first met was
that she was toxic, possessive, and manipulative. But that she was
also the closest, most important friend in his life. As a new person
to him, I witnessed a handful of their dramatic fights over relatively
nothing, followed by equally disproportionately large gestures of
sweetness and kindness. I also heard about many instances that took
place before my time in which she acted out in an attempt to gain some
kind of reassurance that she had his attention, that she could control
his emotions, or see that he would indeed continue to be there for her
in some way.
Now that I’m expressing frustration because I don’t think this kind of
behavior (or person) should have a presence in our life together
(especially after we’ve lived together for a year), he is insisting
that she is a “good person” with “good intentions.” And, when she
defines my discomfort as being “controlling,” he more or less agrees
with her. This makes me feel like he doesn’t have my back (acting as
if I am the bad cop and he is the nice guy with his hands tied) and
that he doesn’t exactly see where I’m coming from. That the root of
the problem is my discomfort rather than anything else that exists.
Even though she and I see each other on a near-daily basis (they work
together at a coffee shop that I like to buy coffee from), she’s never
made an effort to engage in conversation with me. Yet, she sends me
facebook invites to events she’s hosting and then tells him that she’s
making an effort to befriend me and that I’m rude for neither
responding nor attending. She’s also sent mutual friends my way to let
me know that she’s sad that I don’t like her and to persuade me that
she is a good person and that I should be friends with her. Perhaps I
am paranoid, but I see this as manipulative–an attempt to gain my
permission for her to have access to his life–rather than taking a
genuine interest in who I am.
I think he is either somehow oblivious to what she’s doing or fails to
recognize it while it’s taking place in real time. Or perhaps he’s so
used to having her play this role in his life that he doesn’t see it
as problematic. For a while, he was mistaking my problem with her as
my own jealousy, or as a distrust in him. Now, because we’ve had to
talk about this so many times (because she won’t stop!), I think he
MIGHT start seeing where I’m coming from, but I’m not sure.
Right now my boyfriend wants to keep everyone happy. He thinks the
solution to the problem is that she and I become close friends. I try
to be polite and friendly when I see her, but I don’t think I should
feel pressured or obligated to be friends with anyone, much less his
ex-girlfriend, especially when she displays possessive, manipulative
behavior. Especially when she doesn’t let up despite the fact that he
has a new life with someone else.
I haven’t had a problem befriending other women who he’s dated (or
even, in my previous long-term relationship, the long-term ex my
then-boyfriend–this woman is now a very close friend), so I am less
inclined to believe that the problem is me. In my mind, the problem is
that she fails to recognize my position in his life and that she
insists on maintaining a level of invasive “ownership” (sorry for the
unfortunate word, but this is how her actions appear to me) on his
emotional, psychological, and daily life.
However, it also makes me wonder: Why does he want me to change my
mind so badly? When I pretend to be cool with her (or with them), why
does he jump at the chance to build something with her? Why does he
insist that I be her friend? Why can’t he cut her off on certain
levels? Why is he complicit in her keeping him on a string? Why
doesn’t he see a problem with any of this? Am I crazy?
We live in a small town. They work together and share a wide circle of
friends. She’s not going to disappear completely, and it would be
childish for me to demand or expect that. Instead, I do think it would
be healthy for him to reestablish new boundaries with her, to break
old patterns, and form new ones. That is what I’ve asked him to do,
but it seems to be too vague of a request for anything to change.
Because she insists on being an ongoing presence and playing the
too-close, everpresent role she’s always played, he and I have had so
many conversations about this that I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted to the
point where I wonder if it would be easier if I just checked out
completely, despite the fact that I am deeply in love with him and the
life we share together. It’s just like every time she pops up (which
is all the time), I can feel myself at the end of my rope. Which might
be what she wants, I don’t know.
I don’t want this to turn into a bigger deal than it already is, so I
haven’t talked about this with many people. But one of my boyfriend’s
closest, most trustworthy friends (someone has been around a long time
and is observant and level headed) recently said that my instincts are
legitimate, that I’m not inventing or misreading anything.
I guess my questions are: Is it unreasonable for me to expect them to
redraw the psychological or emotional boundaries of their relationship
or was this part of the deal when I decided to build a life with him?
How would he even do that? What should I do if he continues to
misunderstand the situation (either my feelings or her actions?) And,
maybe most importantly, in the meantime and in the future, how the
hell do I deal with a person like her?
I Don’t Want To Be Controlling
My dear girl. I am so sorry this is happening to you! It sounds so frustrating and exhausting. I also want to state at the outset that it sounds from your letter like you are very good at staying calm, trying to see things clearly, and attempting to respect the perspectives of others, and that is great and to your credit as a human being.
However, I want to put a bug in your ear about something. You write this whole letter about this girl, in which you present HER as the problem. Her behavior, her possessiveness, her treatment of you, her obsession with your boyfriend. You want to know how to deal with her. But what is crystal clear from reading your letter is that your problem isn’t this girl, your problem is YOUR BOYFRIEND.
If this situation were JUST that there is a crazy girl who is obsessed with your boyfriend and who consequently treats you in a weird shitty way, and if your boyfriend were just as stressed out and annoyed by it as you are, then maybe yes, we could talk about productive ways of dealing with her. But your letter makes it very clear that the situation isn’t just the girl–it’s that your boyfriend continues prioritizing the girl, liking the girl, ganging up on you with the girl in a variety of ways. Thus, the issue in this case is not the girl but the boy. Stop thinking of it as a challenge YOU have to figure out how to deal with her; it’s actually a challenge YOUR BOYFRIEND has to figure out how to deal with her. Your only challenge is how to make that absolutely clear to him. No more bullshit about you needing to befriend her or change your attitude or whatever. He needs to understand that this is on him, and that he has NOT handled it well.
I see in your letter that you are partially aware of the fact that he is complicit in this, and that his behavior is sketchy, but I want you to go all the way with that, and stop even considering the girl herself as a problem for you to figure out. I think this is such a common thing. I’ve done it too. We love our boyfriend and so we bend over backwards trying to make problems he is causing somehow not totally his fault. The classic example would be where your boyfriend cheats on you and instead of getting mad at him you put all your anger on the girl, like it’s her fault. When really, it’s his! How could it be anyone’s fault but his?? But we manage to contort our minds into displacing that blame. “She got him drunk!” etc. (LOL, something I literally said when my college boyfriend cheated on me with some poor girl).
But your boyfriend is not helpless. Nobody is forcing him to have this melodramatic, obsessive, codependent, embarrassing “friendship” with this person he ostensibly broke up with. It isn’t this girl’s fault that she is ruining your happiness, IT’S YOUR BOYFRIEND’S FAULT.
It took me a long time to start realizing that, for the most part, people do things because they want to do them. Barring, like, actually brainwashed or abused people or people who are afraid to leave their partners because of physical violence or something, people stay in relationships because they want to, in some way, for some reason. We’ve all had that friend who only dates assholes, right? And we get upset. “Why won’t these assholes leave my poor friend alone??” But after awhile, you are forced to realize that your friend just LIKES DATING ASSHOLES. Even when she complains or cries, she’s choosing the asshole; she likes that dynamic. And that’s sad, and dark, and I’m not saying it’s healthy, but I am saying that she’s choosing assholes because she wants to. It’s not the assholes’ fault–they’re not forcing her to date them, they’re not Darth Vader, they’re just assholes! And furthermore, YOU (the friend) don’t have any control over it either; you can’t make her not want to date assholes.
This girl isn’t forcing your boyfriend to have this relationship with her; he is choosing to have it, because on some level he likes it and wants it. And that should be a red flag to you, for several reasons.
I believe you when you say you love your boyfriend and you love your life together. I bet he’s awesome in a lot of ways. However, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that your boyfriend is, at least in a couple key ways, VERY immature. The friendship between them that you’re describing is that kind of high-octane, super melodramatic thing where kids act out what they see in movies because they think that’s what “passion” is. It’s the juvenile “coke addiction” version of relationships, whereas solid adult relationships are more like sipping a fine wine. These two probably think they have such a fucked-up, abusive, dysfunctional dynamic because they are “passionate” about each other, when really, it’s just that neither of them has woken up yet to what grownup reality ought to be like, and how much better and more satisfying that grownup reality is than fighting and screaming and cyber-stalking and icing out the new girlfriend and whatever other dumb stuff we did to one another when we hadn’t gotten our shit together yet. And he’s doing all this with someone he’s not even dating anymore! I can not imagine anything more boring/embarrassing.
The slightly more generous take on it, I suppose, is just that your boyfriend is so habituated to being codependent and dysfunctional with her that he doesn’t realize it’s happening. Still, the only solution here is for HIM TO REALIZE.
Immature people can still be good, decent people. Immature isn’t a value judgement, it’s just a statement about where someone is able to be at, in some facet of their lives. I’m super immature in a couple areas and it sucks but I am a good person (I think). It is totally possible your boyfriend is a good person and in many respects even a good boyfriend. But he is SERIOUSLY dropping the ball in this area. Not only in the fact that he’s actively taking part in a relationship dynamic I associate with teenagers, but also, in the way he relates to you I see a lot of immaturity. I see someone who hasn’t yet learned how to communicate truly and honestly with another person. The way we tend to relate to our partners when we are immature is: whenever they bring up anything critical we go immediately on the defensive; we try to turn it around and make it all about the other person being “jealous” or “imagining things”; we deny deny deny. We are secretly terrified of just listening to this person we love and care about, and fully respecting their fully-actualized humanity, instead of making everything about us protecting ourselves and refusing to ever confront anything we might be doing wrong. The fact that your boyfriend essentially dismisses your concerns, encourages you to believe that you’re just jealous, and doesn’t do anything to remedy the situation or put you at ease or reassure you: IMMATURE
(believing that someone “toxic and manipulative” is “the most important friend in [his] life” is also pretty immature, or at the very least incredibly fucking sad)
I am also disturbed by the whiffs of gaslighting I detect in your tale of woe. He’s colluding with her in bringing you messages from her, in acting like you’re the one with the problem, in letting you know that he’s talking about you with her behind your back (!). He’s colluding with her in keeping you disoriented and doubting your own perceptions, and that’s bullshit.
So I don’t know what advice to give you. It sounds like you have tried communicating honestly and calmly with him, and he’s reacted by denying and making you doubt yourself (and making you fear that YOU’RE being “controlling”??? GIRL). Here is what I think, and you’re not going to like it because it’s really hard and sad: I think that eventually your relationship with him is going to end because of this issue, unless he is able to honestly engage with you about it in a spirit of productiveness and change. I think if he can’t do that, then over time you are going to get so worn down that you’ll finally bail; or, you’ll start getting sort of disgusted by him and embarrassed for him, which is not sexy, and you’ll bail; or, at some point you’ll be like “why am I dating someone who prioritizes someone else over me? That’s crazy” and you’ll bail; etc. If this is the case (and I feel like it probably is) then the only thing left to do is THE ULTIMATUM.
We make ultimatums all the time–us staying in relationships is always contingent on myriad choices the other person makes and if these choices start feeling like a dealbreaker, I feel we have not only a right but a DUTY to let the other person know. They should have the chance to decide whether or not the relationship is important enough to them to make whatever change is being demanded. Whatever the issue is, if it’s big enough to you that you could see it causing the end of a relationship, then it’s worth just putting that on the table. You don’t have to be hateful and controlling about it, nor should you. You can couch an ultimatum like: “You have this friendship with this person that sincerely impinges on my own life in a way that I find intolerable. Thus, your friendship with this person is causing harm to our relationship. Additionally, the fact that you aren’t able to talk honestly with me about this friendship is also causing harm to our relationship because it’s making me feel that I can’t trust you to be open with me. If you aren’t able to communicate with me in a real and non-defensive way, and if you aren’t able to truly emotionally detach from her in a way that allows her to stop affecting our life together, I don’t think I’m going to be able to stay with you for much longer.” This lets him know that the ball is in his court and it’s up to him to have an epiphany about his behavior or not. He might not! But he also might! People do have epiphanies!
The only thing about saying this to him though is that it has to be true; you have to know in your heart that you’re going to leave him if this situation–the friendship with the girl AND the way he communicates with you about it–doesn’t dramatically change, and immediately. If you don’t feel ready to leave him over this, then don’t deliver that ultimatum. An ultimatum that doesn’t get followed through on leaves you with less power and self-respect than you had before, as any parent of a poorly-behaved child could tell you if they were able to be honest with themselves about how they should have followed through on all those ultimatums. But know that if you stay with him while continuing to try to solve this problem all on your own–by modifying YOUR behavior, YOUR expectations, YOUR way of relating to the girl–the situation is really not going to change in a satisfying way, I don’t think. Because, to reiterate, this situation is not within your control, and has really nothing to do with you. It’s all on him. I guess you could just decide to take second place in this dude’s life and just accept that, but that seems lame.
You ask some questions at the end of your letter that maybe I haven’t specifically addressed:
Is it unreasonable for me to expect them to redraw the psychological or emotional boundaries of their relationship or was this part of the deal when I decided to build a life with him?
Maybe this was part of the deal at first–you knew about it, and chose to get together with him anyway, sure–but it’s not part of the deal anymore. People constantly renegotiate relationships and what they’re willing to put up with in them. People change their minds about the terms of the relationship all the time–people decide they do want a baby after saying they were fine with not having one; people become religious; people go vegan or stop being vegan. Getting together with someone doesn’t mean you have to forever accept every single thing that was true about them at the moment you frenched for the first time. And also no, it’s not unreasonable for you to expect THEM to renegotiate THEIR relationship. They are BROKEN UP. That is automatically a renegotiation. She no longer gets to act like she’s his mean girlfriend. REASONABLE.
How would he even do that?
The only way he can redraw his boundaries with her is by WANTING to. Once he no longer enjoys their dynamic, it will automatically and instantly change with almost no effort on his part. The only way he can have a different relationship with her is if he decides he’s not into the current one. I do think asking him to artificially take this friendship down eleven notches when he actually clearly doesn’t want to probably won’t work. He has to NOT BE INTO IT ANYMORE, and you can’t make that happen, except maybe–MAYBE–by saying “fuck this, I’m out of here” and shocking him into rethinking his bad life choices.
What should I do if he continues to misunderstand the situation (either my feelings or her actions?)
Break up with him. He can’t be a good long-term boyfriend for you if he puts someone else above you like this, if he can’t communicate with you honestly, and if he keeps remaining so emotionally entangled with/obsessed with someone he is supposed to have broken up with. If he continues to misunderstand the situation (or pretend to misunderstand the situation) then he’s someone that ultimately you’re not going to be able to have good communication with.
And,maybe most importantly, in the meantime and in the future, how the hell do I deal with a person like her?
Again, I think your main problem is that you are thinking of this as an issue of you dealing with her or someone like her, when really this is all about your boyfriend. I think your goal in the future is NOT figuring out a better way of dealing with a girl like this (there is no good way of dealing with someone like this, except to simply not care about them, which is impossible when your boyfriend is essentially dating them), but actually figuring out how to avoid boyfriends who choose to have girls like this in their lives.
I’m so sorry dude. This sounds raw and terrible. But I really think the only way forward is to deal squarely with HIM, between just the two of you, and to forget about her. This is an issue that he has–it really is like a drug addiction; something he is doing, to himself, that you don’t want to be a part of. And you have the right to say that–your desire to not be a part of it is 100% valid, and your desire for him to cut the crap and acknowledge the validity of this desire is 100% valid. FULL STOP.