DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I need some clarity on some judgmental comments a friend said to me. She in essence called me out for being selfish and manipulative after I told her about a weird falling out I had with two friends months ago. My question is: Am I selfish and manipulative just because I chose to ignore their relationship drama, even if I knew it was related to me?
First, some context and background: For the last year or so, my relationships keep ending abruptly, with the whole unfollowing and unliking on social media and then no contact ever again. I’m bi, and I was dating a girl and a guy at the same time last summer. I was openly dating, but was hoping the guy would turn into a relationship. The girl told me she was frustrated when I was not responsive to texts even though I usually text back within a day or two. She eventually said she ran out of energy trying to maintain a connection and moved on. The guy and I did a back and forth thing. His father died, and I worried it would kill any chance of a relationship with him. It did.
Then I met another guy through a dating app, and his whole life fit with mine in all the right, weird, wonderful ways. But after several months together and saying “I love you” and going Instagram official, that ended abruptly too. He still lived with his ex, and I guess my protests bothered him enough to tell me that it was over and not to come over anymore.
In between all of this, my friendship with a couple kept growing. I still worked with the guy, and his girlfriend had left the same company the year before. His girlfriend and I hit it off after he brought me around them and their friend circle. We planned to work on some independent creative projects together. He and I had a more intimate friendship. I cried in front of him more than once about my relationship issues. He was always very affirming and a good listener, so I liked being around him, especially given how difficult my dating life was at that moment. He made me feel like my opinions and issues were valid, no matter how much I was crying or felt like I was saying something crazy. I do admit that I thought he had romantic feelings for me, but it felt good to be welcome and maybe even wanted in someone else’s regard. I figured I didn’t want anything besides the attention, didn’t really see any value in pursuing anything more with him than conversations and good feelings, so I wasn’t encouraging an affair or looking for trouble.
One night, we were all out at a bar with several friends, and it was clear when the night was almost over that the girlfriend was upset about something. She was quiet, weird, shifty-eyed. I went home and didn’t think much about it until a few days later, when he asked to get lunch and talk about something. He said we couldn’t flirt anymore like we had that night, and that it was inappropriate because we were both seeing other people. I asked if his girlfriend was upset about something, and he said no, he just felt weird about our interactions that night and wanted to draw some boundaries.
I didn’t really buy it, but I tried to be respectful. I talked to her and said I told him nothing would ever happen between us. Things seemed fine. She and I kept working on our projects, and he and I settled back into a comfortable routine. But, after she got frustrated with me for what she said was my lack of effort and responsiveness on those projects, she said that I needed to be more aware of how I impact other people and to be more honest about my intentions and bandwidth. I got frustrated and responded to that with something like, “It’s not my fault your boyfriend likes me”. So she and I stopped talking after that, but I tried to maintain a friendship with him, including a few texts asking him about where I should solo camp, if we could get lunch together soon and whether or not I deserved to feel wanted by the men I was dating.
I liked the way he made me feel, and I liked feeling heard when I was around him. I never said anything overtly flirtatious or said that I wanted anything more than to be friends. My friend (the one who said I was being selfish and manipulative) said that I didn’t have to say it. She said that the things I told his girlfriend were clearly a power play because I didn’t like being told I wasn’t living up to my promises (really, I think it was because I didn’t want her to threaten my friendship with her partner, even if I shouldn’t have said it). My friend also said that me continuing to try to continue the same level of intimacy and friendship I had with him before I had that blowup with his girlfriend, and after I made it clear I knew she was insecure about how he felt about me, showed a clear disregard for the damage I might be doing to their relationship. She also said it seemed like I felt entitled to his attention and affirmations. My thing is that they are both adults, that he could have told me to back off if he really didn’t want to talk to me, that I only said what I said to his girlfriend because I earned my friendship with her boyfriend and that it really ISN’T my fault if her boyfriend liked me that way. I didn’t ask for the attention, even if I enjoyed it.
I usually think of myself as a good person, even if I can be a bit cat-like. But my friend’s comments really bothered me, and I don’t want to believe it’s true. So I’m hoping for your outside perspective. So, am I selfish and manipulative? Or just someone who doesn’t like giving up things that make me feel good?
DEAR RELATIONSHIP RASHOMON: So I’m going to admit to something here: one of my favorite ways to procrastinate when I should be working is to read the Am I The A
hole? sub-Reddit. I enjoy the weird arrays of drama, the opportunity to vicariously yell at folks who are ignoring more red flags than the running of the bulls in Pamplona and the truly bizarre twists and turns to some of these narratives, whether they’re real or not.
But part of what I enjoy most about them is that more often than not, there’s a clear yes or no answer. In fact, more often than not, it’s so screamingly clear that the post becomes a prime example of the ways men and women are socialized to handle relationships. Men have a tendency to want confirmation that they were right to insist on having their way while women have been trained to never trust their own instincts and second guess even the starkest black-and-white scenarios possible.
Occasionally though, we’ll get a scenario where it’s not entirely clear just who is the a
hole, or to what degree. Sometimes there’re no a
holes detected. Sometimes everyone is the a
hole. Sometimes there’s the little a
hole and the bigger a
Then there’s the point of “Look you weren’t the a
hole when you STARTED…”
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that in your case… you weren’t the a
hole at first. And if you’d stopped at several different points in this story, you would’ve been fine. You didn’t exactly cover yourself in glory, but it would’ve been ok. But you didn’t stop and it’s the fact that you’ve continued that changes the equation.
Let’s start with the obvious: you knew that your relationship with this guy was borderline. You had reason to believe that, at the very least, he had a crush on you and that he was in a monogamous relationship. You also liked the attention and the validation that he was giving you. And hey, that’s fine. Folks get crushes, even people in happy relationships, and there’s nothing wrong with flirting and attention. But that’s the sort of thing that can turn into a less-than-cool scenario if you’re careless… and it sounds like you were pretty careless about some of this.
Similarly, you are correct: your friend is a grown-ass man, and he’s perfectly capable of handling his own affairs (as it were). You aren’t the guardian of his relationship. It was as much on him to handle his attraction to you. But at the same time: you knew that this was causing problems for him and you were prioritizing your desire for a relationship with him over his desire to not blow up his relationship with his girlfriend. And when you were confronted over it — in relatively mild terms — you decided to throw his attraction to you in his girlfriend’s face. Worse, you did so in a way that positioned you as the better, more desirable person. It’s pretty hard NOT to see “I can’t help that your boyfriend likes me” as meaning “Likes me better than you“. There’s pretty much no way that this wasn’t going to get read as an insult to her, a not terribly subtle “it’s a shame you’re not as hot/desirable/nice/whatever as me”.
So yeah, that’s a pretty s
tty thing to do.
Now, like I said: he’s a grown-ass man. He’s fully capable of managing his relationships and his feelings, even inconvenient crushes. You can’t force someone to NOT feel. But you can avoid flirting or inappropriately intimate behavior, especially when both he and his girlfriend has said “hey, we need to draw some boundaries here”. And right now, you aren’t really taking ownership of your contributions to this. You’ve chosen to ignore things when they don’t line up with what you want. You downplay his desire to set boundaries because you felt like he didn’t really mean it. You’ve chosen to ignore that you are a source of conflict in his relationship and do nothing to make things easier for him because hey, you like it when he’s paying attention to you. But y’know… that’s a pretty s
tty thing to do to someone you consider to be a friend. Just because you didn’t set the fire doesn’t mean that it’s ok to keep throwing fuel on it because you like how it keeps YOU warm.
Part of the way that you’re doing this is that you’re painting things into extremes. You’re saying “I would back off if he told me he didn’t want to talk to me”, but there’s a wide spectrum between “cutting off all contact” and “continuing exactly as we had before.” And frankly, he was doing exactly that: he was telling you that you two couldn’t continue the way you had and he needed to set some boundaries. But again: you were choosing to believe they were less valid because you didn’t want to believe that this was something he wanted. To you, it was something being imposed on him from his girlfriend and thus less legitimate.
So yeah, I think you’re being selfish here. Friendships are supposed to go two ways. His friendship may make you feel good, but your friendship with him is causing problems. If you’re going to be a good friend to him, then you should dial things back. And frankly, you should apologize to his girlfriend; blowing up at her like that was extra-crispy rude.
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