DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I need help understanding how to navigate my boyfriend’s friends. They are all gamers or part of his D&D group or both, and I don’t really have any experience of either of those things. The problem isn’t that so much as the facts that they seem to have a completely different set of social expectations than what I’m used to.
My boyfriend’s best friend lives pretty far away, I’ll call him J. He and his girlfriend (H) were coming to visit. My boyfriend kept talking up H and how much we had in common. To the point where I was getting worried we’d be separated by gender once they got here. The fact that he never used her name, only ever called her J’s girlfriend, also made me uncomfortable. I’ve heard him talk about me the same way, I think most of his friends probably don’t know my name even now after two + years together and 6 months of living together. It was fine once they got here, we did spend time together as a group mostly but it still felt strange to me. And that’s the only time they were both here. This weekend J was here alone and they’ve been gaming non stop for two days, from morning to far into the night and I only see them while eating dinner. I work weekends and this morning J woke up when my boyfriend was still sleeping but after realizing I was the only one up, he hid away at the computer until I left for work.
He had some other close friends over once for beer. The first time I met them too. None of them spoke to me at all besides from saying hello. I just sat there the whole night watching them talk, trying and failing to join the conversation whenever the topic was something other than the games they were playing. I felt like a chair or a lamp or something, it was awful. I told him how it had felt after and he was shocked, he hadn’t noticed and didn’t understand why I hadn’t just left. That the girlfriends usually join to eat and then leaves. That it shouldn’t matter if his friends like me or not.
For me the normal thing would be to want to get to know the partner of someone who’s important to you. If I visit a friends house I’ll talk to their partner as well. When my best friend or my siblings have been here we’ve all made sure to include him in conversation and to all hang out together. Maybe not the whole visit, but they want to get to know him. Since he’s part of my life they want to get to know him. And I want him to know them. This has confused him too, at times.
He has one friend who he does invite for me to hang out with as well. We’re both vegan and that’s really the only thing we have in common. He also mostly doesn’t talk to me though, when I ask him low stakes small talk things he gets uncomfortable, and I don’t know what else to do. At least it’s better than the others.
I’m not naturally social, it’s hard for me, I get very anxious and default to being quiet but I try very hard. I don’t know how to get it right with his group though. If it stays like this I think next time any of his friends come to visit I’ll just make sure not to be home at all, because if we don’t get to know each other at least to the point of acquaintances, it’ll just be painfully awkward forever.
DEAR FIFTH WHEEL: It sounds to me like you’re dealing with a classic dilemma: when two socially awkward samurai of equal power meet… who makes the first move?
Ok, let me back up a bit.
The issue at hand is that you’re dealing with nerds, and from the sound of it, painfully socially awkward ones at that. Part of the issue with this particular brand of awkwardness is the classic Geek Social Fallacy: that friendship is transitive. A lot of well-meaning nerds tend to believe that, because they’re friends with X, Y and Z, it only makes sense that X, Y and Z should be able to be friends with each other as well. In a lot of cases, there’s even the underlying belief that this friendship should basically already exist; everyone will just click like old friends who’ve only just met and it’ll be effortless and simple.
In reality… this doesn’t happen very often. While there are times when friends from disparate groups will mesh up perfectly, there’re just as many times when there’s a lot of stilted awkwardness. This is especially true when you’re dealing with folks who may be a little anxious, a little awkward or just socially inexperienced. Thus you end up with scenarios where a new person — in this case, you — is introduced to the group — his friends — and there’s that weird moment of awkward tension that just hangs in the air. Who makes the first move? How expressive or effusive should you be? What do you say? How do you join in the conversation without feeling like you’re intruding, or how do you make them feel included when you and your friends have years of inside jokes and shared experiences that they don’t have?
This can be exacerbated when — as it seems to be in your case — that your boyfriend and his friends aren’t in the habit of including the significant others in their reindeer games. This, in and of itself, isn’t inherently a bad thing; it’s good for couples to have separate interests and do things with separate groups of friends. However, that does often mean that they don’t have quite the same level of ease or familiarity with their respective partners, and that can make folks uncomfortable. It’s this odd feeling of “I should say something, what should I say, I don’t know what to do here, s--t, I’ve been quiet for too long now it’s A Thing…” That discomfort of not knowing what to do and the fear of The Awkward can end up being incredibly uncomfortable; if you’re socially awkward or inexperienced, it feels easier to just try to avoid things than to just confront it head on.
Hell, the feeling of “I’m awake before anyone else at a friend’s house and the only other person who’s up is my friend’s partner who I don’t know” is painfully familiar to a lot of nerds.
Now part of the problem is… well, again, your boyfriend’s friends are nerds. While this doesn’t automatically translate to “poor social skills”, the closed-circle-hyperfocus-on-our-favorite-topics-excluding-everyone-else trope among nerds and geeks is a very common one, and it seems like this is the routine with his friends. The partners are there for dinner, then go and do their own thing; very 1920s “the men will adjourn to the library for brandy and cigars” in its way.
Though in fairness, I suspect this is less misogyny or a lack of respect and more of benign ignorance. They’re so used to this routine — and their partners go along with it — that it never occurs to them that this can feel awkward or alienating to someone coming into it for the first time. That doesn’t make it better, mind you, but the rudeness and exclusion is a side-effect, not intent. And again: the fact that things get awkwardly uncomfortable provides a distressing incentive to just hope it goes away.
Which, unfortunately, it doesn’t. Especially not for someone like you, who’s making a good faith effort to connect with your boyfriend’s friends.
So… what do you do?
Well, if I’m being honest, it sounds like you’re doing everything you can. It sounds like you’re trying to draw them out, find commonalities or things to talk about. You may get some success by asking them about the things they’re interested in — maybe ask for a beginner’s explanation of their favorite game — but this seems like a case of some folks who are just really uncomfortable socializing outside of their circle of friends.
This may change over time, the more that they see of you and the more you see of them. Continuing to be friendly and strike up conversations may help them get comfortable enough to not just Homer-Simpson-Into-The-Bushes… but it may not, too. It may help to ask your boyfriend about how to best connect with them, but at the end of the day, you can’t pull blood from a stone and you can’t pull conversation out of someone who feels too uncomfortable to talk to someone they don’t know.
It may just be that these are dudes who just aren’t ready or able to talk to the partner of their buddy. That’s on them, not on you.
That having been said: at the very least, your boyfriend can try to help make it so that you don’t feel like you have to leave whenever he as his friends over for a game night. It’s your home too, after all.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com