So I have been in a long distance relationship with my girlfriend for close to two years now. And she has always had some male friends. In fact she has been hanging around these guys for years even before I met her. And she told they’re like brothers to her. I am aware that her mom knows them and is even friends with some of these guys parents. Before we met she use to hang out a lot with them but I told that I didn’t feel comfortable with that and she backed off. It would usually be every once in a while. Lately, especially because of the pandemic we’ve been talking on the phone a lot, close to all day sometimes (I don’t work everyday and she’s out of school at the moment).
These past few weeks they have starting hanging out more, I would say once or twice a week and it really bothers me. I’m currently in a different state for work and I know absolutely no one here and everything is closed to add to it. So phone conversations with my friends or her keep me busy. On the weekends I would try to hang out with some colleagues (that I would not usually go out with) to keep myself from thinking about her being with her friends. She’s a very direct type of girl and would tell you what she thinks right off the bat but I can’t seem to not think that she might be cheating or something especially when she goes home late even though she texts me whenever she’s out. I got so bad that I would get so angry when I come home from work and want to talk with her and she tells me she’s at their place, that I would not text her nor answer her calls until the next day.
I know there is an issue from my side and it starting to be poisonous for me but how should I address this situation?
Green Eyed Monster
Y’know GEM, you’ve caught me at an interesting time. A lot of times, getting a letter like this would lead to my basically ripping you a new one about the hypocrisy of going out with your friends while telling her not to hang out with her, about the coercive and even unreasonable demands that she not spend time with her friends…
But I’m actually in a more mellow mood at the moment so instead of tearing into you, let’s talk about what’s actually underneath all of this and just why what you’re doing is inevitably going to backfire on you. We need to talk about exactly what’s going on and why you’re jealous of her friends. Because, let’s be clear: this is a you problem, not a her problem.
And it starts with a very simple question: what’s wrong with her spending time with her guy friends? Now obviously, you’re worried that she’s going to cheat on you with one of them. But why, exactly? What, exactly, do you think is happening now that wasn’t happening before? After all, she’s known them for years before she ever started dating you. Why should things change now? Is she telling you about how one of her friends has started horn-dogging around her or has been getting incredibly flirty? Is she gushing about how amazing Guy X, Guy Y or Guy Z are, in ways that she would have gushed over you in the early days?
I rather doubt it. If that were happening, I imagine you would’ve said so in your letter. So I think we can safely say that your anxiety around her and her friends is free-floating and irrational.
Instead, if you’re absolutely honest with yourself, I think we can both agree that there isn’t any actual, reasonable basis for your discomfort. After all, nothing has actually changed other than the fact that she’s dating you. Everything else seems to be exactly the same. But your presence isn’t going to make one of her bros and BFFs suddenly decide that now is the time to try to undermine your relationship and try to snap her up… and even if one of them was trying to Nice Guy his way into her pants, that doesn’t mean she’s going to go for it. After all, it takes two to tango; one dude’s pining away for someone or even trying to be a relationship Machiavelli about it doesn’t mean that she’s going to fall for his bullshit.
Unless, of course, you don’t actually trust your girlfriend.
However, if we’re being honest, then I think we both know that’s not the issue. The issue is less about trust and far more about your own self-esteem and the fact that you’re both in a long-distance relationship. It sounds to me like you’re dealing with some serious FOMO; after all, you’re in different cities, you can’t see each other in person and that curtails a lot of what makes a long-distance relationship work. Lots of folks have that sense of FOMO, the fear that their friends are off doing cool and amazing things without them. Almost every time, the fear isn’t about missing out on whatever cool activity their friends are doing. The fear is almost always “what if my friends are having a great time without me? What if they’re bonding and becoming closer with each other and, since I’m not there, they’re going to become tighter and closer and then there won’t be room for me any more?”
That, I suspect, is the cause of your jealousy. You don’t feel secure enough in yourself or your own value, and so you worry that your relationship with your girlfriend isn’t nearly as solid as it could be. When you don’t have faith in your own value, it’s very easy to feel like someone else — someone with higher “value” or a relationship of longer standing — would turn her head. And if she’s spending more time with other people, people she’s close with, people she clearly loves and feels strongly about and you’re not there… well, doesn’t that mean that you’re getting squeezed out?
And that’s the real fear, frankly. It’s not that you’re afraid of her cheating on you so much as that you’re worried that she’s going to leave you. That you’re going to get squeezed out by people who are physically there with her. And if we proceed from that angle — that your fear is that she’ll be getting closer with her guy friends than with you — then there’s a perverse logic where trying to get her to spend less time with her friends makes sense.
Notice very carefully that I said “makes sense”, not “is a good idea”. Or, for that matter, “won’t fail miserably” or “won’t blow up in your face.”
Here’s a truth about dating: you can’t break-up proof your relationships. There is no magic formula that’s going to keep people from leaving you — whether it’s being hypervigilant in an attempt to keep them from cheating, trying to occupy all of their time so they can’t meet other people or even just keeping tabs on them at all times. In fact, almost all of that will all but guarantee that they’ll leave you. You might keep them from cheating — assuming they were ever even thinking of cheating in the first place — but you will destroy the trust, affection and respect that is critical for relationships to survive.
And let’s be real here, my dude: that’s exactly where you’re heading. The fact that you’re getting angry and giving her the silent treatment to punish her when she sees her friends is going to be exactly the reason why she’s going to leave you. There’s nothing more poisonous to a relationship than to have someone not only constantly tell you that you’re a liar, but to punish you for doing things as simple, basic an inoffensive as spending time with her friends. Friends, I might add, who have been in her life for far longer than you have. There comes a point very quickly where she’s not going to be willing to put up with this shit. You’re going to put her in the position where she needs to make a choice between her boyfriend or her platonic friends, and she’s going to choose them. Not because she’s banging one of them or all of them, not because she’s secretly in love with one of them or because they sabotaged your relationship with her. It’s going to be because you demanded that she make that choice and her friends didn’t. And trust me: she’s going to go with the people who know her well enough to not demand that she choose.
If you care for her and you want this relationship to work? You’re going to need to work on yourself. The problem isn’t the jealousy, in and of itself. The jealousy you’re feeling is a symptom, not the cause. So, for that matter, is your lack of trust in your girlfriend; again, that’s a symptom. Your problem is that you don’t believe in your own worth or your own value or the fact that people could value you for yourself. Having things to occupy your time — not being able to spend time with your friends or go out and do things — isn’t the answer either. That’s just a way of distracting yourself or keeping yourself occupied. You need to get to the root of the issue and find your own value, the internal validation that helps you feel secure in why people would care for you and want to stay in a relationship with you. If you were more secure in your own worth, you wouldn’t feel like the way to preserve your relationship is to cling to your girlfriend the way that you do. You’re demonstrating classic needy behavior in a way that’s turned toxic and corrosive, and if it’s left unchecked, it’s going to destroy every relationship you have moving forward.
And honestly, this sounds to me like something that would best be discussed with a counselor or therapist. They can help you break the patterns in your life that lead to these feelings and help you find ways to get those needs met in ways that are actually productive and useful, rather than destroying the relationships you currently have.
But the first step to any of this? It’s going to be accepting that your girlfriend cares for you and just trust her. You have to trust that she is honest with you when she says that she cares for you. You have to be willing to believe her when she tells you that there’s nothing untoward in her relationship with her friends. And here’s the thing: trusting her will give you the proof that you can trust her. Her hanging with her friends and coming back to you is proof that yes, she loves her friends but she also cares for you. As you see that your fears and anxieties are unfounded, it’ll be that much easier to shut that part of your brain up that drips poison in your ear. Just as confidence is fear + survival, trust in this case will be built out of fear + reassurance. Understanding that your anxiety is lying to you makes it that much easier to ignore it and to take refuge in what you and your partner have built together.
But if you don’t get it under control, it’s all going to come crashing down around you. And that will be your fault.
You have a choice to make here, GEM. Here’s to hoping you make the right one.
Hey Doc I know you are not actually a real doctor (thankfully I have a therapist for that) but, maybe you can shed some light on my situation.
Long story short, I got diagnosed with PTSD from childhood and Depression and I am working on overcoming my avoidant tendencies.
One major problem that seems to pop up is that I truly do WANT to meet and connect with people but, what actually ends up happening is that I throw up an emotional wall as soon as that starts to happen. Whether that be with humor or just silence, the thought process always ends with the same message “Don’t get too close”/ “Keep it superficial”.
Now I would love to shatter this outdated defense mechanism into a million pieces (especially because it could explain why I am so emotionally detached from people) but unfortunately the human pysche doesn’t work that way.
So with that being said, my thought process to overcome this was:
1. Throw myself into a ton of social events (Virtual for now due to COVID-19)
3. Congrats you can feel again!
Seeing as you run a relationship advice column maybe you can shed some light on what my next move should be?
– Removing the Armor
I understand the desire to throw yourself into things as a form of intense exposure therapy, RTA, but I don’t think it’s going to work quite the way you expect it to. The problem with just doing a whole bunch of social events is that unless you actually take deliberate steps to either take down your walls or start letting people in, you’re not going to actually get anywhere. In fact, virtual events might actually make things worse. It’s very easy to keep those walls up when the only connections you have are virtual. We’re not a species built for Zoom calls or Skype chats; we’re built for face-to-face, in person communication. When you’re at a remove from everyone, it’s very easy to see them as being less real or less significant than they actually are. That distance makes it so much easier to just put up the wall and hide behind it.
Unless you take actual steps to change things. And, importantly, they need to be the right steps.
I’ve seen lots of folks try to do the “get over this issue by flooding myself with it” thing. In fact, one of the most common examples I’ve seen has been the “do a thousand approaches to get over your approach anxiety” trick. But while seeing that being rejected or turned down won’t kill you can ease that anxiety a little… just doing a thousand approaches isn’t going to fix things unless you’re doing it deliberately and intelligently. Otherwise, you’re just trying to reach a benchmark with no real meaning. It’s kind of like the proverbial 10,000 hours to master a skill. Ignoring that the 10,000 hours number was basically made up out of whole cloth, it’s not just “do this for 10k hours and you’ll master it”, it’s putting in deliberate practice. Michael Jordan didn’t become who he was by just shooting random free throws. He drilled the basics until they were muscle memory, he practiced making shots from all over the court, he practiced and refined his technique until he could do it by pure instinct. It was a course of sustained, careful and strategic development that lead to him becoming one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
So by that same token, just going to thousands of social events isn’t going to break your armor. Instead, it’s going to take going to events with the intent of letting people in. The answer is to start finding ways to be more comfortable with taking down the wall, to addressing the fear of letting people get close to you. That’s why I don’t think going to a bunch of different events — a new one every time — will help. You’ll have no real motivation to let the wall down and no reason to trust anyone. These will all be strangers to you, a different set of strangers every time. Instead, what I think would be more productive would be to go to specific events, regularly. If you go to the same, let’s say 3 events, every week, you’ll start to get to know the regulars. You’ll be seeing the same people over and over again, which will increase your familiarity with them. They won’t be intimidating strangers, so much as “ok, that’s Tim with the Mage campaign, that’s Nina who plays jazz piano, that’s Umberto who’s obsessed with Animal Crossing”. As any marketer will tell you: familiarity and repetitive exposure breeds comfort and ultimately affection. Just as hearing the same pop song over and over again eventually makes you go “ok… that’s not so bad”, seeing the same people over and over again helps you get to know them. That knowledge and familiarity helps breed trust, even affection. And as you get to know them and trust them enough to not hurt you… you can let down your guard. Not a lot, just a little. It’s the emotional vulnerability of “just the tip”, being just a little vulnerable with someone to see how it feels. Just to see how they react.
And when they don’t respond by taking advantage of that vulnerability or that chink in your armor? Well… with a little more time, you might be willing to open up a little bit further. And then a little bit further after that.
Now obviously, I think this is a plan that should be coordinated with your therapist; as you correctly observed, Dr. NerdLove is not a real doctor. But the problem isn’t that you lack socialization, it’s that you were hurt in ways that make it hard for you to trust people. But if you give people the chance to earn your trust and prove that they’re trustworthy, I think you’ll start feeling secure enough to open up a little bit at a time. It may seem like a long, slow process at first… but those little changes, those little micro-revolutions add up over time.
Take it slow, keep those changes small… but give people the chance to show that they can be trusted. Do that, and I think in time, you’ll feel safe enough and confident enough to let your walls down and let people in.