Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. "Because someone out there is better than you, at pretty much everything."
I am a few years out of college and living with a close friend. We get along great, both as roommates and as friends. I truly care about her as a person and believe that we will be lifelong friends. About one month into our 18-month lease, she began dating a man twice our age. Problems quickly became apparent—he is controlling and anxious about her whereabouts and activities. He routinely accuses her of lying about very inane things and punishes her for not picking up her phone when he calls. They break up and get back together regularly. He has shown up in the middle of the night drunk during fights they have. It has gotten to the point where she hardly spends any time with friends or peers—just with him. He doesn't seem to have many friends either and also does not have steady employment. They are enveloped in the cocoon of drama that is their relationship.
This whole situation is compounded by the fact that this guy sleeps at our apartment most nights out of the week (despite the fact that he is in his late 40s and has his own place—no roommates). Out of the eight months they have been dating and he has been spending time at our place, I have seen him exactly twice and talked to him exactly once. He actively avoids me, which is somewhat appreciated but also incredibly bizarre and disconcerting. I have had very candid conversations with my roommate about my discomfort around the situation and she is very receptive to talking about it but we haven't been able to come to a good solution. I don't want to ban him from the apartment because she should be able to live out her personal life as she chooses in her home but I also don't really want him around. He is unpredictable and it's unclear to me whether his emotional instability could eventually be expressed in physical violence (I have no reason to believe he has violent tendencies but all I know about him points to the fact that he is very immature and has a lot of serious issues). My question is this: what responsibility do I bear to my roommate to support her through this (possibly emotionally abusive but definitely unhealthy) relationship? And what responsibility do I have to myself in terms of my own personal safety and comfort?
Love the Roommate, Not the Boyfriend
You know, I'm not always against old people dating young people. If everyone's happy and turned on and it feels fresh and crazy and fun, who cares? Maybe it's worth it for an old guy, to bump into his sexy girlfriend's grumpy roommate on the way to the bathroom. Maybe it's worth it for a young girl, to pluck stray hairs from her disgusting old boyfriend's ears. But insecure, controlling old guys with very few friends who don't have steady jobs? Give me a break. That reminds me of a joke.
Q: What's the last thing you want to hear when you're blowing Willie Nelson?
A: "Oh, I'm not Willie Nelson."
This guy might be old and weird, but he's no Willie Nelson, that's for sure. Tell your roommate that if she wants to sleep with insecure, controlling old guys with very few friends, she should consider, I don't know, one of the billionaire bachelors on this Forbes list? I'll bet they're just as douchey and disgusting as her current boyfriend, but with better health plans and retirement benefits. And instead of crashing at her apartment every night like assholes, they'll be off crashing German race cars while she sips fine wine and samples from cured meat and aged cheese platters in a drafty castle somewhere. As long as you're sampling some old meat, you might as well be sampling some old meat, if you know what I'm saying.
I do think you have to have a tough conversation with her. Objectively speaking, old unemployed controlling boyfriends who show up drunk in the middle of the night are a very, very bad idea. Even if he's not abusive or dangerous or an addict of some kind, the fact that he's there all the time and he's not supportive of her social life is just terrible for her at this age. Is she really going to hide in some stanky closet with this old dude while these happy, golden years pass her by?
I'd try to have a gentle conversation with her, making it clear that you love her no matter what and you don't want to say anything to mess up your friendship. But I would also tell her that guys who are semi-employed and insecure past 40 don't tend to change their stripes or magically turn into dream lovers (or dream spouses) thereafter. That's harsh but she needs to hear it. I would also request that he not spend the night all the time. They can stay at his place more often. Maybe it's less convenient or less nice. Too bad. The thing is, he's staying over constantly because he doesn't want to let her out of his sight, and she's allowing it because the fact that he's a big mess is probably more palpable at his place. Either way, you shouldn't have to see him all week long, even if he is hiding his face behind her bedroom door.
Just keep in mind that it's pretty easy to get overly invested in an old dude who's overly invested in you, particularly when you're young and lonely and a little bit cowed by the world and you're tired of chasing around indifferent pretty boys who won't be interested in getting serious for at least another decade. She probably thinks she's found her soulmate, just because he's so adamant about her. You could try to tease that out, and address her fears of being alone. You could remind her that there are younger, faster, better, less repellent fish in the sea.
Either way, she'll probably dump the guy soonish and she'll lament that no one told her what a fool she was. That said, though, if you tell her she's a fool right now, she's likely to dump you instead. So tread lightly, but make yourself heard.
I'm part of what was once a lovely and supportive group of friends.
Lately this new woman has been hanging around. She's an extremely charming Southern belle and a hyperenthusiastic hostess—constantly inviting all of us to parties, and planning all sorts of wild outings. It's been fun, and there's a lot to like about her!
Unfortunately, she's also constantly spreading gossip and high-school style girl-on-girl crime (we're all in our late 20s and early 30s), and dishing out very sly, Southern-style "bless your heart" shade. All of the women in our circle have seen this kind of thing a million times before, and keep a safe distance.
Quite a few of the guys continue to be enamored with her. It's understandable, since she rubs their shoulders, pours them champagne, and calls them brilliant. They see her as a little ray of sunshine, and they aren't really exposed to the ugly side she shows other women—she would never say any of this nasty stuff to a man. In the meantime, though, she's casually (and rather openly) manipulating them, too—two best friends have stopped speaking to each other over drama she's manufactured out of thin air, and several other relationships have gotten pretty tense and awkward due to her direct influence.
I'd happily give up her champagne brunches and day trips to get back the days when all our friends got along. I'm tempted to sit the guys down and tell them the ugly truth, but I'm worried it'd come across as jealousy or over-reaction. What should I do? I love all these people too much to cut my losses and move on. Bring it up? Wait it out? I'm sure she'll eventually drift on to a new circle, just like she breezed into this one—I'm just worried what destruction she'll leave in her wake.
Bless My Heart
Dear Bless My Heart,
So, a magnolia-scented Bad News Jane has infiltrated the perimeter of the Super Friends compound, unleashing a poisonous web of champagne-brunch flanking maneuvers and the blowing of strategic sunshine up vulnerable male asses. Lady Super Friends no like, and are prepared to launch Operation Buttercup Down!
I'd like to be right there with you, sliding on my black leather aviator gloves and cueing up "Kill The Southern Belle" on the helicopter speakers. It'll be just like Apocalypse Now but with less flies circling and more bossy ladies in tall boots pointing their leather crops at the map and saying, "We must incinerate her. Quiche after quiche. Danish after Danish."
Still, something is holding me back. I guess I'm hungry for more concrete details about what this Belle has done: how she insulted Hannah's shoes, undermined Clara's sense of self, or implied that Beth had issues with Roxie. Having grown up in the South, I do think that Southern ladies get kind of a bad rap when they venture outside their natural habitat. Many people assume that behind that sugary Belle exterior, all you'll find is manipulation and evil master plans. But in my experience, the second you feed those Belles a little beer (or, more commonly, peach-flavored wine coolers), and they start spilling over with love and confessions and looming doubts—especially when encountered in the women's bathroom. It's like they waited their whole lives to tell you something personal and then hug you and maybe cry a little and then say, "Y'all, my mascara is just A MESS!" They have a lot to say, and they have a (pretty lovable) tendency to say too much, insert foot in mouth, and regret it later.
I think you have to remove your distaste for this Belle's methods from any rational assessment of her concrete indiscretions and trespasses. Can we blame her for using her feminine wiles, drawing on natural resources in a manner that, like it or not, is perfectly in step with the dominant paradigm? Yes, we can, and we will, but it's not really fair. My guess is that your Belle is mostly just a loud-mouthed show-off. I doubt she's trying to fuck with people. What would be the point? She's just clumsy and ego-driven and has no filter and doesn't quite understand the rules or the discretion of the group. She prefers friendships with men to friendships with women for obvious reasons—she knows how to get men to like her (backrubs, teasing, champagne), but she doesn't understand women, how to avoid stepping on their toes, how to avoid saying the wrong thing and insulting people. She's enthusiastic, and probably even well meaning (although a little selfish) but she's just not very refined, or restrained, or considerate.
I wouldn't make a big move to eject this Belle—those kinds of witch hunts don't sit well with me, particularly when they don't involve talking directly to the woman in question and finding out how she feels and whether or not she's noticed the damage she's doing. You could try to talk to her, but if you don't handle it delicately you could risk a huge backlash, because it's likely that this has happened to her before, and she may feel misunderstood or traumatized, particularly if you two aren't really friends.
Besides, if she found it so easy to splinter friendships (by accident, I'm guessing), they were probably pretty fragile to begin with. Big groups of friends that form in your 20s are always less stable than they appear. This Belle may be the first of many destabilizing forces, but she won't be the last. The fact that you haven't talked to the guys about her yet says something about how well you know each of them and how comfortable you are with telling them your feelings. I have no idea about your particular situation, but in my experience, most friend-groups that have yet to weather the divisive elements of your mid-30s—long-term relationships, kids, divorce, career successes and failures—are only as solid as the latest champagne brunch invitation. The groups that survive to middle-age do so because there are lots of strong friendships within the group, friendships that are going to stay strong regardless of the ability of a few enthusiastic members to create big, exciting outings together.
Fighting against an alien menace for the sake of your group sounds kind of romantic and valiant, until you stop and ask yourself why you should care so much what she does. As you get older, there are going to be splintering factions and subgroups that hang out separately, and friends that remain close while others grow apart. You have to accept that new people will come into the group and fuck with it, whether it's this woman or someone's brand new jackass husband or a million others like them. You have to take any Bad News Jane allergic reaction out of the equation and then ask yourself what you hope to accomplish by speaking out against her. Is she really the problem, or does she just accentuate problems that already exist? Are you even in a position to make that call about other people's friendships? Can you singlehandedly keep the group together? Is it fair to blame all of these fractures on one infiltrator?
If I were you, I would think about which of these friendships you care about, and make a commitment to keeping those intact no matter who's throwing the parties and who's not invited. This Belle may look like a one-woman floral-scented wrecking ball right now, but it may just be that the party's over.
Previously: Ask Polly: Should I Divorce My Perfectly Good Husband?
Where are all the faster, better, less repellent fish in this sea? Write to Polly and find out!
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by Rubber Slippers In Italy.