Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

Ask Polly: My Best Friend Is In Love With My Sister!

Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. "Don’t make me come over there!"

Dear Polly,

Recently one of my best friends since childhood started dating my sister (whom I am also super close with). They seem pretty serious about each other and I want to be okay with it, but I'm having a really hard time with it. The main issue is I just have this primal response of UGHGHG NOOOOOOO which doesn't feel totally logical when it happens, but here's what I think it's about:

1. I talk to both of them constantly, all the time, about everything. Particularly dating, as we are all ladies in our 20s and that is pretty much our main interest. You know how when your friend starts dating someone and then they don't want to text with you, wine-drunk at 2 a.m., about "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" anymore? That's totally normal and healthy and you're happy for them, but it's kind of sad for you, and it's really sad to think of two of the people I'm closest with in the world becoming a little less close to me because their primary person is /will now be each other. Kind of related, but in the worst part of myself, I'm sure I'm jealous they've found love.

2. I think it feels almost incesty to me. It doesn't to them because when my friend and I were living at our parents' houses and hanging out with each others' families, I always went to her house. She really doesn't know my family super-well. But she is someone who I would describe as being "like a sister to me" so it is so gross that she is dating my actual sister.

3. Normally we would talk constantly about sex and love and dating, and now… we just can't.

Firstly, I have this super negative primal response, so I told them from the beginning I did not want to be involved, but phrased it more diplomatically as like, "It puts me in a weird position," which is also very true. You know how annoying people are when they first start dating someone they really like and want to gush about them and how amazing they are and they don't actually really know each other that well yet, so they fill in any blanks with more amazingness? Normally, I would call them out on their bullshit, both of them, because that's our relationship, and now I KNOW when it's bullshit because I know the person they're talking about. But saying, "Actually my sister isn't as dreamy as you think and here's why!" is obviously not cool. So I've told them to leave me out of it. They've been okay but not great about respecting my wishes on that. At the same time it sucks that there's this very important part of their lives that I'm left out of.

4. Finally, the way it went down was pretty shady. They live in different regions of the country and also a different region than I do, but had expressed interest in each other, both being cute single ladies interested in ladies. I said I didn't like it, but my sister struck up a texting relationship with my friend regardless. My friend told me she'd stop if it bothered me. I said it bothered me, she said she stopped. A few weeks later I was about to leave the country for six months so I was having a going away party. My friend happened to be in town that weekend and was coming. My sister decided to fly into town under the pretense of attending my party for me, but it was very clear this was just a ruse to run into my friend in person, as I'd just seen my sister two weeks before. They hooked up that night, I obviously knew, and then they lied about it the next day, which surprised me, because I didn't even call them out on it. I decided to ignore the whole thing and hope it would go away, I mean they live thousands of miles apart. But after I had been away for like a month, I got an email from my friend saying she hopes I have the heart to forgive her, she flew my sister out on a secret trip to visit her, and they really like each other. They didn't want to tell me until they knew they were serious because they didn't want to upset me if nothing was going to come of it anyway. Last year I had a super devastating situation where I was betrayed by a friend and as a result I know I'm hyper sensitive to that kind of thing, but I was really upset by how this all transpired. Particularly because I never forbid them from dating each other or anything, never flipped out, and when I was directly asked I said it bothered me and that's it. There was no need for them to handle this like they did.

But what's done is done and now they are together. There are a lot of potentially good things about this: I think they could make each other happy—at least I know I'll like my sister-in-law! But it just bothers me so so so so so much. How do I just be okay with this?

In The Middle, But Left Behind


Most people who read your letter are likely to think: "They found love. Get over it. You should feel happy for them."

But I get it. When I was in my twenties, my two closest friends in the world —my best friend and my exboyfriend—started sleeping together. I was fine with it at first, excited for them and surprised that my best friend (who took me out to lunch to tell me) thought it was going to be an issue for me. Then I found out that they'd kept it a secret from me for over a month, and everyone else I knew already knew about it. In fact, when we'd gone out together a few weeks before, they'd been making out whenever I left the room. So not only did I feel like a big asshole who was being openly fucked with by the two people she loved the most, but I also felt that they were each totally willing to sacrifice their friendship with me just to pump up the titillation of their affair. I was already in a pretty fragile place: My dad had died of a heart attack, out of the blue, a few months earlier. Now I felt like I had no one to turn to. No one could be trusted. The two friends I leaned on the most were careless with me.

When I tried to talk about it, my best friend wouldn't hear it. I hadn't been a good friend to her lately, so she wasn't about to take shit from me about how she let me down. When the three of us spent time together, I felt self-conscious and neither of them acted like themselves, either. Soon after that, I moved away. When I went to visit, my exboyfriend would tell me that my ex-best friend was angry at him for having lunch with me, or he'd bail on me at the last minute "to avoid trouble." If I talked to either of them on the phone, I was always worried that I'd say the wrong thing and it would set off a chain reaction. I was angry and upset, though, so I wasn't very good at biting my tongue, and everything I said to one seemed to get back to the other.

At the time, I felt like I'd been standing still on the sidewalk when an eighteen-wheeler swerved and flattened me in an instant. Later, I wrote this cartoon about the unethical, self-serving behavior of urban hipsters. I retreated into my new boyfriend, but I struggled to make new friends because I didn't trust anyone, I didn't feel open or interested in anyone new, and no one I met seemed as smart or as interesting as my exboyfriend and my ex-best friend.

Now, I look back and think: Two people were in love, that's all. They didn't necessarily handle it perfectly, but neither did I. I had no claim on either of them and couldn't really expect them to address the unexpected ways that their relationship made me feel betrayed and lonely and shut out. The three of us were extremely emotional, sensitive, confused people. At that age, none of us understood restraint or discretion. And I was full of unfocused anger and blame back then. I drank too much. I stepped on people's toes and felt hurt when they got angry about it. I was a confessional, confrontational mess, and when you're like that, people don't exactly bend over backwards to address your complaints, no matter how terrible you might feel. All three of us just wanted to be heard and loved and supported, but not one of us was that good at hearing, loving and supporting someone else. Even if you take away the relationship between my ex and my ex-best-friend, I don't know that the three of us could've stayed close to each other. We were too immature to tolerate how similar we were to each other.

Your situation is absolutely simple, on one level: Your sister and your best friend are now dating, and in love, and maybe they'll spend the rest of their lives together. What can you do but grin and bear it? It's great that they found love, that's all.

But on a deeper level, you're mourning the loss of these two intimate friendships, the likes of which may not be matched for years to come. Even if you stay very close with each of them (and you'll hopefully be close to your sister no matter what), you may never feel quite as comfortable pouring out your heart to either one of them. You can't recreate where you were before this happened, when you didn't have to wonder what your friend would tell your sister about you, or guess what they might say to each other about this new guy you met, or this friend who's getting on your nerves. When you're young, so much of a female friendship forms around feeling totally comfortable admitting your biggest mistakes and deepest fears. How can you go there with two people who once felt like yours and now belong to each other? Even if you take pains not to frame this in the traditional, limiting perspective that sexual relationships trump all others, it's still a big challenge. You trusted them completely. You told them everything. Now that's going to change.

I hate to tell a really negative story about your experience. I just want you to know that I know exactly how terrible this feels for you. You call this thing between them "gross" and "incesty," but what you're mostly feeling is loss. You have lost something. When things settle down between them, or if/when they break up, your relationship with each of them may get better. But that's not how it feels right now. Right now it feels like you've lost them both.

Maybe we all have to mourn the loss of this kind of unconditional connection at some point. My best friend and I used to talk for hours on end, without a pause. We used to write songs and perform together. We intuitively understood each other's experience—not just our intellectual experience, but our emotional experience, our romantic experience of the people, places and things around us. Breaking up was like realizing that we'd never been that special, like it was all an illusion.

But fuck that. We were so full of ideas and so open-hearted and so young, and we really loved each other. How could you look back and sum that up as naïve?

So all I can say to you is this: Forget the "whys" of it. Forget how they told you about it, how you said you were bothered and they did it anyway. File all of that under: Two People In Love. You probably laid the groundwork for them to fall in love, too, because they had that shared love of you, that shared knowledge of you, right out of the gate. Maybe you learned, with each of them, how to be a good friend, how to listen, how to entertain, how to open up and tell the truth, and you taught them these things, too. But now they're just two people in love, two people who want to be together. Just let them be together, and don't slice and dice how it happened or what your role in it was or how you were betrayed or bullshitted or discounted or sidestepped along the way.

They didn't fuck you over that badly, trust me. They told a few little lies to protect their chances at love, to prevent you from coming between them. That's not ideal for you, but it's totally understandable for them, and most people in their shoes would've done the same thing. Don't make their "bad" decisions a sticking point for you, because all you're doing is taking your pain (which is very tough to describe to an outsider), and trying to attribute a cause to it. They have not trespassed against you, OK? You're going to have to drop it. You can feel angry, but you can't blame them for that anger, because it's really not their fault.

Furthermore, in reaction to this major loss, some part of you is going to want to draw up some rules, set limits, explain what you won't stand for. I would be very careful about that. You can flag some obvious potential pitfalls of three-way communication, but I would not try to control what they talk about. They're going to tell each other everything. That's what people in love do. If they're serious about each other, which it sounds like they are, they have to be honest. If you get pissed about information getting passed between them, you could hurt them and hurt yourself and make a big mess. Sadly, you're the one who, by definition, needs to be careful and maintain control and not cause trouble. You're the outsider, like it or not. Don't lash out because you're hurting. Don't talk shit. Keep your nose clean. I mean it. This is your sister we're talking about—she will be in your life forever, and you MUST be generous. If you have to detach a tiny bit, then do it. But don't get sloppy. Don't make a mess. Take the long view and be gracious, at all costs.

Most of all, though, I want to tell you to keep your heart open to them, as open as you can possibly stand. I know it hurts, but don't close yourself up and walk away. After seventeen years of mostly being out of touch, I went to my ex-best-friend's wedding last fall, and it was like dropping back into a life I lost a long time ago. Platonic friendships between women are defined in such casual terms. But they're often much richer and more meaningful than romantic relationships. You don't really see it that way when you're young. I look back on exboyfriends and I still care about some of them, but it's all relatively blasé. Close friendships with women age differently. The feelings don't just dry up and blow away, because they're not dependent on attraction or timing, they're dependent on mutual honesty and vulnerability.

Even so, at that wedding, I looked at my ex-best-friend and thought: We may not spend much time together, before we die. Isn't that stark? We're in our forties and we live 2000 miles apart. We are a matching set, but we won't ever go back to completing each other's thoughts. How many people do you meet, who make you feel completely understood – sometimes to a fault? Not that many. There was a magic to our friendship, to our collaborations, to our most mundane conversations. It feels important to honor that magic, even though it also makes me feel a little heartbroken, to think of how I protected myself from the pain of it, and lost her in the process.

So keep your heart open. Admit that you feel terrible, and try to explain this loss without blaming them for having caused it. Let them off the hook, but don't let them go. It's not that easy to lean on someone. It's a rare thing, to be able to do it without feeling self-conscious about it. You can and you should make new friends. But don't give up on your best friend and your sister, and try not to see their love for each other as a betrayal of you. Don’t cut yourself off from two people you love. If you step back because it hurts too much, if you leave them behind, if a big wall comes between you and your sister, you'll really regret it. For decades, you'll regret it. Forgive them and keep them close. You will get caught in the middle sometimes. Life is messy. It's no one's fault. Forgive them, and don't let them go.


Do you have a problem that could send Polly spiraling into an existential crisis of her own? 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.

Amazing photograph by Rachael Voorhees.

42 Comments / Post A Comment

stuffisthings (#1,352)

Nothing makes me more sad that I am too young to have enjoyed the late 1990s than seeing a comic featuring people smoking in bars.

skyslang (#11,283)

@stuffisthings Uh, no. Smoking in bars was terrible. Awful. You have no idea what it was like to go home smelling like an ashtray, your eyes watering, your skin grey. Then wake up the next day hungover and put on that nasty-smelling coat. GROSS.

mooseketeer (#239,282)

@stuffisthings uggg smelling like smoke was the worst. I used to gag hungover in the shower when the water re-activated all the cigarette smell in my hair. Walk of shame in disgusting ass smokey clothes! nasty.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

Yeah I mostly meant the part (the smoking is just a late-90s signifier). I am, in fact, old enough to remember how gross smoking in bars was — though I still relish it when I have the chance.

@skyslang, mooseketeer : Everything you said is correct, with the addition of going to bed the next night only to realize that, thanks to your bar-smoke-saturated hair from the night before, your pillowcase still reeks of rancid cigarettes.

katycruel (#237,894)

@skyslang Move to Pittsburgh and you can still experience this.

SternMathPrincess (#243,620)

@katycruel I registered on this site just to like your comment. TOO TRUE.

Bittersweet (#765)

Friendships are fragile, even when your best friend isn't dating your sister or your other best friend. Friends move to different cities or countries, or go to grad school, or get married and start families, and suddenly the distance between you is amplified by time and you can't complete each other's thoughts anymore.

My high school best friend and I were so close, and remained so even several years after graduation. But then life events pulled us in different directions, and we grew apart. I went to her wedding 2 years ago, and even though we live outside the same city about an hour apart, we may not spend much time together before we die.

All this to say, take Polly's advice and cherish your friend (and sister) as much as possible.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

"as we are all ladies in our 20s and that is pretty much our main interest"

Time to develop some new interests. I wish Polly would ignore letters from kids whose only problem is that they are growing up. Or maybe I'm just too old for this shit.

yeahiguess (#243,548)

@Niko Bellic We also talk about cheese a lot, does that count?

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@yeahiguess I'll tell you this about cheese: eating it is much better than talking about it.

yeahiguess (#243,548)

@Niko Bellic Ok I won't talk to people anymore. Thanks!

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@yeahiguess I'd definitely advise for having a bit more realistic expectations from talking to people. Not being able to go into certain topics with certain people is really not a big problem, and not even an interesting topic in itself worth discussing.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

"They live in different regions of the country and also a different region than I do"

Then you are not "in each others lives" (and they are not really "dating"), and no amount of Skyping or Facebooking can change that. Talk is cheap. To be a friend or a sister you have to "spend time", you have to be there, you have to share experiences… it's immensely depressing to me that things like this need to be explained.

If you are all so important to each other, then what in the fuck made you move away from each other? Something more important I'm guessing: your own lives.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@Niko Bellic all these damned kids and their irrational desire to "be close to people"

Whimsy (#230,004)

@Niko Bellic
Those Damn kids having to get jobs or go to grad school very far away because there is so much competition and we are in a recession. I am 1500 miles away from one of my best friends, and we talk and text all the time… I keep up on her day to day life and it's more about the having someone to be honest and vulnerable with, I don't have anyone but my boyfriend for that in this "new" city even though I have been here for four years due to circumstance.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@Whimsy You don't have to tell me any (sob) stories on the subject: I left my entire country (an ocean and a continent away) at age 25 just so I can survive, leaving behind every single person I've ever met. I am saying this (and am right about it): a friendship (not to mention "dating") is not, and cannot be just having conversations, no matter how often you have them and no matter the range and depth of subjects. That's how you get into such silly issue like the one above. I was gonna say "oh well, big deal.. just go out with your friend (or sister), get drunk, go for a bike ride together, see a show, that's the real shit, you don't have to discuss personal issues all the time, just go and DO LIFE together, that's how a real bond feels really good". But then I read the line about living far away from each other. That's the real problem, and there is not much that can be done about it.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@Niko Bellic you are right about proximal distance being vitally important, but only for a certain caliber of relationship. You wildly underestimate the capacity for people to maintain relationships remotely. I'd say it's demonstrably true that they can, and they have since before modern telecommunication came into common usage.

I mean honestly, deeming human relationships meaningless and unimportant because their initial circumstances couldn't be maintained seems like a really awful way to live.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@Danzig! Making new friends in the new city and going out and living your life is a much better way to live than spending your time with your head buried into your phone or computer screen. I'll allow an exception for the most educated and the most literary among us who may come up with something insightful or creative enough to actually enrich their lives through exchange of words and letters and whatnot, but for the most of us, living necessarily means steeping away from the communication devices (or pens and papers if you insist).

mollytheviking (#243,532)

HOLY SHIT that is me in that photo, hugging the statue. What did you people search to find that photo? From 2007.

I registered just to share this. Mind still in pieces on the floor.

hockeymom (#143)

@mollytheviking What is the backstory?

Emby (#241,813)

@mollytheviking It's tagged in Flickr with a "third wheel" tag, and it's listed with a Creative Commons attribution that says it's allowed to be used for commercial purposes. So they probably just searched Flickr for "third wheel" and found it.

@mollytheviking : I too demand closure for this anecdote.

HereKitty (#2,713)

@mollytheviking This is my favorite Hairpin comment ever!

melis (#1,854)

This happens every now and again, and I'm always so curious how someone doesn't realize this has been crossposted from the Awl!

HereKitty (#2,713)

@melis No big mystery: Logged into both, not paying close attention.

Moff (#28)


Nabonwe (#12,500)

Meh, I disagree. Bad on the two of them for behaving badly when they got together, and bad on Polly for dismissing it. "Being in love" isn't an excuse to act selfishly, it's just another thing (like money, like power, like the last great pair of shoes at a sale) that we trample over other people to get. Their lies weren't that terrible, but they were still lies told in the service of selfishness; when they chose each other over the hurt they were inflicting on the LW, they were still choosing their own pleasure over her pain.

Is that unforgivable? Not necessarily. Would most of us have done the same thing? Depressingly, probably yes. Still, it sucks to be brought face-to-face with the hard truth that at some point, two people she loved thought, "What I'm about to do will hurt my friend – should I do it anyway?" and decided her unhappiness was a reasonable trade for what they stood to get.

Moff (#28)

@Nabonwe: I don't think there's any real dismissal going on here, just an acknowledgment that there ain't no time machines for sale on the internet. The situation does suck from the letter writer's point of view, but there is no way to unsuck it. She could dwell on how she done been wronged — but actually, she's going to do that, regardless of what Polly says, because people don't turn off or change their feelings that quickly. So what she really needs in the way of advice is someone saying, "Remember that these people who have done a sorta sucky thing — or at least one of them — will still be in your life when the suckiness has faded. AND YOU CAN TRUST ME, BECAUSE I'VE BEEN THERE."

I mean, you're free to disagree, but what advice would you have given? The letter writer's pain is real, but she has nothing to gain from lingering on it. Short-term vindication will feel very hollow in the years to come.

Anarcissie (#3,748)

Growing up is hard. And old age 'is not for sissies'. So enjoy being middle-aged while you can.

fabel (#201,544)

Polly's answer was really compassionate & I have to say I don't have as much of that. This ISN'T a best friend/ex situation, it's a sibling/friend situation. I mean, I get feeling as though you lost a little bit of the two people closest to you– but I lost my sympathy when you described telling them how it'd "bother" you if they got together. What business is it of yours, really? Why do you get to tell them that you disapprove of their potential relationship, just because they're close to you?

You say it was shady the way it all went down… but that's because you essentially did "forbid" them from seeing each other (by unnecessarily stating your feelings on the subject.)I'm sure they made some kind of attempt to abide by your indirect request that they stay away, but "kids in love" & all that. Forgive them.

skyslang (#11,283)

@fabel Cannot give you enough thumbs up for this response. I'd only add: the letter writer should be GLAD they're dating each other. Your best friend dating your sister could be awesome if you let it be awesome. That means they'll both be in your life more than if they were dating other people. Your best friend could now potentially come to holidays and family weddings! You'll see her MORE, not less. And if you get over your shit, you can hang with both of them and have twice the fun. Seriously, I see way more advantages to this situation.

mollytheviking (#243,532)

@hockeymom and @Gef the Talking Mongoose – friends and I went to Annapolis one summer while I was interning in DC. They have about two trillion statues there and all of them are juuuuuuuuuuust this side of weird.

You may notice the girl in the pic looks very unhappy, so I decided she needed a hug. Was in process of getting cozy when my real-life friend dramatically feigned jealousy. Moment captured on camera. To be splashed around the internet for the world to see. Don't judge me for wearing a hairband around my wrist.

And @Emby – Choire confirms on twitter the search was "third wheel." Others that failed to produce such an evocative result were "lonely lesbians" and "three girlfriends." Lordy lord.

churlishgreen (#49,256)

@mollytheviking Thanks so much for posting this! I have spent an inordinate amount of time in my professional life looking for images to use in (print) stories, and (seconding @HereKitty) I love this comment thread.

Snowlion (#243,535)

Wow – I'm really impressed by this advice. But maybe it's because I could so relate…as I was on the other side as the "stupid person in love". As an identical twin, I had a very strong relationship with my sister…we did absolutely everything together up until college. College was when I found my soulmate (cheesy, but true). As a result, I turned into a love-struck puppy who could only see him. Looking back, I can see how upsetting that must have been for my sister…and probably nauseating watching us play kissy-face and giggling all the time about nothing. But we couldn't help it – it was stupid love. My sister and I had a major falling out over it (thankfully, we've made amends since then)…and I think a lot of what I interpreted as her not being happy for me was her sense of loss – the loss of her childhood friend and closest confidant, the loss of late nights giggling about boys and our dreams. I think – in looking back – that we could have been a bit more sensitive to her position though and she could have been a bit more understanding of ours…but that's hindsight…and that's just growing up.

miggiesamerson (#243,538)

This situation is very common. Just enjoy what you have together.

doraleigh (#239,253)

I had this experience when one of my best friends had a baby. I knew our days of hanging out were over and she was entering a new place, where I couldn't follow. She didn't understand — she was so happy — and I see now (as a mom and just as an older person with a bit more insight) how my response was self-involved, but it just felt so painful at the time. People come in and out of our lives all the time and friendships are going to constantly evolve. That sounds trite, but I've found it's really true.

Agree that women's friendships are just so much more complex and layered and even intense than male-female romantic relationships — that's been true for me, at least. Is it wrong that I really want to know if Heather's ex-best friend married the ex-boyfriend?

mappy (#243,587)

I really needed to hear this response, as one half of an in-love couple who lost a best friend who cut us off, 7 (!) years ago. We tried to "protect our chances at love" by not telling her right away, though we are fully aware we should have told her. She's still avoiding us, but maybe there'll be a turnaround someday.

Eli Husuki@facebook (#259,043)

This advice was the most accurate peace of wisdom, that graced me unexpectedly. I couldn't put it in words any better. Thank you so much, to have made me cry while reading your advise. You've change my heart, my mind, my soul, on how I have been feeling towards the two people that I love, my sister and my best friend. You gave me hope, and you made me see a chapter of what can lie ahead in my future. I can't tell you how much this change's everything, thank you Polly.


Eli Husuki@facebook (#259,043)


For such clarity and peace.

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