Ask Polly: I'm In Love But My Best Friend Is Slipping Away!

Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. “There’s nothing out there but cold space.”

Dear Polly,

I’m a straight 20-year-old woman. I was in love with my best friend, Ben, for three-and-a-half years, since the end of my senior year of high school. Ben is gay, so that was problematic, but even when it was at its worst, I was self-aware enough about the whole thing to understand that it wasn’t healthy for me, and it wasn’t sustainable.

Anyway, about 6 weeks ago, I started dating someone. I’m really excited about Noah, to put it lightly. He’s my first boyfriend and I’ve fallen hard for him. He’s amazingly competent and kind and mature and smart, and he loves me the same way I love him, completely reciprocated. I know it’s early and I’m young. (Do I have to make that disclaimer, though? I always knew I wouldn’t date more than 2–3 people in my entire life, if that. I have a hard time with frivolous relationships. Attribute it to the throes of first ~luv~ or whatever, but I have long-term plans with him.)

So I’m happy and excited about Noah, and I’m not in love with Ben anymore. I still love Ben — he is, after all, one of two of my best friends — but lately, I don’t really like him very much. I know he’s acting more or less the same way that he always has, it’s just that now my blinders have been taken off, and I’m less likely to accommodate his selfishness or flakiness. Before, we texted constantly, talked all the time on the phone, and said “I love you” at the end of our calls. Our natural personalities relegated us to the tenuous but comfortable roles of Giver and Taker, but I was okay with Giving all the time because I knew how much I meant to him. He always made me feel appreciated and validated, he still loved me more than anyone else in my life did, and there was no one else I was closer to. My general anxiety and melancholy about being stuck in love with my best friend actually had nothing to do with my interactions with my best friend.

But now that I’m dating Noah, I can’t have two boyfriends. Noah consumes my emotional and intellectual and physical energy. For Ben, nothing from his side of the relationship has changed. But I’m really bothered with how we don’t talk nearly as much as we used to. I have also felt all sorts of new dramatic and unfounded negative feelings about Ben — just general impatience and disinterest and criticism, which isn’t right either, because he’s not doing anything differently. We’ve both been really stressed for other school reasons and he’s not being as attentive or supportive as he could have been, but again, that’s not any different from how he probably would’ve acted six months ago, but this time, my first inclination is to turn to Ben for support and then stew over Ben’s negligence. (Which, again, is horrible! I hate it.)

I don’t know, Polly. I guess my question is: what’s going to happen to our friendship now that there’s been this huge emotional shift on my part? I really do love him so much and want to stay close forever, so how do I get over my frustration with his behavior and flaws that I just ignored (or honestly wasn’t bothered by) for years? How do I split my emotional investments between Ben and Noah? How do I talk to Ben about this? Ben, after all, has only ever been his forthright honest self with me for our entire relationship. I feel as if I can’t reasonably ask him to change or do anything, this is all on me, so… what do I do?

Two Boyfriends

Dear TB,

When you fall in love for the first time, it’s easy to feel conflicted about your friends. The closer and more intimate you are with those friends, the more ambivalent you tend to feel.

When I fell in love my freshman year of college, all I wanted to do was spend time with my incredible new boyfriend. He raved about how great I was, bought me flowers, and made me these romantic mix tapes. (That’s what we did back then, instead of playing Super Gem Alien Hooker Assassins on our phones. We sat around for hours, starting and stopping dual cassette players, feeling like geniuses because we could record REM’s “You Are The Everything” right after Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want” and Led Zeppelin’s “Tangerine” and then draw little hearts on the tape sleeve. God forbid you dated a few mix-tape lovers in a row, though, because you’d have 15 cassettes with the same 12 songs in different orders on each one.)

That year, whenever my boyfriend and I weren’t musing over how in love we were, we were talking shit about someone who wasn’t as perfect or as special as the two of us. For some reason, I immediately couldn’t stand my high-school friends anymore and I was annoyed by the perfectly charming freshman girls in my dorm and I didn’t even call my mom very often. I only wanted to be with the one person on the face of the earth who loved me completely.

One year later, I awoke from this fairytale state and noticed that I was surrounded by attractive young men, many of whom I suspected could make a mix tape without including a single Don Henley song on it. So I dumped my really dynamite boyfriend (as Joni Mitchell would’ve put it). Sadly, though, I had no friends by then — I’d sloughed off the old ones and I didn’t make any new ones, beyond a group of my boyfriend’s buddies who hated me the second I dumped Mr. Dynamite. I could’ve learned my lesson right then, trying hard to patch things up with my old friends while attempting to make some new ones. That sounded pretty taxing, though. Mostly, I just wanted to roll a quarter off my nose into a pitcher of beer.

Five years down the road, this misguided trajectory reached its nadir: Drunky gets dumped by her live-in boyfriend in a city where she has no job, no friends and no life. And believe you me, when you’re not surrounded by hundreds of hot youngsters pouring cheap beer into their faces, being friendless takes on a much gloomier cast.

All of which is my roundabout way of saying that I totally understand how good it feels to be in love — mutual, official love, at long last! Savor the hell out of it. But do not close yourself off from your other friends right now, no matter how annoying they can sometimes be. How could Ben not pale in comparison to Noah? Ben never slept with you. He never listened or comforted you. He behaved in all of the self-centered ways that young people tend to behave with very, very close friends. Every time you emerge from true-love wonderland, of course Ben will seem relatively un-magical — not to mention self-involved and not all that supportive. But here’s the thing: People aren’t that supportive to their friends who are madly in love. They feel a little left out, and they probably figure their friends are getting more than enough support as it is.

Try to accept Ben for the regular mortal that he is. If he’s a little self-centered, well, he’s 20 years old, and you two are very close, you’re privy to all of his little indulgences and self-involved musings. He’s grown accustomed to your lopsided relationship. He hasn’t heard you complain about it yet, so how should he know to behave differently?

That’s changing now, and you should feel grateful that he’s not lashing out at you over this giant shift. As much of a Taker as he is, he’s not the one who’s complaining that you two aren’t talking or texting enough.

Instead of confronting him about his personality — which you’ve liked just fine until now — try to step back and accept that your friendship is changing, probably in ways that will allow it to survive long-term. When his behavior makes you angry, try to address him very gently soon after it happens (without making some grand statement about his flaws, which will only incite a counterattack). And don’t mention every perceived slight to Noah, for him to analyze and deconstruct. Resist the urge to become two saints against a world of sinners. Noah can be selfish, too, you just haven’t seen it yet. And Ben is much more generous than he appears.

Also, don’t spend every single second with Noah. If you’re going to stay together forever and ever, Amen, that’s all the more reason to cultivate other friendships, so you don’t endure a life of isolation and alienation from everyone in the world who is not your partner. One person, around the clock, in your face, behind closed doors, is not a life — and when you live that way for too long, you doom the relationship to becoming some kind of airless, high-stakes affair that can only end badly. Try to tolerate your ambivalence and your lack of time for everyone, try to tolerate the flaws in the old friends (as well as the flaws you’ll soon discover in your boyfriend). Give everyone some space to be who they are, and don’t blame yourself for not being the same adoring, naïve girl you once were, either.

Your world is changing fast. It’s not your fault if you get a little vertigo now and then. Your feelings will change again, too. There’s nothing wrong with that. As tough as it can be to process this weird backlash of emotions you feel toward Ben, he sounds like the kind of friend you’d really regret dropping. You don’t want to look back in ten years and wish you hadn’t been so careless. Your friendship with Ben can grow and mature if you’re patient and gently guide it in the right direction.


Dear Polly,

I am 31 years old and naturally depressive and I have a lot of anger, which I have tried to deal with over the years. I have a traumatic past (molested by father, attacked on numerous occasions, my mother died weeks after I graduated from college). I have very few close family relationships left. I don’t talk to my father (obviously), or his side of the family since doing so would mean explaining what happened. But I do have two half-brothers who I thought were like real brothers. I have a habit of running away to foreign countries out of a combined sense of adventure and wanting to get away from what’s left of my family.

I moved back to America, hung out with my half-brother, fell in love with one of his friends. Life seemed fine. I thought I fit into the townie sausage fest as far as a girl is able. Then Guy and I decided to move in together. I thought it would be fine, but it got complicated. He started showing nervousness he hadn’t shown before, I was under a lot of stress, and Guy’s roommate, one of the townie sausages, started picking fights with me and making me feel really uncomfortable in the house, to the extent I moved into Guy’s parent’s house. I did not fight back with the roommate because I felt I couldn’t — he was these people’s friend. Also, Guy didn’t really defend me. I even had a make-up dinner for him. I never asked for an apology, and I never got one. Then I went to a big family party and found out Guy’s roommate had been calling me Yoko Ono. All of this really, really got to me. I dealt with some things well and other things made me fall apart. I don’t know if it got to me more than it should’ve but no one was really sympathetic. My half-brother told me to lean on him, and listened with some patience but everyone was constantly exhorting me to understand how difficult the situation was for everyone else and no one seemed to acknowledge it was difficult for me.

Finally, Guy and I moved in, things were starting to die down, I’d made up with his roommate. Guy and I went to a bar to chill out with some friends. My half-brother started talking about his brother, and I said some stuff that looking back was probably too critical but at the time I didn’t realize it was. My half-brother yelled at me, I walked home and cried, and now he’s refusing to talk to me. He says I’m too negative but wouldn’t tell me any specifics. All I managed to glean from him was that I unloaded too much and my negativity had predated this whole situation.

I am in a full-fledged depression. It’s putting a strain on my relationship. Guy is not good at handling my emotions — he seems to think I should be handling this much better (by the way, he knows about my traumatic past, though my half-brother doesn’t). After two months of pretending not to be depressed, I broke down and had a full-on cry and confessed my suicidal (ish! ish!) thoughts. He spent the next day getting so drunk he blacked out. I’ve been drinking too much, too. Talking later, he said he thought I was stronger.

I know it may seem like my boyfriend is trapped and feels obliged to stay with me, but I have talked to him numerous times about moving out and it really depresses him. We started out totally in love. Maybe I am negative, but I don’t know what to do. I read your advice to the angry reader and you said she should ask people for feedback without fear, but I have so much fear. I haven’t even yelled at anyone, just cried a lot and over-analyzed things, and I feel like everyone hates me. I am trying and going to therapy and writing my negative thoughts down and rationally arguing against them and exercising. I stopped drinking this week. I am faking it but I am not making it. I am constantly holding back tears or grinding my teeth in anger. I feel so, so, so alone, and I want to run away to a foreign country again. Please help me.

Lost in the Midwest

Dear LITM,

No wonder you’re depressed. You’re like a cat that’s gone to live on a planet ruled by dogs. You’re trying to be a good sport, to piss on things and sniff butts and bark at the mailman, but your heart isn’t in it. It makes you feel like there’s something wrong with you. Likewise, when the dogs around you refuse to use your litter box, it feels like an indictment of your entire way of life. But maybe they just prefer to squat in the bushes.

Even though you imagine them sitting around, having these detailed discussions about what’s wrong with you (“I hate her twitchy, fluffy tail!” “Oh god, I know. And what about her mincing little steps? It’s like she can’t stand for her stupid tiny feet to touch the filthy ground!”), I don’t think that’s how they roll. And when they say, “You’re too negative,” what they’re actually saying is that you’re not following their code. You’re pointing out things they don’t want you pointing out; you’re analyzing stuff that they don’t want analyzed. Even when you say the exact same shit that they say, you sound really negative and pissy when you say it! They don’t trust you, that’s all. They don’t trust you because you’re not as concerned about the health and survival of the group as they are, because they’re not your kind and never will be. The bottom line is this: You are not one of them. You do not belong at the townie sausage fest. You should not be living on Dog Planet.

That said, you need to put this whole situation — and the Yoko Ono comment in particular — into perspective. 1) It isn’t personal (even if they make it sound personal). These guys just want their bro to hang out and drink with them more often. You could be urging him to hang with his buddies, and they’d still see you as the woman who’s controlling him behind the scenes. 2) These aren’t the Beatles we’re talking about. These are guys who high-five and puke into trash cans. 3) Yoko is actually pretty amazing and brave and impressive (as set forth in this great essay).

The Yoko comment merely indicates that you’re dealing with a bunch of guys who are willing to prioritize the group above their own personal needs, including the need to become mature adults. Furthermore, these don’t sound like people who are open to cultivating relationships outside of the group. Anyone who speaks out against a member of the group — or even dares to analyze the behavior of someone therein — is going to be blackballed immediately, particularly when that person seems a little ambivalent about the group itself.

You’re dealing with a group that an actual adult — one with a hideously abusive background, one who misses her mom like crazy, one who’s prone to drinking too much — should approach with extreme caution, if not avoid entirely.

So why? Why do you live on Dog Planet? Why in the world would you move in with Guy’s parents? WHERE OH WHERE are the women in this picture, anyway? I hope you read the first letter and response here, because all of that shit applies to you, big time. (And, Two Boyfriends? This is you in ten years. Consider yourself warned.)

So: You need to make your own cat friends, far from Dog Planet. You need to stop drinking entirely. You need to get serious about your career, and think hard about what you want to be doing over the long haul. You need to take total financial responsibility for yourself, no more excuses and no more messy situations where you’re relying on your boyfriend or your boyfriend’s parents for shelter. None of these things are easy, but you need to face them in order to feel better about your circumstances, which are more than a little compromised.

You also need to face the fact that you’re on Dog Planet because you miss your mom terribly. You developed a romantic attachment to this group because you thought they could be like a family to you. You thought they might love you unconditionally — you’re chasing that feeling, because you were robbed of it at such a young age. But even though your own half-brother is involved, this group is nothing like a family to you. Even Guy isn’t really acting like family. He doesn’t defend you or explain your actions to them. He wants you to pretend that everything is fine. He chooses Dog Planet over you. As a screenwriter friend of mine used to tell me, “Look at your story objectively and tell me what you see. It’s so obvious. If someone made a screenplay about this, the studio would say it was too on-the nose.”

I know that you and Guy were once very in love. But his being depressed about your moving out is not the same thing as him telling his friends to cut the shit and be supportive of you, particularly since he fucking knows about your dad, and he understands that you lost your mom and you’re all fucking alone in the world. Instead, he responds to your emotional breakdown with a breakdown of his own. Is Guy strong enough to be your man? I think not.

But even if he is, are you really willing to lay your inner turmoil bare, to stop saying you’re “suicidal-ish” and say “Yes, this is an all-time low, I am worried about myself, OK? I am not doing well.”? Are you willing to admit that, or are you going to keep pretending everything is okay because Guy prefers it that way? He says he thought you were stronger because you’re a woman who hangs with men, a woman who seems tough. In other words, when you met Guy, you sold him a bill of goods. You are not tough. Oh, and by the way? FUCK tough. Toughness is for weaklings. Anyone who’s truly mature and cares about the difference between thinking and feeling, between surviving and actually thriving, knows that toughness and following a code and succumbing to groupthink have no real value away from the battlefield.

If you’re not prepared to dump this person and move out, then he at least needs a wake-up call. He needs to grow up and support you, warts and all, and he needs to accept the fact that yes, you’re going to have a lot of emotional shit to sift through, thanks to the unimaginable hell you’ve navigated to this point. OF COURSE YOU’RE NEGATIVE! For fuck’s sake. If he’s unwilling to face the full picture of where you’ve been and where you are now, then his support and love are an illusion that will only make you feel lonely and sick inside. If you already know that — and I think that’s the real motive of your letter, getting me to put it in print for you to read — then move out. You’ll probably be happier within hours of finding your own place, preferably in another town.

I know that’s a lot to ask. But you can’t live like this anymore. You’re in this impossible, powerless situation that’s torturing you. Pick a city you might want to live in for a long time. Find a roommate through a referral service. Get a job. Just set it a few things in motion and things will improve dramatically.

To be clear, Guy and your half-brother are mostly just weak and immature. Dog Planet is not the fucking Death Star. I wouldn’t advise burning every bridge as you blow out of town. Once you make your own friends, do your own thing, and start taking responsibility for your future, Dog Planet might be a perfectly nice place to visit occasionally, maybe a year from now or more. You have to work on forgiving that group for its shortcomings.
The bottom line is, you want much, much more than Dog Planet has to offer. If you retire this tough persona forever, and present yourself in all of your complicated, opinionated glory, I promise you that you will be loved. You will be loved, not just by a great guy — one who listens and sympathizes and loves you for who you are and doesn’t ask you to pretend — but by some really good female friends who’ll support you through thick and thin. You have to go out and find your people, though. You must find Cat Planet. Look for women and men alike. Make friends. Befriend their friends.

It’s understandable that you’d crave unconditional love and safety, but you can’t let it allow you to remain in a situation that doesn’t feel right. Sometimes you have to accept that you’re alone in the world in order to feel less lonely. You’ll feel safe eventually, trust me. For now, be brave. Be very, very brave, and know that everything only gets better from here. Scary, yes, but not terrible like today is terrible. There’s nothing wrong with you. No one gets you because you’re on the wrong fucking planet. Get the fuck off that planet!

Fire up your engines and go. Go go go!


Previously: Ask Polly: How Do I Stop Panicking And Crying Over The Slightest Criticism?

Are you on the wrong planet? 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 Randy Pertiet.