“I’m worried that if you don’t break up with this guy you’re going to get cancer or something,” a friend once told me about a shitty man I had been embroiled with for several months. During that time, I had never missed a chance to inform my faithful pal about the latest terrible thing he had done (forgetting a date, disappearing for days on end, being generally inconsiderate, etc.).
Each time the guy apologized for his transgressions — with flowers, love notes, placing the blame on work — guess who I thought of first. Not myself. Not the guy. Not my family, who was worried about the relationship. It was my girlfriend. Because I knew I had committed a cardinal sin of friendship: “the fake-up.” It happens every time you use a friend to poison them against your significant other, confessing how you want to break up and why, and in the process, receive all the validation you could ever want. Then, to no one’s surprise, you do absolutely nothing about it.
My guilt over being a serial fake-up artist came back to haunt me this week when karma delivered exactly what I deserved: a friend doing the exact same thing to me. She wanted advice on a no-good guy she intended to dump, and all I could think about was how awkward it was the last time I had run into the two of them together. I told her I didn’t want any part of her latest fake-up, and she told me that I didn’t “get it.” But oh, I get it all too well.
Why does this happen so often? And why is it so endlessly irritating — no matter which side of the equation you’re on? To get some answers, I asked several friends how they handle the ever-dreaded fake-up.
No. 1: The only cure for the fake-up is empathy.
The wise beyond her years Gabrielle Moss can testify that the occasional fake-up is unavoidable, and it doesn’t get any better the older you get. Why does it happen? Good intentions, she says, on the part of everyone. Your friend really does think she’ll break up with the guy who has been tormenting her. And you really do want to comfort her by yes-and-ing and trashing him.
“There’s no way to not feel like a complete asshole afterward, once you realize it was just a fake-up,” she says, “which makes it even more maddening. You’ve alienated your friend when you were actually just trying to be supportive.”
In fact, at one point, she told her friend, “’I hope you know I don’t actually think your partner is a “moron with a tiny dick” — I was just trying to make you feel better in the moment.’ I think she halfway believed me, but we stayed friends.”
Still, who can be mad at friends when you’ve done the exact same thing yourself?
“This last happened to me about a year ago,” Gaby says. “I’m 34 now, and this was the first time a fake-up had happened in my 30s, so I was kind of embarrassed that the initial steps — i.e., me tearing apart a guy I barely knew — were exactly identical to the way they’d played out in my early 20s. But my friend was incredibly kind about it, and we agreed to sweep the whole thing under the rug.”
In other words: Fake-up unto others as you would have them fake-up unto you.
No. 2: You may not lose a friend by faking up, but you may lose her ability to tolerate your partner.
One of the only people I know who has never been on the giving end of a fake-up is Reem Alothman. But she has been the unofficial therapist to many pals crying relationship wolf.
“I’ll gladly give advice when asked, but whenever I try to maintain a neutral ground, loathing that friend’s significant other seems inevitable,” she says. “Of course, they end up staying together forever, and thanks to my friend painting this bad image of her partner, I have to curb my feelings of hatred.”
She gets why it happens. Validation. Someone is uncertain about which way to go in a relationship, but unwittingly, it tends to place the burden on the friend instead.
In one particularly brutal fake-up, she agreed with her friend as she trashed her partner and finally said, “You are way too good for him, and you deserve someone fun. He was kind of dull by the way. Sorry to tell you that.”
Fast-forward a week later, and her friend invited Reem over for dinner with her and the guy.
“She told me later that he’d been under stress and that’s probably why he acted out,” she said. “I tried to look happy, but it’s just too hard knowing that this guy was treating her like crap. We never spoke of it, and they’re still together.”
Which is all you can do: Pretend it never happened. But it did, and it weighs on the friendship.
No. 3: Wherever you fake-up, there you are.
I can testify that fake-ups have happened to people I know in their 50s all the way down to those in their teens, but it seems to hit people the hardest in their 20s.
“I’m 25, so basically all my friends are dating people they should dump, myself included,” says my friend Haley Sacks. “It doesn’t bother me at all when they don’t take my advice. I never take theirs! It’s just fun to complain.”
There’s also the Friendship Code, meaning that how you talk about a boyfriend to a friend is not actually real life.
“Of course I’m going to be more dramatic at brunch,” Haley says. “So it makes sense to me that a friend could talk shit and then get engaged. That’s what friends do.”
Haley also admits that she’s currently in the midst of a fake-up, as she hasn’t heard from the guy she’s been seeing. Her friends have all told her to move on, which, she says, is why she’s doing the fake-up in the first place: Having friends stick up for you feels really good.
“I actually told one of my friends I was going to end it with him, but I wanted to wait to do it in person. Her response? ‘You just want to meet up with him so you can sleep with him.’ Which is so funny and true,” Haley says. “And she accepts me for that.”