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Ask Polly: My Boyfriend’s Friends Don’t Like Me!

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Dear Polly,

I have been dating my boyfriend for about a year now, and it’s my third “serious” adult relationship. I’m a lawyer, and he’s in law school. The problem is, some of his friends treat me like I’m the current bimbo.

Most of his friends and their girlfriends/fiancées/wives are nerds in a classic sense: They like tech, gaming, comics, Reddit, etc. Nothing wrong with that! I’m a nerd, too, just of a different sort. I was picked on a lot in school, almost to the point where I didn’t want kids, because I didn’t want them to go through that or, worse, be bullies themselves. I love history and linger way too long and intensely at historical sites. I love my job so much that even my “fun” reading is about the criminal-justice system, rape culture, and bullying. As a kid, I was unabashedly myself, repeatedly drawing Conestoga wagons in art class and making a documentary about the Donner Party with Barbies. But then I lost some weight, got contacts, joined a sorority, started dressing better, and hid a lot of those quirky parts of me, because I didn’t want to get made fun of and also because I don’t think everyone deserves/is kind enough to get to know me that intimately.

I don’t share much of that past with my boyfriend’s group because I don’t think I’ve been welcomed into the group as a full-fledged “serious” girlfriend. So I kind of circle the wagons (ha) and share only the Rush Week/swaggering part of me. Polly, we went to similar colleges, so I think you know the kind of girl I present as now: I show up to parties with these people with an outfit I agonized over for days, painted nails, contoured face, styled hair, the whole exhausting works, so that these women will treat me nicely. They don’t choose their words carefully or recognize that an outsider to this somewhat incestuous group might be put off by “inside” jokes about how popular my boyfriend was with the ladies. Exes remain weirdly close friends with exes, ex-lovers serve as bridesmaids, Eskimo siblingships abound. Everyone is very “chill” and “laid back.” I ask them questions about their weddings and about their interests/jobs/okay, mostly weddings. The questions/comments I get in return are that I seem “quick” enough for my boyfriend and whether I have “nerdy” friends, too. Cue eyeroll. I smile and hold them at an arm’s distance. But my real friends, who live elsewhere, are amazing: a Ph.D. candidate, a published poet, a sports analyst, a lawyer, all sharp and funny as hell. And they’re all nerds.

My boyfriend and I frequently fight about the disconnect between his friends’ girlfriends and me. I feel like they don’t see me as anything but his current squeeze, because (a) we aren’t engaged, and (b) for personal reasons that these people think are bizarre (and for more personal reasons I don’t share), I don’t want to live together before marriage. Because I don’t feel like I’m accepted as his partner and their equal, I hold back in our relationship. He can tell, and it’s an issue for us. He’s only met my parents twice, because why bother if I’m just his flavor of the year. I’m exhausted from weekends spent with his friends, and on weekends that we aren’t going to a wedding/he has a bachelor party/going to someone’s birthday, I just want to chill with him because I know I’m “on” again next weekend.

To be fair, I know he’s serious about me. He selected literally the closest law school to me. He’s affectionate, kind, and extremely intelligent. He might have been “popular” with the ladies, but he definitely was not a fuckboy — he’s too sensitive. His “problems” are that he believes in people and believes that not everyone is out for nefarious purposes. My “problem” is that I think people are usually out to advance themselves by cutting down others. We both intellectually know that people are in the middle.

I know turning it down a notch is not the solution for me. I’ve tried that before, but then I just ratchet up the intensity to an 11. How can I approach my relationship and these consequential ones with more love and openness? How can I set aside my ego enough to do that, when I feel like some of these people don’t really respect me or my place in my boyfriend’s life?

Still Meriwether Lewis’s Secret Admirer

Dear SMLSA,

Fitting in with a partner’s friends and family is often difficult. Unfortunately, this group is also triggering your memories of being bullied as a kid. Thanks to that history, when you don’t fit in quickly, you get anxious. I know you already know that, but don’t underestimate how much of this problem hinges on your body’s physical reaction to being under this particular kind of stress. Everything gets under your skin when you’re around them. You’re sure that they see you as temporary.

And maybe you’re right. You have to remember that it’s also hard to have someone’s very reserved, self-protective girlfriend foisted on you when you’re a part of a giant friend group. I know it’s tough to take the group’s side, but maybe these so-called nerds put a high premium on “chill” because they’re also a little anxious, and they see their group as a shelter from the storm of people who don’t always accept them. An outsider could disrupt their good life. But even if they’re uneasy around you, that doesn’t mean they’re against you. The stuff they say might make you uncomfortable, but it sounds like they might be trying to joke around and build some common ground with you. Maybe they’re just trying to let you in.

I would also try to break the group into individuals and not just see them as a monolith of rejection (which is a common thing for someone with your history to do). Is X really against you? Is Y really a bad person? Does Z actually feel like an outsider herself?

Isn’t it strange that you’re facing this particular challenge, which is such a clear echo of your past? Isn’t it crazy that in order to get the love that you’ve been craving your whole life, you have to face the one thing that you’ve always avoided: perceived rejection? In other words, you’re exactly where you need to be. This crisis is going to help you to overcome your biggest El Guapo.

As a nerd I trust you’ve seen The Three Amigos, but if you haven’t, your nerd cred is incomplete and you will need to watch it immediately. In fact, let’s all watch that scene together right now:

Just as Steve Martin explains so rousingly here, your El Guapo is the one thing you fear and avoid the most. In my experience, most of us have a major El Guapo plus a few secondary El Guapos. But when you finally muster the courage to face down your El Guapo, it rides out of town never to return again!

Or it comes back a few years later. Which sucks.

In the olden days, my El Guapo used to be jealousy and possessiveness. I wanted to be everyone’s favorite — not just my boyfriend’s favorite, but the whole room’s favorite, the whole world’s favorite. This is some heavy youngest child Gemini bullshit that we won’t go into here, but the bottom line is that I kept falling into situations that invited my El Guapo back to town (my best friend starts dating my ex, that sort of thing), and I kept decrying the injustice of this particular El Guapo visiting me over and over again. Finally, I had to face my El Guapo. This shit was coming down hard because I refused to take a closer look at my weaknesses and let myself be vulnerable. I didn’t want to be vulnerable. I wanted to “win.” I wanted to be the favorite one, and goddamn it, I knew how to pull that off! I would use all of my tricks! I would analyze and argue convincingly and charm the pants off the whole universe! I would be so impressive that everyone would agree with ME and disagree with anyone who would threaten my Favorite status!

Because you’re imaginative, analytical, and also hardworking, you’ve turned your El Guapo into a big exhausting project, just like I did. You’re telling stories about injustice that are partially based on the anxious, insecure noises in your head. That doesn’t mean that some of your stories aren’t real, or that you don’t have an important role to play in fighting injustice in the real world! El Guapos also point us to our true talents. (Look at me, blathering away endlessly like I still think I should be Everyone’s Favorite!) It’s okay to lean into your El Guapo and use it.

But in addition to the stress of being around a new, “rejecting” group, you’re also anxious about whether or not your boyfriend is committed to you, and you’re anxious about your identity as a polished former nerd. You want nerd cred and wife cred and hottie cred and permanent-fixture cred and also “I don’t give a fuck about any of you” cred. You are competitive and ego-driven and you want ALL OF THE THINGS.

And really, who doesn’t? What’s weird, though, is that you aren’t showing anyone why you deserve credit for anything. You want to keep all of your secrets to yourself, as a point of pride. You want to stay removed from the group, and above them. As long as you don’t connect with them or tell them anything, they can’t judge you. Nerd cred is your ace in the hole. They think you’re just a bimbo, ha ha! Little do they know!

You want to stay in control. But that’s not how love and friendship work. You don’t get to stay in control.

So you’re facing a bunch of El Guapos at once: Rejection, Injustice, Anxiety, Longing for Control. These things don’t mean that you’ve lost your mind. They just mean that you’re a human being. USE YOUR EL GUAPOS. Believe in them! They are your magic! You would never have such a need to argue against injustice and poke little holes in bullshit ways of thinking if you didn’t feel so unfairly attacked as a kid. Your so-called damage has given you your true calling. So never undervalue these talents or these sometimes flinty dimensions of your personality. Sure, you’re tough and you’re angry in many ways, but you can use those traits to serve the greater good.

That said, you can only do it if you open your heart, face yourself, and let go of control. You have to face down your fucking El Guapos and admit that you don’t know what will happen next. You have to give up on winning. You have to be humble.

Stop trying to be impressive and just BE WHO YOU ARE. You’re just a smart, intense woman who doesn’t know how this relationship will turn out. That bothers you. You want to know if there’s a happy ending in this picture for you. That’s normal. Start down this new path by accepting that you’re in an inherently vulnerable position. It’s okay to feel that. It’s natural that it makes you anxious.

Even so, you don’t have anything to prove to anyone, including your boyfriend. If you stay in this mode of trying to prove that you’re amazing and special and you’re not going anywhere, every single person around you will feel the tension and no one will show their true selves and bad decisions will be made on all sides, thanks to that anxiety-induced chaos and confusion.

You’re managing yourself too closely. Your whole beauty routine sets you up to feel angry when you’re around this group. It’s self-defeating. You claim that you can’t turn it down a notch or alter who you are, but that’s exactly what you’re doing when you try to seem impressive. You’re hiding because you feel powerless.

I understand that vulnerability is exactly what you DON’T want. But if you really do love this man and trust that he’s right for you, you don’t have a choice. You have to conquer your El Guapos for this to work. You have to stop taking rejection personally. Because right now, rejection rules you. You are waging this war against a world of nefarious strangers, but your defensive, protected stance — closed heart, closed mind — is right in line with the forces you’re trying to battle. You can only win this war with love and forgiveness. You will only be treated with compassion once you have compassion for yourself. You are the former weirdo who learned to fit in. You are the Donner-Party-Barbie-Scene-Creating freak who plays an ultranormal in the real world. You’re a very sensitive, sharp woman who wants ALL OF THE THINGS.

But listen to me: You’re beautiful without contour make-up and you’re worthy without an interesting backstory and you’re lovable without your amazing friends who love you. You’re full even when your overactive, defensive mind tells you that the world will judge you as empty. Try to feel how full you are, even with nothing, even with empty hands and no prepared case and zero proof.

Real love blooms in the absence of proof, in the absence of ego, in the absence of reason. It blooms in spite of our “accomplishments,” not because of them. Real love is walking up to another person and saying, “Maybe I have nothing to give, maybe my hands are empty,” and the person says, “I don’t care. I want your nothing. I want your empty hands.”

Likewise, real friendship bubbles out of the ground in the middle of the desert. You have no reason to become friends, but there you are, smiling at each other, recognizing that you are meant to know each other. You can’t get there when there’s a din of anxiety and insecurity in the mix. You can only get there by allowing yourself to show up, empty handed, and say, “I might not be your kind of person. This is who I am.” And sometimes that’s the last thing anyone wants to hear. But sometimes, just by stating the plainest truth out loud, you can finally see who will love you for your vulnerable heart, and who is far too blinded by their own anxiety and ego to even try.

There will always be a bullied kid inside of you, too. That’s okay. That’s part of your magic now, like it or not. It’s time to start seeing how all of your pain can make you a vessel for something bigger than your ego. Make some room for your true calling, which is clearly to fight the forces of evil and injustice in the world while also letting more love and compassion into your heart and into your life. I’m not just projecting that onto you, trust me. It’s there in every word of your letter. Just remember that the whole world doesn’t have to be evil for you to fight evil. You don’t have to globalize. Use your magic to fight the real El Guapos out there, and let your inner El Guapos melt away by giving up the fight in the company of people who really just want your love.

Don’t try to be on top. Don’t try to be All of the Things, all of the time. Instead of asking yourself “Will he ever believe that I am enough?” or “Will they ever believe that I am enough for him?” say to yourself, “I am enough.”

You are enough. Dare to show up empty-handed but open-hearted. Dare to wait and see what comes next.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: My Boyfriend’s Friends Don’t Like Me!