Ask Polly: My Friend Says I’m Always Competing With Her for Men!

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Dear Polly,

I am feeling plagued by a friend who thinks I am always competing with her for guys. I am not. It’s been going on for years. To be clear, she is a close friend (though not a best friend) — we have been on many trips, are very socially lively when we’re out, and also do calm friend things together like Netflix and chill. She is funny, witty, successful, charming in friend groups, the works. I have healthy self-esteem and think similar things about myself, and we compliment each other on these things, which is healthy. But somehow she always thinks that guys are a sore spot. In our nine-year friendship, there are only two examples I know of:

Five years ago, she attached herself at the hip to a guy all night. She ended up hooking up with him and talking to him for months. That night, I made moves with a different guy — one who I always thought was attractive, and I had said so before. She had briefly, and only briefly, agreed. After that night, she became angry and saw my actions as competing with her for him. I explained I didn’t think I had done anything wrong since she was clearly (and happily) invested in someone else. She shared that she felt we had been in perpetual competition, which was news to me, as nothing of the sort had ever come before. We kind of just agreed to disagree, and I made it clear that I did not feel we were competing.

The second example was recent. We spotted the same guy, and she suggested that we both talk to his group. I went over to wing-woman, and chatted only with his friends. Most of his friends left and then we were four: me, my Friend, Guy, and Slob (his drunk friend). We were all chatting amicably— it was clear Friend was into Guy. I knew and respected that, and stayed to handle Slob (who mostly loudly drunk-talk-spat in my ear). Yes, sometimes the four of us talked, which included Guy asking me some questions. Friend went to the bathroom, then Slob left, and then there were two.

Friend’s bathroom break was taking a while (I thought there was a line) and I suspected Guy would leave if I left him alone. Thinking that Friend would be bummed about that, I stayed and chatted for what I thought would be a few minutes. She never came back and then I saw that she had earlier texted me “omg this [Guy] sucks.” He and I chatted a bit more — fair, since she left and was not interested, no? — and he was charming. I didn’t see whatever she thought made him suck. We exchanged numbers, he left. When I found her, I learned that post-bathroom, she had just gone across the bar with other friends to glare at me talking to Guy. Talking with her, she saw me get a text from a random number and (correctly) presumed it was him, and went ballistic that I had “competed” for him. She went on again (déjà vu) about how I am always stealing her guys (even while agreeing that she didn’t want him anyway!). I explained myself and asked why it mattered if she wasn’t into him anyway, but there was no calming her.

I swear these are the only two examples, and you can judge them on whether they are valid. She claims I am the only friend who always competes with her this way. She’s had plenty of other dates, flirtations, boyfriends, and I go for guys totally separate from her friend group. Firsthand-observing friends tell me I haven’t done anything wrong. She persists feeling this way even when she is sober. When I tell calmly her I don’t understand, or don’t understand her aggressive reactions, she says she has more maturity than to fight over guys, and that I am causing all this. Really, isn’t the opposite true?

Recently, she’s also said, “I’ve been happy to invite you out with my friends until now,” as if some of them are not also my friends. The implication is that since I “always” do this, she could just cut me out — a threat I resent. I could just tell her, “Fine, I’ll never talk to this guy again,” but why should I have to? Where is the line? Am I not allowed to talk to any guy she’s ever once had an inkling to find attractive, whether or not she’s currently available or is even interested?

We talked through it, but ended up no closer to understanding each other. Is it fair for her to control my interactions this way? Is this even a control or power thing? An insecurity thing? Is there another way I can examine my own behavior? I know friendships are messy, and this isn’t one that I’d like to lose. We’ve been great social friends for the greater part of nine years, and primarily, I truly want to keep her as a friend. Secondarily, that rift would be uncomfortable for both of our social lives. If you have any help, Polly, I’d love to hear it.

Sincerely,

Not Competing

Dear Not Competing,

At first glance, this looks like the sort of friendship that won’t last no matter what you do. You’re describing someone who (1) creates drama (glaring at you across the bar instead of talking to you directly), (2) doesn’t seem open to hearing about your perspective, (3) treats your explanation as an insulting attempt to spin the situation in your favor when quite clearly her experience is the objective truth, and (4) threatens to eject you from “her” group over what amounts to a small misunderstanding. Somehow, because she was briefly interested in this guy and then decided he was bad, you’re not supposed to have further contact with him. But why shouldn’t you trade numbers with a guy she’s not interested in?

When you dig a little deeper here, the issue for her obviously isn’t that you tried to help her win the guy and then, since she wasn’t into him, cleaned up her leftovers. The issue is that he liked you better from the start, enough to redirect the conversation to you and ask you questions. He was never into her, and she didn’t like that. And maybe you didn’t mind so much that he was giving you some attention. You’re only human! But when she left, that was a test. You were supposed to leave, too. “He sucks!” she texted. That was your sign that it was time for you to reject him. You stayed and got his number instead. This confirmed her worst fears about you.

This test of hers is, of course, totally passive aggressive and bizarre. She could’ve just said to you, “Hey, come with me for a second,” then said, “They’re annoying, let’s go over here instead.” Disappearing and then texting you and then becoming angry was pretty extreme. And once she started feeling angry, she could’ve come back to the table and said, “I need to talk.” Or “This situation is bumming me out.” But that would require being vulnerable and admitting that she was the one feeling competitive, feeling rejected, feeling upstaged. She doesn’t sound like someone who’s comfortable saying such vulnerable things. So she tested you and then stirred up drama when you didn’t pass her test. And in the end, she tried to wield her only power over you: “These are MY friends and I’ll cut you off if you keep this up.”

Think about that part for a second, though. You describe her as “funny, witty, successful, charming in friend groups, the works.” You describe the two of you as “great social friends” but not “best friends.” You refer to her as a “social friend” several times, suggesting that she requires a qualifier to distinguish her from regular friends. When you explain why you don’t want to end the friendship, you don’t say, “She’s an amazing person who’s always been there for me, through thick and thin.” You say, “Primarily, I want to keep her as a friend.” And: “Secondarily, that rift would be uncomfortable for both of our social lives.”

In other words, you would never want anyone to believe that the main reason to keep this woman around is her social value to you, yet all we know about her from your letter is that she’s charismatic, attractive, successful, and has lots of friends. There’s not a single sentence in your letter that describes something you really love or even like about her. Reading your statement that “Primarily, I want to keep her as a friend,” is like reading a Yelp review that says, “The broiled red snapper provided further nutrition.”

Don’t underestimate how telling that is. Because if you pressed the person who’d written that sentence on Yelp to tell you whether the fish was cooked or seasoned well, that person might say something like, “Food, once metabolized, gives the body energy!” I’ll bet in your conversations with your friend, you sound just like that. Your interest in keeping the friendship alive is dispassionate. “Our friendship has proved to be mutually beneficial over the course of nearly a decade!” you say to her, then balk when she seems hurt and goes for the jugular.

Just as this situation is less about the audacity of your having traded numbers with a guy and more about how bad she felt when she realized the guy was more into you and you weren’t discouraging that interest, the talks you’ve had since are probably less about you “undoing” what you did and more about whether you seem to care about her as a friend. Meanwhile, you both know what’s really on the table. She’s essentially saying, “You don’t have my back when I’m feeling rejected and vulnerable,” and you’re essentially saying, “I shouldn’t be asked to cater to your needs if you’re not going to ask directly for what you want or admit openly what those needs are.”

But is that what you’re really saying? Or are you saying, “As long as everyone agrees that I haven’t broken any widely agreed-upon standards of friendship, I’m not going to apologize or pledge to behave differently.” But that’s not how friendships work. Even if you’re blameless, your feelings and her feelings still need to be addressed if you want to trust each other in the future.

Now try this on for size. Imagine your friend tells you, “I felt rejected by that dude. He sucks but it still hurt. I didn’t want you to move in for the kill because that makes me feel even more vulnerable and rejected. I know you had every right to do whatever you wanted, but because these drinking-and-flirting situations are already competitive and vulnerability-inducing, I would feel more comfortable if I knew you had my back no matter what.” You might not be quite so clinical in your response. Even if you wanted to argue that she should put on her Big Girl Pants and deal because there aren’t that many cute fish in the sea and damn it, you don’t want to pass one up just because she’s feeling needy, at you’d be speaking honestly.

Maybe you have other friends who would tell you the whole, vulnerable truth. Maybe she has other friends like that, too. But you two aren’t vulnerable with each other, which is maybe why you’re just “social friends.” The question is: Do you like this person at all?

You don’t really say. And you don’t talk about how it felt when, instead of telling you the truth, she made the whole problem about what you did wrong, what you ALWAYS do wrong, and what you will ALWAYS CONTINUE to fuck up because you yourself are competitive and deeply fucked up. That’s either the response of someone who’s pretty insecure and dysfunctional, or it’s the response of someone who thinks you’re not invested enough and you don’t even like her enough to be a safe person to admit her feelings to. Either way, it’s a little weird that you’re strategizing what to do next instead of stopping to say: “Jesus, this is obnoxious and it makes me feel really hurt. Do I deserve to be treated this way?”

Based on her reaction AND your reaction to it, I’m going to guess that you both sidestep talk of feelings as much as possible. Maybe that’s part of the reason why you’re both so successful and popular and charming. This is your winning formula. And you’ve made it very clear that you’re both winners. If your friend told you she felt weird and rejected by this guy and it hurt her feelings, would you talk it over with her and feel closer to her? Or would some part of you think, “This girl is a bigger loser than I thought she was”?

I’m not trying to be a jerk. I know it’s genuinely tough to deal with situations like this one. I’m just working with what you’ve told me. You’re friends with this woman partially due to her social power, and she’s threatening to take away the exact thing that you value the most. So even if you two aren’t addressing the confusing mix of emotions that lies just beneath the surface of this talk of “competing over guys,” you are, actually, bartering over the very things that matter the most to each of you. You want her as your “social friend,” and she knows it. Maybe some small part of her would like you two to be real friends, but she knows that you aren’t onboard for that. We already know that this woman is very sensitive to rejection. Maybe your continuing rejection of her is really what’s feeding this overarching narrative about how you steal the guys right out of her clutches. The real story is that she doesn’t trust you, doesn’t feel loved by you, doesn’t feel safe with you. And the twisted thing is that, because she’s very sensitive to rejection, she’s drawn to your continued rejection. She can’t let it go. She’s trying to right some wrong. She’s trying to “win” something that she keeps losing. She wants you as a friend precisely because you don’t like her that much.

Sticking with a friendship that’s built on shaky ground can feel like marrying your high-school sweetheart when you’re both a little bit immature. The confusion and immaturity stays locked into the relationship, particularly if you both struggle to express your feelings and resort to hurling accusations instead. Eventually, you get tired of hearing the same old inaccurate stories about what you “always” do. The friendship never works until you’re willing to be vulnerable with each other. If that never happens, it’s doomed to drag on in a half-assed way until you both get sick of the accumulated bullshit.

Or you keep the whole thing at arm’s length and pretend, for the sake of your shared social circle.

I’m not a fan of pretending, but that wasn’t always the case. I used to believe in keeping old friendships alive, no matter what. But there’s a point where you have to ask yourself, “How does it feel to bite my tongue and put my needs on hold, over and over again?” and also: “Do I even like this person?”

You can dislike a friend occasionally but still know that you love her overall. In your case, though, I’m not feeling the love. I don’t think you should keep this friendship alive if you’re both unwilling to talk about the feelings guiding your actions. Sure, you can keep her at arm’s length, assure her that everything is fine between you, and thereby keep your social circle intact. Since she doesn’t want to confess that she’s hurt and you don’t sound interested in going there, faking it is probably your only way forward as friends.

But you still need to ask yourself what you want from your friendships. Playing wing-woman to a friend who doesn’t trust you doesn’t sound like the best way to spend a Saturday night. Likewise, watching movies alone with a woman who’s sure to find fault with you again (and who’s hinted that she’s willing to blow up your mutual friendships to punish you) seems unwise to me. This friendship is a dirty bomb that could blow at any second.

Moving forward, I would avoid friendships that feel like two personal brands aligning to form the best possible marketing strategy. That can work for a while, but if it worked long term, Taylor Swift would need three touring vans to accommodate her posse. Besides, this friend needs more from you. She’s not brave enough to ask you for more, so she requires your allegiance to her flag instead. And don’t you need more than this? Do you imagine that only a man is worthy of your intimacy and trust? Do you call your female friends when you feel sad or weak? Or do you feel like you have to be “on” all the time with guys, with female friends, and even with family members, or they’ll reject you? When you found out your friend was glaring at you from across the bar, did that hurt, or were you just glad you had more evidence to use against her? Do you ever stand up for your feelings, even when they seem a little silly or irrational?

Having fun friends isn’t a crime. Some stubborn part of me wants to be tossing back shots and bellowing insults across a crowded room right now. (My inner douche bro needs warm hugs, too!) But if, at the end of the day, you’re afraid to lean on anyone and you believe that you have to be charming and impressive in order to be loved, then that’s a problem.

You’re not competitive, but you are tough. You seem to think that the whole world should be ruled by logic. But the world is much more fluid and dynamic and alive than that. We don’t eat just to gain nutrition, and we don’t make friends just to have a worthy wing-woman. There is magic here, but you have to reach for it. Sometimes you have to let go of “winning” an argument and show people what’s in your heart instead. Fear is what keeps you wed to logic, attached to your irreproachability, suspended on the surface of things. Dip down under the water instead.

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 Friend Says We’re Always Competing for Men!