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I’m becoming increasingly frustrated with a pair of married friends of mine and don’t know what to do about it. I’ve been close friends with “Sarah” and “Mike” since college. I was friends with both of them before they were a couple, and I was a bridesmaid in their wedding.
Recently, I accepted a job and moved to the city they’ve lived in since we all graduated. Since I moved and subsequently started seeing a lot more of them, things about Mike’s personality that we’ve always been aware of have started to bother me a lot more and I’m worried about it affecting my relationship with both of them.
Mike is very kind, well-intentioned, generous, and is deeply supportive of Sarah’s professional aspirations. He is also a quintessential mama’s boy who I strongly suspect never did a load of laundry or prepared a meal for himself until he left home for college (his mother is a sweet woman who wants the best for her children, which sometimes causes her to overreach to a degree that is no longer appropriate or necessary now that they are grown). He works full time in tech, while Sarah is in a competitive STEM graduate program. Her graduate stipend pays their rent, and all the rest of their expenses are covered by his income. Despite also working full-time hours, Sarah does the lion’s share of the domestic tasks in their apartment. He will do whatever is asked of him without complaint, but he does not take initiative to cook or clean or do anything else and claims ignorance of how to do the simplest tasks and how frequently they need to be done. He is a man who programs computers for a living but claims he is unable to follow an easy recipe. When Sarah left town for several weeks for a conference, his plan so that she’d come home to a clean apartment was to hire a cleaning lady rather than to just fucking clean the apartment himself. Upon her return, “they” (read: she) had to redo the loads of laundry he’d done in her absence because he forgot to fold everything and it all got too wrinkled.
Additionally, he seems to have a mild … not persecution complex, exactly, but it seems like he thinks it’s harder for him than for everyone else to do the things that are just necessary in order to be a functioning adult human. He bitches about having gained weight but complains that he doesn’t like working out, as if everybody else absolutely loves it and makes no serious pains to keep fit. He’s been very frustrated at work but has stayed in his job because moving to a larger company would require him to (a) work in an office with other people instead of working from home, and (b) keep more typical 9-to-5 working hours when his preference is to stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning and wake up close to noon. He seems to believe that these are truly unreasonable burdens.
He and Sarah have discussed this at length and on numerous occasions, and he always does the same song and dance — he feels guilty, he wants to contribute equally, but he just can’t find the time or forgets due to his work obligations, as if she doesn’t also perform difficult work full time. He’ll “get better” and contribute more to household tasks for a week or so and then slip back into his same patterns and habits.
None of this is a great shock based on how we knew him to be in college and before they got married (they’ve lived together in the same apartment since before they were engaged), but it’s irking me more and more now that I live in the same city as them and see them much more often. I’m also sad to say that I feel like it’s driving a wedge between me and Sarah because I have a limit to how much I can listen to her complain about this shit and am scared I’ll unload a lot of vitriol on her (I already did it once and apologized profusely — she is an angel and took it in stride, adding that she didn’t disagree with anything I’d said). As I’m typing this, they’re running late for our 11 a.m. brunch date because he was struggling to get out of bed.
This situation is troubling to me for reasons that I assume are apparent. He seems to believe that being a responsible adult and equal partner starts and stops with being able to support the household financially. Though he doesn’t take advantage of her on purpose and claims to be a feminist, he is also extremely comfortable letting his wife cook his meals and clean his bathroom and arrange his fucking dental appointments because he can’t be bothered to do any of those things himself. There are also elements of class dynamics here (the thing about the cleaning lady especially rankles).
But these are my dear friends. I love them and want to continue our friendship. I feel bad for having such strong and critical opinions about someone whom I know to be a extremely kind, trustworthy, generous, and hospitable.
What should I do?
Frustrated and Guilty
Dear Frustrated and Guilty,
Here’s what you should do: Nothing.
Your friend Mike is just doing what he does. His wife, Sarah, is doing what she does. There is nothing you can do to fix their marriage. Unless one of them is being abused, the dynamics of their marriage is none of your business. The division of labor in their marriage is none of your business. His preference for staying up until 2 and sleeping until noon is none of your business. Even if they’re both making it your business, it’s still none of your business. You have to stay out of it.
You’re frustrated because you feel like you have no control over the situation. But you will never have any control over it. Even if you sat them both down and spoke to them very directly about how you think Mike’s choices are selfish and are making them both miserable, which I don’t recommend, would that change anything? No. These two people, like any two married people, are going to decide together what’s best for them. The most likely outcome here is that they both keep living exactly the way they’re living now for the next decade, then maybe they have kids or Sarah gets a stressful job or some other factor changes and suddenly they have to make some major adjustments to keep their marriage together. Or, nothing changes at all and yet, somehow, they stay together and seem happy. Or nothing changes and they seem mildly miserable but they stay together anyway. Or they break up at some point. But nothing you do now or later will affect this outcome in any way.
No matter what happens, you’ll have to keep your mouth shut about it. Because you’re not married to Mike. His lifestyle choices are not your problem. Even if Sarah calls you every day and asks, “What should I do?” all you can do is offer your opinion, then get off the phone and think about something else. If they’re late every time you try to have brunch with them, you should ask, “What time can you realistically meet and make it on time?” Or make it clear that you’re not waiting more than 15 minutes before you leave because it irritates you to wait longer than that to eat on a weekend. (Do you ever speak up for yourself and ask for what you want from them? Or is it like you and Sarah are BOTH married to Mike?)
Instead of asking what you can do to change their marriage, I think you should ask yourself why their marriage has become a problem for you.
My two siblings are both married. I would find it taxing to be married to either one of my siblings. I would also find it taxing to be married to either one of their spouses. My siblings and their spouses would really dislike being married to me. They wouldn’t want to be married to my husband, either. They don’t always love our choices. We know this because we go to the beach together each summer, and everyone rubs everyone else the wrong way. We disapprove of each other’s parenting. We don’t understand each other’s ways of communicating. We find each other’s marital dynamics puzzling. We keep our mouths shut, but it’s obvious. My mother and her sisters have to go out to dinner alone one night just to talk shit about all of us.
But mostly? We all bite our tongues as much as we can. I used to think of this as “eating big platters of shit” (see also: this column). But I’ve turned a corner there. I don’t think of it as eating shit anymore. These days, I think of all of us as being very judgmental and also very ashamed of ourselves. We are judgmental BECAUSE we’re swimming in shame. But also, it’s just hard to be close to your family. Even when we’re all behaving perfectly, three or four days into our vacation, I get a little bit depressed. Everything feels sad and HEAVY. I am a little bit flinty and impatient. I am a little disgusted by myself and everyone else, and I’m furious at myself for that.
This is the sensation that comes with intimacy, familiarity, a long history, or all of the above. There is some contempt in the mix, just from extended contact. There’s a sneaking suspicion that you’re all fucked up by association. Or there’s this feeling like, “I’m fine, but these people are nuts and I need to FIX THEM before they ruin themselves and each other.”
All of these feelings are so common. They’re feelings that pervade family dynamics but are rarely discussed by family members. They’re feelings that pervade very old friendships but are rarely discussed by old friends. Every marriage has streaks of this kind of allergic emotional reaction eventually. You are close and you depend on each other and you’re so grateful for each other, but you also look at the other person occasionally and think ARE YOU FUCKING SERIOUS?
Mike and Sarah are like family to you. You’ve known them for so long, and you’re friends with both of them. That’s a tough thing, when you’re really close to both sides of a couple. And it sounds like the dynamics of your friendship are a little lopsided, and that’s causing problems.
You might need to ask both Mike and Sarah for what you want from your friendships with them. If you want to hang out with Sarah alone, ask for that. You might also want to say to her, “Look, I agree that Mike is a problem. You’ve got to see a couple’s therapist, though, because talking about it so much is starting to make me a little frustrated, since I have no power to change your marriage and I feel like we cover the same ground over and over again.” There’s nothing wrong with saying that.
It’s normal to set limits and boundaries with friends. I don’t think I ever knew that, honestly, until recently. I thought I was being a GREAT friend by listening to the exact same story 50 times in a row for three hours at a time. That’s not necessarily how a great friend behaves. A great friend is not a therapist. A great friend tells you what she needs. She does her best to listen, but she also sets limits and says things like, “I have to get off the phone in five minutes” and then really does get off the phone five minutes later. A great friend tells you what’s going on with her because she recognizes that two people in a friendship should both share and be vulnerable with each other or the friendship probably won’t survive.
I went through a period where I was really focused on other people’s dysfunctions and failings. I talked a lot about what they were doing wrong. At first, this felt light and fun and normal, like I could say, GOD, THEY’RE FUCKED UP and then get back to my own life and everything was fine. But if I spent too much time on other people’s problems, by playing the GREAT FRIEND WHO’S ALMOST LIKE A THERAPIST and then, to decompress, bitching about them to my husband and also, eventually, thinking about them a little too often, it became a kind of a sickness. I was living inside their problems so I wouldn’t have to look vulnerably at where I was or what I was feeling. Sometimes there was something about my friend that I wanted to emulate or there was something that I feared but didn’t want to admit that I feared.
Whatever the reasons, it’s not healthy to think so much about what your friends are doing wrong. When I start obsessing about what someone else is fucking up in their life? To the point where I’m often tempted to blurt it all out to them? Then something is wrong with me. I’m not facing something important. I’m angry at myself for some reason. I’m afraid to admit that I need more from someone and don’t want to say it out loud or risk asking for what I want.
I’m going to guess that you are merciless with yourself. You don’t ask for what you need. You would never, ever, sleep until noon even if you were low on sleep. You would never, ever, expect to have a job with totally flexible hours. You would never let someone take care of you, ever ever ever.
You know what, though? Some part of you wants to be taken care of. Some part of you wants a break. Some part of you wants to be vulnerable and admit that you’re tired and a little lonely. You want someone to clean your apartment and make you dinner. You want someone to listen when you talk. You want to have these things FOR ONCE without feeling guilty about it.
You can’t tolerate how self-indulgent Mike is, what a baby he is about everything, because you would never, ever, act that way. But some small part of you wishes that you could act that way every now and then.
What do you need to feel good? What do you need to feel taken care of? What are you refusing to give yourself, something that you know you care about and miss and love? What feels way too indulgent to consider?
Think about what you’re longing for. Think about what you love passionately but can’t have right now. Even if this thing you want seems embarrassing or shameful, consider it. Embarrassment is sometimes a sign that you’ve shamed yourself out of something important to you.
You’re having a hard time right now. Admit it. You need to learn to make new friends in this new city, and to keep an open heart and an open mind toward new friends even though you do already have lots of old friends. You need to try some new things and break out of your old self-punishing habits. You need to give yourself more.
Don’t let your mind obsess about Mike and Sarah so much. Try to lower your expectations of yourself and them. Try to live in a new space where people are people and they do what they do. There is no right way to live. There is no wrong way to live. Everyone is just muddling through in their own way, figuring out what works for them. Maybe it’s finally time to cast out all of your stringent rules and stop trying to be “good.” Maybe it’s time to just be YOU, for better or for worse.
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