science of us

What to Do When You Can’t Stand Your Friend’s Significant Other

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For the most part, it’s not that hard to insulate yourself against people you truly dislike spending time with. Just — don’t spend time with them. Decline the second date. Cull the obligation invites from the party list. Make up an excuse about having a thing at the same time as your annoying co-worker’s barbecue. Shake off any nagging sense of awkwardness and go on your merry way, reveling in the fact that you’re an adult and you don’t have to waste your precious free time on anyone who doesn’t make you happy.

That is, with one glaring exception: when a person you can’t stand comes as a package deal with one you love. As nice as it would be to have that power, we can’t choose who our friends date. And at some point, one of them may make what you consider kind of a lousy choice of a significant other — I don’t mean someone who’s abusive, or rude, or raises any real red flags, but someone who’s just, well, not your cup of tea. Someone like the Janice character on Friends, maybe, who’s ultimately harmless but still incredibly grating.

And someone who, for better or worse, you’re going to have to learn to be around if you want to keep your friendship intact. Below are a few tips for surviving the situation — you may change your mind about this person, or you may conclude that they do indeed suck. But either way, the point isn’t to like them. It’s to make things easier for you.

Wait it out.

A first impression isn’t everything. In fact, sometimes a first impression paints a pretty inaccurate picture of what a person’s actually like, especially when it’s formed in a high-pressure situation like meeting your partner’s friends for the first time. “It could be that the significant other is trying too hard to win you over because you’re the best friend,” says Anita Chlipala, a marriage and family therapist based in Chicago. Think they talk too much, tell too many dumb jokes, ask questions like it’s an interrogation instead of normal socializing? It’s possible they’re just nervous and trying to impress.

It’s also possible that you were different during that first meeting, too. Maybe you went in feeling protective of your friend, or primed by their less-than-stellar dating history to assume this new person would also fall short. Maybe you were just cranky from an unrelatedly terrible day. There’s any number of reasons why you might, on this one particular occasion, form an opinion that’s less charitable than it would be if you met this person at another time, in another context. “We’ve all known people that feel one way about someone and then a year later see them a little differently,” says Deb Owens, a Philadelphia-based therapist who specializes in relationship counseling. “So you always want to leave open the possibility that a viewpoint could change.” Of course, you may find that your dislike stays constant over the weeks and months and years that follow, but at least you gave it a shot.

Hang out with them in a different setting.

Along the same lines, this person who kind of sucks when you’re in a small group may show a whole other, more palatable side of themselves when you switch up the setting. If your interaction has been limited to low-key, conversation-heavy settings like getting drinks, Chlipala recommends trying something else: Organize a group to go to a concert, a basketball game, a hike — anything with an activity to take some of the pressure off.

And “see how they are around their friends,” she adds. Everyone’s more at ease on their home turf. And while they clearly have at least a little good taste if they’re dating your friend, meeting the other people they choose to surround themselves with will also help you form a more complete picture.

Try to recognize your negative biases.

You know when you get into one of those funks where everything someone says or does, no matter how innocuous, drives you absolutely nuts? Psychologists call that “negative sentiment override,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like: the negative lens through which you view a person is powerful enough to filter out any of the good. While the concept was developed to help people struggling in romantic relationships, it can apply in other contexts, too, Chlipala says.

Unfortunately, it’s not like you can flip a switch and turn off that negative sentiment, but it can be helpful to try recognizing in the moment when it’s at work. Next time you find yourself trying to stifle an eye roll, try a brainstorming exercise: Are there any other reasons why this person did or said that thing that annoyed you, besides the simple fact that they’re just generally annoying? Say, for example, that you have a group dinner reservation for 7:30, and your friend’s new flame rolls in at a cool 7:45. It’s natural to take the moment as a reflection on who they are — to assume they’re late “because they’re irresponsible, or they’re narcissistic, or they just don’t care,” Owens says.

But “if there’s five different explanations for why a person’s acting a way,” she adds, “if you choose the one that’s most generous, you’re not going to get as upset as if you choose the worst-case scenario.” Sure, they could be a total flake who treats plans more like suggestions, but it’s also very plausible that they got stuck in a subway delay, or caught up in something at work. Even if you don’t feel they deserve the benefit of the doubt, at least doing so will help soothe the angst you’re feeling.

Make a hard choice.

Of course, there’s also the possibility that none of those other things work, and that, despite your best, most earnest efforts, spending time with this person makes you want to pull out your own fingernails just to have a distraction. In that case, you have a decision ahead of you: You can continue to suffer in silence out of love for your friend, you can shy away from any plans that includes their significant other, or you can sit them down and have a conversation about how you’d rather just hang out the two of you going forward.

It’s probably important to note here that the last option is different from having a conversation about your dislike, which is pretty much always a bad idea (what if they end up marrying this person?). Worst case, your friend gets angry, things between you are irreparably different, and you haven’t accomplished anything except forgetting some feelings off your chest. Even the best case, though, isn’t that great. Especially “if they’re a highly anxious person or they worry all the time or they’re a people pleaser,” Chlipala says, all you’re really doing is transferring your misery onto your friend, making it impossible for them to be anything but stressed when you and their partner are in the same room. Instead, go gentle: Tell your friend how you miss seeing them one on one, and how you want to make sure to carve out more time for that. Maybe they’ll pick up on why you’re saying it or maybe they won’t, but they don’t need to, as long as the end result is you seeing their significant other a little less. You can’t avoid them entirely, but friendship is about compromise, anyway.

If, though, you really, truly can’t stomach the idea — if your dislike is so intense that even being in their presence occasionally seems like too much to bear — maybe it’s time to refocus your attention on your own friendship. Friends grow apart. It’s sad, yes, but it’s also an unavoidable fact of life, and it may be one that’s playing out here. Who a person chooses to be in a relationship with, after all, is a reflection of what they value, and it’s fair to read this significant other as a clue to who your friend is, or wants to be. Maybe the two of you just aren’t similar people anymore. Maybe you’re growing in incompatible directions. There are ways to maneuver around your distaste for their partner, but only if you actually want to. If you don’t, that’s okay, too.

What to Do When You Hate Your Friend’s Significant Other