When Your Closest Friends Hate Your Partner: The Challenge of Balancing Friends You Love with the One You Love
“Every time we talk about David, it’s negative. You really need to dump this guy.”
Not the first time I’ve heard this. And not only from my closest friend. It comes from everyone close to me, and it’s been going on for more than a decade.
They’re not without good reasons. When I’ve confided with them about various frustrations that have happened over the years, they have pointed out the cost to me and my sense of humor. My confidence.
There’s no question that they have a legitimate argument, to which they and I can point, about my partner’s behavior. It’s arguable that this connection has been costly in some ways.
However, as with all stories, there’s another side.
As much as my friends both love and want to protect me from harm, emotional distress and frustration, the truth also is that this particular person is enormously important to me. As much as the inevitable patterns arise each time he and I reconcile and try to make a go of it, the truth also is that he forces me to face issues that in many ways, I’d rather not face.
There are four people who are very close to me. One, who is doing very similar work with her partner, understands completely. The other three, not so much, even though one in particular is in a long marriage which has some, if not many, of the same problems.
Part of what’s important here is that forcing me to face my issues is his job. I also show up dressed like an asshole at times. I also show up with dysfunctional behaviors. To only take my side is to ignore the part I play in our interactions.
As a Medium.com member pointed out in a private message this morning, if all I do is complain about my partner to my friends, that says a lot about me. I wrote a piece on this earlier this year, shortly after he moved in, during which I pointed out the importance of finding value in what irritated both of us. This goes to the heart of one of the lessons (and to this Medium peep’s point)- if you or I are constantly griping, we’re missing the opportunity. This is part of why I’m grateful because this causes me to look at where I put my attention. If I refuse to acknowledge what I appreciate and love, then my partner feels devalued. If all I do is bitch about him to my friends, then he is a one dimensional jerk. Which is far from the truth.
However, when I note to my friends what I value about our relationship, and the lessons inherent within, several of my friends continue to point what isn’t perfect.
He is perfect, in his own unique way, for me, for right now. Just as I am for him. It is a habit for humans to focus on what’s wrong rather than celebrate what’s right, if for no other reason than we experience a lot of this growing up, in school, in church, etc. Changing the focus and acknowledging what we do right both in ourselves and others takes a lot of work. Relationships provide the ideal proving ground for that very thing. When my friends focus on the negative (even when I make it clear, and I regularly do, what works for me with this partner) then that speaks to their own struggles. We leak our truths.
In the same way that being around me forces him to face aspects of his personality that are less than attractive, my partner brings up aspects of my way of being that were set in motion in my childhood. I have a history of sexual and verbal abuse, and those dynamics are woven into my DNA. I’ve repeated those patterns for many years, and to my mind, the only way I break them is to deal with them head on. No amount of counseling is going to change my behavior. Talking is largely meaningless.
Most of us unconsciously carry our parents into our marriages. Their interactive habits become ours, often without either our permission or knowledge, and their issues flow forward through us like so much garbage tumbling downstream. Abusive behaviors, addictions, remoteness can be mindlessly repeated until someone has the courage to make a change.
My partner and I aren’t married, but we’ve been under the same roof for a while. It’s been challenging for both of us. I can see where parental patterns drive much of what we both do. Where early abuse in my life causes me to act and react to certain stimuli in dysfunctional ways. Where his father’s anger and alcoholism drive his interactions. Where those two sets of dynamics create problems for us both. It’s like watching our parents fight, all four of them, all in the same room.
In many cases, our interactions happen with the kind of brutal senselessness that occurs when neither partner is fully present, but both have their defenses in the ring duking it out. That’s not communication. Those are two sets of bad habits which live on the leading edges of our lives and protect against our vulnerability.
Another way of putting it is that my story is contending with his story, rather than being fully engaged with each other’s authentic selves.
While I understand why my friends are protective of me and highly critical of my erstwhile partner, I am also well aware that there’s a critically important classroom here. It’s not just that there is a powerful draw. What’s far more essential is that the precise issues that rise between us are those very situations that I most need to face. To embrace. And learn to deal with in grace.
I can’t speak for his commitment; only my own.
The other piece that is instructive is that within my close circle of friends, it appears that they have difficulty accepting my partner’s humanness. So to my commenter’s point- even when I make it clear how valuable these experiences are, and how deeply grateful I am for the work that I am doing with him, they are challenged to see that viewpoint. That’s their humanness. This isn’t about who’s right or wrong (although one of my friends is really invested in being right about how bad my partner is, more so than I am, and she is the one with the thorniest relationship, which of course reveals a lot. It’s entirely possible that those issues that I dance with bring up her own, and she is expressing some frustration about her life in her comments to me about mine. That’s what we do, we project.)
I have a lot of work to do in areas that cause me great discomfort. If I avoid it, I continue those same mistakes. So does he. So, you either show up and do the work, or you keep carrying your bullshit issues and excuses for why it’s your partner’s fault that things didn’t work out right on to sabotage the next relationship. What I dearly want is to mine the deep veins of experiences and the feedback that being around him bring up, and allow those experiences to mold me into a better person. Sometimes it sucks. Sometimes we soar.
My big brother had a lifelong string of failures, about which he complained bitterly every single time. It was always and forever their fault. Never his. He never grew, never took responsibility (he had my father’s mean streak and had similar addictions) and as a result, he ruined his last relationship before taking his life at 62. Denial is a powerful drug.
Without embracing what my partner places in front of me, I don’t grow. It’s not a matter of trying to make this particular relationship flourish. For my time and dime, I believe that everyone we draw to us is there to offer a chance to do personal work. There are no guarantees that we will either sort things out or that we will be happy. The only guarantee either of us has is that there is work to be done, it will be worthwhile, and it may well pay off. Maybe with someone else, maybe not. That, I had to release. When I have attachments to an outcome (we HAVE to make it, we HAVE to be together, etc.) that leaves no room for alternative, and potentially far better, outcomes. The only thing I can control is my willingness to be, at times, deeply uncomfortable.
In the lovely book Stretch-Unlock the Power of Less and Achieve More by Steve Sonenshein, the author writes that the more we have invested in something (or someone) the harder it is to walk away. This is why so many of us remain in broken relationships, as the power of habit and familiarity press upon our desire to seek something better. While I could easily use these as excuses- it’s been a good long while- by the same token, we’ve only just begun our real work together. When so many people hook up and marry after two weeks together and have it blow up three months later, this man and I have been circling each other for ten years. This is just the beginning of the truly hard work.
It would be ever so much easier to run. To avoid.
And if I do, whatever patterns I carry will rise again, with the inevitability of summer showers.
One of my closest friends, now approaching sixty, joined me for our annual Christmas dinner the other night. From across the table, she unfolded her very pretty left hand to reveal one hell of a big fat rock on her ring finger. This is her second marriage. The guy she’s with adores her. She has, in many ways, what I wish I had: a warm, affection, caring, attentive man who thinks she walks on water.
But here’s the rub. A man like that wouldn’t force me to face my inner demons. I must. Or else I am nothing more than a fugitive from my family history, and ultimately, a prisoner of it.
I am willing to do what it takes to break the patterns that imprison me, and which will also imprison anyone involved with me. No one can do that work for me. As much as my friends don’t like to see me in periodic pain, this is part of the price of my freedom. Much of the time that pain is from what I am forced to face within the folds of my inner world. That can be wicked hard to look at, but otherwise, I live a lie. If I blame my partner, I miss the point.
My partner is a gift. All my exes were princes, each in his own way, even those with anger issues. I chose them, I loved them, and we moved on. This one, for whatever reason, is my Waterloo. I suspect I may be his, too. His issues are far less difficult than previous partners, but they are the same ones I’ve drawn to myself over and over again. That’s why we call these life lessons.
The path that I am on with him is difficult. It’s forcing me to watch, observe, and own what I do and how I do it. It’s forcing me to let go of my need to be right, and my attachment to a perspective that I might have once protected with righteous anger. This path forces me to stay open, soft and curious even in the face of information that I’d really rather not have to embrace. It is distinctly uncomfortable. However, in such work we break the shackles of generations of shit that has flowed downhill into our own psyches. If I want a better life, a different life, I don’t change my partner. I change me. If by doing so that costs me this partner, then that’s precisely as it should be. That means our work together is done.
In this kind of effort lies the key to redirecting, changing the circuitry and ending the long history wired into my emotions. Whether he does the same thing, is willing to do the same kind of work, isn’t up to me. That’s his journey. I can only walk my path, and if we’re lucky, we might find a way to be together which rises above the less attractive aspects of our inherited family patterns. This is, of course, available to all of us. This is what relationships do.
I am not owed a great love affair in life. Nobody owes me safety, or affection, or the love of a lifetime. None of those things is guaranteed to any of us. What we are guaranteed is a chance to work on ourselves. Sometimes that work draws unbelievable experiences, immense joy, and a brand new way of being. We simply can’t know. What I do know is that every difficult step I am willing to take forward creates more potential for joy.
This morning I read a terrific Medium piece by @Kris Gage (https://medium.com/@krisgage/how-to-really-know-youre-in-love-d8d433a0f0bf. It’s worth a look. Right after Christmas, when all the singles get sick of yet another holiday (pick one, there are a lot this time of year) without a love or family of their own, people head like lemmings to Tinder, Match, eHarmony et. al. for relief. Many of them are escaping the last POS girlfriend or boyfriend. Many of those folks didn’t do the work that was available, and are taking their backpack full of unfinished business right into the next relationship. We repeat what we avoid.
I’m not willing to do that. I want to finish my business as best I can, or at the very least, learn how to better play Whack-a-Mole with those unattractive parts that rear their ugly heads at times. At least that gives me and my partner- whoever that might end up being- a fighting chance.
So as much as I love and cherish my friends, I respect their opinion and the intentions behind them, this is my journey. The partner you have right now is the perfect one for the work you need to do, whether that’s to learn to end physical or verbal abuse, how to learn to be vulnerable, how to make a deep commitment and walk the hot coals together. We all carry damage; it’s part of the human condition. What isn’t part of the human condition is to let that damage define us and undermine our relationships.
Our partners reflect how we feel about our self worth, just as my partner telegraphs that to me. He’s teaching me how to set firm boundaries and stand up for myself. I can’t do that alone or in absentia. It’s hard. This is full-frontal contact. But then, I never took on a BHAG without intending to master it, in the same way I train for big mountains, rough waters or challenging horses. This just happens to involve my greatest vulnerability: my heart. The stakes are far higher, and as a result, worth all the effort I invest.
When I change my behavior, that will likely change his behavior around me. It always and forever begins with me. He can’t fix me, he can’t solve my problems, and he can’t change my history. That is MY job, any more than I can soothe those parts of him that carry family damage. That’s his job.
Don’t like your relationship results? It starts with you. With me. If you and I keep hooking up with problem people, the very first question to ask is what’s the problem inside me I need to address? If you have a friend who struggles in a relationship, the question to ask isn’t how fast your friend can dump the partner, but what is this partner teaching that friend about themselves? It’s a tough question, but it’s the beginning of wisdom.
Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. By the same token, those same friends don’t support insobriety in our love lives. It’s as hard as a parent who watches a child get fired from his first job, lose her first crush, or smash the car into the garage wall. Painful. But necessary.