Dear Smart Bitch Sarah:
I’ll go on and ‘fess up. I’m unlikely to be a lead character in a romance novel. I’m the friend who helps one of the main characters talk it out and see sense. But I need to check myself here. After all, I could be wrong.
Because of fractal theory (aka, it never rains but it pours), Several of my friends have been involved in some manipulative relationships, including one friend actually does the manipulating. She said being irrational is a good thing, because she can “act upset and get her boyfriend to pay attention to her”. Some of the things about her really help me slide things into focus when I give people on the receiving end of this advice.
The past couple of weeks, I’ve seen several instances where people causes problems for themselves or their loved ones by flying off the handle or not listening or something—this includes today when a co-worker (henceforth known as Daniel; not his real name) received a phone call from his girlfriend. This is the one that makes me want to check if I’m doing the right thing here.
We’re part of a janitorial staff of about twenty. The pay’s good and the hours are nice, and we get insurance for basically a part-time job. Daniel proposed to his girlfriend a while back. Since then, she’s started being really irrational. She calls him at work—we’re allowed cell phones because it IS a big building and it can be tough to find someone in case of an emergency. But using them for non-important stuff can get you in trouble.
Daniel knows this. His girlfriend knows it. But she still calls him once or twice a night, usually over nothing. And he still answers, despite the bosses just asking him to cut back on the phonecalls. And it’s common knowledge on the crew that he’s having relationship problems, because of this.
So, today, we were working the same room, and she calls. I went to the other end and kept out of it. After a few minutes, he came over and said, “I don’t know why she’s acting like that. She wouldn’t listen to me when I was telling her how to fix something. Started saying I don’t care about her.”
So, I offered to listen.
Y’all, it was like seeing a guy get a lungful of air after being underwater a while.
So, with some talking out, he said she does stuff—gets made at him over nothing much, and accuses him of not caring. And this girl is more important to him than his job. After a few questions, I made a couple of guesses—that it sounds like she’s testing him all the time. And he stopped walking for a second as it hit him. He said it DOES feel like he’s taking a test and he doesn’t know the right answers. A little more talk, and he said she doesn’t feel like anyone has ever cared about her, and does stuff to make it an issue. Like a test, but only the wrong answers count.
I hate to go into so much detail, but I need a second opinion because he admitted he’s seriously considering calling off the engagement and breaking up with her. She’s in college (as he is), and she has morning classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and he said those are the best hours of the week because he doesn’t have to dread a phonecall from her freaking out at him.
I know how to do the sympathetic ear thing. You just talk and make agreeing noises and the occasional relevant comment and the person talks to him or herself and arrives at the right answer they already know and feels better because they got it off their chest. I’ve never had someone arrive at the answer of “call off an engagement and break up”. That’s sort of extreme.
Now, what he said is likely biased against her and was mostly venting, and what I’m repeating is likely biased against her because Daniel is a friend and a genuinely good guy and I don’t like that someone is pulling him around like this, but the fact that she evidently doesn’t care she could get him fired with the once-or-twice a night phonecalls that have gotten him in trouble in the past…that makes me think he may be right. Caring should be a two-way street, I think. He cares about her, which is why she has so much power to hurt him. So, my advice, if I gave him to him right now, WOULD be to call it off and break up. But, there’s a chance she might settle down.
So should I tell him to wait, or to get out of Dodge, or what? Am I doing something wrong—apart from likely TMI, but I’ve never been good at breaking down a simple summary. The details here, I think, are relevant.
I’m a lurker on the Bitchery—found it through the Cover Snark and stayed for the reviews and links. My respect for the collective wisdom, sense, and life experiences of the site’s readership is boundless. All replies and opinions will be thoughtfully considered.
The Listening Man
Dear The Listening Man:
In a nutshell, both Daniel and His Girlfriend need to immediately find and put on their Grown Up Underpants. Daniel needs to put on his Big Boy Pants, tell His Girlfriend to stop calling him at work because he’s going to get in more trouble if not fired, up to and possible including not answering the phone when she calls. His Big Boy Pants have a very special design: it’s called Setting Limits. He must set limits to what she can do during his work hours and communicate clearly when something (a) pisses him off and (b) needs to stop please.
As for His Girlfriend, she also needs a pair of Grown Up Underpants. Her Big Girl Pants are of the Knock It Off Already design, and while you obviously aren’t going to be the one to tell her this, she clearly needs to consider the needs (and professional employment for heaven’s sake) of her fiance. If she needs someone to listen to her, she can ask for it – at a time when it isn’t seven inches from getting her man shitcanned at work.
The micro issue here is her phone calls while he is working: that is something he and only he can stop, and he has to stand up for himself to do so.
The macro issue may be what you and later he described as being tested repeatedly about his dedication and feelings for her. Again, this is something only the two of them can work out.
As for whether you should speak up about your opinion of his engagement and whether it should continue, I have one question for you: did he ask you what you thought? If he has not asked you for your opinion, then do not give it to him. Clearly this person needs someone to listen to as he works out aloud what he’s thinking in his head, and I’m glad that you’re able to listen without immediately offering your advice. But if he hasn’t asked for your opinion, keep it to yourself, and be a friend to this guy by being silent about what you think he should do with his engagement.
If he has asked you for your opinion, I still say don’t give it to him. Why? If he’s asking, he’s already thinking about it, and he needs to come up with his own answer independent of anyone else. I will say this again: if he is questioning his decision to ask this woman to marry him, then he needs to find the answer to his own question without help. If you speak up, then you are allowing him, even with the best of intentions on both your parts, to pass some of the responsibility for making that difficult choice onto you, and that is not where you want to be. You’re not marrying her – or him. Do not insert yourself into their prospective marriage, no matter what various erotic romance novels may tell you! Your most important role is to listen and help him figure out what he wants to do.
As for the micro issue of her phoning him while he’s at work, you can help him figure out the limits he wants to define on her behavior. You can definitely help him identify ways to stand up for himself and what to say to her to stop her from calling. He shouldn’t have to put up with someone who is demonstrating little respect for his time and his employment record. Jobs are not easy to find – and if she wants to marry a man with health benefits and a good job, she needs to knock that shit off.
Friendship is a tricky thing in romance novels. All too often the friendship is flimsy at best, or an excuse for a sequel for the winsome best bud—or a concealed role for the person who turns out to be a rather vanilla villain. True friendship in a romance novel is a beautiful thing, but when that friendship is based on the friend giving the protagonist advice, it’s risky. The author might end up portraying the hero or heroine as Not Entirely Having Their Shit Together. Too much of that and the reader starts wondering why that person is the hero or heroine at all. It’s hard to ask for advice – and it’s even harder NOT to give it – which is incidentally among my favorite types of romance friendship: the person who hears about the difficulties but allows the protagonist of the novel to figure it out on their own. Both people look winsome and fabulous in my perspective, the hero or heroine because they figured out their crap and grew up a little, and the friend because they let them figure it all out, all the while standing by to listen.
You’re a good friend to listen to him. It can be difficult to keep silent when you can see something clearly and the other person is still muddling through their emotions and reactions to figure out how they feel and what they want to do. I can’t speak to why she behaves a certain way as I am in no position to define or identify her motivation. But her behavior needs to be addressed by Daniel if it is bothering Daniel – which it sounds like it is. I hope she listens if he asks her not to call him at work any more, and I hope you can continue to be a good friend by listening and helping him figure out how to address his problems on his own.