Everything I Need to Know, I Learned From Romance Novels: Advice, Friendship and Listening

Advice 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.



General Bitching...

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  1. 1
    Danielle says:

    I agree Sarah, good idea not to weigh in but to keep listening.

    Perhaps he could suggest to his friend that he find ways to show his girlfriend how much he loves her, so she gets her reassurance in a more healthy way? Set aside time each day to talk to each other so she can look forward to that, organising activities together like picnics at the park or going for a walk together, etc etc. Maybe that would help. I guess it really depends on whether or not she’s also willing/able to put in effort to solve the problem, and it’s impossible for us (and Listening Man) to know whether or not that’s the case.

  2. 2

    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.

    This… just this.  I’d probably tell him something along the lines of… “that’s something you’ve got to decide for yourself, man.”

    But I feel bad for the guy-the engaged one.  Getting tested by somebody you love?  Not fun.  If the woman hasn’t ever really felt valued, I can understand why she’s feeling needy, I guess, but doing something that’s going to end up pushing away the guy who loves her?  That’s likely what will happen if they don’t work this out-if not now, then later.

  3. 3
    jody says:

    What Sarah said.

    AND the reason you don’t want to offer advice whether it’s solicited or not is because then you become responsible for the end result—especially since both parties in this situation need to do some serious growing up.

    If Daniel has gotten in trouble in the past for personal phone calls, he SO needs to set limits and tell the gf he can’t answer when she calls.  Then do so.  She’ll learn.  Being unemployed in this economy is not a good idea, especially when it’s preventable.

  4. 4
    joanne says:

    When Daniele had his big ‘ah-ha’ moment did he say he was going to address the issue with his fiance? If not, you may have just learned more about your friend than you wanted to know.  His inability to address major problems BEFORE the marriage shows how immature he is. Worse, it may show that he likes to whine and/or to be led around by his emotions.

    You are right when you say you only know his side of the story. It’s what we romance readers call getting only one point of view (POV).  Probably the advice to give someone having relationship problems is to tell them to go home, sit down with the other person and talk it out away from the workplace.  (if you want to feel like a better friend then you can add a conciliatory pat on the back to the advice).

    In the meantime man up and tell Daniele he needs to turn off his phone at work and only check his messages during breaks because when he’s on the phone he’s NOT working and then you and his co-workers and your employer are the victims in this not-very-romantic drama.

  5. 5

    Great advice!  Yep yep.  I’m a very independent person and I hate to talk on the phone (makes me feel tethered), so both of these people would annoy me.  The guy, for answering, and the girl, for calling!  They sound…young.  Hope they can work things out—in person.

  6. 6
    Isabel C. says:

    Girl sounds like a piece of work, and in all honesty, I’m on the DTMFA side of this, as usual: testing my affection? Not shit I will put up with. Not shit anyone should put up with. He needs to walk and she needs to get therapy—or a good swift kick.

    But I wouldn’t say that, if I were the writer.

    Why? Because I did the He/She Is No Good For You, Leave Already, WHAT ARE YOU DOING, MAN? conversation about fifty times in college. It never works. Ever. It just leaves everyone in question frustrated and/or annoyed. If they don’t break up, you’re that friend who tried to break them up; if they do, he might end up blaming you anyhow, for whatever reason.

    “I think that’s totally unacceptable behavior, and it doesn’t sound like she’s treating you right. Whatever you decide, I’ll support you,” or some variant thereof, is probably your best bet.

  7. 7
    Selah March says:

    I have nothing to add to Sarah’s comments, as she pretty much covered it.

    But Dude, seriously. Quit thinking of yourself as “unlikely to be a lead character in a romance novel.” You’re clearly intelligent, articulate, insightful, and empathetic. That’s a hero in my book. ;)

  8. 8

    Another thing occurred to me, because I know someone like this girl.  Not needy, but subconsciously self-defeating.  Her father left when she was little and she seems to anticipate abandonment in her adult relationships.  So, instead of waiting for her guy to leave, she tests him.  She makes him leave.  And then says “I knew it!”

    I don’t know if I’ve ever said anything to my friend that’s made a difference.  It wouldn’t be supportive of me to blame her for every failed relationship, and her guys have faults too.  But anyway, she’s a good person, just a little messed up, and aren’t we all?  Maybe this girlfriend struggles with some of the same issues.

  9. 9
    Polly says:

    If Daniel is having trouble setting boundaries, what the writer doesn’t need to do is set the boundaries for Daniel. He’s got to do it for himself.

    It’s not just that the fiance is testing him all them time—the constant phone calls are controlling, and he needs to be able to stand up for himself.

  10. 10
    SB Sarah says:

    What Selah said – any guy who listens and cares for his friends like that is 100% hero-material all the way.

  11. 11
    Donna says:

    What Sarah said.
    Keep the advise to yourself. If they stay together, you’re the person who doesn’t like the spouse. If they break it off, any time they regret it you told them to do it.  My bff asked for an opinion before marrying her husband to which I responded “I’m a little concerned about how much he drinks.” Being that she is the child of alcoholics, I felt this was a valuable conversation to have. She blew me off, I dropped it, he turned out to be a PTSD alcoholic. She has never ventured another conversation about it, probably because she thought I’d say I told you so. Which would never have happened, but still, I put it out there, so I suffered the consequences & bit my tongue about her marriage for the next 20 years unless she started the conversation. And then I still never ventured advise or opinion.

  12. 12
    LL says:

    I feel for Daniel, and I feel for his friend.  My son is going through this, as well as me and the rest of the family.  He moved back in 2 years ago and started dating her shortly thereafter.  She wasn’t even 20 at the time and was extremely immature.  He’s 5 years older, but not that mature himself.  She was going to college in a different city at the time, but spent 80 percent of her time here subsequently flunked out a year later.  She did start back at a local school last spring.  I saw her manipulations then as immature and her not knowing what relationships were all about.  He wasn’t much better, but didn’t wreak as much havoc as she did.  I see Daniel in my son, and feel for Daniel’s friend.  He loves her, but doesn’t know what to do with her.  He doesn’t have the answers, and when he thinks he does, they are always wrong. I’ve witnessed a lot of drama, manipulations, and fights.  I inadvertently got in the middle a few fights. She “tested” him a lot.

    I had to ask my son to move out over the weekend due to the escalating dramas.  I couldn’t take it anymore and neither could the rest of my family. I love my son, but it had to be done.  I’ve been finding out some pretty bad things the last few days about what the young woman has done.  I can’t say anything to my son about it because it’s something he is going to have to find out and see for himself.  Some things I’ve told him that involved myself or other family members.  I have faith he’ll see it soon since they are living together now.  He knows some of it, but not all.

    This past week I’ve found out that she had been impersonating me online.  I mostly lurk, but she didn’t.  She might still be, but I’m watching.  Opening email accounts in my name, trolling around blogs and groups I frequented at one time or another and posting some outrageous things.  She’s been in my online banking and other accounts.  She had access to my computers because she was almost living here (to my dismay).  She needed them for school, and covered her tracks pretty well, but not totally. Of course I wasn’t looking for anything nefarious on my computers either.  She ruined one of my computers last winter/spring and I had to replace it.  I kept a little tighter control over that one, but not enough. I’ve been able to follow a few of her trails, but don’t have a lot yet, but probably enough.  I’m having a computer specialist look into seeing what he can find on it.  A few months ago I started getting the oddest phone calls on my cell and home phone.  Strange men coming to my door.  I believe she had been throwing those numbers around on Craig’s List and some Yahoo groups.  Checking into that as well.  Might be able to prove some libel in a few cases.  Fraud, definitely.  If I do that, then I’ll have to contact people she was in contact with, and don’t think I want to go there. I’ve gotten some odd emails over the past two years which I chalked up to spam or accidental mailing. When I would get too many of them, I’d cancel the account.  I even found my accounts cancelled per her.  I’ve found hacking tools on the other computer.  I’m trying to track down all her past accounts as well as mine that I cancelled or she cancelled.  From what little I’ve read, she’s a very creative and strange individual and really needs some help.  Sociopath or immaturity?

    My son’s friends see some of it.  My family sees it.  She manipulated me right along with the rest of them and I feel like an idiot.  She saw my reading hobby two years ago and used it against me by getting information from me verbally, and reading things on my computer.  I checked the cache a few days ago and my eyes are still round as saucers.  My son might have had a hand in a few of those, but the reading related would be hers. The only time he would pick up a romance novel is to squash a fly.  This is very time consuming, and will be costly in the end.

    I feel for Daniel.  I feel for my son.  You can make suggestions, you can hint as to her character all you want,  or you can even flat out tell them that their girlfriend is being manipulative. But when they have stars of love in their eyes, that’s all they’ll see.  Even if I’m able to prove fraud on his girlfriends part for impersonating me, I could potentially lose my son over it. I’ll bring the illegal things to his attention after I get concrete proof, and he can decide what he wants to do.  Her machinations have amazed me.  I’m in awe and disgusted all at the same time. 

    To Daniel and my son:  Open your eyes and grow up. You stand to lose jobs, family, and friends if you continue on this course.

  13. 13
    Isabel C. says:

    LL: My God, I’m sorry. I’ve had friends in a similar situation to Daniel and your son—one of the reasons I come down as strongly as I do in favor of getting out now and not looking back—and you’re right. Strange as it may sound for someone on this board and in this genre to say, love can be as destructive as any other emotion.

    I hope for the best with you and yours.

  14. 14
    Lindsay says:

    As always, Sarah’s advice is right on.

    As for Daniel and his fiancé, speaking as someone who has been prone to “testing” behaviour in my relationships, setting boundaries is the best thing Daniel can do for himself, the relationship, and for his girlfriend. That testing comes from a place of uncertainty and insecurity, and having definite boundaries (that they set together) is a source of security, as well as a way of saying “I care enough about you that I will call you on your shit.” Which is a good thing.

  15. 15
    meoskop says:

    LL – That’s crazy. Pretending to be someone else online? You CAN say something to you son, and so can the police, who you need to call, because you don’t know what she may have exposed you to. Strange men at your door at her behest? Call the cops. Now.

    Listening Man – I have a question for you, that is not about Daniel. I agree with all the advice Sarah gave you – you say “Because of fractal theory” but I disagree. What in you is drawing you to people with a lot of drama in their life? Why do you feel unworthy of being the hero of your own story? Why do people who manipulate others or victimize themselves appeal to you as friends?

    Part of the arc of a romantic hero’s story is figuring out how he was harming himself, and why, and stopping. The best heros have done hard work on their own lives to correct harmful influences and say goodbye to friends that held them in negative patterns.

    Daniel will save himself or not, but your story is being written everyday. Make yourself the lead, and the HEA will follow.

  16. 16
    Listening Man says:

    Since I sent in this e-mail,  Daniel has broken up with this girl—which went about as well as expected—and he’s joining the Air Force. Cool, huh?

    All’s well that ends well, I think.

    I do keep my opinions to myself when I do the sympathetic ear, unless “You’re a friend and good guy and as a level-headed person you have my assurance that you appear to be sane here” counts as an opinion. All I really need to do is listen like a black hole and make agreeing noises and the occasional comment to show I’m paying attention and they solve the problem on their own.

    What surprised me is I’d never had a comment lead to someone deciding to break off his engagement. That led me to seek a second opinion. Here seemed the best place to go to—at some remove from the people involved, some rational opinions with plenty of world experience.

    But thank you for the advice and the nice comments.

    LL, I hope everything works out for you and your son. I also hope the shameless hussy in question lives a long long life around the people she deserves—ones just like her.

  17. 17
    LL says:

    meoskop: I’ve spoken to the police and they advised me to talk to a lawyer.  What I already have found out doesn’t constitute police involvement yet until I can get more information.  While I’m 99.9 percent sure it’s her, I need more evidence.  It’s a prickly patch. I closed a bank account today and had new credit cards issued, changing phone numbers this week. Some of the companies I’ve contacted are going to look into it.  Yahoo, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter aren’t any help unless you have someone in a legal capacity making inquiries.  And Craigslist is just paranoid about Personals.  I doubt I should be posting anything about this due to legal reasons unknown to me, but I wanted to give The Girlfriend a warning if she was looking in.

    Isabel: I’d like to tell him to get out now, but he’d be more inclined to marry her if I said that right now.  He would listen to the police rather than me. I want him to have his HEA.

    Sarah, I hope you do a follow up on The Listening Man and Daniel.

    Good luck Listening Man.  I really feel your pain.  If you play the good guy and tell him what you think, then you become the bad guy.  Yet if you say nothing and he finds out years down the road what your thoughts were, then it will be a “why didn’t you tell me sooner’” situation making you the bad guy again.

    Going back to lurkdom until I get some legal advice. 

    I got a new security system for the house out of this mess. I should add a few guard dogs….

  18. 18
    J says:

    Wow, you guys are all a lot nicer than me.  While I try not to give unsolicited advice, if a friend asked…sorry Sarah, I totally disagree…I’d tell them what I think.  If that lead to an issue later, well, that’s my problem.  This guy (who thankfully got away from psycho crazy chick) was an idiot – he needed to tell her not to call – then not answer his phone.  They were both in college – too young to be engaged anyway.  And anytime someone feels better away from their True Luv than with him/her – well, that’s it right there, and sometimes you need a friend to point that out becuase not everyone can see it for themselves!!  She was insecure and testing him – again, too immature to be engaged, glad it’s over.

  19. 19
    Eligil says:

    This kind of thing doesn’t get better. I’ve seen it escalate into a “what’s more important to you, that stupid job or me”, which can also be “so what if you’ve known him since grade school, I’m your wife”.  If Daniel can “put on his big boy pants” and try to have a conversation with her about the behavior, and if she’s willing to do her part and actually tell him what she needs, then maybe, maybe they should get married.

    But the kind of insecurity the constant calls suggest isn’t something he, Daniel that is, can cure for her.  And if she can’t verbalize what it is she needs from him they don’t have a prayer.  She’ll just keep at him saying he doesn’t care, and he’ll just keep getting more frustrated.  And if they’re really unlucky they won’t reach the breaking point until after the wedding and a couple of kids.

    I could be completely wrong here, he may be a total asshat who having captured his prey (the engagement) has disconnected in some way.  Or he may just be a kid who doesn’t have a clue who hooked himself to another kid who doesn’t have a clue.

  20. 20
    Jennifer says:

    This crazy girl sounds like the crazy girlfriend of a guy that my friend used to work with. Friend had to work one Saturday morning with the boyfriend, and friend was in charge of answering the phones. Which, of course, are not to be used for personal calls, right?
    Well, crazy girl just kept incessantly nonstop calling for hours and hours and hours, on the work number, blocking any other calls, forcing my friend to keep asking if she wanted to leave messages and then my friend had to listen to crazypants screaming at her when she wouldn’t immediately put the dude through for every single call. Let’s just say she was lucky she pulled this shit when the boss wasn’t in. Eventually they started ignoring her calls on weekdays, and I do believe the dude eventually broke up with her. But GEEEZ. Never, ever get involved with a phone stalker! It’s all about her crazy.

    I’d say “break up with her, she’s not going to get BETTER about this,” but it’s up to him.

  21. 21
    Aryn says:

    I suggest that part of the issue is that our culture says that ‘romantic love’ means total acceptance, immersion, in the beloved (think “love means never having to say you’re sorry”.) I think many romance novels portray that total acceptance, and we as girls, then women, always told to ‘be nice’, ‘be strong’, ‘just say no’, ‘he won’t love you if you are/get fat’, but rarely, consistently,  ‘you’re fine just the way you are’, are grateful that someone can love regardless of ‘failings’. The other side of it is the parenting role that couples often fall into (I certainly ended up married to my ‘oldest child’.) Without limits early on in the relationship, the individual(s) try and find out where the limits are; will you love me if I…? When we deal with our children, we indicate the FIRST time that we don’t like to be hit. Bitten. Whatever. It is far easier to do it for the little things so the limits aren’t set at the BIG things. And it is easier to do it softly, gently, when it is still new and special and a little thing.

  22. 22
    LL says:

    I have been offline for a few days because I had to turn over my computers.  I couldn’t be without one for an indefinite amount of time, so I had to buy a replacement Mac.  I was going to finally get on board with everyone else and buy a ereader but it is on hold after that expense. 

    I don’t know how things will turn out for my son and his girlfriend.  Can’t comment anymore on that.

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