Q: My boyfriend of two years is best friends with his ex. During their 14-year relationship, he says they had a codependency, becoming each other’s social world. They were still roommates when we started dating, and she refused to even let me into their house. He says he’d like us to become casual friends and includes us both in group events like a recent hike. On it, I tried to be friendly, but she pretty much ignored me. Afterward, I told him it was awkward spending the day with someone who has issues with me. He became angry, saying I should be more understanding, that it was much more difficult for her. She seems to require a level of coddling and emotional support that I don’t. He’ll also go to events and not invite me because she’ll be there. I’m positive they’re done romantically, but he’s abnormally protective of her, always defending her feelings over mine. When I try to discuss this, he blows up. Our relationship is otherwise good and loving.
A: There’s that old Eddie Money song that goes, “I’ve got two tickets to paradise. Won't you pack your bags; we'll leave tonight.” And then there’s your boyfriend’s version: “I’ve got two tickets to paradise. We’ll call you from the beach.”
When two become as three, it isn’t so much a relationship as it is the beginnings of a parade. Assuming you aren’t members of a polygamous religious cult or regular guests at parties where everyone throws their keys into a big bowl, a relationship is generally understood to mean two people prioritizing each other over all others. If one of these people wants more creative terms, he needs to arrange for them by mutual agreement and not just stick them on his girlfriend and hope she doesn’t notice, or at least doesn’t complain.
In favoring the ex-girlfriend with the perpetually broken wing, your boyfriend isn’t just being unfair to you; he’s creating what therapist B. Janet Hibbs, Ph.D., calls “a chronic climate of unfairness.” Hibbs feels fairness violations are at the root of most relationship problems, noting in “Try To See It My Way” that you can’t trust your partner if you don’t expect to be fairly treated. Unfairnesses left unrepaired lead partners to “withhold care, love, affection, and finally, themselves.”
Your boyfriend talks like he wants you girls to sit around braiding each other’s hair — yet foments conflict by making clear that you come second, and to a woman who treated you like a poo-covered dog she didn’t want in her house: “Just tie her to a tree and come inside!” His being so codependently cozy with his needy ex is far less risky than going all in and being interdependent with you. So, of course he blows up when you broach the subject; evading all discussion of it allows him to keep her as his human binky.
Write him a note explaining that you two need to talk in a calm way about something that’s bothering you. (It’s impossible to have a relationship with somebody who goes all sixth-grade science project volcano whenever there’s a discussion he’d rather not have.) Tell him that you understand his friendship with his ex means a lot to him but that you find it painful to always come second. If he wants to remain your boyfriend, he needs to get his loyalties in order — meaning, even in the event his ex suffers some tragedy, a hangnail! A hangover!, he’ll treat you more like his girlfriend than some woman in line behind him at 7-Eleven.
Q: In arguments with my boyfriend, I’ll ignite — yelling, name-calling, threatening to break up. He isn’t deserving of those names, and I don’t want to break up, but I fear I’m sending us down that path.
A: You’ve decided to jazz things up with a little role-playing, but forget pirate/slave girl or housewife/UPS guy. You’re into animal magnetism — like the jackal on the downed cow. Apparently, you misunderstood; the saying isn’t “If you don’t have anything nice to say, scream it at the top of your lungs.” Every time you do, you claw a chunk out of his love and goodwill for you, weakening your relationship. Start exploring why you do this, and tell him you’re working on it, so he’ll know you’re trying, even if you aren’t instantly Gandhi. In the meantime, set up ground rules: If you start arguing ugly, the discussion’s over. Write down your points, and talk when you can remain civil. If you fail again, postpone again. Bottom line: You aren’t allowed to treat him like you forgot you love him — which is like re-enacting that romantic moment on the bow in “Titanic,” except that you scream obscenities at him and shove him off the ship.
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