Monday, 30 January 2012

When You Can't Stand Her Man

Is there anything more annoying than seeing your pal eat her heart out over a complete jerk? It's really awful. You hear all about Scooter (let's call him Scooter) and thus you are naturally interested in meeting this paragon. And then you meet Scooter and you are horrified. It's not who Scooter is--it's not that he's too old or too young or too foreign or too whatever, for you are a fair-minded woman--it's what he says or does to your friend and perhaps says or does to you.

And then, inevitably, your friend calls you up and asks, "What do you think?!" Or maybe she doesn't ask, even though you are dying for her to ask, so that you can try to shake sense into her addled brain, and you feel terribly unhappy.

For many years, I was under the impression that it was pointless and indeed counter-productive to tell a female friend what I thought of her boyfriend or crush object. I noticed, in high school, that a boyfriend could most definitely come between two friends and if a girl said, "I don't like your boyfriend," that could be the end of a beautiful friendship. This struck me as very stupid, as I had also noticed that high school romances didn't last that long whereas women often keep their high school pals for the rest of their lives.

But I didn't want to lose my friends, so I kept a shut-mouth policy well into university and beyond. I more-or-less kept my mouth shut about the fact that I didn't like what this friend's boyfriend said or did until after the boyfriend was history. Then I would let fly.

This policy changed, however, after a very good friend ended up in a long-term abusive relationship that left her a shadow of her former self. And it occurred to me that keeping my mouth shut was cowardly and that if a friendship can't survive me saying "I don't like his attitude towards.../I don't like how he treats you", then the friendship wasn't that strong in the first place.

So now I have become a menace to the male sex. When a woman asks me "What do you think of him?" I tell her what I think of him. If I think he's really cute, I tell her that I think he's really cute. If I think he is deeply unattractive, I communicate that he is deeply unattractive.

However, there are ways of doing this. I have had two bits of feedback in recent months about decisions women made about men based on what I said about them. Of course I am longing to share.

The first was by a very young and beautiful girl with a sunny, trusting view of the world. She believed that the middle-aged grad student who had asked to come along with her to church really had done so because he was interested in Catholicism. Ah ha ha ha. Oldest trick in the non-Catholic book. After an initially friendly chat with the middle-aged grad student, I was 100% sure he was not interested in Catholicism but in my very young and beautiful friend. Which I told her. I did not add that I was all too familiar with that kind of chippy, defensive, domineering, self-loathing kind of middle-aged male graduate student. Instead I just remarked that he was a hundred and two. And, apparently, that number stuck in her head. X, he's a hundred and two. (By the way, I cheerfully confess that I myself am fully a hundred and two.)

The second was by a friend who at the time had been ground down by a terrible relationship and so, of course, was ripe to be ground down by another one. I was really very frightened that she would consent to go out with this overbearing guy--her landlord, in fact. I was very down on the idea of her having dinner with this landlord, who was also, incidentally, a slumlord. And when I met the land/slumlord, I was even more down on the idea. Really, I was frantic.

"You said he had a head shaped like a potato," said my friend, years later. And that is what had stuck in her head. For he did have a head shaped like a potato, and she seeing his head as I saw his head broke the spell he was weaving.

I am not sure what sort of universal lesson I can make out of two anecdotes. After all, I have a counter-anecdote, in which I offered female solidarity to a Catholic woman whose boyfriend--whom all her friends despised--was pressuring her for sex and although she had told all the girls this, she told me in friendship-ending terms to mind my own business.

My counter-example leads me to the conclusion that you might be want to be super-diplomatic about lousy boyfriends when it comes to women who aren't your best friends. And you might want to wait until a woman asks for your opinion--explicitly or implicitly--before you say anything. (If she is sporting a black eye or is otherwise obviously miserable, I'd take the plunge though, personally.) And when you are choosing words, if you do choose to choose words, pick a startling image--something short, pithy and arguably "non-judgmental" that just seems to sum up the man, or what he looks like--that will be sure to linger in your friend's mind. You might have a lot more influence over your friend's opinions than you think.

Update: Before anyone asks, I have to say I think it even riskier to say what you think of a guy's girlfriend. Heavens! Unless he's your brother, of course, and he's already feeling unhappy. Don't tick off your boyfriends' sisters, girls.


healthily sanguine said...

Bravo! I will say from personal experience that a close friend's honest, undiluted observations carry weight with me. I may choose not to act on them in a given situation, but I hope I have learned that often my friends are wiser than I am and able to see things that in my innoce--ok, no, obliviousness, I fail to notice. Yay to girl friends!

Lynn said...

The problem I usually have with my friends is that they are not so much asking my opinion as ranting about how terrible the men in their lives are. So I listen, and as soon as I start to agree that the man in question is a creep, my friend immediately switches to his defense with very impressive evidence like "that's not the real him" or "he said/did such-and-such" (nice things) which apparently counteract all the negative things she just told me. So then it's just me (a girl who's probably just jealous and who's never had a boyfriend so what does she know anyway?) attacking her man! Now that I've realized I was having the same conversation over and over, I generally vary between a frank response: "Wow, he sounds like a jerk. You should dump him!" or a sarcastic one: "Sounds like he's a real winner; can I date him?" I'm not sure if these are at all helpful to my friends, but I'm so tired of choosing my words. Any advice for better (more helpful) responses would be appreciated.

Also, ditto on the brother advice. After my brother was dumped for the last time by a girl he'd been dating off and on for over four years, I admitted to him what I'd always thought of her. He turned to me and (somewhat angrily) said, "Why didn't you TELL me?"

margaret said...

I finally ended up once telling a dear friend that it was okay to put her (useless, non-commital boyfriend) on the back burner. I said it was okay to love him (her other friends were saying ditch him which I knew she couldn't do) but that she had to prioritise her own life and I'm glad to say she did. If someone puts all her energy into stopping loving someone she has none left for anything else but if she can put him gently aside she can often get on with herself and then see him for what he is (or isn't).

Sarah said...

My question is: If he's "deeply unattractive," why remark on it? Obviously if your friend is interested, there must be something she finds handsome about him.

If I asked one of my friends what they thought of my boyfriend, I'd hope they'd agree, "Oh, he's cute!" But if they didn't find him as attractive as I do, I'd hope they'd have the courtesy to make a polite remark on his good taste in shirts, and keep tactfully silent regarding his looks. Otherwise, I think any critique of his character would fly right over my head. The fastest way to alienate any woman is to needlessly insult or deride her man. Commenting on his looks (and age, for that matter) seems needless to me.

Seraphic said...

Oh--by deeply unattractive, I didn't mean his looks. I meant as a person. As a matter of fact, only one of my friends has married a guy I thought was really handsome. But the others are also very nice men and I could see what my friends saw (and see) in them.

Sundancer said...

Oh, this is a hard one! I have a couple of friends who insist on being with either the same abusive man, or the same type of man, and nothing I can say makes a difference. :( My other friends have advised me to just let them do their own thing, and that anything I say will only hurt our friendship, I can't fix them. It kills me to listen to them talk incessantly about these horrible people they let hurt them again and again. :(