The Atlantic

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

One of my best friends—I’ve known him since I was fourteen—is a bit of an inadvertent asshole. He can sometimes come off as incredibly insensitive, rude, and show-offy, and, for some reason, he competes with me in life. I am aware of these qualities, but I attribute them to his very difficult past and upbringing. I believe these experiences have given him a complex and some rough edges—hence my calling him an “inadvertent asshole.” To put it another way: I have known people who are nice, polite, and thoughtful, but who have not been there when I truly needed them. This friend, on the other hand, can come off as a prick, but if you call him at 2 o’clock in the morning for literally anything, he’ll be there, no hesitation. He’s always been there for me, and I love him like a brother.

Here’s the problem: My wife can’t stand him. Never could. And since he got married, it’s only gotten worse. When he was single, I could always see if he wanted to get drinks or grab a bite to eat, just the two of us. But now he always wants to include our wives. They invite us to dinner, drinks, concerts, and wine tastings, but every time my wife flatly declines, and I end up making excuses. This has been going on for a couple of years now, and I think they are starting to get the hint.

We had them over for a big cookout this summer, and they seemed annoyed. His wife (who I have always gotten along with) commented that they hadn’t seen us in forever. I laughed it off and said something about how busy everyone seems to be these days. But to be honest, it breaks my heart to have two arrogant and tone deaf—but ultimately decent—people realize that we’re snubbing them.

I desperately need some guidance on how to handle this situation.

Anonymous
Los Gatos, California


Dear Anonymous,

I can understand why your wife doesn’t want to hang out with your friend and his spouse—and why she’s probably confused as to why you’d want to hang out with them. What could the man she’s in love with have in common with people who behave this way? And, by extension, what could she possibly have in common with them? And yet, your wife does have one very significant thing in common with them: you.

When people get married, their spouses come not á la carte, but as a package deal: Family members and friends are integral parts of who they are. In fact, marriages tend to thrive when people come into them with full lives of their own, including strong friendships of their own. Friends provide emotional support and shared outside interests—and, as in the case of the friend in question, they often link us to our pasts. Having these outside connections often makes marriages more resilient than those in which people rely on each other to fulfill all of their needs.

Of course, because we acquire friends at different times in our lives—which is to say, when we ourselves may have been different people from the ones our spouses will meet years later—odds are that our partners won’t “get” some of these friendships. But here’s the thing: You don’t have to love these people, but unless they’re destructive in some way—like negatively influencing your partner’s behavior—understanding that your spouse’s friendships are important is part of being a supportive partner.

So, here’s what you can do: You can talk to your wife, you can talk to your friend, or you can talk to both.

Let’s start with your wife. To her credit, it doesn’t sound as if she’s asking you to ditch your friend. After all, she didn’t seem to mind when you hung out with him alone. At the same time, I don’t think she appreciates the untenable position she’s putting you in—that by turning down all plans with this couple, she’s essentially asking you to choose between maintaining your friendship and protecting her wish not to see them. You’ve chosen to protect her wish, but in doing so, you’re damaging both your friendship and your marriage (since you’ll likely feel resentment toward your wife).

A better option would be to talk to your wife about why this friendship is so important to you despite your friend’s obvious shortcomings. What are his attributes? What does he mean to you? What about his difficult upbringing might explain why he acts this way? Let her know that even so, you understand why she doesn’t like him. Then ask her what she’d hope you would do if she had a close friend or family member who was the “inadvertent asshole.” Would she want you to go out with this person occasionally because they’re important to her? How would she feel if you acknowledged that this person can be difficult and still refused to see them? Or would she hope instead that you’d find a way to tolerate and make the best of occasional plans with the person she loves because you love her and don’t want to put her in an untenable position?

See if asking her to consider this perspective makes her more willing to compromise, and lay out the ways you’re willing to accommodate her, too. Together, you might come up with a limit on the number of couple outings per year, or decide that you’ll only say yes to activities with them that require less conversation time—concerts and movies versus a three-course restaurant dinner or an at-home barbecue. Most married people have “couple friends” and “individual friends,” and if you and your friend go out with your wives a few times a year, that should reduce the awkwardness enough to allow the majority of socializing with this friend to be one-on-one.

As for your friend, talking to him could go one of two ways: It could bring you two even closer or it could create an awkward distance—but since there’s already an awkwardness that he’s picking up on, the truth could be a kind of gift, if presented in that spirit. It might go something like, “Hey, Joe, I know we haven’t seen you guys much, and I love you like a brother, so I want to tell you why. My wife is really low-key and sometimes she feels a little uncomfortable when people make certain comments that seem off-putting to her. I totally get who you are, but she doesn’t know you the way I do. I’m sure you don’t even realize you’re doing it, and I’m a little afraid of even telling you this because our friendship is so important to me and I don’t want you to take this the wrong way. I want you to know that if the situations were reversed I’d want you to be honest with me so that your wife felt more comfortable around me, because while we can still hang alone as much as we want, I’d like to see you guys more, too.”

He may hear this not as loving feedback but as hurtful criticism, so you’ll have to use your judgment based on your many years of knowing him as to which outcome is more likely. If he is open to the conversation, it might make things slightly more pleasant for your wife and also help him be less of an “inadvertent asshole.” But no matter how you handle it with him, coming to a mutually agreeable compromise with your wife is great practice for the many differences you’ll discover and have to work through in the years to come. There will be countless times when one of you won’t want to do something for the other, but will decide to do it anyway because it would mean the world to your partner. In a sense, your tone-deaf friend might unwittingly be teaching you the greatest marital lesson of all.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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