Some of the trickiest, dumbest, most persistent fights in relationships revolve around people who probably don’t even know it: The ultra-tight best friend your partner swears they’ve never thought about romantically; the roommate who loves to cuddle; the coworker who sends a steady stream of memes and inside jokes off the clock; the forever-ago ex who’s “actually a really cool person.” Fighting about the fact that your partner has a life outside of you is a sign you’re not mature enough for a relationship, full stop. But when the issue boils down to one specific friendship, things get a little more complicated—especially when you’re not sure whether jealousy is a “you problem” or if there’s actually something off about the way your partner and their friend communicate.
The good news is that jealousy is basically the Godfather of all relationship problems (a timeless classic!) according to relationship expert and therapist Rachel Sussman. “It’s human nature—to survive, to protect ourselves and to protect our families. We tend to think that someone might endanger our relationship and that elicits some anxiety, some fear of losing this person,” Sussman told VICE. “We describe that feeling by calling it ‘jealousy,’ but it's actually a fear that something might happen to your relationship and you might lose the person that you love.”
Just because it’s normal to feel jealous, though, doesn’t mean jealous feelings should be consuming your thoughts or coloring your interactions with the person you’re dating. If you’re not sure whether you should talk to your partner about why one of their other relationships makes you uncomfortable—or if you’re tired of half-broaching the topic in a way that makes you both feel pissed and confused—take a few deep breaths, then take some time to unpack why you want to that about “that friend” and figure out how to have a productive conversation.
Talk to yourself before you talk to your partner
If you find yourself feeling increasingly jealous, or just a steady level of discomfort, with the way your partner spends time with one other person in their life, that’s a problem you need to address—but not necessarily one that you need to confront your partner about. Instead, experts say you need to do a little introspection on past relationships and whether or not this kind of jealousy is a pattern for you. That way, you can figure out whether your feelings are something to flag to your partner as an issue you’re personally working on, or you can have a talk about ways they may need to modify their behavior towards this “friend.”
If you’re noticing boundaries being crossed, it’s time to communicate with your partner
QuaVaundra Perry, a certified psychologist who specializes in relationship distress, said there are two major signs you should talk to your partner about their relationship with one specific friend. “If you're never invited to hang out with them, that's pretty concerning. It’s like, ‘If it's just platonic, at least give me an invitation! I may not be interested in the thing that you guys are bonding around, but at least give me the opportunity to say no,’” she told VICE. “The other thing is how much emotional support you all give one another.” If you find your partner frequently consults their friend or vents to them about their feelings, especially instead of venting to you, and extra especially if they’re venting about your relationship, that’s worth having a (blunt but non-accusatory) conversation about.
Lastly, when your partner and your friend are communicating matters too. Do they frequently drunk dial each other? Stay up Facetiming until 2am? Talk a ton outside of work or school about their personal lives? Those are boundaries your partner should know better than to cross—but it might be up to you to assert them, especially if this friendship predates your relationship.
If you’re feeling insecure or the relationship is new, it might be you
According to the experts, there are a few signs your jealousy is a “you” problem. If you’re finding yourself fixating on your partner’s ex, especially if that ex isn’t super present in their life now (maybe they text every so often or see each other at big gatherings with mutual friends), you might be creating what Sussman calls “fantasy jealousy” and worrying about a threat that isn’t really there.
She recommends that you ask yourself a few questions to determine what it is about this other person that makes you feel insecure: “Are you not comfortable with your looks, are you not comfortable with where you are in your career? Is there something about you that you're not comfortable with? Why are you putting this other person on a pedestal and comparing your current relationship that's good to something that inherently broke?”
Perry said that relationship timeline is also a factor—if the relationship is a newer one, you could be bringing baggage from past relationships to the table, or still getting a feel for what your partner is like as a person. “I've seen it come up in the beginning of a relationship, and usually if it comes up to the beginning of a relationship, that can be a sign that it might be your own stuff,” Perry told VICE. “But if it comes up after you've been dating for a while, and you’ve had time to think through and maybe get some advice from friends, then it's usually an outside issue, like, the partner and his friend. It’s not 100 percent black and white, but that's kind of the trend.”
Pre-plan the conversation
Even if you’ve given it a lot of thought and decided that your jealousy has more to do with your insecurity than your partner’s behavior, it could be a good idea to let them know how you’re feeling—and flag that you’re working on it. “If it's a pretty solid, emotionally connected relationship, it's fine to say, ‘Hey, there might be times where I ask a couple more questions, and you might find that to be annoying, but this is just something that I'm trying to work through,’” Perry said. She also recommended talking to friends or talking to a therapist about persistent jealousy issues, especially if they stem from infidelity in past relationships—that way, you take some of the heat off of your partner when it comes to managing your emotions.
If you do decide you need to have a conversation with your partner about their relationship with one specific friend, timing and approach are key. Sussman recommends scheduling the talk in advance. “When I need to talk to my husband about something, I schedule it like I'm scheduling a business meeting: ‘When would you have some time to talk? I need about an hour.’ And he'll just go right to his calendar and tell me when!” she said.
Tone matters, too—making your partner feel attacked (even if you think they deserve it!) is not the way to have a productive conversation. “Approach it in a non-accusatory way, something like ‘Hey, I'm pretty sure this is something that neither of you are trying to do, but it's making me feel this way,’” Perry said. “And then have concrete examples,” of boundary-crossing or non-inclusive behavior, “to lay out for them.” Not only will bringing up specific incidents help your partner understand what bothers you (ie, It hurt my feelings when you and ______ streamed the Tiger King finale together, even though you promised you’d watch it with me!); lining up those examples will help ground you and keep you from veering off into vague accusations that get you both nowhere (You and ______ should buy a zoo together, since you both love tigers so much!).
If your partner is dismissive or defensive, trust your gut
Even if you frame things perfectly (and you won’t, because nobody can), it’s still possible that your partner could get upset or hurt when you bring up the friend who you feel jealous of. Your partner might feel offended that you don’t trust them, or embarrassed that they didn’t notice anything was off sooner. Those “negative” reactions are fine and worth talking through—be prepared for the fact that this might not be a one-convo issue for the two of you.
On the other hand, name-calling, dismissiveness, and defensiveness are a hard no-go. “A bad reaction sounds like: ‘You’re crazy, you’re a jealous bitch, you’re so insecure, grow a pair!’ or using the best defense, an offense, like ‘what are you talking about, you’re the one who flirts with everybody!” Sussman said. “If anything like that happens, say something like, ‘Wow, I'm really surprised by your reaction. I came to you in a way that could bring us closer, because having difficult conversations is a way that we strengthen and grow relationships. I'm really hurt by your behavior, and I've got nothing else to say on this topic.’”
After that, Sussman strongly recommends pulling away ASAP and seriously reconsidering whether this is someone you want to be with. Whether or not something is off in your partner’s friendship (and a strong, cruel reaction means you were probably right to be suspicious) is off the table when there’s clearly something off with… your partner. “If this is how your partner responds to a desire from you to have a deep, intimate conversation, where's this relationship going to go?”
Best case scenario, make a new friend
Hopefully, though, your partner doesn’t go r/relationships on your ass—meaning instead of calling you a “controlling, paranoid freak” for asking why their “friend” is the sole beneficiary on their life insurance policy, they should acknowledge your point of view, they should explain themselves, and try to work with you to reach a solution that works for both of you. “Even if they disagree, they will hear you out and they validate your experience,” Perry said. “I try to teach people that validation does not mean that they agree, but they at least acknowledge, ‘Hey, this is having an impact on you, and I'm sorry for that.’”
If your partner is adamant that there’s nothing unusual happening between them and their friend and open to modifying any boundary-pushing behavior, that’s awesome—but it still might not go all the way in calming down your active imagination. Luckily, there’s another, pretty easy solution: Hang out with both of them, and try to develop an independent relationship with this person too. If they have good intentions, they’ll be happy to welcome you into their life as someone who their friend loves and is invested in.
Obviously you don’t need to become instant besties, but watching the way your partner and their friend hang out while establishing some rapport between the three of you will go a long way to alleviate your anxiety. It’s easy to be jealous of some mysterious, multi-talented hottie who lived in your partner’s freshman dorm. It’s a lot harder to be jealous of Dylan, the multi-talented hottie who lived in your partner’s freshman dorm... who you absolutely destroyed in Settlers of Catan at Game Night last week.
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