Carolyn Hax: Being sensitive to newly single friends; dialing down jealousy

Carolyn Hax
Columnist November 30, 2012

Hello, Carolyn: A few of my close friends have recently gone through difficult breakups; meanwhile, I’m newly in love after many years of being more-or-less-happily single. I’m trying to balance grad school, being a good friend, and developing this great new relationship, but a couple of comments from my girlfriends have made it clear I’m not really balancing the last two very well.

One friend recently admitted to being distant because she’s not eager to see/hear about happy couple-y stuff so soon after her own breakup, and another was angry with me for canceling a “date” with her because she assumed I’d canceled to hang out with my boyfriend (not true, I had a school issue, which she knew about).

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I thought I was doing a decent job balancing these things — not constantly talking about the boy, no kissing/snuggling in front of people, no pitying looks, just honest happiness — until these friends told me otherwise.

How can I figure out where the line is so I don’t cause pain to these friends? I tried sincerely asking them what they’d like me to change, but that only yielded assurances that they’re happy for me and that I should continue being happy. — K.


Consider this permission to take them at their word.

You’re not causing them pain, their circumstances are. Merely by being sensitive to this, you fulfill your primary obligation to them as their friend. It is not your job to tiptoe around as if they’re unexploded ordnance.

Maybe you aren’t balancing well, sure, and your friends’ concerns reflect that, but it seems premature to draw that conclusion from just two incidents, quite different ones at that.

The first was an admission that being around your happiness is hard. While it’s good you didn’t respond with anger or by taking it personally — all-too-common responses — you still leapt to take responsibility for her feelings. Say instead, “I understand, take any time you need,” and you accept her feelings vs. presuming to fix them.

The second was a misunderstanding — one you were apparently in a position to clear up by reminding her of your prior school commitment.

If it does turn out these two were related parts of a larger mistake you’re making, then you’ll soon find that out without scrutinizing your every move for error. In the meantime, please know there is also great kindness in letting problems retain their natural size.

* * *

Dear Carolyn: I have battled a jealous streak my whole life. That said, I am jealous of my husband’s ex-wife because he still gets in touch with her. He admitted he talked to her “just occasionally, maybe once a month.” It is probably just phone calls and/or e-mail, but I can’t understand why he would want to continue talking with her, and I wonder what they have to talk about.

She left him wounded from her serial extramarital affairs, and he lost considerable savings to support her career moves. When she stepped into a brilliant and high-paying career, she left him behind. He knows I don’t like him contacting her, and he knows it infuriates me when he speaks highly of her. Am I being a control freak? — Weary of Ex-Wife

You are expecting your husband to fix your jealousy problem, so, in that sense, yes, your stance on his ex-wife is a controlling one.

I can also argue that it’s illogical on a couple of counts. For one, doesn’t it sound more bizarre for two people who used to spend every day together just to up and stop talking, forever? I don’t doubt the ex put your husband through a wringer, but people are complicated, as are the relationships they form. He could remain justifiably annoyed by her infidelity and opportunism while still valuing her opinion on, say, his mom or work or a recent gallery show. They can be “over” without snipping every last little thread.

Another point of illogic is the idea that your forbidding their contact would somehow cure what ails you. You don’t like his high opinion of her? It won’t change if they stop talking. You don’t like that he wants to talk to her? That won’t change if they stop talking (and in fact it might intensify). You don’t like feeling that your marriage is vulnerable to other women? That won’t change if they stop talking. Welcome to life. No one lives in a vacuum and everyone is vulnerable to loss.

Since you’ve had a “whole-life” jealous streak, please see the irrelevance of the ex — and of your husband, even, or any one person — to your feelings of possessiveness and insecurity. They’re systemic, and all the relevant information is inside you. I don’t like proposing therapy as an only answer, but it seems like it’s time to call up competent reinforcements in this recurring fight with yourself.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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