Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Your Sorry Ass,
Two of my old friends have been in a relationship for a long time. We’ve all known each other since college, and I even introduced them in our freshman year. While they undoubtedly make each other happy and have a lot of fun moments, their personalities are so similar that they get each other worked up to the point that even the smallest setback or mistake can launch them into a lengthy, pointless fight.
I’m not dating either of them. How they choose to spend their time is none of my business.
I’m not dating either of them, so how they choose to spend their time is none of my business. The problem is that we take turns visiting each other as they live several hours away. I love getting out of town and enjoy traveling to see them, but on my last visit I felt like the fun moments were frequently sandwiched between episodes of them bickering. They generally wind up each other’s anxiety until it is uncomfortable for everyone.
We went on a tough hike on a steep trail and got lost for about an hour. I was wearing sneakers, as I had not prepared to go on a full hike, so I was moving a little slower than they were. I would frequently get very far behind while trying to navigate rocks in Converse, and they wouldn’t even notice that I was struggling because they were too busy sniping at each other loud enough for me (and other hikers) to hear.
Even worse than the loud arguments are the quiet ones that seem to happen on the drop of a dime. I completely understand that this is my opinion and they may not feel the same way, but all of their fights seem incredibly stupid and are usually over completely moot points.
I wouldn’t enjoy sitting in the backseat listening to them fight over real problems, either. But it’s extra frustrating for me to not just scream out “Who gives a shit?” when they’re fighting over whose fault it is that we can’t find parking or that we’re stuck in traffic.
I would have said something earlier, but it’s tricky because a few years ago I was vocal in saying that their relationship wasn’t healthy. In addition, I had a falling out with the guy in the relationship that was never fully resolved, but I eventually got tired of not seeing my best friend as often because she doesn’t like to travel without him. Since then, I’ve made an honest effort to be nicer to him, and I have remembered why we were friends in the first place. And holding a grudge just didn’t feel like the best use of my energy.
In addition, I’ve been much more careful with the advice that I give when she is having real problems with their relationship, and I try to just focus on being supportive and a good listener. I won’t lie, I’m kind of judgmental and have to work extra hard to conceal it. But as a result of previous mouthiness, I have to tread carefully when talking about my issues.
So what’s the best way to tell them to stop bitching at each other when we’re around? I don’t want to drive across state lines to listen to more of this shit, and I want them to know that I won’t put up with it again. Is there a good way to tell them this before we start planning for our next meeting, or do I have to wait until they’re in the middle of it to point it out? Or do I just get used to it because this is how they are most of the time?
The Third Wheel
Dear Third Wheel,
You say you’re judgmental—well, you’re in good company! After all, I advertise “bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor.” You already sound pretty fair—you have a valid complaint, and, despite prior mouthiness, you’re trying to deliver it in the most respectful way possible, without overstepping your bounds. And I think you’re doing your best to be kind; you know your friend needs your support, and you’re working on it. Good humor is a little harder of course, because it’s incredibly grating to be exposed to constant bickering when you’re supposed to be socializing. Compounded by your travel time, you have reason to be irritated at your inconsiderate friends, whatever their relationship problems may be. It’s just thoughtless behavior.
They’re probably just not aware of what assholes they’re being—love isn’t blind, but it’s myopic.
Unless you’ve got a knack for on-the-fly conflict mediation, it is generally unwise to attempt to insert yourself in a romantic spat; your input is unlikely to de-escalate the situation. I would actually say that if you find yourself the middle of an Edward Albee play again, you should really just leave. A warm (but firm), “Thank you guys for coming out, but we should probably save this for a better time,” will suffice. They’re probably just not aware of what assholes they’re being—love isn’t blind, but it’s myopic. Obviously though, prevention is preferable, and you can address the behavior without betraying your judgment.
Your best bet is to talk to the woman privately beforehand. You’re closest to her, and there’s less tension. Wait until you talk to her on the phone next. Ask her how she’s doing, and ask about the relationship—she might actually bring up one of the fights on her own. If not, you can say, “You seem like you two are fight a lot right now—actually it puts me in a really uncomfortable situation when we’re all supposed to be hanging out, and you guys are sniping at each other.” She’ll probably be a little embarrassed, and there’s a chance she might be defensive, but the key is gentle sympathy. You should make it clear that you want to have a good time with them, but it’s impossible to do that when they get hostile.
A given couple tends to form its own little ecosystem; sometimes it’s a bucolic meadow of warmth and harmony, sometimes it’s a violent wasteland of overwhelming and collective murder. Should you find yourself in the jungles of a hostile love, you’re well within your rights as a friend to ask for a little fucking horticulture.