Single, Hooking Up, Married: When Your Friends Are Doing Love Differently
A few years ago, Keneta Anderson looked around the room at the costume party she had gone to with her good friends, three couples.
They were nowhere to be found. They had left her, the single friend, at the party without saying goodbye.
Even though it was a place she knew well and she didn't feel unsafe, her feelings were hurt. She realized she was treated differently than the others in her friend group because she was single. Several of them would consider her one of their best friends, but the three couples had formed a group within a group.
"There's not only not a scenario where they would have left a spouse or a partner without saying goodbye, there’s also not a scenario where a couple would have left the other couples without saying, 'Hey, we're taking off,'" said Anderson, a philanthropic and communication strategy consultant in Washington state.
"I think they relate to their friends who are couples in a different way than they relate to me. ... They’re the best of friends and yet they do not think of me as part of that cohort."
A balancing act
If we're not paying attention, our romantic relationships can interfere with our friendships. It's one thing if all your friends are in the same place romantically — everybody's in a committed relationship, or everybody's single, or dating around.
But "it certainly can be a bit destabilizing for a group of friends when several of you are in different places, romantically speaking," clinical psychologist Daniel Sher said.
"I mean, romance is a pretty central aspect of our identities; and a person’s relationship status often determines, to a large extent, the sorts of activities that you spend your time pursuing."
Your own relationship status can make it a challenge to relate to friends who are going through something different. Even if you want to be supportive of your friend's relationship, or lack thereof, because we all handle our love lives differently, it's easy to go to a judgmental place.
"If you’re in a committed relationship and they’re dating around, or vice versa, it can be hard to put yourself in their shoes and relate to the struggles that they’re going through," said Dave Bowden, who gives dating advice on his website, Irreverent Gent. "But the truth is that you actually don’t have to. One of the best things you can do to be there for your friends when they’re in a different place from you romantically is by focusing on them, rather than their relationship status."
What does that mean? First of all, it means making sure your friendship stays in tact.
"Schedule time to do the things you enjoyed doing together before your relationship statuses diverged," he said.
But also reframe the way you're thinking about the situation.
"As they explain relationship struggles that you can’t relate to, try asking yourself a different question. Instead of asking yourself 'What would I do in that situation?' and struggling to find the answer, try asking, 'What does my friend need from me right now?'" Bowden said.
"You may not know exactly what they’re going through, but you know your friend, and you’ll likely find being there for them a lot easier than imagining what it’s like to be them."
Talking about difference
As a married person who practices polyamory, dating people outside of their primary relationship, Jem Wuollet has experience being in a different place romantically than many of their friends. And dealing with some who have been openly judgmental.
"I’ve had couple friends I’ve known since high school tell me point blank, 'Why would you ruin your relationship like that?' or 'I don’t understand why you wouldn’t just be single and date around,'" they said.
But, for the most part, their monogamous friends have been good allies, "even if they didn’t quite understand."
One of the best ways to support and understand your friend's romantic choices better is simply to ask about them, said Wuollet, a barista in Minneapolis.
"Be openly curious, because when it comes to someone else’s relationships, you’re doing them a disservice by speculating or making assumptions," they said. "And the more we have conversations about different styles of relationships and non-monogamy, the more willing people will be to accept and maybe try it for themselves."
Ask questions from a place of curiosity rather than judgment. Unless your friend is "engaging in risk-taking behavior, and you can see that they're maybe not being safe, or they’re trying to reach out and ask for help," it's best to keep your critiques to yourself, Wuollet said.
"If it doesn’t really affect you, if it’s not your relationship, you have to understand your opinion doesn’t have any bearing on someone else’s love life," they said.
'A unique position'
Wuollet and Anderson both said their experiences have given them useful perspectives on the dating world.
Because Wuollet is married but also dating, "it helps me relate to my friends who are still dating or single or not in that phase of their lives yet, and I’ve found that I've become a source of advice for a lot of my friends who want to know my perspective," they said. "It’s kind of a unique position that I’ve found myself in."
Anderson has been single for most of her adult life. It was just a couple months ago that she got into a committed relationship. And she wants to make sure she applies what she learned as a single person to her life as a coupled person: the importance of extending "the same care and courtesy and consciousness" to your friends as you would to your partner.
"I am consciously applying these things — how do I behave with these single friends? The good news is we’re doing a really good job."