In one sense the gist of what “Ask Polly” says to letter writer Still Meriwether Lewis’s Secret Admirer is on point. Despite all the psychobabble she is doling out, Polly does understand that the relationship in question is probably beyond repair. She doesn't quite understand why or she is too tactful to say why, but she intuits the problem.
Nevertheless, the case is interesting, for those of us who find cases interesting. A woman has been dating a man for a year now and finds that his friends, especially his female friends, do not like her. They do not accept her into their crowd. They make her feel uncomfortable. However hard she tries they keep telling her that she is not a serious girlfriend, but is her boyfriend’s bimbo du jour.
Needless to say, this is distressing. Surely, it means something. And not something good. Forget all of the psychobabble, if your boyfriend’s friends do not like you and feel that they can treat you contemptuously, you have a relationship problem. Since these friends are apparently recent college graduates one does not expect that they have very well developed social skills. And yet, they are trying to tell SMLSA that her relationship has a very short shelf life.
Most tales of relationship agony assume that the unhappy couple is having trouble getting along. They assume that the problem exists within the relationship bubble that the two of them inhabit. Today’s letter writer emphasizes a more salient point, one that is often ignored. Relationships involve many more people than the couple itself. As long as human beings are not monads, they function within social groups. If you do not get along with members of your beloved’s social group, both family and friends, your relationship is headed for trouble.
As for the problem at hand, if you read between the lines, you will discover it lurking in the shadows. It has nothing to do with how well turned out the letter writer is. It has nothing to do with her childhood traumas. It has nothing to do with her career success or lack of same.
It has to do with age difference. Neither the letter writer nor Polly addresses this question, so you can feel confident that it matters.
Note the way SMLSA opens her letter:
I have been dating my boyfriend for about a year now, and it’s my third “serious” adult relationship. I’m a lawyer, and he’s in law school. The problem is, some of his friends treat me like I’m the current bimbo.
We do not know how old either of these people is. And yet, she is out of law school. He is in law school. In itself that does not create the most yawning age gap.
And yet, later on, we read this:
To be fair, I know he’s serious about me. He selected literally the closest law school to me.
This suggests that when the couple met he was in college and she was a practicing attorney. Suddenly the age gap widens. And since we know that the maturity difference between a male college student and a meaningfully employed female attorney is considerable, we may reasonably conclude that his friends believe that he has made a mistake. They see a sensitive young man being manipulated by an older Jezebel. In their eyes the relationship has no real future. Or better, they believe that he would be best served by finding a more appropriate girlfriend.
As it happens, when SMLSA describes the antics of her boyfriend’s friends it all sounds more like what goes on at a frat house than what goes on at a dinner party.
One notes a significant omission. Aside from a brief mention of a couple of weekends with her parents, SMLSA never mentions what happens when they hang out with her friends. Could that be a sign that he is much younger than they are? Or is it about a status gap? If so, she is protecting him from the condescending attitude older established lawyers will show to a law student.
As it happens, the boyfriend’s friends treat SMSLA as an outsider, despite her best efforts to paint her nails:
I show up to parties with these people with an outfit I agonized over for days, painted nails, contoured face, styled hair, the whole exhausting works, so that these women will treat me nicely. They don’t choose their words carefully or recognize that an outsider to this somewhat incestuous group might be put off by “inside” jokes about how popular my boyfriend was with the ladies.
But, why hasn’t said boyfriend intervened to defend his girlfriend? He ought certainly to do so. It is the right and proper, the gentlemanly thing to do. If he is not doing so, perhaps he is too young to understand what is going on or perhaps he is afraid of confronting anyone in his social circle. This does not speak well of him.
SMLSA often confronts him over the disrespect she is receiving:
My boyfriend and I frequently fight about the disconnect between his friends’ girlfriends and me. I feel like they don’t see me as anything but his current squeeze, because (a) we aren’t engaged, and (b) for personal reasons that these people think are bizarre (and for more personal reasons I don’t share), I don’t want to live together before marriage.
One understands that SMSLA sees it all through her own lens. But still, if the friends want the two of them to be engaged, they would certainly not be treating her like an outsider. Quite the contrary. They would be welcoming her into their coven. Nevertheless, the fact that her boyfriend does not defend her and stand up for her signals that something is wrong with the relationship.
Then again, for all I know the one who needs defending is the man himself. Could it be that he is being manipulated by a woman who is a lot older and a lot more mature than he is. If his female friends see things this way, the chances are very high that they are not misreading the situation. Unfortunately, they are not being subtle about it, but such is the way of youth.
Note how SMLSA describes her beau:
He’s affectionate, kind, and extremely intelligent. He might have been “popular” with the ladies, but he definitely was not a fuckboy — he’s too sensitive. His “problems” are that he believes in people and believes that not everyone is out for nefarious purposes. My “problem” is that I think people are usually out to advance themselves by cutting down others. We both intellectually know that people are in the middle.
I imagine that this is what passes for mature conversation in certain circles. The emphasis on the man’s sensitivity suggests that he is easy to manipulate. He maintains a naïve optimism about people’s intentions, which is fine for someone who is just starting law school. She is more hard headed, believing that most people are trying to advance themselves at other people’s expense. She closes by suggesting that they both have reached a meeting of the minds, a compromise, a golden mean between two extremes. It’s a little too cute to be real.
More importantly, he is allowing his friends to mistreat his girlfriend. This suggests that he is far too sensitive and that his role in the couple does not involve defending his girlfriend.
As for Polly’s advice, for those who might care or who believe that I am depriving them of a nugget of therapeutic wisdom, here it is:
Stop trying to be impressive and just BE WHO YOU ARE. You’re just a smart, intense woman who doesn’t know how this relationship will turn out. That bothers you. You want to know if there’s a happy ending in this picture for you. That’s normal. Start down this new path by accepting that you’re in an inherently vulnerable position. It’s okay to feel that. It’s natural that it makes you anxious.
Of course, being who you are might mean acting your age. And, acting her age might mean finding a boyfriend who is more age appropriate. Polly does see, though she is perhaps too tactful to mention it, that the situation does not look like it is heading in the right direction.
So Polly offers a pep talk to someone who is about to lose a year-long relationship:
But listen to me: You’re beautiful without contour make-up and you’re worthy without an interesting backstory and you’re lovable without your amazing friends who love you. You’re full even when your overactive, defensive mind tells you that the world will judge you as empty. Try to feel how full you are, even with nothing, even with empty hands and no prepared case and zero proof.
I will not even attempt to suss out the meaning of the notion that the letter writer should feel full even if she has nothing. But it does suggest that Polly is anything but optimistic about her relationship. SMLSA ought to take her leave from a relationship that seems to have serious problems. Not because of how she feels. And not because of how he feels. But because of how it all looks to other people.