Ms. Opinionated: My Boyfriend Says His Friends Think He Can Do Better

image of Megan Carpentier

Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.

Dear Ms. Opinionated.

Last night my boyfriend and I were drunkenly walking to our train, stopping in the middle to tell each other how much we love one another, and giving mushy, drunken kisses. Then all of a sudden, he told me that some people, I think from work—who he insisted on keeping anonymous—asked why he stays with me and say that he can do better. I suppose he told me because he was drunk, and because he wanted to let me know that he thought those people were wrong, but I can't get over it.

First of all, when we first started dating about four years ago, some of my friends said that *I* could do better. My boyfriend is not as mature as I am, and at the time he was overweight. But I never told him what they said because I knew it would hurt him. Since then, he's lost weight, and I've gained weight. I still have pretty good body image, and I don't usually care what other people think. Naturally, however, there are times when I'm hard on myself, and I've wondered if my boyfriend thinks he can do better.

It's also important to note that a couple of months ago, I caught him sexting some girl he met at a bar with his best friend one night. I was livid and I was hurt. I went away for the weekend and when I came back to talk about what happened, he profusely apologized, said that he had a terrible weekend without me, and regretted what he did. He said he didn't know why he did it, blah blah, the same things that most guys say when they get caught. But I really believe him, especially since he has truly kept his promises. He's been faithful to me, and he's also worked on the things I said needed to change: He's more communicative, he doesn't shut me out when he's upset, and he stopped holding grudges for stupid things.

I know that he didn't meant to hurt me when he said what he did last night, but I'm so hurt and I can't just get over it. I don't know how to talk to him because I don't think he understands how much it hurts. He thinks that what other people said shouldn't matter, it only matters what we think of each other. But then why would he tell me?? If the sexting situation has anything to do with letting other people get in his head, how am I supposed to trust that he won't let it happen again? Is it time to cut my losses and break up with the man I plan on marrying?

First off, let me say: You have every right to feel hurt, and to have trouble getting past what he said to you. I don't think there's a person in the world whose ego could come away unscathed after hearing, "Some unnamed friends think I could do better than you." As you rightly point out, on it's own it is hurtful to hear that your partner's friends feel that way about you, and it's worse to find yourself running through in your head which people with whom you might be regularly interacting think you're "not good enough" for your long term partner. And, when it's about your physical appearance rather than the quality of the relationship -- things like whether you're kind, supportive, make your partner feel cared about and loved -- it's really just entirely shallow (as it was when your friends said it about him, though one suspects in hindsight that the maturity level might have had just a little bit to do with it).

It's frankly a total shit sandwich of a thing to hand to someone -- and, no, he doesn't totally think "that what other people said shouldn't matter," otherwise it wouldn't have come tumbling out of his mouth when his inhibitions were down. Actually, to me, it sounds like a pretty shady, albeit maybe subconscious way (if I'm being generous), to try to change the power dynamic in your relationship. Anyone with a lick of sense knows that saying that is hurtful, and that it's bound to make the other person feel insecure in social situations if not the relationship -- and that anything in that vein is among the last things to do during a happy-drunk, lovey-dovey moment unless you are actively trying to ruin that moment. I mean, I am not prone to a lot of mushy romantic walks nor do I have a particularly thick filter between my brain and my mouth at the most sober of moments and even I have avoided saying stuff like that to romantic partners. (Exes, on the other hand, I make no promises.)

I think it's likely that, between the aforementioned maturity level of your boyfriend, the length of your relationship and the sexting incident, your boyfriend is having -- if not second thoughts -- questions about your relationship and your future. And rather than communicating those concerns and feelings -- which, yes, would be hard for him and probably painful for you both and could lead to a life-changing and sad decision for both of you -- he's doing other stuff that hurts you and makes you sad. And rather than talking about it with him, you're telling yourself (and me) that he can't understand, and questioning your relationship, and contemplating a unilateral end to it.

He might be more communicative after his flirtation with infidelity, but this is still not great relationship communication. (Not holding grudges and explaining to the other person why you are upset are kind of like bare minimums, by the way, not high standards for communication.)

So, look. It's time for some real talk conversation between you guys -- one with cleared schedules, phones off, eye contact, hard questions and a lot of self-examination before, during and after. Bring some tissues. Maybe it's one to have with a counselor, if that's something you want and can afford (or get covered by insurance or find low-cost options to pursue). But it's time to think about more than just how much you love one another and start thinking about what you each want from a relationship and this relationship, one another and how much and what you each can give.

Maybe it'll help to make a list, before you agree to talk, of questions you both need answers to and agree to answer honestly and receive the answers without arguing or interrupting. You could ask him to answer things like, as you asked me, "Why would you tell me that?" or "What did you get out of the sexting relationship?" or "How did the conversation about how you can 'do better' start" or even "Why are you friends with people who insult me?" -- all kind of valid questions, in my opinion. He might ask you whether you can not just forgive but forget the sexting incident, or why you chose to leave for a weekend after it rather than stay and talk about your feelings and the relationship -- or harder things, or more hurtful things.

And, you know, "I don't know why I did it," can't be the end of the discussion here, for either of you. Maybe you guys don't want to say, maybe you don't want to admit it to yourselves, and maybe you haven't really wanted to examine what is at the core of a given reaction or a certain pattern of reactions and interactions. But your relationship has come to a tipping point, between his sexting and your contemplating a break-up, and it's time to either get really into the nitty-gritty stuff that you've both let go in between the shmoopy I-love-you-walks or probably watch this fall to pieces without knowing why.

And, you know, maybe you can work it out. Maybe you can't. Things happen, people change, love evolves beyond romance and the world doesn't end. But if that's what's happening here, having a loving, honest, respectful but unhappy discussion might leave you both hurting -- but it can also help give you closure and even build the foundation for a future friendship, if that's what you both want and are willing to work on it together respectfully. But, if there's one thing I've learned, ignoring problems, not talking about them when you have them, assuming the other person won't understand, arguing and acts that are disrespectful to the boundaries in your relationship are a one-way ticket to Ugly Breakupsville -- and a lot of both of your friends declaring that they always knew one of you wasn't good enough for the other.


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Comments

19 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I don't think he's in the

I don't think he's in the wrong here. She's bothered by something he said when he was drunk and more bothered that he was sexting another woman. Now she's writing and asking for your permission to break up with him for these rather minor offenses. Let her.

I disagree that sexting

I disagree that sexting another woman (in a relationship where such things have not been explicitly labeled as okay) is a "minor offense"

Sexting

I don't think it is minor either. I think it's a symptom of something-dissatisfaction, immaturity, whatever-, but it's not minor. If it hurt her, it's not minor.

minor offenses? catching your

minor offenses? catching your s/o sexting another woman, and being told that "ILU, BUT A LOT OF PPL THINK I COULD DO BETTER, BABE" are minor offenses? i'd hate to know what your relationships are like.

You can disagree with me, but

You can disagree with me, but I'd rather you didn't make assumptions about my relationships. I do think sexting is quite minor, but as your comments demonstrate that is relative. I asserted she should break up with him in the end, is that not enough?

it's all relative

I think the comment about your relationship stems from the seeming lack of empathy towards the other person in this relationship. You brush it off as a minor offense when clearly the writer did not think so as she was very hurt. You stated yourself that it's relative, well if it hurts your partner you should make an effort to try to understand where they're coming from and not brush it off as "minor." And THAT is enough.

People are entitled to their

People are entitled to their own opinion, morals, and feelings. If sexting is a minor offense to them, then the lack of empathy for that situation goes hand is hand, and is COMPLETELY acceptable in their life. So to criticize someone for their 'lack of empathy', when that is just YOUR opinion of THEIR opinion, is completely invalid.

They were posting their opinion, just as yours. Discussion is ok, but criticizing is completely wrong. All that shows is that you feel your opinions are the only valid way of viewing this situation, this discrediting your argument, comments, and criticism, and just makes you out to be some elitist in morality.

So where's the line? Where in

So where's the line? Where in a relationship is there room to compromise? Where does my entitlement to act on my feelings, desires, opinions and "morals" end and yours begin? I don't agree at all that lack of empathy goes hand in hand with having a divergent opinion about something. Empathy is the ability to recognize emotion in another person. Or an animal for that matter. Empathy is the ability to see that people are in pain and to differentiate between the self and another. So even if I am not feeling pain, I can see it and respond to it appropriately in another human being.

First let's talk about the sexting opinion. Say I think that sexting isn't a big deal but my best friend does and her partner was just sexting someone else and she kind of thinks of it as cheating. Am I being a good friend to her if I say, you know what girl, you are really overreacting. I don't think it's cheating, so I have no idea why you are so upset. Or am I being a good friend to her by being empathetic - recognizing her pain even if I wouldn't feel the same way myself - and then being there for her. Or if I thought sexting was okay in my relationship but my boyfriend did not. I have a few ways to respond to this. I could say to him, sorry babe, it's my opinion that sexting is fine in our relationship, so I don't understand why you are upset. Or I could say, shit babe, I didn't think this would be a problem for you, but it clearly is, and I am so sorry, what do you need? (as in to feel okay, rebuild trust etc.). Or we could have talked about it at an early point in our relationship and come to an agreement that worked for us both and took into account our differing opinions about sexting.

Now let's get extreme. If it is my opinion that physical violence is a legit form of communication in a relationship, does my opinion about that trump your feelings? Is the corresponding lack of empathy I feel towards your feelings, not to mention safety and well being, completely acceptable in my life? Or is it part of what makes me an abuser capable of behaving in such a way?

Being unable to extend empathy towards another human being because your moral code or personal feelings do not allow you to see how another human being could respond differently or be in pain is not completely acceptable, it is a road block to compassion. And I say this not to the first poster who called sexting a minor offense, I see the point that you are making about the person who wrote the letter asking for permission to break up with her boyfriend. I also take no umbrage with your opinion that sexting is a minor offense in spite of my opinion that it would be major if it happened in the context of my relationship.

It is one thing to acknowledge that we don't all share the same opinions and values, that's a necessary condition for reasonable dialogue and interaction. But to try to extend that and say that a lack of empathy is naturally coupled with a difference of opinion is frankly dangerous. Mature human beings are able to see how their actions can cause others pain, even if those same actions would not cause them pain. Selfish individuals assume that what works for them works for everyone else. Not to mention sociopaths, abusers, despots, etc. All lack empathy towards their victims, but all could be argued to be acting from the moral codes, opinions and feelings they are entitled to. So I reiterate my question. Where is the line? Exactly when does a lack of empathy become completely unacceptable?

Well, clearly my "lack of

Well, clearly my "lack of empathy" is making the world a worse place as a whole. Still, I think the comment about my relationship was totally inappropriate.

Not disagreeing

"Still, I think the comment about my relationship was totally inappropriate."

I hear that and I don't disagree.

My post was directed at Anonymous who commented that a lack of empathy could reasonably be linked to a person's ethical code or having a different opinion than another person.

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Lisa Rabiye

Sexting is cheating. Start there.

One starting place would be to acknowledge that sexting while in a relationship is cheating. It's not just use of porn, which involves nameless and faceless people that the user will never meet; it has a partner that is known to your boyfriend and vice-versa. It's a first step in a certain direction. I would not consider marrying someone who was sexting with someone else. Or who wanted to do that even with me.

On why even couples shouldn't sext: first of all, there are too many opportunities for those images to get out into the wild. Not fun. They can get out there either by accident (person uploads wrong photo, someone else gets phone and has a bit of "fun" with it) or it can get out on purpose. Look up "revenge porn." There is too much of that particular kind of nastiness out there, and it ruins lives. Second, even if the images never even get out beyond the two of you, it degrades a relationship and turns you (and him) into pornographic objects. It's just such a bad idea.

I think another good starting point is finding more self-esteem and realizing that once you have that, a world of relationship possibilities opens up for you. Get some therapy with the goal of not accepting ridiculous behavior from someone with whom you plan to have a continuing serious relationship.

Also read "Reviving Ophelia" by Mary Pipher. It's a good starting place for working out how so many of we women come to think so little of ourselves that we accept such behavior in the first place - along with the men who perpetrate it.

Agree with some objections

Your points are all very valid and your comment sends a powerful and positive message: value yourself and learn to accept only people in your life that behave the way you would to them. Empathy is a good quality to have, but it can also lead to self-devaluation.

Following this strong message that you send with your comment, I felt empowered and thought that you were not leaving any room for alternative takes and/or likes and/or ways to understand (serious) relationships. And accordingly, I beg to differ with you in few points.
a) Sexting does not transform you and your partner(s) automatically in pornographic objects and it is not a bad idea. Have you ever been in a long-distance relationship? Or being separated from your partner for medium to long periods of time?
b) Sexting can and cannot be cheating. It always depends on the terms you have agreed with your partner(s) in your relationship. A serious relationship does not have to be monogamous and marriages do not have to be hermetic capsule.

I'm not the letter writer,

I'm not the letter writer, but the impression I'm getting is that this relationship *is* monogamous. At least, it was supposed to be.

Call me old-fashioned, but my parents taught me that if I'm doing something with another person that I wouldn't do with my partner right there watching, I shouldn't be doing it. If I would be upset if my partner did something, I shouldn't do it.

I don't have a problem with sexy messages just between partners, but then I've been in several long-distance relationships. They should, however, be handled with discretion.

Either way, good on the letter writer for standing up for herself. I could stand to do that a lot more often.

While some of this is true...

... the "sexting can and cannot be cheating" and the comments about the terms of the relationship aren't especially relevant here. Look, I'm someone in an open, polyamorous relationship, and sexting/cybersex would not be an issue in my relationship... but it is pretty obvious from the LW's comments that it IS an issue in hers. If they had agreed that sexting was okay, she wouldn't be writing to Ms. Opinionated about how upset she was about finding her boyfriend sexting. Arguing that is okay in some relationships is beside the point, and I'm not sure why you'd bring it up, because it obviously *ISN'T* the case here. (And judging from the boyfriend's reaction, it sounds like he knows it too.)

Men don't necessarily dig it when their GF's sext either...

Whether or not sexting is cheating should be defined by the people in the relationship. In some cases, both parties may think it's no big deal. In my house, porn is totally acceptable (if not required) but I can promise you that my husband would absolutely hit the roof if he found out I was sexting someone else. Obviously, given this guy's "profuse apology" this was not something these two people allowed in their relationship.

I'd go on to say that his commenting on other people thinking she was not good enough for him was absolutely intended to hurt her. Anyone with even a modicum of sense knows how hurtful that is. Drunk or not, you choose whether or not to say something to your partner that could hurt them and you weigh the rewards versus the costs. If he'd blurted out drunkenly that he thinks she's fat or stupid or dirty would we just say, "Oh, dude was just drunk?" I don't think so. He meant to bring her down, for whatever reason. Maybe HE was feeling insecure and wanted to even the playing field. Regardless, it was not an innocent, drunken utterance.

They are (or were after all

They are (or were after all this discouragement) negotiating the terms of their marriage. You are imposing your standards. They have to negotiate their own standards.

I once had a man (No gender

I once had a man (No gender change. He was a man. Still is.) scare away when his friends sang the "Witchy Woman" song about me along with the radio. I had written him a letter about some disconcerting, witchy women friends I was getting know and I had gained weight. I look a lot better thin than fat. Give him some credit for sticking with you. It takes a lot of ego strength for a guy to stand up to his friends. "My guy" didn't and it hurt to the core.

Uttering the unutterable

He could have uttered the unutterable wondering if they were so close they could talk about anything. He was probably disturbed by and mulling over what his friends had said. She's thinking of marrying him. He's wondering if he will have to tiptoe around her feelings all the time so he threw it out there and sure enough, yup, if he marries her he will have to tiptoe around her feelings.