Third Alternatives: Rude Friends


I recently received a comment from Lorraine K, who wrote:

Found your blog about a week ago and I have really learned a lot. I am wondering about third alternatives for future relationships because my S.O. and I broke up over two issues that I now think may have been avoided if we had found Third Alternatives. The first issue was about a few of his rude friends. My boyfriend didn’t want to give up socializing with them. I didn’t want to socialize with them and felt like he was prioritizing his friends over our relationship.

The other issue, and the main reason I walked away from the relationship, was that my bf wanted to cohabitate before getting married or even engaged. I would have considered it if we got engaged (a ring, and set a date). There were other minor issues but these are the two that I think you may be able to help me find Third Alternatives
because these issues have appeared with other relationships and even within my first marriage. I would appreciate any insight on these two matters. Thank you in advance and for this blog. L.K.

I love requests like these. Let’s tackle the rude friends today and the cohabiting tomorrow.
When you don’t like your mate’s friends, the two obvious alternatives are (1) your mate spends less time with his friends (or less pleasant time, if you insist on joining in annoyed) or (2) you spend less time with your mate.
If these are the only two alternatives you see, you’re likely to push for alternative 1 by insulting your mate’s taste in friends, language, humor, and fun. Not the best way to build a relationship, especially with a male partner, for whom respect is the very foundation of any relationship — the one with you and the one with each of those friends.
So, how do you find a Third Alternative? First, you jump the net. You acknowledge that you want the person you love to get the benefits he seeks from spending time with those friends. You acknowledge that whatever those benefits are, they are obviously important to someone you love. You offer to work together to find a better way for him to get them, a way that doesn’t deny you what you need or drive the two of you apart.
Next, you need to find out what benefits of being with them he values. Some of them you can probably already see if you look, and those are the only ones you’ll be able to learn about after splitting up with him.
But with anyone else in the future, you’ll want to explore these benefits in a way that won’t put him on the defensive. This means no criticism or condescension or contempt, just honest, loving, supportive curiosity that comes from genuinely wanting him to get those benefits, just not the way he’s getting them now.
What Does He Get from These Friends?

  • Has he known them a long time? Do they connect him to his past? Have they seen him through tough times? Have they made him feel good about himself again after a mistake? Does he feel safe being vulnerable around them?
  • How does he feel while he’s with them? Does he laugh a lot? Does he risk more? Does he appear relaxed?
  • Do they engage in activities you would not really enjoy?
  • Are they a support network, ready to help each other out of a jam (or a case of the blues) on a moment’s notice?
  • Does he express gratitude or indebtedness to them?
  • Does he like some more than the others? Or does he like that they are a group more than he likes the individuals in the group?

These are questions to ask yourself. If you don’t know the answers to some of them, ask him, but only one or two questions. Wait a couple days or even a week before asking more of the questions.
From the answers, you should be able to make a list of the things he’d be giving up to spend more time with you instead of them.
What Do You Dislike About These Friends?
Aside from being jealous of the time he spends with them, how do these friends affect you?

  • Do they discourage him from valuing you?
  • Do they encourage him to do things that make you value him less?
  • Do they subject you to noises or smells or sights that disgust you?
  • Do they prevent you from getting enough sleep, having sex with your guy, protecting your children, or keeping to your preferred schedule?
  • Do you feel judged by them to the extent that you take on a role you dislike, perhaps as hostess or sex object or nag?
  • Have any of them harmed you or threatened you?

From your answers, you should be able to write a list of things to avoid in your Third Alternative for getting your man the benefits he seeks from his friends.
What Do You Need in the Way of Time and Activities Now Missing Due to These Friends?
For this part, you need to get honest with yourself about what you need to feel secure and satisfied in a relationship.

  • Do you get enough time with your man but not during the right hours or days?
  • Do you get enough time with your man but have nothing satisfying to do when he’s with his friends?
  • Do you get enough time with your man but not enough of his energy or playfulness or libido or excitement because of the time he spends with those friends?
  • If you get too little time with your man, is it because he spends a lot of time with his friends or because there’s currently little overlap in your free time and some of his goes to these friends?

Make a list of what exactly you need to be happy if he keeps his friends.
We’ve covered what benefits he seeks, what you want to avoid, what benefits you seek, and now there’s one more.
What Does Your Partner Seek to Avoid About Spending Time with You?
You can ask him. Again, do it in a non-accusatory, non-nagging way, so you get honest, useful answers instead of defensive ones. You can also rely on your own observations if he’s no longer available.
There may be nothing on this list. He may simple want time with you and time with his friends. But he may also be choosing the friends as a way of avoiding the things you want (more or different time with him).

  • Which of the things he needs (from the first set of questions) are things you could give but don’t?
  • Which of them are things you simply can’t offer?
  • What are you two doing when he seems happy to be with you?
  • What are you two doing when he seems unhappy to be with you?
  • What does he encourage you to do differently when his friends are around?

Make one more list from the answers: what is it that he hopes to avoid about your first alternative?
Now we’ve come full circle: What he seeks, what you seek to avoid, what you seek, what he seeks to avoid. Put all four lists together. These are the specs for the alternative that did not occur to either of you but would make both of you happy.
Remember that some of the things each of you need could come from different sources than they come from now, and nothing about your current use of time or ways of dealing with the friends is carved in stone.
If you don’t want to spend time with his friends, that’s okay. If it cuts into your time together, maybe you need to find more time to be together, cutting out less important activities, eliminating a work commute, spending less time on other people’s needs, etc.
Now is the time to work together. You’ve got the list of specs, and it’s time to brainstorm. The crazier the idea, the better, because crazy ideas knock down imaginary obstacles and trigger creative thoughts, so no judgments, no evaluation while you’re adding ideas to your list.
If you two run out of ideas, ask some friends to join you in brainstorming — just not those friends.
How to Tell When You’ve Found a Third Alternative
What makes a great Third Alternative is that it meets all of your specs, so that both of you like it as much as — sometimes even more than — your favorite of (1) your mate spends less time with his friends (or less pleasant time, if you insist on joining in annoyed) or (2) you spend less time with your mate.
Here are some that might work for a variety of different specs:

  • He picks a fixed night of the week to spend with his friends, one on which an organization you’re interested in gets together to sing, dance, bowl, ice skate, quilt, or discuss Russian literature.
  • The two of you find girlfriends for several of his friends, so both of you can enjoy group get-togethers.
  • One of you changes jobs to sync up your schedules so you have more time together without getting rid of the friends.
  • He sees his friends but agrees to come home sober enough and early enough to enjoy sex or Scrabble or gourmet cooking with you.
  • The two of you hire a scriptwriter to come up with funny replies to his friends’ rude comments and you join in their activities.

There must be a hundred more options, but none of them is your Third Alternative unless each of you likes it as least as much as your original alternative.
I’d love to hear more alternatives in the comments. And tomorrow, we’ll use the same process to tackle an even more challenging couple of first alternatives: (1) move in together now or (2) wait for engagement or marriage before sharing a home.

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • Wow! That topic really got you going!
    I do keep the third alternative in mind as needed, and this is a great refresher with concrete examples!
    Thank you.

  • Good to see you back, Patty. I keep your three precepts in mind always, but always glad to get a little refresher.
    Thank you!

  • Here’s a question: what if the friends are openly ugly to you now but they used to be your friends too?
    I was part of a community theatre where I met my partner. We started dating, kinda to the shock of all involved–I’m older and we are two different religions, which is a big deal here in the South. Everyone flipped out on me, to the point of ejecting me from any further productions, but he is still a lead actor and he doesn’t want to quit. I totally understand why he wouldn’t want to–it’s his passion, and acting makes him feel great about himself.
    I’ve dealt with the fact that I may be bitter about this, but it doesn’t help that there is a woman there who texts him affectionately (he always shows me and laughs about her desperation with me, but still). Also, I’ve been approached by other community members telling me things that are being said about me, and they’re not flattering.
    I don’t understand WHY they are ugly to me about it but not to him. Some people have said they see him as my victim, but we’re both adults and I’m not a horrible person!
    I’ve called some of my former friends from the theatre and tried to see if we could bury the hatchet somehow, but to no avail.
    We talked about him joining another theatre group, but he loves this one and can’t bring himself to leave.
    I get that I have to deal with my own bitterness issues, but WHY won’t he stand up for me? If the shoe were on the other foot, I’d leave for him. In fact, I left a church I was a member of because they were ugly about his religion. But he says that he didn’t ask me to do that, so I can’t ask him to quit this theatre.
    Now this issue has overwhelmed me so hard, for almost a year, that I can’t even have confidence in the fact that he loves me, even though everything else in the relationship is great.

  • You can still look for a Third Alternative. But first, try to separate your feelings about your former friends and theirs about you from the feelings you and he have for each other.
    If he’s comfortable showing you affectionate texts from someone else, he doesn’t want that affection, and it’s no threat to you.
    It also sounds like he’s not hearing bad things about you when he’s there, as you were in the church you chose to leave. Not that any two of us show our love the same way, but it sounds like you might be comparing apples to oranges here and seeing him (maybe even treating him) as less loving than you, instead of paying real attention to the ways *he* shows love.
    And they are treating him pretty poorly if they think he’s a victim in your relationship, but he appears to be able to separate the personal from the business side of the theater group.
    His list of specs for a good Third Alternative probably include maintaining (or having a good shot at replacing) valued friendships, keeping his lead actor status, maybe working with a particular director or even the convenience of the location or rehearsal schedules. Yours are not as clear. Would you still like to be part of some theater company? Would you like any of these people back as friends? Would you like to stop hearing from the go-between who reports on what’s said when he’s not there to silence nasty comments?
    Make up your combined list of specs, and then ask his help brainstorming a way to relieve your pain (the part he has anything to do with) without creating any extra for him.

  • Thank you so much for getting back to me. I really appreciate it!
    About these “friends:” my partner can count on one hand the close friends he really needs in his life, and they are mostly from childhood. He just doesn’t get attached to people like I do. When I asked him why it doesn’t bother him what these people are saying about us, he replied “I don’t love them, so I don’t care what they say about me.” (Even so, I would like for him to care what they say about ME!)
    I, on the other hand, am constantly over-attached and have a huge need to see any group I belong to as my “family,” so you can imagine how devastated I am by all this. I honestly thought we would all be closer than siblings for life, which I know is naive and childish, but there I am. I’m extremely tenderhearted.
    My specs… what do I want? I want these people who I thought loved me, to love me again and not hate me. I know that neither he nor I can do anything about that. But it hurts a lot. It’s been a year and I’ve been going to counseling and taking anti-depressants, but it’s just such a huge amount of pain to deal with.
    Like tonight, he went out to eat with the cast after a show. I wish he would not WANT to do things like that. I wish he would care about how I feel about it–even if he can’t understand WHY I feel the way I do–even if he wouldn’t care about the same thing if the shoe were on the other foot. I want him to see me in so much pain and think “I’m going to give up going to eat Chinese food so Rachel doesn’t have to be in so much pain.”
    I don’t know if he legitimately doesn’t understand, or if he doesn’t care. I should probably assume he doesn’t understand? But how could he not understand when I’m crying and pleading in his face “Please don’t hang out with these people, it hurts me!”
    Really unsure of what to do. On some level I want to just cut my losses and start a new relationship, because I don’t know how to make peace with the fact that my partner sees me hurting and won’t sacrifice anything to help me not hurt so much.
    I know he is romantically 100% faithful, I’ve never ever had cause to doubt that. But he has referred to this as “my problem,” and refuses to see that if we’re engaged to be married, MY problems are OUR problems (as would his problems be, if he had any).
    Oh gosh, help.

  • Oh, Rachel, I so recognize your position that I can feel your pain down to my toenails.
    And yet, one of the great gifts of a healthy relationship with someone else is the way we can benefit from, maybe even acquire, their strengths.
    When we dig in our heels and insist they solve our problem for us, we lose sight of who they are and what they are capable of. His strength is that he doesn’t take to heart the criticisms or rejection of other people who don’t have his best interests at heart. He recognizes this theater group for what it truly is: a group of people who have come together to put on a show cooperatively while competing among themselves for parts, titles, and applause.
    Assume for the moment that you break his heart and dump him for not rejecting the people who rejected you. You, one of the very few people whose opinion actually matters to him, reject him. How would this help your chances of getting back into the group that rejected you? It wouldn’t. You’d now have one more person in the group with a negative opinion of you.
    Another thought experiment: imagine he drops dead tomorrow. Does the problem you’re asking him to solve for you go away? No. You still want to be part of that group. You still care whether they like you. You still want to go out for Chinese food with them. They won’t get any more of his time, which is what you think you want, but neither will you.
    He can’t solve your problem for you. His snubbing the crowd you want to be part of won’t get them to invite you back in. But it will cost him a lot, because he doesn’t care what they think, as long as he gets to be the lead in a good-enough troupe.
    What he CAN do, what makes it wonderful to have someone like this as a resource in your life, is to help YOU solve YOUR problem. He’ll likely enjoy helping you, as soon as he knows you’re not expecting HIM to solve it.
    Ask his forgiveness for putting such an expectation on him. Tell him you’re going to solve this, and you’d like his advice.
    He’s probably got a better handle on which people would create a scene if you just starting showing up again, so you can deal with them individually before you do. You make it sound like it’s everyone. It almost never is. But your brain’s willingness to jump to think it’s everyone has been shown to increase your vulnerability to depression and anxiety. Just having help you walk it back to a more accurate picture of the problem will help, and not just with this particular problem.
    There’s a good chance he could advise whether your best first move would be to show up for a performance, for rehearsal, or for a meal. Or if it would be to invite them to do something else with the two of you, so they see you as a couple away from the theater.
    You have a problem. And you have an ally who loves you and isn’t prone to the same sort of problem. Don’t drive him away by making him the scapegoat for your year of agony.
    If your Third Alternative (an outcome you’d like at least as much as him never seeing these people again) is to be part of the group again, and his is to remain with the group, get his help becoming part of the group again and feeling your worth again.

  • Hi Patty! I just wanted to let you know what happened with the above issue. After a month and some change, our relationship is SO much stronger and we are in a better place emotionally. He is constantly pouring out verbal love to me and visibly putting me first.
    I took your advice and talked to him about the fact that what I *really* wanted was to be friends with these people again. I shared with him that maybe I had jumped the gun in being bitter and I probably should have been more gracious to them and tried to see their intentions as protective of him (based on their weird perceptions) and not as pure hatred of me as a person. He agreed to try and help me reintegrate there.
    So I guess he talked to some people there, and I was very open to going to the cast pool party at the end of their latest show. On the day of the party he said he didn’t want to go–instead he took me to an art museum and out to dinner. When I asked him why, he said “I talked to them and suddenly realized they’re just not very nice people. I really don’t care to see them socially anymore.”
    WHAT?! Hey! I’m as happy as can be. All it took was for me going OFF the offensive and being honest about the pain they’d caused. When they couldn’t be bothered to apologize, he was able to empathize with me more and see how they’ve really treated me.
    I don’t know if that’s really what you advised me to do, but I did try my best, and anyway it worked out perfectly. He still has a great time acting there, but I don’t feel threatened anymore.

  • Oh, Rachel, thank you SO much for this update. You switched from being angry at him for not wanting what you wanted (which will put almost anyone on the defensive) to asking his help getting what you wanted (which was not really ever in conflict with what he wanted, only with how he went about trying to get it). And so you got your Third Alternative.
    You can’t dictate a Third Alternative, but you know you’ve got it when you’re at least as happy as your first would have made you.
    You also got the usual wonderful side effect of finding a Third Alternative and letting go of your expectation of getting your first alternative: more love.
    And I’ll bet this makes you more loving, too. Way to go!

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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