Thursday, August 03, 2006

Dismaying Story #21: Best Friends Go to College

Dear Andrew,

Reading your post about The Ghost of the First Love got me thinking. I fell in love at fifteen too. Three years later I am still very much in love with her. I enjoy our relationship immensely; we still make each other laugh all the time.

However, my girlfriend is also my best friend. I have never really had a true best friend, regardless of gender, so having a person so close to me in my life has been a blessing. I am a strong person, I know I can stand by myself if I need to, but I'm unsure as to whether she can or not.

Two years ago her best friend left to go to another school and pretty much stopped contact. Of course she began to lean on me much more and because of that I felt pressure, so decided to end it. I have never hurt anyone so much in my life. I left her completely alone when she needed me the most. We got back together very soon after but she never truly forgave me.

Since then we have both become much more reliant on each other and now we are about to go to University at separate institutions. I am so, so worried for her. I know I should have more faith in her but I regard myself as her emotional buffer.

I'm also more than a little worried about my own emotions. I want to keep together, we both do. Neither of us is blind to how hard it will be but I just want what's best for her. I want her to explore new people and make new friends without me holding her hand. It's just I've done it for so long I worry whether she can or not.

Signed, Emotional Buffer

Dear Emotional,

I never get the complete story when people send me letters. How could I, in such a few words? I am always left wanting more information -- for instance, in this case it would be interesting to know if your girlfriend's view of the situation is the same as your own.

Nonetheless, your letter gives me a strong impression of two shy loners who have hooked up. It seems you each supply much of what the other needs in terms of companionship. By doing so, you "protect" each other from having to reach out to other people, which would be a scary prospect for both of you. In a sense, you have formed a cocoon around yourselves as a couple. This is your own little world with enough emotional support to get you by. You don't have to go shopping around for such needs outside the boundaries of the cocoon.

As you go off in different directions to college, however, you will each be forced to venture out into the big bad world. I say "forced" because Mother Nature has wired all of us to be social creatures. If you were to try to keep entirely to yourself, eventually you would be lonely and despondent, and probably sooner rather than later. The same goes for your girlfriend. You will be forced to reach out to strangers, to try to make new friends.

This can be a daunting prospect for a shy person. I'm just no good at meeting people. I never know what to say. What if they don't like me? You worry about going through this yourself and, because you truly care about your girlfriend, you worry that she will struggle as well.

I can honestly say I understand. Many people who know me now have a difficult time believing how painfully shy and introverted I was in high school. My social skills at the time would probably be rated somewhere in the region of "inferiority complex." I felt no girl would ever want me and I was tempted to "cocoon" when I started to date.

I mention this because I want to tell you about an "Aha!" moment I had several years later. I was walking alone in a shopping mall when a young married couple I knew from high school passed me going in the opposite direction. We were far enough apart that it was easy to pretend I had not noticed them and to continue on without acknowledging them. I was not trying to be rude; this was simply my shy side taking over. I went a few more feet and then said to myself, "This is ridiculous!" I made a snap decision I didn't want to be that way anymore. I turned on my heel, hustled back to them, said "Hi, it's good to see you guys," and we had a wonderful chat.

That was a turning point for me. I proved to myself that I didn't have to give in to my shy tendencies. Ever since then I've made a conscious effort to reach out to people, and you know what? It turns out not to be such a scary thing after all. In fact it's downright liberating. Like I said, this is what Mother Nature wants us to do. (I have a sneaking suspicion it's all part of her master plan. I think she wants us to crave closeness so we'll make lots of babies and perpetuate the species, but maybe that's just my own conspiracy theory.)

To be honest, your comments remind me more of what a parent would typically say, similar to the maturation issues discussed in Dismaying Story #12: Big Bad Dad. You sense that your girlfriend has to "grow up" socially when she goes to college. You worry that it will be difficult for her, that she might not be able to handle it. You wish you could be there to pave the way for her but you know you can't -- she must take some difficult steps on her own.

I bet if I were to talk to her parents (or yours for that matter) they might express many of the same concerns. I would give your parents the same advice I'm going to give you; you need to let young people grow up.

The ability to stand on your own feet and stare down life's problems is a critical skill for all of us. That's why teenagers often start to rebel against authority. They are starting to gain the independence they will need as adults. Parents, though, have just spent years protecting and coaching. It can be stressful to let go, to trust that our children will be able to fly away on their own without falling and getting bruised. We might even be convinced they are certain to take a few hits before they get well and truly off the ground.

The same is true as you worry about your girlfriend. This is the way of the world, though. She will do her best, make mistakes, endure sad days, celebrate triumphs and "Aha!" moments of her own, and emerge on the other side as a more mature and capable individual.

And so will you.

As for the possibility that your relationship might not survive the separation, that is simply a risk you will have to take, just as millions of other couples have done before you. I must say, though, that it might turn out to be healthy if the two of you dated other people at some point. Being involved in more than one relationship can help you gain perspective. This can also help you avoid regrets later in life, when some people look back and wonder what they might have missed by not experiencing more of life when they were young. That said, though, the world abounds with people who married their childhood sweethearts and had fantastic lives together. Bottom line, your feelings for each other will endure if they are strong enough. If that doesn't happen, then something better must have come along.

I'm sure you'll continue to worry. Try to remember that the hardships of going off to college will strengthen both of you in the long run.

All the best,

Do you worry about your partner? How does this affect your relationship? You can send me an email with absolutely no shipping or handling charges. The same goes for any comment you enter using the link below. Operators are standing by now. Okay, it's only me ... but I am standing by. Honest.


  1. Shyness IS a choice, and it's nice to see that someone else has had that "Aha!" moment. I was nurtured to be shy - I'm convinced it isn't anyone's nature. And when I was 12, I decided that I was tired of the angst, the stress of worrying about what other people thought of me, and I chose to try to get over my shyness. It was a battle, considering I was still a child living with the same people who wanted me shy in the first place. However, as I've grown into an adult (and it took me a little longer than 18 years to do it), I've learned that most people do not berate you for talking to them, even out of the blue. In fact, it can often make someone's day when you offer a sincere compliment about something they're wearing (which is an easy way to break the ice and talk to someone). For me, there are days when I still have to make a conscious choice to set aside my shyness, and I still feel anxiety sometimes. It's so much easier than it used to be.

  2. Andrew, I thought your response was great. I hope it put the reader at ease. Also, they don't need to have ten tons of friends. Sometimes it's intimidating if you think you should have a lot of friends just because you're in college. Being friends with a handful of is usually good enough to keep you sane, I think. Plus your relationships with those people will be tighter.

  3. Just found your blog thanks to you finding mine. What a gem you have here! Great blog - I am a fan now.

  4. Ah..Andrew, I see that Raynwomaan linked over from my site. She is a wise chica and great at sharpening the point, no matter what.

    I enjoy your site...thank you for sharing your expertise. ;)

    Ciao for now...

  5. That was awesome advice. great blog, lively discussion!

  6. Emotional may learn the risks that will come with his girlfriend's exploration, but he doesn't have a choice but to accept it. As his grip on her hand is less tight, her eyes will see other people. He may find that because he cares about her and doesn't want to keep her from the exploration that she has a God-given right to, that she wanders overseas and out of reach.

  7. I added a link to my page for your wonderful blog! Take care.