Q. I have had two very close female friends. We trust each other completely, confide whatever is on our minds and support each other through all of life’s ups, downs and curveballs. We are to each other everything that good friends should be, and I treasure their friendship beyond measure.
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The problem came when I met my boyfriend last year after many years of singlehood. He asks that I keep every negative aspect of our relationship from my girlfriends. He’s fine if I tell them about the good stuff.
Dr. Gail, you have discussed emotional affairs outside of marriage, and I wonder if my confiding my disappointments and concerns to my friends is some version of this.
I always speak to my boyfriend first when something bothers me, but often his reply leaves me bewildered and I feel like I need a “second opinion” to help me sort matters out. These women live across the country, so awkward daily contact is not an issue.
Am I being emotionally unfaithful or disloyal in some way? Should I keep problems completely between me and my boyfriend, even when I’m left feeling confused after our discussions? Does the nature of the disagreements matter, as to whether or not it’s a betrayal? Often, my friends will take his side and help me see his point of view. This doesn’t seem to matter to him. He says it is all “going outside the relationship.” Can you help me put this in perspective?
A: This is a delicate gray area. It’s wonderful that you have such good and trusted friends to confide in and bounce things off of. And, as you say, these friends are far away, so your boyfriend isn’t going to encounter them constantly, knowing that they know his secrets and his idiosyncrasies.
Still, in this case, everything is a matter of degree. Here are some things to think about:
Assuming this is a serious boyfriend, if you are building a permanent intimate relationship, there is definitely some point to keeping problems between the two of you. Doing otherwise makes your boyfriend feel less trusting of you and therefore less intimate.
This is not an emotional affair. But is it in some way disloyal? Maybe or maybe not. It depends on how detailed you get, how much you are violating your boyfriend’s privacy and, as you said, the nature of the disagreements. It's also not clear from your note how helpful you find it to discuss these things with your friends, and whether the “second opinion” helps in any practical way or is more like fun gossip.
It also matters whether you talk about things in broad terms or get very specific. You should have an idea of what your boyfriend feels is uncomfortable or embarrassing. Most sexual topics should be off-limits for discussion with your female friends. It isn’t fair to him to reveal to them such personal information. Maybe he doesn’t care if you reveal his work problems but does care if you reveal his finances.
What’s more, if you run to your friends every time you have a tiny problem, he will feel you are more closely connected to them than to him, which is hurtful.
If your friends were nearby and your boyfriend saw them often, you would be creating an unfair situation. How would these friends view him if they knew every bad and personal thing about him?
Even though they are geographically distant, however, these are very close friends. Might you someday — if you get married — want them to have a closer association with this man? I suggest you consider this. At that point, they will know an awful lot. Keep in mind, too, that what you tell your friends is unlikely to be presented in a balanced way. They hear things from your perspective only.
On the other hand, it’s somewhat discomfiting that you have a boyfriend who tries to control whom you talk to or whether you say negative things about him. There are men who try to socially isolate their girlfriends and who get angry if they converse with anybody else. It doesn’t sound as though this is happening here, but it’s noteworthy that your boyfriend objects if you say anything negative but not anything positive. A partner who loves you would want you to have close friends and not try to socially isolate you.
Additionally, jealousy about you having any strong connections to another person other than himself should sound alarm bells — will he try to keep you from friends and family? This would be an unhealthy relationship. In many abusive relationships the first step of the abuser is to socially isolate his spouse so that she is completely dependent on him. You are not really describing this, but it is worth not letting it go too far in that direction. You are entitled to keep your close friends and share your life with them. But he isn’t objecting to the friendships, just the content.
In a loving relationship, honesty is the best policy. When there is a point of contention between you two, it’s better that your boyfriend know you will be discussing it with your friends. If you sneak around and deny you are doing so, your dishonesty is almost sure to come out, which can only harm the relationship. Long-term friends are important relationships too, so be honest with them as well, that your boyfriend wishes to keep some personal things private. You do not want your filtering some information going forward to be interpreted as pulling away from them.
Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: There is a fine balance between keeping private matters private and confiding in your friends.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com.
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