On the Many Ways to Share in Relationships
What to do about a friend who's uptight about splitting expenses and a date who's uptight about bodily functions
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Welcome to Tough Love. Every other week, we’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at email@example.com.
I have a good friend who I’ll call Julia. She is anal about sharing, to the point where things become stressful. Last week we went for a walk and then for ice cream, which she paid for up front (there was a long line, and it was quicker to buy the ice cream as a single purchase). I paid her back immediately once we were out of the line, but I didn’t have the right change and was 25 cents short. When she dropped me at home, she brought up the money, suggesting that I could go inside, get a quarter, and bring it back out to her “so we can be even.” She has borrowed things from me many times, and I am always happy to share. But recently, I borrowed an umbrella from her, and when I returned it the next day, she opened it and inspected it completely before putting it back in the closet. It makes me feel like she doesn’t trust me, and that she is keeping score about what we “owe” each other, or like she is waiting for me to mess up and “owe” her. She has a steady job and no kids, so it’s not a matter of being low on money. It comes across as greedy, but I don’t know how to say anything, and it makes me want to pull away from the friendship.
To me, Julia’s actions sound less like a symptom of greed and more like a symptom of anxiety. In other words, it’s not about you or whether she trusts you—it’s about her own racing thoughts and what she needs to do to be able to relax. You can’t argue with brain chemistry, but you can be there for her if she’s struggling, and you can take steps to avoid situations that seem to stress her out. First off, though, you should reach out and let her know that you care: “Are you all right? Is there something I can help with? You seem anxious lately.” It might be a relief for her to talk about it, but even if she doesn’t, she’ll know that you’re someone who’s open to talking about mental health—or other problems—if she ever wants to.
Of course, it’s very possible that her anxiety is rooted in practical matters: Maybe she’s having financial problems or has had them in the past and learned to be careful. Or maybe she just doesn’t like sharing. Every friendship has its own microculture, and it’s OK to shape this one in a way that works for both of you. In other words, you can still hang out just as much, but always get separate checks. Don’t ask to borrow things, and don’t expect her to offer. Instead, focus on the activities that work well for both of you, and plan to divide expenses precisely. Julia’s dealing with a lot more worry than you are, and the best thing you can do is not take it personally.
I’ve been dating a guy for about six months, and things are going well, but he doesn’t acknowledge bodily functions. We stayed at a cabin, and he kept having to go to the bathroom but pretended that nothing was happening and acted like it was totally normal to disappear into the bathroom every 20 minutes. We were playing cards, and I had to act like I didn’t notice, even though it was very clear that he was not feeling well, which made things way more awkward. I don’t need him to explain the state of his bowels in detail, but how do I let him know that it’s OK that people poop? It’s not some big mystery, and it makes things more embarrassing and uncomfortable when we’re both pretending like nothing is wrong.
This poor guy. One of the only things worse than feeling sick is feeling sick around people while pretending it’s not happening. And here he is in a cabin in the woods, trying to come across as charming and competent and sexy, all the ways that we want to be our best selves when we’re around someone we really like. The best thing to do in that kind of situation is model the feeling that you’re trying to instill in him—that bodies aren’t a big deal, that they’re sometimes out of our control, and that that’s nothing to be ashamed of—while also giving him the privacy to maintain his dignity. A simple “Hey, are you feeling all right? Want me to make you some tea?” will communicate that you care but also don’t care, which can be exactly what we need from our loved ones when our bodies have minds of their own.