It’s Hard to Be the ‘Friend With the Boyfriend’

I’ve spent six years of my life as “the friend with the boyfriend,” and exactly that same amount of time pretending not to be. I have always hated the word boyfriend. There’s something cloying about it, like cheap perfume. It doesn’t have the sweet sturdiness of “friend” or the impressive resonance of “husband.” Instead, it sounds childish. Unintellectual. Trifling.

I realize I’m projecting a lot of my own baggage onto nine measly letters. From the moment I agreed to my best male friend’s proposal that we take our relationship from platonic to not in the fall semester of ninth grade, I’ve felt the (admittedly heteronormative) weight of the double-edged sword of a double standard — that women are both defined by their ability to lock down a guy and judged for obsessing over this very objective.

Since I willingly sliced my heart on the first edge of the aforementioned blade when I accrued a boyfriend at the age of 14, I fought as hard as I could against the typical trappings of boyfriend-having lest I cut myself on the second — the PDA, the couple photos, the Facebook status (RIP), the word itself — all the things I fretted might convict me of complicity in googly-eyed, boyfriend-obsessed stereotypes.

I fought to retain the aspects of my identity I deemed worthy of value: my bookishness, my sense of humor, my female friendships. The first two were relatively easy — the latter, a bit trickier. I was the only one of my close friends with a relationship that lasted almost all four years of high school (at a wonderfully microcosmic petri dish of a boarding school, no less), so I truly was The Friend With The Boyfriend, a status rendered even more isolating by virtue of the fact that what I had was supposedly something everyone wanted.

In my head, any time spent with my boyfriend equaled time away from my female friends. I worried that, as their essentialness to each other became more solidified without me, my role in the friend group would be eclipsed, edged out by the expansion of an intimacy too big to accommodate a less-devoted member. I subconsciously blamed my boyfriend for taking me away from them, and I was unfair to him sometimes as a result. I was too inexperienced to know how to handle the bigness of my feelings for both him and my friends. Instead of coexisting, they competed.

I remember going to a hilariously hyped-up dance called the Gold & Silver Ball junior year and dancing with my boyfriend on one side of the room while I watched my friends dance in a circle on the other side. It gave me so much anxiety I pretended to be sick and left early.

To complicate things further, I was very much in love, with a boy, for the first time in my life. I think that’s why whenever I said the words “my boyfriend,” it felt like I was cutting open my chest and showing people my guts. In my teenage awkwardness, I lacked the confidence to navigate that amount of vulnerability with grace, so I squashed it into something small and mockable instead.

I was also very much in love with my female friends — a feeling that pre-dated my boyfriend-having status by a long shot. Female friendship is magnificently intense, especially in high school, which is part of what makes it difficult at times. The unearthing of our identities to each other, the collective responsibility of witnessing our simultaneous growing up, the gossip, the crushes, the breaking of curfew, the acne cream, the uncertainty…at its best, it amounted to an unparalleled closeness, at its worst, a covert possessiveness. I think that’s why my absences felt so significant to me — and maybe to my friends, too.

As I write this now, I’m still navigating the role of “the friend with the boyfriend.” It’s a lot easier than it used to be for a whole bunch of reasons: being out of high school (which incidentally makes almost everything in life easier), getting better at integrating my boyfriend into my friend group and vice versa, having an independent life and a job I love that takes up a large chunk of my time and energy, being older and more cognizant of the reality that not every little thing matters so much and everyone is usually just thinking about themselves and not paying attention to what I’m doing (in other words: I’m not that important! And that’s a good thing!), being more secure about what I want and what makes me happy, developing an understanding with my boyfriend in which we actually encourage each other to spend time with our friends separately and — most crucially — just generally caring less about what other people think.

I’m a people-pleaser to the core, so I still get anxious if I feel like I’m letting a friend down for choosing to spend time with my boyfriend, or the other way around. But I’ve figured out that I don’t have to be a bad friend to be a good girlfriend, or a bad girlfriend to be a good friend. Knowing that feels like kicking off my shoes after a long trip.

Illustration by Juliana Vido; follow her on Instagram @julianavido.

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  • KMF

    I hope this is soon to be followed by a response, “It’s Hard to be the Friend Without the Boyfriend!”

  • I was The Friend with the Boyfriend all through high school and college and I think I really did miss out on a lot of female friendships because of that. Now I’m in my late 20’s and I’ve been single for 3 years, but I’ve never had better female friendships and I’m really happy with where I’m at right now!

  • Robyn Ella

    This whole piece made me think “awwww darling” at the ripe old age of 28, ha. I can’t even think about this in the context of high school, but at least in your twenties, single friends sometimes treat you differently when you have a long-term boyfriend so young because it *is* different. Navigating your twenties without a steady partner is amazing/exhilarating/horrible/terrifying, and I think you tend to take life risks that your forever-coupled-up friends simply don’t take. (Not because they’re unadventurous, just because they generally have another human to think about.) This isn’t to say one path is better than the other—the support just has to go both ways, I guess.

    • Harling Ross

      Ah I love hearing from a slightly older perspective. Thanks, Robyn!!

  • Lindsay Heyman

    I went from the Friend Who Never Has a Boyfriend but All My Friends have Boyfriends being super comfortable and secure in my female friendships and role as Quirky Single Friend, to joining the club of Friends With Boyfriends which felt nice because we all knew how to hang out as couples, to the Friend With the Boyfriend after multiple friends ended their relationships all over the course of a year and can I just say the anxiety over maintaining all your friendships while also being in a serious relationship is so freakin real. Bless this article because it shows the internal thoughts that we feel but don’t really share for fear of sounding like you’re prioritizing people like an impersonal to-do list. Love it👌🏻

    • Harling Ross

      “fear of sounding like you’re prioritizing people like an impersonal to-do list.” — well put

  • As the certified Friend Without the Boyfriend, this is my #1 tip to the Friend With the Boyfriend: occasionally ask your single friends to hang out when—and this part is key—your boyfriend is not in fact occupied with another activity and/or out of town. It doesn’t have to be very often, just every once in a while, even every month or two (or longer, whatever works for y’all. this is a rough guideline folks.), consciously choose time with your single friend over time with your boyfriend. (He’ll still be there after brunch, I promise!) While I totally get that it’s hard to balance schedules and that being with him is the absolute greatest, it does sting to only be remembered by your friends when their boyfriends are working late or physically removed from the state in which you reside.

    And honestly? Harling, if you’re putting this much consideration toward the topic I kinda have a feeling you’re doing just fine in terms of the whole being a friend thing.

    • Harling Ross

      That’s great advice.

    • SG

      Amen sister

    • Danielle Cardona Graff

      AMEN girlfriend!

  • Pip Stevenson

    Is it really that hard though? This is a super anxious perspective. Juggling relationships is a very standard part of life. Whether is a boyfriend, parents, pets or colleagues- everybody has to deal with this. Maybe be a little more relaxed with yourself and that difficulty will ease up.

  • Indeed! I think, since so many of my girlfriends have girlfriends/girls they are seeing, having the bf might be hard in a different way??? boys just seem earnestly “out” this season in my milieu, but who knows! perhaps they’ll make a comeback.

    • Harling Ross

      boys: so 2016.

  • Kirby

    This is something I’ve struggled with so much recently. It’s not that I feel like I’m missing out on my friends (because I do make a point to choose them often), but its more that I feel like my friends don’t notice my effort and instead focus on the times I’m with him honestly might just be in my head but I’m not so sure. Is that just a sign that I feel guilty, and therefore know that I’m not actually trying as hard with my friends as I think?

    • kellymcd

      THIS THIS THIS. I very recently started dating a guy who is also good friends with my group of girlfriends. For some reason, a few of our friends cannot seem to grasp the concept of us dating and wanting to spend time alone together. Instead, they see it as our “friendship” has intensified and taken priority over their individual friendships with us. Its caused some serious tension, especially because (almost) all the other girls are single. I don’t understand this concept of having to choose one over the other. Why can’t I commit to both? I feel guilty when I spend time with one group over the other because it makes me feel like I’m not fully available to either one at any given time 🙁

  • meme

    I have been the Friend With a Boydfriend (now husband) for almost 12 years (yeah the same guy). The first years during highschool it was complicated because relationships then are so intense. But once we got older it became very natural. Him and I were always available to one another, so plans with friends came first, unless we weren’t feeling it. And then, my friends and him were so close, it just felt natural to do most stuff together. Now I am the one who gets annoyed at that friend that only calls you when her boyfriend is busy; it’s ok at the beginning, but after a while you just miss them.

  • Kay Nguyen

    Don’t have friends or boyfriends, problem solved haha jk but seriously. This is what I think, your boyfriend is also your friend (hence the name) so you shouldn’t let your time with him interfere with your time with other friends, both are important! I will be a bad influence but I would spend more time with my friends since friendship is way more valuable than relationship for me but hey, everybody is different, right? <3

  • Lil

    I think that there’s this fear of turning into, “that girl.”

    Y’know.. someone who’s obsessed with her bf and who no longer has a unique identity of her own’s.

    I’ve noticed that this fear is more present in your young-mid twenties often since this is when most people are single and still trying to figure themselves out – let alone other people

  • MM

    I completely relate with this entire article, from the boarding school, to the boyfriend, to the single friends, and to the gold and silver induced anxiety. Many times I feel as though he is a great escape to the high school drama, like I can just go to his dorm at break and forget about everything happening at mine. However, at the same time I feel like I miss out on some crucial friend moments. With all the sports, clubs, homework, and just random time-consuming errands all my friends and I do everyday It can be hard to stay in touch, even though we literally live together. When I started to realize my increasing distance from my friends, I also realized how important it is to have my own friends and my own experiences separate from him. Then when I started to make this conscious effort to divide up my time better, I felt less like I was slipping away from my friends. That being said, I still can go a whole week not seeing or speaking to some of my friends who live across campus, and when I realize the distance it can’t really be remedied by a dinner date (although I keep scheduling them regardless).

  • Jeanie

    I was the friend with the boyfriend, turned into now the friend with the husband. So, I relate to your problems, but I’ve also moved on from it. My couple friends or much older friends tend to “get it.” They know what it means to share your life with another person either through their own experience or just having a lot of married friends. The friends who don’t understand are the ones who never had to share their lives with anyone but their parents and siblings. There’s a lot of people whom I would love to hang out with without their significant other around sometimes, but I totally get why they’re around and accept it. You have to make some sacrifices if you love someone and care about their happiness.

    • Ashley Steenson

      I hope you know that it’s your friends’ individual problems or issues that are causing them “not to get it.” Someone does not have to be/ have been married or in an extremely serious relationship to at least empathize with another person’s love for their spouse or partner.

  • lateshift

    The good thing about now is, it really is in your hands…it may feel anxiety-producing, but if you’re in a good (romantic) relationship with an understanding partner, you can be purposeful with your time, and stay connected to other people you care about as well. This gets harder when it’s your husband, not your boyfriend. And harder still when you add kids to the mix. But always remember, as hard as it may be for you, it really is exponentially harder for the person who does NOT have any of those things – because at a certain point, the balance will shift, and all your friends will couple off and spend their time with other couples, and then with couples with kids where most conversations will be dominated by talk about kids (which that person doesn’t have).

    In other words: you’ll find that when you can manage to make time for friends, it will be couples hanging with couples, and people with kids hanging with people with kids, and if you don’t have those things then you won’t be included. And it won’t be malicious…it will just happen organically, but inexorably, and there won’t be a damn thing that single person can do about it. So no matter how much anxiety comes from the balancing act, just keep on reminding yourself how lucky you are that you have things to balance, and try to retain that consciousness once couples are the majority of your group for good.

    When that happens – and it will – remember this: No matter how uncomfortable you think your single friend might be to hang out with a bunch of couples and/or couples with kids (and because of the group dynamics, and the fact that kids basically take over your life and all your free time and tend to become 80-90% of what you talk about as a parent: yeah, it probably will be, a little bit), it will be a thousand times worse for them if you try to “spare their feelings” by leaving them out, or don’t invite them because “they wouldn’t have fun anyway.”

    Basically: at some point, couples become the ones who get both partners AND friends, and single people get…none of those things. Not even the friendships. No, this doesn’t happen every time, with every group of friends. But most of the time it does, to some extent or another. This moment you’re in, where you feel stressed about making a decision between the two, will pass quicker than you can possibly imagine.

    • Ashley Steenson

      I have a difficult time believing that the world is divided between people who are single and people who are together/ have or plan to have a family. It’s an overly simplistic binary. I’m from the South, so that type of thinking is obviously represented in reality, but is that really how it is has to be?

      For instance, I never plan to have children and have never really dated anyone but most of my friends are in long term relationships or have multiple children. Friendship takes work (especially with little ones) but it doesn’t have to be within the aforementioned groups! I love my friends’ kids and never tire of their antics and silly stories!!!

      I also don’t believe that they sit around worrying whether to invite me or spare me of the inevitable pain I’ll apparently feel at being confronted with my obviously massive lacks due to my clearly “unbalanced life” 😂

  • Adrianna

    I’m the “friend with a boyfriend” the past five years. I’m 28 – an age where a lot of people I know are either coupled or struggling with dating after their first significant relationship.

    It’s inevitable that my experiences and silly anecdotes include my boyfriend. It’s also inevitable that I see a flash of a dirty look as soon as I say, “my boyfriend.”

    I struggle to hang out with my friends more because it’s such a gamble – it’s either an awesome time, or they spend the whole night complaining.

  • Teresa

    Related: we’ve seen a lot less of Taylor Swift’s “squad” since she starting shacking up with this new man…

    • Holly Laine Mascaro


      • Holly Laine Mascaro

        Because the July 4th party is coming up… will they resurface??

  • Beasliee

    And I add to this the guarantee that when the bitchiest ‘Friend Without the Boyfriend’ gets a boyfriend she will disappear off the face off the earth to spend all her time with him. You’ll wonder why you ever bothered with the balancing act only to realise that it’s cause you’re a decent, balanced person and any friend worth having would never have been bitchy about it in the first place!

    • kellymcd

      Truth. Someone had to say it

  • Jukebox_babe

    I used to get a lot of shit from my friends when, in my late teens and early 20s, I would split my time between my girls and my boyfriend. When the tables turned and they entered serious relationships, naturally they prioritized their boyfriends, too, and never thought to apologize for being so critical of what was actually my pretty adept balancing act. I’m in my 30s now, with a much older fiancé, and my friends’ ages range from 10 years younger to 20 years older than me. The judgemental friends of my early 20s are no longer in the picture, and I find my new and diverse friend group to be completely accepting and understanding of the different relationships we all have. In fact, it’s never once come up. It could be age/maturity or it could be different personalities, but either way it feels great to have that pressure removed.

  • For the past six months, I’ve been dealing with some pretty rough stuff – quitting work, loss of a family member, health issues, etc. The only person who has been my rock through all of it was my boyfriend. People whom I considered friends before that, disappeared from my life, taking no interest in it, and providing zero support. So, I’m all for giving attention and support to the people who would do it for you in return when you need it.

  • Marcella Reyes

    Late to the party but totally resonate with this article. I’ve been with my boyfriend for 3 years and still struggle with balance. It was hard in college when I spent the entire summer with my boyfriend while my friends were home and then had to go back to school and fit my friends back into the picture. I still struggle with this because either my friends think I’m flaky for hanging out with my boyfriend or my boyfriend thinks I’m flaky for hanging out with my friends! Thanks for this article.

  • Christel Michelle

    This reminds me of the episode of SATC when Miranda chastises Carrie for turning into “one of those WE people.” Then it prompts Carrie to rethink everything about how she treats her relationship with Big and her relationship with her friends. The episode never sat well with me because Carrie seemed so happy and her relationship was making progress and all of a sudden she says “I don’t know if WE can make it” now she’s a bad friend?? Not fair, but at least she found a way to manage both! Great article, Harling!