“I Hate How She Treats Me Around Her Friends”
Your girlfriend's great when you're alone together, but what if she treats you in a totally different (and unrecognizable) way in front of others? Here's how to spot the behavioral changes that matter.
"I can't stand her when she's with her girlfriends," says Washingtonian Jared, 31, talking about his new squeeze. "It's like she's another person. She's loud, and her conversation is so inane. She's not herself." Well, a woman may be many things, but "not herself?" Many would disagree with Jared. After all, maybe his girlfriend's not herself when she's alone
with him. But how can he be sure whether these changes in her behavior are a red flag — or simply a red herring?
|Most of us tend to change [behaviors] depending on the setting.|
It's true that sometimes, the woman you meet, date and spend some initial alone time with will behave differently when you attend a party with friends, family or work colleagues together. "Most of us tend to change [behaviors] depending on the setting. However, if someone's radical shifts in behavior has you thinking of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, be wary," says Dr. Dan Neuharth, a marriage and family therapist and author of If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Take Your Place in the World. "You want to date people who know who they are and are true to that [identity]. If you are left wondering who the real person is, any relationship that develops [between the two of you] is likely to have an insecure foundation."
Understanding "social chameleons"
Maybe Jared's new sweetie isn't exactly a Jekyll-and-Hyde situation — that's a bit extreme. But she is a social chameleon, which is someone who changes the way he or she interacts with people depending on who's around. And she's not the only one. "We act differently with everyone," asserts Washington resident Alex, 35. "That's because our relationships with [certain people] are different from our relationships with other people. I don't make the same kinds of jokes around my mother as I do around my girlfriend because they have different senses of humor. I'm not being inauthentic in one situation or the other, even if I hold back on saying something. Rather, I am showing my dedication to maintaining the relationship rather than expecting the whole world to conform to [suit] me."
Alex makes a good point: How do you learn to accept your date's behavioral changes in various situations with all the other people in her life unconditionally, just as you want her to accept you? Maybe it's not something that's so unusual or worrisome at all. From adjusting to your expectations and attitude to asking for reasonable behavioral modifications from your date, psychologists weigh in on the best ways to approach someone whose personality changes in different settings and when interacting with different people.
Do you have preconceived notions about women's behavior?
Maybe your irritation with her behavior changing in different settings has more to do with your limited expectations of what she should say or do, based on your own preferences. "It's all about what you have imagined in your mind," says Dr. Gilda Carle (www.drgilda.com), relationship expert and author of Don't Bet on the Prince! How to Have the Man You Want by Betting on Yourself. "For example, if you are a guy and you're a 'modelizer,' then a woman should never dare open her mouth and have an opinion."
Or maybe — like many men — you want to know exactly what to expect from her in any setting and don't like (OK, you hate) being placed in awkward social situations. "Many men have walked away from relationships because they felt it was more important to their partner to fit in and play well with others than with them," says Dr. Ish Major, psychiatrist and author of Little White Whys: A Woman's Guide through the Lies Men Tell and Why. Also, many men are more socially conditioned to ignore warning signs early on in relationships. "Some men just ignore a situation until it becomes nearly intolerable," says Dr. Neuharth.
To learn what's really bothering you, do some soul-searching
Before you nix a date based on the way her personality changes, "do some soul-searching and figure out why that reaction makes you bristle so much — or, even a greater extreme, why it is so repulsive," says Dr. Belisa Vranich (www.drbelisa.com), clinical psychologist and coauthor of He's Got Potential: A Field Guide to Shy Guys, Bad Boys, Intellectuals, Cheaters and Everything in Between. "If it's a relatively minor behavioral change and shouldn't matter so much, why is it pushing your buttons?"
Of course, only you know the answer to that question. "I think this depends entirely on what the behavior means to you," explains Dr. Major. For example: at a work function where your girlfriend's acting like a social climber, "does is mean that your partner is striving for a better station in life and trying really hard to adjust and fit in, and you see that as a positive thing? Or do you see her as being hypocritical and fake, thus lowering her image in your eyes? It's really a matter of each individual's perspective," says Dr. Major.
"Most people have a hard time accepting a date as-is, and that's why so many people are serial daters," says Dr. Carle. "It's important to lighten up and realize you're not going to find the cookie-cutter model of a partner. A better approach is to be prepared for what the universe sends you — in whatever package she appears." Consider, too, that what often annoys us most about others is an aspect of ourselves that we don't like or can't accept. "If another's behavior deeply offends your cherished values or morals, a long-term relationship [with that person] will be problematic," says Dr. Neuharth. "But if it uncomfortably reminds you of yourself at your worst moments (or of your least favorite aunt or uncle), then you may want to work on self-improvement and self-acceptance as well as
tolerance of others' quirks rather than dumping your date. If the problem lies within you, changing partners won't help."
|Don't be a typical guy and stay silent if you're uncomfortable with something.|
How to bring up the issue with her productively
Don't be a typical guy and stay silent if you're uncomfortable with something. "One relationship challenge is accepting a partner for who he or she is while setting boundaries against unhealthy behavior," says Dr. Neuharth. "When you both have time to talk in a comfortable, private place, begin by asking your date if she's aware that her behavior changes in certain settings. She may not even know it. Ask her what's going on and listen receptively, then offer your views and feelings — particularly on how her behavioral changes affect you. Often, clearing the air is enough, and such a conversation may even lead your date to modify her behavior." But what if that isn't enough? "I suggest you tell her that you're hurt and offended by her behavior, and you'd like her to stop," adds Dr. Neuharth. "If you're calm and respectful, the way she responds will really help determine if she's worth your time. If she's responsible and tries to change [afterwards], she might be worth [pursuing], because she's shown that she cares and can own her misbehavior. If she's cruel, gets defensive, calls you names, says the problem's all your fault, etc., then you might want to reconsider dating her."
If you can, "figure out a way to approach [the issue] in a complimentary way," says Dr. Carle. For example, say: "I was so delighted to see you in a social setting and see this other side of you," Dr. Carle suggests. "Even if she doesn't change to accommodate you, at least you've given yourself an enormous gift. The ability to enunciate your feelings in the presence of someone else is tremendously empowering. However, it's no guarantee she'll change."
But what if the issue lies in the amount of attention she's giving to other people — leaving you feeling neglected or lost in a room full of strangers? "Set it up so that you have girls' nights and guys' nights," says Dr. Carle. "If you are getting upset because your partner is not giving you her attention 100% of the time, then maybe it's good to carve out alone time for yourself and set that expectation from the start. Insist on having separate nights to socialize with your inner circles, but do it in a way that keeps the focus on her — her freedom, her fun — and on the healthy balance of dependence/independence in your relationship. Make sure she gets time alone with her friends. Tell her you want her to be as free as she wants to carouse without worrying about taking care of you."
When it's OK to bolt for the door
"Sometimes, adapting to your surroundings is necessary," says Dr. Vranich. "But if the switch in [her] personality is a really big one — as in, where she literally turns into someone you don't like, and you can't talk about it or compartmentalize it — then it's probably a deal-breaker." It's important for men not to get into the habit of excusing women who hurt them or who treat them cruelly. Some men can get trapped with horrible girlfriends because they think it's OK for women to behave like shrews sometimes.
"Women who hang in packs and ignore their dates by gossiping and excluding them from their conversations are obviously not women you want to date," says Dr. Carle. But beware of the passive-aggressive woman who says mean things with a smile on her face, too. "If she's putting you down in any way — including when the barbs directed at you are supposedly funny, but they're really mean — then don't put up with it," explains Dr. Carle. Equally unattractive is the woman who doesn't criticize you directly, but doesn't support you, either. "My ex's friends told her that they didn't like me and didn't think I was cool enough for her," says Floridian Mark, 27. "The next time we were all together, I think she acted pretty mean toward me because she didn't have the guts to actually stand up for me [to them]," Mark recalls. "But then she tried to be super-sweet to me when we were alone later that night. She got mad when I called her out on her bad behavior, and I think she knew what she did was wrong, but she didn't want to admit it. That was it for us."
For the other side of the story, read "Why Does He Act Like A Jerk Around Them?"
Dave Singleton, an award-winning writer and columnist for Match.com since 2003, is the author of two books on dating and relationships. Send your dating questions and comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.