It might be hardwired into us to be suspicious of, or dislike, close friends of our significant other who are the same gender as us.
According to my very scientific survey of the internet, there seems to be lots of articles out there on why girlfriends hate their boyfriend’s female friends, or boyfriends being uncomfortable about their girlfriend’s close male friends (and all the LGBTQ equivalents).
Apparently, the argument goes that the close friend of your boyfriend or girlfriend presents a risk to your relationship because of supposed underlying or residual feelings on the part of your significant other or the friend. These supposed feelings pose a risk to your own relationship, regardless of whether you end up forming a friendship with your significant other’s close friend or not (which can be done to build trust).
Do we live in a world where the close friends of our significant other are waiting ready to pounce when we stop watching – and monogamy means nothing – or is there something else going on here?
Identity Threat. Identity threat is an experience that you perceive to signify potential harm to the value, meaning, or enactment of your identity. Threats to your identity can be very unsettling, and can cause people to respond in all kinds of seemingly irrational ways. Identity threats are also associated with lowered self-esteem, resistance to change, and stigmatiszation.
An individual’s identity is a complex thing – people form identities over time and often in relation to group-membership roles and unique characteristics. Some identities are involuntary (race or eye colour), but most are voluntary (in a serious relationship with so-and-so). Our identity is intrinsically tied to our psychological well-being, defining an identity positively is tied with our self-worth. On the flip side, taking hits to an identity can lead to serious negative consequences.
A threat to an identity can take a couple of different forms.
- It can be something that devalues an identity in the future (ex. “people from this town tend to be stupid”).
- It can be something that makes the association between an identity and its meaning unsustainable in the future (ex. when an artisan baker is forced to work on an assembly line making the same things day after day rather than applying the artistic talents normally associated with ‘artisan’).
- It can be something that prevents someone from enacting their identity (ex. a chronic illness).
I am suggesting that your boyfriend’s close female friend could be an identity threat… and that’s why you don’t like her.
Why the close friend is an identity threat:
I see two major reasons. The first being that your significant other has a list of qualities he/she likes and doesn’t like in people. As a result, I’d wager this close friend has some of the same qualities that you have. The similarities feel like more direct competition. The second reason is that this close friend directly threatens the enactment of your relationship. Enactment here refers to the special connection two people have together – knowing each other’s preferences, shared memories, same community of family and friends. There will also be a similar body of knowledge and a connection with a close friend – maybe they have been a friend from childhood, they know and share in a passion of your boyfriend/girlfriend, a close friend is there to listen when the boyfriend/girlfriend is having a tough time. These are things that, by virtue of them taking place with the close friend, are not always taking place with just you. It threatens the enactment of your relationship, but it also potentially threatens the meaning and value. If your boyfriend/girlfriend can have this special connection with someone else, is yours really special?
There are a couple of tactics associated with identity threat that could translate into behaviour. Let me list them, and you can judge if you’ve seen this happen before:
- Derogation. To protect your identity as a couple, it’s possible to discredit the source of the threat, diminishing the potential harm. This has been observed in competitive situations, and helps an individual cope with a potentially negative identity. This might take the form of: smack-talking the close friend, pointing out their flaws, embarrassing them in a group setting, etc.
- Identity-enhancing. This is when an individual presents identity-enhancing information, often in an attempt to change the attitude of the individuals or groups who are the source of the threat. This is done in an effort to boost their identity in the face of the threat, creating distinction between oneself and the negative identity. This might take the form of: boasting in front of the significant other, boasting in front of the close friend, doing things that get the significant other’s attention whenever the friend is around or mentioned.
- Other responses: making friends with the close friend, intensifying the couple-relationship, or breaking up. Making better friends with the close friend can create the illusion of trust. We would feel slightly more confident that he/she wouldn’t make a move because he/she would then be making a transgression against you as a friend. Intensifying the couple-relationship could also happen – creating closer bonds with the significant other also increases trust (getting engaged, getting a pet, moving in together, etc.) as the significant other would have more to lose if they transgressed. Finally, breaking up. This is doing away with the couple identity altogether.
Have you seen people react that way before – or have you yourself done this?
It might not be your girlfriend’s fault that she hates me. I probably didn’t do anything to deserve it either. Just my mere presence might be enough to act as an identity threat.
Here is some helpful advice for you to contemplate:
- Boundaries: make it clear to your significant other that there are some topics and memories that are special to just the two of you. Perhaps you both enjoy watching Scrubs on a Sunday night, or book a trip just the two of you where you’ll have those shared memories. Create positive distinctiveness surrounding the core of the couple-identity.
- Emotion-recognition: understand that you might be hardwired to be uncomfortable. Question if the close friend ever actually did anything that legitimately warrants suspicion. Make sure you recognize these feelings and act accordingly. Ask questions if you feel uncomfortable.
- Sensitivity: be sensitive if you see your significant other having trouble with the proximity of your own close friend. There is a way to manage it where everyone feels appreciated and valued.
- Appreciate: it might be a great thing that your boyfriend’s best friend is a girl, or vice versa. It might make him more understanding and more empathetic.
Now for a poll:
Have you ever felt the significant other of a close friend dislikes you? Have you ever disliked the close friend of your significant other?
Link to the survey:
P.s. I try really hard to make sure no one hates me! This title was an attempt at some flashy eye-catching language.
Afifi, W. A., & Guerrero, L. K. (2000). Motivations underlying topic avoidance in close relationships. Balancing the secrets of private disclosures, 165-180.
Blades, Lincoln Anthony (08/12/2011) Why GIRLFRIENDS INHERENTLY Hate Their Boyfriends Female-Friends. This Is Your Conscience. http://www.thisisyourconscience.com/2011/08/why-girlfriends-inherently-hate-their-boyfriends-female-friends/#sthash.Xm3hmwdO.dpuf
Nagi, Ariel (11 March 2013) Should You Be Jealous If Your Boyfriend’s Best Friend is a Girl? Cosmopolitan. http://www.cosmopolitan.com/sex-love/a4263/boyfriend-best-friend-is-a-girl/
Petriglieri, J. L. (2011). Under threat: Responses to and the consequences of threats to individuals’ identities. Academy of Management Review, 36(4), 641-662.
 Some fun research about trying your luck at the bar when you go with a friend who is very (physically) similar to you: https://realityswipe.wordpress.com/2013/03/12/improve-your-attractiveness/