When Men are Mean: Friendships Edition

Please excuse the excessively long introduction: I have a point; I swear.

It started in 9thgrade.

I was desperately infatuated with a boy, his name was Michael. Now, Michael and his friends had their own happy-go-lucky gamer clique that I often overlapped with, since they were genuinely cool guys, who genuinely weren’t douches (hard not to be at 15). One of them once broke up with a girl because their relationship didn’t leave him enough time for gaming— enough said. Their cool guy clique came complete with the token cool girl, Sophie. She was older, curvy and gorgeous, and had beach houses all over Panama. She also happened to be my fifth grade best friend-turned enemy, with whom I never really spoke.

In 9th grade, it was known far and wide that Cool Girl TM had a huge crush on Michael, but that he was a little intimidated by the idea of commitment, and ruining their fantastic friendship. 

Enter: me. I was also cool, also friends with the boys, and now, I was also into Michael. I was facing a losing battle at the time, I just didn’t know that.

It all boiled down to the events at Ana Lorena’s quinceañera party. I swear, you can’t make this stuff up. That night my outfit was calculated to perfection: comfortable, sexy, with room to dance. I had waxed and plucked and painted. I was taking strong acne medication at the time and while my face was flawless, getting my moustache waxed resulted in a band-aid sized burn on my upper lip as the wax removed my epidermis. Cue more concealer and dim lighting.

The year was 2005, and the PH was in full swing. (That’s Panamanian for DJ and hype squad). Plena and reggaeton pounded through huge speakers at Mansion, the latest Miami-style club to hit Panama City. Everyone who was anyone between the ages of 13 and 18 was there. While Ana, a good friend of mine, beautifully clad in her pink quinceañera gown, was on stage joking around with Commando Tiburon, I was tucked away around the corner, sitting on a pleather couch minding my own business, when Alvaro, one of my brother’s friends in the grade below, slid up to me and started whispering what I can only imagine was pura paja (bullshit) in my ear. I was thrilled. Sure, my target for the evening had been Michael, but a girl can enjoy the attentions of another if she’s so inclined. I was the Leaning Tower of Pisa that night. 

I’ll never forget what happened next. Not least because it happened to my best friend in the exact same way with the exact same guy, an hour later. Alvaro leaned in and asked “si yo te doy un beso, tu me das un beso?” to which I replied with an embarrassed giggle and a nod. He kissed me on the cheek and then I turned to kiss him on the cheek. Lo and behold I was 14 years old and I still didn’t have the good sense to realize this was a set up. Sure enough, as I leaned in to plant one on him he turned and gave me my official first kiss ever (that didn’t involve truth or dare, my friends or family). 

We made out briefly before I turned my attentions back to the task at hand: seducing Michael in all my amateur glory. With one notch freshly carved into the ol’ bedpost, I was on a roll. With Sophie out of the picture, I was free to make my move. We were all a couple of screwdrivers down (my adolescent drink of choice), so I don’t remember perfectly, however I suspect it was in that very same nook where I had my first kiss that I went for it. Michael was a strange, giggly kid who has serious problems dealing with his emotions, so I don’t imagine we had too much of a conversation before he moved in to kiss me. I know he kissed me first because up until my first year of University I took pride in always being the recipient of kisses. I was floating on air; my heart raced a million miles a minute and I was very likely sweaty from the combination of dancing and nerves. We parted that evening when my parents came to pick me up some time around 2:00am. I foolishly glided out of the venue thinking that had been the night my life changed. I was right, but not in the ways I had hoped.

The next weekend the school was abuzz with rumors from Ana’s quince. I definitely hadn’t been the only person exchanging saliva in dark corners, and Panama is the definition of a small world. Word reached Sophie that I had kissed her beloved, and she was devastated. Apparently she had a huge argument with Michael after finding out. Being the nervous wreck I was, I barely spoke to him throughout the week. By the following Monday, they were officially together and I was officially the devastated one (though I wasn’t deterred as much as I should have been…)

Fast forward a few weeks, and the friendships I had cultivated with Michael and his crew became strained. Our mutual friends felt a little sorry for me, but their alliances were overwhelmingly with Sophie – after all, she had pined for months, I had pined for less. They still came around my house and slept over occasionally, as they were very good friends with my brother, but Sophie kept a close eye and her ear to the ground. Being the single-minded little monkey I’ve always been, I did not quite take this turn of events as the end of the story. When Michael came around, I still flirted and made myself available at every opportunity, hoping he would realize he had been bullied into a relationship. Was it the right thing to do? Absolutely not; but I knew what I wanted and I’d be damned if I didn’t give it my all.

At a certain point, things changed. Sophie made it clear to Michael she was uncomfortable with our friendship, but instead of talking to me with any semblance of maturity, Michael became cruel. He took to making fun of me in front of our friends. He would throw things at me – old food items on the bus, matches and small fireworks that were literally on fire– and ignore me completely. It became apparent that he was demonstrating his lack of interest in me by bullying me in front of Sophie. Not only was it physically painful at times, it also left me wondering what drove him to react that way.

I’ve wondered that many times, with many men since.

Correlation is not causation: those are words to live by. Through the years, however, certain patterns have manifested themselves in my relationships with my friends’ partners – patterns of mistreatment and downright rudeness. It was after the latest such incident that I began to wonder whether this was more than a coincidence.

After Michael, the next most prominent example was Amarin. A gorgeous, Thai-Aussie PhD candidate, Amarin met my friend Alex at my house party in our first year of law school. He was intelligent and witty, and a fair few of my friends’ interests were piqued that night, myself included. Having grown up in Bangkok myself, I struck up a nostalgic conversation about food and travel, and we hit it off. But even an ambitious night crawler such as myself knows when she’s beat. The minute he laid his eyes on Alex, all bets were off. He was smitten, following her down the midnight Melbourne streets like a newly-adopted puppy.

They dated for four years. And sure enough, a few months into the relationship, I become Frenemy Prime (we literally called each other that). He would talk over me, make fun of me, and generally be rude towards me. When the pair came to Panama for New Years, I got the same treatment even after hosting them for dinners and arranging our travel and accommodation plans. He targeted me during drinking games and got my friends in on the ‘fun’.

Then there was Mali, who my friend Jess dated for the better of a year. Same, same: he came round to dinner, we had a heated debate about feminism where I politely made my point (I go out of my way to calmly explain my points when my audience is a complete beginner). Jess and my other friend Sky practically lived at mine around this time, and whenever Jess was on the phone to him, it changed from ‘oh hi Taña’ to ‘fuck you, Taña’ in a matter of weeks – the reason totally lost on me.

Given that I’m not completely obtuse and do receive positive feedback on my supposed people skills, I was seriously left wondering what the bloody hell was up?! More importantly, I’m not one to back down or let myself be insulted. You can rest assured I defended myself whenever I felt attacked. Now as a shitty, feminist killjoy I’m not above sitting someone down and explaining the error of their ways; but I’m also not a full time school teacher and I sure as shit am not a punching bag. It takes an emotional toll being around people who treat you this way regularly. It’s also exhausting to have to ‘make nice’ for the sake of your friends.

I found myself wondering whether there was something genuinely wrong with the way I was approaching these men. Could it be that they sniffed out my powerful combination of staunch feminism and insecurity, and concluded I was an easy target? Is it essential for men’s partners to have one disagreeable friend, and was I a prime candidate?

Another, more important example is my relationship with my cuñado, my cousin’s husband. Married at the tender age of 24 for love and convenience, my cousin has managed to remain in her marriage for a surprisingly long time, during which I’ve had the pleasure of visiting her in San Francisco and getting to know the chap somewhat. What started as interest quickly grew – out of comfort or distaste – to a friendly banter, which turned more aggressive as time passed.

Now, there’s something to be said about bonding with certain people by ragging on your mutual acquaintances. It’s a low-blow, but surefire technique of sharing a laugh with someone you don’t have anything else in common. And seeing as how I visited my dear cousin with my brother and other family, I could understand how my cuñi may have been trying to score points with the alpha males. Of course, this would require our audience being around all the time, which they haven’t been. This brings me back to wondering why.

Reflecting on my brief relationship with my cousin’s husband, a small part of me feels he’s driven a wedge between my cousin and I, if only because I’m not particularly looking forward to visiting her and having him along for the ride. It’s a two-for-one I would rather leave behind. Full disclosure: I know my beliefs on marriage and toxic monogamy definitely come into play here. What I view as codependence or poor communication, others see as love or relationships. It is absolutely not my place to comment on their relationship, being so very far away from it year-round. What I canspeak to is myrelationship with this California couple, and how it’s certainly changed over the years.

While it is now clear to me that, in the first instance, Michael was trying to prove sexual rejection to his beloved partner, I have to wonder whether that dynamic applies in any of these other circumstances. It’s also possible that as an advocate for independence, communication, and self-love, these men have identified that I am the voice in my friends’ ear, pushing them to strive for more, to set the bar higher. A meddling feminist reminding the women in their lives that they have been, and will always be that bitch– no man necessary. In any case, I am officially raising the white flag. No, I’m never going to stop being the voice in your woman’s ear, but a true partner and ally recognizes the need for powerful women to surround themselves with other powerful women. What I am done with is the cattiness, the sly jokes, and having these men jump to conclusions about me without all the information.

I demand more of my friends because I know they can be more. I give slack when I am asked to, or when I sense they need a reprieve. I am a place of healing and rest as much as I am a teacher or a sounding board. And as important men in my friends’ lives, you can have all of that. Just be kind.

Have you experienced anything similar with men, or people, in your lives?

Let me know how you dealt with it in the comments.