Is she really going out with him?

How do our amazingly intelligent and fascinating friends end up dating total duds? Meet the all-too-common "unequally cool couple."

Curtis Sittenfeld
June 23, 2004 12:40AM (UTC)

Ah, June -- the kickoff of the wedding season, the time to raise a glass to your beloved friends while secretly pondering some of the enduring connubial mysteries: Why do bridesmaids exist anyway? Why does anyone think it's a good idea to write their own vows? And most important, why are you -- my clever, edgy, ambitious, kindhearted friend -- marrying this total dud?

Yes, with 2.3 million marriages occurring in the United States every year, there are bound to be some mismatches. But we're not talking here about slightly imbalanced couples, where she's lively and he's quiet, or he's a great cook and she can't boil spaghetti to save her life. We're talking about really cool individuals -- our closest friends -- and the pathologically lame men and women they date, have relationships with and even marry.


Take Angela's friend Eric (names have been changed to protect the back stabbing), whose girlfriend came to a party at Angela's apartment, gave her phone number to other men, and threw up on the rug. Or Hillary's friend Kate, whose boyfriend Miguel knows that Kate hates when people are late so, just for yuks, he'll call her from the parking lot of a restaurant she's waiting inside to tell her he won't be there for another half-hour. Or Charlotte's friend Scott, married to a woman who, says Charlotte, "if we're just sitting around playing a game, she either is really into it and will cheat, or she's not into it and will go into the other room and talk on the phone or read magazines. She's always really particular about what she's eating, or it's too cold and can you get her a shawl?"

Dud-ish significant others are everywhere, crying at someone else's birthday party, asking you intrusive questions, making uncomfortable jokes, and underpaying when the group check comes. They're good for gossiping about, but not for much else. Luckily, the unequally cool couple -- that is, the UCC -- has an inverse: the equally cool couple, also known as the ECC. ECCs are rarer than UCCs, which only enhances their value. An ECC comes into being when your friend finds someone who is his or her equal, whose company you actually, voluntarily enjoy.

An ECC isn't a couple with matching megawatt résumés (it can be, of course, but often those couples are kind of nauseating, too). Rather, it's a couple you feel just as comfortable and happy around both halves of -- if you go with a group of people to a bar and you're in the corner of the booth, your heart doesn't sink if you end up next to one rather than the other.


Hillary, a 28-year-old who just graduated from business school in Boston, met her first ECC last year. Alex and Eva, business school classmates and newlyweds, "are both smart, attractive, dynamic and like to laugh," Hillary says. "They like to collect people and bring them together." Though Hillary met Eva first, she says, "I rarely spend time just with her. I'll go hang out with them as a couple and it's my first experience of there not being tension around that. In my life, there's a pattern of resenting that I have to give up a certain intimacy in the friendship when someone brings their partner around."

Even when you don't actively dislike your friend's significant other, you rarely feel for him or her the fondness you do for your friend. When she meets up with most couples, Hillary says, "It's not like having dinner with an old friend. It's like having dinner with an old friend and someone you kind of awkwardly know and often don't like as much. I'm viewing that as a cost where my friend's seeing this advantage to including her partner in her life. What I love about Alex and Eva is that [hanging out] doesn't come at a cost. I get excited about the friendship with both of them."

When Charlotte and her husband, Ted, socialize with Wendy and Oliver, "We feel comfortable breaking up in any permutation," says Charlotte, 32, an editor in New York. "If I call their house and he answers, I'm not bummed, or if we go to a movie and I go with Wendy to get popcorn, Ted and Oliver will be fine talking. Most of the time, the person's OK, but you're not that psyched to be left with them."


The foursome became close when both Charlotte and Wendy were pregnant. "When we first started hanging out, every time they left our apartment, we'd be like, 'We love them.' They're there to sympathize about anything, whether it's financial difficulties or the fact that you have no time or even how much you fight with each other, and you'll never feel judged. They're right there with you, like, 'We fight all the time, too.'"

The pleasures of an ECC are pure; those pleasures feel a bit guiltier when you realize that you like your friend's significant other better than you like your original friend. Aaron, 27, a writer in New York, became friends with Suzanne when they worked together at a magazine. At first, says Aaron, "It was like Suzanne, who I sit next to and spend all day with, is my good friend and then there's her boyfriend Kevin. Now it's like I see Suzanne when I see Suzanne, but Kevin is one of my good friends." When the weekend's coming, Aaron says, "I call Kevin and figure out the plans with him, and Suzanne comes along."


This interloper dynamic also exists for Aaron with his friend Maggie, to whom he has remained close, and her boyfriend Andrew, with whom Aaron socializes independently. "There's always this slight touch of weirdness," Aaron says. "He's telling stories to his guy friends about stuff that's been happening in their life as a couple, and I already know about it from Maggie's point of view. I feel like I'm a spy."

Phillip, 32, a novelist in Los Angeles, is well acquainted with the ECC phenomenon -- from the inside. Of course, being cool enough to be part of an ECC requires self-effacing denials that you're cool at all, but Phillip does admit about himself and his wife, Anna, 31, "People say, 'You guys are so great together.' I just feel very, very lucky to be with her. I tend to express that and sometimes people say, 'Well, she's lucky, too.'"

But it wasn't always thus. Phillip and Anna met one afternoon, through a mutual friend, as teenagers. "She doesn't remember me and meanwhile I remember her being unattainably cool," Phillip says. "If we had gone out then, she would have just crushed me. I was a sensitive, romantic guy and I didn't understand how relationships were supposed to work. I would have written her a lot of poems until it became really irritating -- I'd have precipitated my own loserdom."


Fortunately for Phillip, he and Anna didn't see each other for almost 15 years -- giving Phillip plenty of time to cultivate his coolness. Yet even now, as an ECC themselves, Phillip and Anna know their share of UCCs. "With these two couples, one of each is married to someone we don't like," he says. "We want them to divorce, have the two we don't like marry each other and go away, and have the two we do like marry each other and hang out."

In extreme cases, the dud's influence can so poison the partner -- that is, your friend -- that you want nothing to do with either of them. This happens for one of two reasons, Phillip explains. "One type [of friend] has the potential to go either way and they get dragged down by their uncool partner. The other type doesn't necessarily have the potential to go either way -- they are who they are -- but they will happily, obliviously exist alongside their uncool partner who creates such a cloud of uncoolness that it's surrounding both of them."

It may not be for us to ask why, but in such cases, how can we help it? Why, why, why do appealing people become involved with total deadweights? "Within a relationship, you have no idea what people get from each other," says Charlotte. "Just because you think that you know your friend really well doesn't mean that you know all your friend's weird fucked-up neuroses. Maybe they have a daddy issue, or maybe this person is a dud to talk to but has a really stable job and is a really good family man, and that level of stability is worth not being able to have stimulating conversations."


Phillip concurs. "I was friends with somebody for a long time and didn't know how he dealt with women because he wasn't dating. Then he got into a relationship, and people's relationship personalities are often different than their normal social personalities. With his friends, with work, he was a pretty mellow guy. In a relationship, he was a control freak." Phillip decided to express his concern that the woman his friend was dating seemed "like a dangerous person to mess with because she had already demonstrated herself to be a manipulator of men and a habitual liar." The conversation didn't go well. "He felt like I wasn't giving him credit for managing his own life, and I think he's right," Phillip says. "After he schooled me, I apologized and pulled back on making those kinds of comments. He got into another relationship recently, and now I only give advice when it's been solicited."

Most people don't weigh in on their friends' partners not only because they don't want to seem intrusive but also because they don't think it will do any good anyway. Angela's roommate Sharon was dating a woman named Lisa who was, Angela says, "insane." But Angela, 28, a program manager at a Washington nonprofit, said nothing because, she explains, "the fact that she was dating Lisa in the first place was a level I couldn't relate to Sharon on. The first thing that would have come out of my mouth would have been, 'How could you even think of dating her? She's crazy from the get-go!'"

Angela refers to Sharon and Lisa as "the gruesome twosome"; she refers to just Lisa as "the imp." "She was mischievous and short, she wore short pants, and she kind of hopped around," Angela says. "She would put her hands on Sharon's waist and follow her around like a little impish child. She had this really annoying way of using Sharon's name at the beginning and end of all sentences, like, 'Sharon, what do you want for dinner, Sharon? Sharon, are you hungry, Sharon?'"

Among Lisa's worst transgressions? On a night when Angela, Sharon and their other roommates had all made plans to go to a bar together, she kept the group waiting in the car for 45 minutes while she "had issues" with her clothing, and then, upon arrival at the bar, she refused to come inside and made Sharon drive her home. "She would totally play with Sharon's mind," Angela remembers. "She would tell her, 'You don't love me. Do you love me, Sharon? I think you hate me, Sharon!'"


A UCC is bad enough; the only thing worse is when you're the one who got them together in the first place. "I don't want them to break up because I know he loves her," Charlotte says of her friends Scott and Rebecca, whom Charlotte and her husband set up. "I'm not that selfish. [But] the last time we hung out, she was so fucking annoying I wanted to strangle her."

Rebecca's crimes include, Charlotte says, extreme nosiness. "She's always probing for the negative. Even if you say something like, 'I'm so exhausted,' she'll be like, 'Really? Why? What's going on?' Or she'll corner you at a party and say, 'So I heard your grandmother died.' And you're standing at the keg!" Rebecca's nosiness manifests itself in other ways as well. "She just gets her little paws on everything," Charlotte says. "If you're cooking them dinner and you go to the bathroom, when you come back she has the oven open and she's testing to see if the food's done." Charlotte is surprised, she says, that actually, Rebecca has a lot of friends. "Some people really like her," Charlotte says. "But cool people don't."

Talking about UCCs always, of course, carries with it the stench of judgment -- a fact about which Charlotte makes no apologies. "Are you kidding?" Charlotte says of herself and her husband. "We make a sport out of judging." But underneath the more unattractive reasons people criticize friends' partners, there lies a reason it's hard not to find endearing: namely, that you think your friend can do better because you see your friend as so great in the first place.

"If you want to be with this person I adore, I want you to be able to step up and match her," says Hillary, the business school graduate. "And if you're not able to be like her, then you should be reverent. You should make it very clear to me as the friend and self-appointed gatekeeper that you love her for the reasons I love her."


Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the novels "Prep" and "American Wife."

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