My boyfriend's ex puts me down in public

Why do women do this to each other? Can't we rise above it?

Published August 30, 2006 11:15AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

About a year ago I started dating a wonderful man who went to college nearby. A lot of his college friends still live here, including an ex-girlfriend whom he broke things off with a couple of years ago. Until he started dating me I think she always held out hope that they would get back together, despite the fact that he broke it off because he did not see a future with her. We are on friendly terms with her and tend to see her socially as we all move within the same group of friends, but they are no longer close at all.

While this woman is not someone I would necessarily ever be close with, I can acknowledge that she is attractive, intelligent, interesting and by all accounts a pretty good person. That is what makes what I am feeling so hard, because I find that often when we are in groups of people she finds small ways to put me down and I'm tired of it. She generally does it when my boyfriend isn't around, but last week even he noticed her small jabs. To his credit, he stuck up for me, put his arm around me and gave me a squeeze of solidarity. The thing is, why do we women do this to each other? Her comments generally tend to insult my tastes in books or movies while at the same time pointing out how intellectual or highbrow hers are. I can't figure out if this is some sort of competition because we have dated the same guy or if she just doesn't know she is doing it, but I am finding it increasingly frustrating to hang out with her. My boyfriend is more than willing to just not attend parties or other functions that she throws, but I don't want her behavior to dictate my actions.

I've tried just letting her comments roll off of me to minimal success. I know part of the problem is my own competitive spirit. I attended a top college on a large merit scholarship, graduated with honors, have a good job and have generally done well at whatever I've tried. However, this woman -- and, in fact, most people I meet -- doesn't know this about me because I don't talk about it. So it hurts when she tries to make me out to be less intelligent or really lesser in any way. I've been hesitant to come out and say it's jealousy because it seems like we women are forever comforting ourselves that people who don't like us are "just jealous," but I'm running out of explanations. Can two women who have loved the same guy really not ever get along? I know that sometimes it's hard to get along if you were both incredibly serious with the same man, but their relationship was for a space of time in college and was never completely intimate.

There is a college reunion coming up a couple of hours away, and now she wants to carpool with us. I knew she was coming and I don't mind hanging around her in a large group, but trapped in a car for hours? My boyfriend has already offered to just say no, but I don't see how to do that without coming across as a jerk. The thing is, I want to like her and I feel like I'm failing. I don't like what that says about me as a person or as a girlfriend, but I also don't like having to smile in the face of her comments. Is there a way to defuse the situation? I'm worried that if I try to sit down and talk with her, she will say I'm making it up and she has no problem with me. However, I think it's pretty clear that there is some sort of tension and I've love to let it go. Any thoughts?

Fed Up

Dear Fed Up,

A person can be "attractive, intelligent, interesting and by all accounts a pretty good person" and still be your enemy. I would focus not so much on understanding her but on defending yourself.

It's hard to defend yourself openly against subtle hostility. Sometimes, rather than trying to ignore it or rise above it, the best way is to be a little outrageous -- quickly, and then let it go. You need to make some kind of public gesture that reasserts your dignity and lets everyone know that you know what's going on and won't stand for it.

That is what this is about. It isn't about you sitting down with her and finding out what her problem is. We know what her problem is. She is a hurt, jealous woman who won't admit to herself that she was wounded and so lashes out in subtle ways. It would be OK if she just didn't like you and knew that she just didn't like you. We can be perfectly nice to people we don't particularly like. But I'm betting she also blames you. She's got it in for you. You're a bad presence in her head. She sees you as someone who caused her unhappiness. You are the reason she is not with that guy. So she must demonize you. She cannot allow herself to believe that you were simply more attractive to him and a better match. You must instead be cast in her mind as a person worthy of contempt -- "a prissy, shallow, passive-aggressive bitch," perhaps. I know that sounds ugly, but I'll bet that's the kind of garbage that is running through her head.

And because you are not fighting back, she has no reason to reconsider her behavior.

I don't know what kind of language is appropriate in your circle, so I can't tell you exactly what would do the trick. What you want to convey is that you know she's needling you, you think it sucks, but at the same time it doesn't hurt you -- it's just stupid and ineffective and makes her look bad. Some people could just say, "Fuck you" and walk away, and it would be understood, in all its unsubtle glory, not as a hateful provocation but as a legitimate acknowledgment that she is indeed fucking with you and you don't care for it. It alludes to a genuine tension but doesn't linger on it. It is both expressive and dismissive.

If done skillfully such a pushing of linguistic boundaries can clear the air and everyone can shrug it off. You need to find the words, body language and facial expression that will say unequivocally, "Back off."

Apparently, instead, you are trying to take the high road. You wonder, "Why do we women do this to each other?" I would say women do this to each other because women are people and people are nasty. People hurt each other on purpose. They do it because it feels good! They do it because it makes their own pain go away!

She's hurting you because she's hurt. But that doesn't mean she deserves your sympathy and understanding. You are struggling in a self-defeating manner against your own natural impulses to defend yourself.

She's beating you up verbal-ninja style. She's ripping you to shreds with razor blades of icy sisterhood.

You have to do something about it.

Send her a signal. Don't be subtle, but do it quickly and move on.

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