Ask Dr. Mona: An Epistle For The Emotionally Perplexed

05/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Q: My husband and my best friend are both angry at me. They both tell me how destructive and terrible my relationship is with the other. I feel like they are, in effect, asking me to choose between them.

My best friend Tracey and I have known each other since high school. We were cheerleaders together, we dated some of the same boys, we traveled in the same circles, and we eventually ended up going to the same college. We always were supportive of each other and usually pretty much on the same academic level. There was always a light rivalry but not enough to disturb our deep bond. We liked each other's family and we supported each other through many love affairs. In fact, after I met my future husband, Harold, in college, we became pretty much a threesome. Whenever Tracey didn't have a date she came along with Harold and me. We had both wanted to date Harold and he was certainly the cool man on campus, but I got him.

It's now eight years after college graduation and I have been married to Harold for seven years. We have a five-year-old boy. Tracey still is not married, but she is a successful career woman and will almost certainly someday be at the top of her field, commercial real estate development. While Tracey says she doesn't think of marriage and children, she certainly enjoys being the good "auntie" to my son, Ben. On weekends, she and I enjoy taking Ben to the mall for the whole day. We still giggle over our lives the way we did before. She tells me about her work and her liaisons and I must admit I live a bit through her. I admit also that I occasionally find myself jealous of her freedom.

My husband, Harold, used to enjoy hanging out with me and Tracey, but now he seems to be happier just staying at home. Where I used to feel like we were a fun threesome, he complains about seeing her more than he does his own friends. He doesn't understand why we don't find more couples with the same interests that we have and why we don't find more time just to be alone. I understand what he is saying, but I don't really want to lose my friendship with Tracey. My relationship with her is as important to me as my relationship with my husband.

So I find myself having to find time just for Tracey or just for Harold. I am torn between the two parts of my life and more often than not I find myself making excuses to Tracey. Of course, she senses that something is wrong or that I am not on the level. After all, we have been very close for very long. She sometimes hints that maybe Harold is not the perfect man for me or that divorce is not such a bad thing or that Ben will be fine -- and, of course, that she will always be there for me. Subtlety has never been one of her strong points.

But I love my family and our life together. Sometimes I think Tracey is just jealous of my getting the BMOC. But I also love hanging out with Tracey. Do I have to choose?

A: Yes! You have to choose whether you want to grow up or not. You cannot stay forever stuck in your idyllic past, the carefree period of a young adult. At some point you have to transition to another, and equally satisfying, stage of life. You can keep your memories of your college life, but you're not in college anymore.

In fact, you are the only one of the threesome that has not moved on. Tracey has moved on to a career and Harold has voiced a desire for the joy, fun, and intimacy that a couple and a family can give to each other. You are the only glue that keeps these two disparate people, Harold and Tracey, connected. Without you, they have little in common. Tracy will continue in her career and perhaps even start her own family some day. And Harold will continue to move toward friendships with people, such as him, who are married and have children. You can stay a part of the two individuals, but you cannot ask anymore for a threesome of friendship.

Maybe you don't want to let go of the memories of college and its nostalgic suggestion of freedom. We all occasionally yearn for the periods of time in our lives when we had few responsibilities. But I suspect that you also don't want to let go of the central position that you had between Harold and Tracey. After all, you "won" him, the big man on campus, over all of the other breathless young co-eds. Who would want to surrender that position -- of being on a pedestal? It is time, however, to let go, and it is time to understand what each of these relationships means to you personally. What do you gain from them? What does the relationship satisfy or resolve for you?

In therapy, I have always used the metaphor of a dance to describe a relationship. Every dynamic --marriage, friendship, parenting, even work-- involves a form of rhythm where each individual in the relationships knows instinctually how the interaction or dance works. When one steps forward, the other moves back. When one leads, the other follows. When one stops or starts, the other stops and starts as well. These are all directions or movements in the relationship. Most of the time, the dance works for both members of the interaction. Each member gets what they need. They play a role in the relationship that makes them most comfortable. Sometimes, however, the dance is destructive and one person finds themselves playing a role they don't like anymore. They may have grown out of that role or they may have discovered it is simply not productive. Abused people, for instance, always find it difficult to step out of the submissive role that they are used to and find comfortable. This is their role in the dance. But in order to successfully move on in life, they must step out of the dance.

Your dance with your husband and with your best friend no longer works well for either of them. They have moved on. They now want something different for themselves and consequently from you. You are not choosing between Harold and Tracey. You are choosing the sort of person you want to be in the future and the kind of life you want to lead.