Like most people, I’m pretty bad at taking my own advice sometimes. So, when a close guy friend’s New Girlfriend started to be pretty unfriendly toward me last week, instead of looking at the situation from her point of view like I would suggest someone else in the same situation do, I just rolled my eyes and called her insecure behind her back. Then I waited a week to ask her about the shift in our dynamic, instead of immediately starting an uncomfortable but necessary conversation. “What is your problem?” I thought as I smiled and instead said, “this might be totally be in my head, but something seems different lately between us. Is something different?”
New Girlfriend responded with something I hope I would have figured out if I had stopped to think about the situation from inside her fall boots: “Brian is emotionally slutty with you.”
Here’s the thing. I was chatting with Brian in his office one afternoon last week when this girl popped in for a visit (much like I had popped in for a visit an hour before, and had stayed). We were talking about baseball, costume cocktail parties, and his dead mother. I was throwing an occasional peanut M&M at Brian, calling out where I was going to hit him next, and he was picking out the yellow ones because he hates them. Always has. I thought Brian’s New Girlfriend was under the mistaken impression that something was going, which she stumbled on just in time to stop. It turned out that Brian had never opened up to New Girlfriend about his mother, even though he keeps pictures of her on the fridge, in his wallet, and in the guest bathroom. New Girlfriend was hurt that emotionally, I had access to a really vulnerable side of my friend/her boyfriend that she had yet to see or be trusted with soothing.
It’s much easier to open up a bottle of wine and a hard day’s emotions with a person we already trust. Friends are important, full stop. I knew Brian’s mom, I was at the hospital, the funeral, and I gave him the frame that holds him mom’s picture in his guest bathroom. That will always be the case. New Girlfriend is smart to flag the fact that Brian is emotionally open with me. From this she can see he is capable of being vulnerable and emotionally available. For things to go the distance, these are necessary qualities to find in a romantic partner. In any new relationship, there is a period of time in which we don’t really know someone, and they don’t really know us, but we would like to know each other. It’s scary to let someone see our scabs and scars and dandruff, let alone hear the story about the day mom died. It’s important to take a risk and leap, expecting a net to appear. If it doesn’t, the fall won’t be far. Our friends and family will be there to catch us. For a new relationship to become something more than a flame out, we have to push past the limits of “what appetizer should we share” and get to a spot where we are brave enough to show this new person (carefully, in time) our tender, fearful spots of anxiety and disappointment.
The exposure of our pain is not our ultimate destination, though. The structure we put around that hurt is. No one has the emotional capacity to share the upmost level of intimacy with everyone in his or her inner circle. We have to have boundaries. Our romantic partner becomes the safe space where we take off our bandages, clean our wounds and air them for a while so we can heal. Uncovered open wounds get infected. You get the picture. New Girlfriend is in the precarious position of not being around when Brian was wounded, but she would like to be around now to hold the Neosporin. She might not have put it elegantly, but she gets that Brian sharing this intimate space with me means that his emotional need in this situation is being met, and not by her.
A soulmate is not, as my grandmother once told me, someone who is going to be selecting tomatoes one day at the grocery store when I am also looking for tomatoes, with whom I will want to take the tomatoes home and make something with all our collectively selected tomatoes. Or maybe a soulmate is—and I misinterpreted what she actually meant and spent the better part of autumn 1999 touching up my mascara after class before shopping for tomatoes. A soulmate is not a guy who puts his hand on top of mine as we both reach for the same tomato. A soulmate helps me avoid my allergic reaction to strawberries, calms my fear of mall escalators, and runs to the drugstore in the middle of the night to get me yeast infection cream, and the latest batch of gossip magazines. We pick up tomatoes and toothpaste at the market, even when I’m not wearing mascara. We get food poisoning from the new bistro down the street together and sweat it out in our tiny, two-room apartment. Soulmate is a hard won distinction. It’s an hourly, temp-to-perm job. It takes someone willing to show up and take responsibility for adding to our #happiness while slugging through all our really terrible days (even when tired, sick, or really pissed off at us).
In the end, I told Brian he should try talking to New Girlfriend about his mom the next time he’s sad and missing her instead of immediately phoning me. I know that’s a hard thing for him to do, especially because some people have disappointed him with their uncomfortability around the topic of his mom’s death. The thing is, New Girlfriend is interested enough in starting to work on the very challenging project of intimacy to be upset by the fact that someone is already in Brian’s emotional space (instead of, say, being relieved that he’s already having a certain need met). Brian has to be brave enough to offer a sizable part of his emotional space to New Girlfriend (and take part of that space from me) if they are ever going to work in a substantial way. He has to protect this emotional space as a sacred, intimate space shared between two. Brian will always be my friend. Friendship has to have certain limits, though, for romantic partnership to be fully realized with other people.
When I talk to people having trouble conceiving, I often hear some version of a story about the boundaries of intimacy. A husband feels like his wife tells her sister too much about them as a couple. A wife feels her husband’s female coworker is a little too familiar with their recent fight. “It’s not the sex, it’s the closeness that I can’t get past,” a girlfriend of mine told me after her husband of seven years cheated on her. It is about the sex, of course. Yet, the “closeness” my friend is tortured by most is the emotional bond her husband built with someone else. It happens all the time. We get aggravated, we feel distant, we resent this supposed soulmate of ours. Our partner amasses a lengthy list of faults we might as well be writing on the living room wall in Sharpie. We go to work, and the spin class he refuses to take with us. Someone laughs at our stupid jokes (see, we are funny) and tells us or hair makes us look like a supermodel (maybe that wasn’t exactly the phrase, but that was the intension for sure winky face, triple exclamation mark). Three weeks later we have vented about our soulmate’s habit of falling asleep naked on the sofa, which was pretty cute at first but now seems unhygienic and gross. We have shared that thing that happened junior year in college we have only ever told people sitting next to us on airplanes. We are excited to get a text message with a weird number of emojis instead of another list of chores, and send some back. We have become, as New Girlfriend would say, emotionally slutty.
Designating someone as our soulmate is the formality of a moment-to-moment practice. New Girlfriend might be Brian’s soulmate, or maybe she’s not—but he owes it to her, himself and them together to provide the emotional space to see what can happen. You might have met someone, possibly while buying tomatoes, who is your soulmate. If you want your love to grow into a family, you’re going to do well to keep your emotional space intimate, and hang on to the Neosporin accordingly.
 His name isn’t actually Brian, but for this it will be.