You Need Help: I Feel Like I’m My Girlfriend’s Second Choice

Q:

My girlfriend and I have been dating for six months. My girlfriend came out this past year (we are both in our 30s). We have a good relationship — great sex, solid communication, compatibility, etc.

However, whenever my girlfriend talks about her first crush, I feel uneasy. She speaks reverently about cuddling in the dark with her close female friend while they watched SNL every week — neither one of them out of the closet or out to themselves at the time. This person is significant to her.

Her friend came out several years ago and is married to another woman. When I asked my girlfriend if she wished they had ended up together, she responded, “what does it matter? She’s married; she’s not an option.” Admittedly this isn’t the answer I want. My girlfriend doesn’t keep regular contact with this old friend and hasn’t come out to her yet. My instincts are telling me this is unrequited love. When I ask her why she hasn’t come out to her yet, she gets quiet and doesn’t respond.

To add insult to injury, I once asked my girlfriend what her type was, and she described “tall, masc of center, sporty, long curly hair.” I looked this girl up on social media, and that describes her exactly. As an uncoordinated artsy femme of average height, I’m measuring myself against this girl and coming up short (literally and figuratively).

The question I want to ask my girlfriend is, “If your friend and I were both single, which one would you choose?” I’m scared of her answer, but I don’t want to be my girlfriend or anyone’s second choice. My girlfriend is, hands down, my first choice. On the one hand, maybe I’m overacting, but on the other, don’t I deserve to be her number-one pick?

A:

Oh, babe. This situation sucks, and I’m sorry you’re going through it. I’ll say upfront: I think you and your girlfriend should break up. But that’s rough news to just hear first thing on the third day of the new year, so I’d like to invite you to make a cup of tea, grab a warm blanket, cozy up on the couch, and take some deep breaths before we get into the nitty gritty of what’s going on here. I’ll make some tea too. See you in a moment.

Whew, okay. Hi. So like I said, I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. Ouch! It would hurt my feelings so much if I asked my girlfriend her type and she didn’t describe me, and worse, she described her friend who I suspect she has unrequited feelings for. It’s such a bad feeling to feel as though you are anyone’s second choice, especially when it’s the person you picked first. I spent some time reading over this question and trying to pick apart what everyone (you and your partner) could be doing differently, but ultimately I came down to this very simple sentiment: you and your girlfriend should definitely be picking each other first. You say “don’t I deserve to be her number-one pick” and the answer is wholeheartedly, absolutely, resoundingly, yes.

When I first read your question I found myself asking some of my own. How long has your girlfriend been out? How frequently does she speak with this old friend? Do you both post about your relationship on social media, and if so, shouldn’t we assume that this person knows your girlfriend is gay, even if she hasn’t formally come out to her? Why are you asking leading questions to your girlfriend instead of just asking what you want to know? Do you have experiences in the past that have led you to feeling anxious in a relationship? Have you considered attachment theory and has anyone ever recommended DBT to you to help with intrusive anxious thoughts? (Admittedly, I am projecting with that last line of questioning — I am not a therapist and I am not offering a diagnosis, I’m simply an anxious woman who has been working with a DBT group for just over a year and has become evangelical about it because the tools have helped me manage my own intrusive anxious thoughts so much!) But the more time I spent with these questions, the more I concluded they don’t really matter.

What matters is that you don’t feel secure in your partnership with your girlfriend. So you either need to get to a place where you feel secure, or you need to break up. And I, personally, would not be inclined to put the hard work that is required to overcome feeling like my girlfriend’s second choice into a relationship that is only six months long. Maybe you will be! But you wrote in for advice, and I am imagining myself sitting on my blue velvet sofa drinking tea with a dear friend and offering them advice, and this is the advice I would give: Break Up.

Not because your girlfriend is bad! Not because you are anxious or overreacting or not overreacting or any other such weeds we could get into it. But because part of the magical sparkly unbeatable joy of being in love and in relationship with someone is feeling like you are choosing them and they are choosing you over and over and over with glee, with zest, with happiness, with excitement, and most importantly: without reservation. And for whatever reason, that isn’t the feeling you’re experiencing here. And it seems, from taking your letter at face value, that you have some evidence to support your concern. Sometimes our brain makes up stories to wreak havoc on our emotions, but sometimes our intuition is sounding an alarm. It seems to me that in your case, the latter is happening.

I want to tell you about a time I ignored my own intuition. I used to date someone I loved very much who was simply not the right match for me. And I struggled so hard to make our relationship work; I believe she struggled to make it work too. We both wanted to be right for each other. And yet — we simply were not. But because I am A Good Queer Who Goes To Therapy And Reads Books About Attachment Theory I had bought into the idea that Relationships Are Work. And they are! That’s true. But my therapist used to challenge me every week, when I showed up for our sessions to cry some more about how much my partner’s behavior was making me feel terrible and how I was working so hard but nothing was changing, and she’d say, “Vanessa, relationships are work, but they shouldn’t be this hard.” I didn’t really get what she meant until my ex and I finally broke up, goddess bless us both, and I met my current partner who is going to be my wife. And yes, my relationship with my fiancee is work — I wasn’t entirely wrong about that, all relationships of course are work — but I understand my therapist now. The work I do with my current partner is not hard. And even when we are struggling with a challenging moment, we are not struggling about whether or not we should be together — because that is easy. It is Known. We have chosen each other, without reservation, and we are In It Together. That is obvious and true. So all the work we do surrounding us is manageable because we’re doing it together. That feeling of panic or anxiety or mistrust in my last relationship wasn’t me overreacting — it was the terrible way we feel in our bodies when we ignore our intuition.

It sounds to me as though you do not necessarily feel as though you’re In It Together with your girlfriend, and whether that’s your perception or her truth or somewhere in the middle doesn’t really matter. You deserve to be in a relationship with someone who chooses you enthusiastically and proudly and obviously every single day, and your girlfriend deserves to figure out exactly what she wants and needs from a relationship (and perhaps from the personal closure she still needs to find from her past significant relationship with someone who, as she astutely and wisely can point out, is no longer available as an option for her to date or be with romantically). Perhaps this sounds callous, but six months is really not very long in a relationship. I think it makes sense to take this moment and call it off, so you and your girlfriend can both get back out there and find people who can do the work of a relationship with each of you in a way that feels manageable, enjoyable, and mostly just not this hard.

I don’t want you to go through another moment of feeling like a runner up. You don’t need to ask your girlfriend any questions to figure out what to do here. You just need to ask yourself what you deserve, and then you need to choose yourself. I want you to start 2023 feeling like your own number-one pick. That way, when the right person comes along, you’ll be ready and confident to be her number-one pick, too.


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.


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Vanessa

Vanessa is a writer, a teacher, and the community editor at Autostraddle. Very hot, very fun, very weird. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 395 articles for us.

11 Comments

  1. I think this advice is pretty spot on, but still think it’s worthwhile to directly ask her girlfriend about her worries. Just my opinion (and maybe projecting from my early relationship days!) but the questioning (and maybe jealousy) from the letter writer feels like the kind of stuff from first relationships. Maybe because they’ve both come out recently, so it is like starting anew. So, yeah, ask some direct questions about current relationship. Maybe it leads to a split, but maybe it leads to deeper understanding. Wishing the letter writer the best and hope Love finds them here or elsewhere.

  2. in case you want an unqualified opinion from a different perspective than the advice above (though, that is so well reasoned and my thoughts lack the knowledge Vanessa has) …

    but first, i have an experience that supports Vanessa’s advice. i know what it’s like to be stuck on someone i couldn’t have while being with someone i liked, but probably didn’t love. in the end, she got hurt not because i didn’t try, but i never felt the way she did, and it got harder for me to be present when she started pushing for what she wasn’t getting. i didn’t have it to give her, and i started to behave in atypical, and honestly problematic ways. if my true love interest had become an option, i’m not sure what i would have done; i’m generally loyal, but i was pretty unhappy until we broke up. i don’t know if that will help you, but at least it gives another experience to consider.

    now, if she is really your first choice, then maybe staying would work out for you, even if just for a while. people get together for all kinds of reasons and can have positive relationships that aren’t rooted in the mutually ‘in-love’ feeling. if that sounds terrible, then read no further.

    but if not, then consider – in this situation, is she hurting you (unintentionally, but nevertheless…), or are you hurting yourself because of the way you perceive things? if for you the pain from not being first choice – even if other aspects of the relationship make you happy but not enough to diminish what’s painful, then ending is the only way to stop that. but if she’s a loyal person, who is choosing you and will be committed to helping you be happy, then maybe this is something you can work on; some way to allow yourself to enjoy what you have.

    you can only base a decision like this on whether the situation is working/could work for you – there’s no way to know if leaving will be better. you can only figure out whether or not staying is worth it.

  3. I think there is good food for thought in the article and comments. Just to add my perspective, as a polyam / ethically non-monogamous person, the idea of first choices and second choices etc is a bit bewildering to me. I realize monogamy changes things somewhat, but having unrequited/unresolved feelings for someone while dating another person (or other people) is not a wildly unusual circumstance in a polyam situation

    I understand how upsetting the answer about the ‘type’ question was, but people are into people not ‘their type’ all the time. And I think it’s not super fair to ask such questions when it’s not really what you want to know about; you’re trying to sus out other info by asking around it. I think you either need to break up because you don’t feel cherished in this relationship; or be forthright about your feelings and worries, giving your girlfriend a chance to affirm and demonstrate her investment in your relationship together

    • I agree. I will forever love my first love and what they gave me. My current spouse knows this. I will always feel a little sad my first love couldn’t stay in my life. My spouse also knows this. I find it weird that people can’t talk about these things with their spouses.

      I will say I do think the letter writer might be getting some vibes and that’s what’s making them uncomfortable. It’s also okay to want to be someone’s “first choice.” You just have to know what you want.

    • Thank you!! I just read this whole thing and was like… ok so this is just toxic monogamy. Why can’t people like each other and like other people? Why is it a contest? Why are we ranking people? So much unhappiness is caused by seeing ourselves in competition with one another instead of turning inwards and rooting our self worth in ourselves.

      Like, I get that some folks are monogamous but that doesn’t mean it’s great to get twisted about your partner having feelings for other people?!? She is with you! why does it matter?

  4. I worry tbat I could someday end up on either side of this dynamic, being with some woman who wouldn’t be my enthusiastic “first choice” and/or vice versa, because mutually-communicated mutual attraction with a woman — especially combined with adequate compatibility and no abuse — seems such an improbable serendipity that it would be hard to abandon if I managed to find it. I know desperation itself is unattractive, which increases my sense of scarcity in a self-reinforcing cycle.

  5. Not necessarily related to this particular question, I really love how much AS relationship advice does not shy away from “maybe this is a reason to break up”. Too many people stay in relationships that aren’t working for them due to familiarity, not wanted to be “alone”, etc., it’s refreshing to see that acknowledged!

    On this particular question, while I do think a conversation with your partner is warranted, everyone does deserve to feel wanted in their relationships! And it’s completely understandable to question if things will work out with one partner still so stuck on an “ex” and not able to show up for a new partner. I know I had to do a LOT of processing to get over a “first love” situation and unlearn patterns from that. That work was on me to do before I could show up in a healthy manner for a new partner. Wishing the letter writer all the best as they pursue a fulfilling relationship where they are wanted and valued!

  6. Hey! I don’t want to tell you what to do but I will share my experience.

    A few years ago, I was involved with a person who made me feel like their second pick or ‘safety’ option. I felt like shit and stuffed my sadness and hurt down for a long time while occasionally trying to bring it up with them. When I did get honest, I was met with dismissiveness and indifference. It was a conversation she wasn’t ready or interested in having.

    I stayed in that relationship for much longer than I should have. And within that relationship there were a few different ‘firsts’ for me which made it feel hard or scary to walk away.

    The break up was realllly hard on me and it honestly sucked to go through it. But I also know I would be suffering if I continued to be with them.

    Its bittersweet but I learned not settle in future relationships and to choose myself/prioritize my happiness, my safety, my needs, etc. I really learned how to love myself from that relationship. Sorry I guess this is advice, but I would say pay attention to how she responds to you when you communicate your needs/hurt. Like I said, the person I dated was super dismissive but if ur person is willing to hear u out that could be a good sign of working through this together.

  7. Gosh this really resonated. As someone whose relationship ended on Jan 2nd after 7 months and had a previous relationship before this where I spent every session miserably talking to my therapist as Vanessa once did, I felt a lot of parallels. While our issues weren’t regarding feeling like second choice, we weren’t ultimately right for each other, in love or secure, even though it felt “good” like the asker describes. I ignored intuition as well because I’m very much a “good enough” type of person who settles.

    This past week was hard but as I worked through my thoughts and feelings and accepted the truths, I’ve felt really optimistic at times. A breakup is a brutal way to start the new year but it’s also a fresh start and I’ve really been leaning into the idea of starting the rest of this year healing and growing and reflecting. Just being gentle with myself, strengthening myself and embracing being single before I venture out to find the relationship that will hopefully be all the positive things that Vanessa describes.

  8. I read things like this and I wonder why people insist on settling for monogamy – and how doing so twists people. I don’t think the advice was poor given the situation but I think we should be asking why is this even a situation? Why feel bad about the fact your partner is attracted to someone else? Like, even if one is hardcore committed to monogamy – your partner is with you – why should it matter if she has unrequited lust or whatever for someone else? Why does she have to lie and say her type is exactly the person she is with? People get attracted to people outside their type. That doesn’t mean they are settling or whatever, I just don’t get it. This is a problem rooted in the insecurities of the letter writer.

    It’s honestly such a relief to not have to wonder whether every person I cuddle with is “the one” and to have to settle for “the one” when I can have pleasure, companionship, love and care from many people. And never worry about who is most important or who is ranked where.

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