For most of my early 20s, I was the friend who immediately snapped, "Dump him," every time a friend confessed a problem she was having with her boyfriend.
Having never been in love (still very much deep in the "I'm chasing that asshole with the dumb jacket" phase), I had no idea how complicated relationships get. I thought I was giving them the tough love they needed; in some cases, I was. Basically I was the Dr. House of other people's relationships.
Drinks with friends is open season on the Tinder randos and one-night stands in your life. At the start, criticizing, overanalyzing, and generally being negative about potential partners is a rite of passage, because at this stage everything is a potential deal breaker. "He eats Subway!" "He uses 'indubitably' wrong." "He's a warlock. He turned his landlord into a wombat. Is that really bad, you guys?" Same goes for the sex stuff. What he's into, what he's not, if he can't get it up, if he can but calls you Angela Lansbury the whole time you're banging—no detail is too small or too personal to share with friends.
But once you get serious with someone, it's like you both signed a nondisclosure agreement. Suddenly, your romantic relationship is equally important (or more so) to your friendships, and it feels like a betrayal to talk about any issues you've been having lately—a lull in your libido or the family issue that's straining your relationship. And in some ways, that's legit; like, you probably wouldn't want him telling his boys the exact centimeter measurement of your vagina. But the unspoken vow of silence between female friends in serious relationships is shitty, in ways. It generates the insecurity that everybody else's relationship is perfect and yours is the hideous, deformed creature that crawled from the depths of some kind of relationship nuclear testing experiment. Laura, 28, sums it up: "Sometimes you just want to bitch about your man but that doesn't mean you're anywhere near breaking up."
Laura remembers exactly when her casual bitching about her boyfriend went from fun to taboo—one year into her relationship with her now-fiancé. "Every little thing I had a problem with, they'd be like, 'I guess it's time to call it quits!' I think maybe part of it is friends who have always been single want you to be single too?"
I've now been with my boyfriend for a year, and, in love for the first time, am astonished by the 180-degree role reversal. Now I'm in the place my friends were when they were in committed relationships. I get that you don't talk about the good things because those are intimate and aren't complicated, whereas the bad things are something your friends can actually help you figure out. But this is assuming they have the emotional intelligence to know that even when you're annoyed or even persistently frustrated, you're still in love, and the idea of what constitutes a "deal breaker" is a whole lot less black-and-white.
"I do feel judged [when I discuss the negative parts of my long-term relationship]. It's like they don't get that things can be complicated without being bad and that working on issues actively is something totally natural," says Chelsea, 25. "Besides, every time someone's bitching about relationships, you should take it with a grain of salt because they're never revealing the parts that make them look bad."
Now my friends—many of whom are engaged—are judging the shit out of me the same way I used to judge them. Instead of helping me discuss the issues, they respond, exasperated, "You don't seem sure about him," or, "Just break up with him then." At first I thought this was just typical engaged-lady smugness, but I began to notice that whenever they mentioned any issues with their fiancés, they'd always include hasty, Hallmark-y sounding disclaimers that they're still "totally sure," or "he's my soul mate," or they just "know it's right."
It occurred to me that their attitude stemmed from a fear of being snap-judged even more harshly. Because they're committing to a life with that guy and they don't want their best friends to think that falls on the official world's worst decisions list right above "American involvement in the Vietnam War." Emily, who is engaged at 28, explains, "I tell my friends about wedding arguments we get in and I'm afraid they're like, 'God, you guys fight a lot, you shouldn't get married."
It seems that as female friends get older, their relationships become more serious and there are fewer judgment-free discussions of the problems with men in their lives. The result of all this? You assume that nobody else ever has flaws or doubts in their relationships except for you. We are humans who live on earth and so this is invalid. The point of discussing your relationship problems with friends is because they know you better than anybody but still have outside perspective, and often they help you come up with constructive ways of dealing with it.
"If I do talk shit about him, the good friends tend to pull me out of my most childish, bratty mode and remind me of all the gushy lovey-dovey stuff I wouldn't shut up about when we started dating initially," says Mandy, 37, a writer who intentionally defies the taboo by chronicling the ups and downs of her relationship in a Kindle series called Dear TMI-ary. "And those same friends, when I've dated a crap guy, have actually said, 'Dude, break up,' and I'm glad they did. It's important to have judgey, bitchy friends to keep you honest."
Without friends to hear about your problems, your boyfriend will become your center. And let me put it this way: Nothing good has ever come of only talking to your boyfriend about problems with your boyfriend. It's important to remember that what makes relationships healthy isn't never having problems, it's being able to work through them —often with the help of friends. And wine. And Law & Order: SVU. But mostly friends.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.