Reader lies about happy-hour companion to avoid jealous partner’s inevitable comments.

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Dear Carolyn

DEAR CAROLYN: My girlfriend is jealous of one of my co-workers. This co-worker is sweet (she’s married) and we share the same interest in food so we’re constantly eating together — lunches, snacks and occasionally happy hour or dinner. My relationship is long distance and when I bring up any plans I may have with my co-worker, my girlfriend doesn’t hold back the snide remarks.

I’ve told her it’s not that deep, but she’ll pick it back up again the next time it comes up.

Recently my co-worker and I went to happy hour after work and I lied and told my girlfriend I was going out with someone else, just to avoid any tension. I feel like I just went down a slippery slope because now I make something up if I’m ever hanging out with my co-worker.

I love my girlfriend very much, she is my future and I have no intention of leaving this relationship over such a small thing, but I can’t help feeling I did the wrong thing. Part of me wants to confess! I’m also considering just keeping things professional with my co-worker but I don’t think that’s fair … I don’t know.

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— Slippery Slope

DEAR SLIPPERY SLOPE: The good news is, you and your girlfriend seem very well matched. The bad news is, your well-matchedness is in the area of emotional cowardice — and there’s nothing even remotely “small” about this “thing.”

To bring us fully into the schoolyard, I will say: Your girlfriend started it. Expressing doubt through snide remarks is just a bad look on any adult.

Here’s her flowchart for adult behavior in the face of romantic rivalry: Does she believe you’re being unfaithful to her? Yes/No.

If no, then she recognizes it’s her feelings and behavior that need to change, not yours, and does the internal work accordingly. Then she either (a) makes peace with the status quo: “I’m actually happy you have a good friend and don’t seriously believe you’re cheating on me. I’m just frustrated she sees you more than I do and in weak moments I lash out, I’m sorry”; or (b) recognizes that dating long-distance isn’t healthy for her and breaks up with you.

If yes, then she states her infidelity concerns explicitly: “I see this as an emotional affair, if not an actual one. I feel uncomfortable with/angry about/threatened by how close you two are, because the attention you pay to her is noticeably warmer than your attention to me.” (I’m freestyling here, but you get the idea.) Then she weighs your response carefully, and either (a) accepts your response as adequate and drops the snark; or (b) decides your response isn’t adequate and breaks up with you.

Instead, she has chosen the path of least emotional risk: She won’t openly admit how vulnerable she feels, lashing out instead — but also won’t break up with you.

Your response to this, meanwhile, has been to see your girlfriend’s cowardice and raise her some mendacity. Even when the behavior you’re covering up is innocent, the cover-up itself is not.

So here’s your adult-behavior flowchart: Is this coworker-friendship innocent or not?

If no, then admit that to yourself and stop being disingenuous with these two women.

If yes, then: Is this friendship important enough to you, at face value or on principle, to keep even when you know it bothers your girlfriend? Yes/No.

If no, then you stop seeing this friend outside of work and, for your own peace of mind, own it as your choice to do so. Don’t pass it off as something your jealous girlfriend “made you” do.

If yes, then state clearly to your girlfriend once more, transparently and in full, that this colleague is a platonic friend whose company you feel entitled to enjoy as you would any male friend. Then see how your girlfriend responds to this implied choice, to either trust you and accept the situation or not trust you and break up with you.

If she tries again to have it both ways, to distrust you but not break up with you, then you break up with her.

The emotional math here — when you’re not the one up to your neck in the numbers, at least — is actually pretty simple.

But there’s a reason it’s about courage. It is hard to stand openly for who you are and what you believe when you know it might cost you someone you love. Her snark and your lies aren’t right or healthy or fair, but they are human. It’s the rare person who hasn’t defaulted to one or both in attempts to minimize their emotional exposure, and therefore risk.

It’s just that taking these self-protective shortcuts merely postpones the reckoning you both so fervently hope to avoid — and in doing so likely raises the stakes for when it finally all comes out, ever closer to this expected “future.” Which won’t go well, at all, if avoidance is Plan A for you both.