Dear Captain Awkward:
When I was younger I was a really wild up until college, where I was able to funnel all my rage and delinquency into my studies.
I have a friend who still sees me the same way I was when I was bad. I grew up in a rotten situation (abuse, people in my family constantly trying to commit suicide, drug abuse), but I tried to stay on track and ended up keeping on track and graduating graduate school with honours.
I’m happy with my life now, my career is starting to pick up and I’m trying to start a new business but my friend keeps trying to make me feel rotten about myself. Not intentionally, but yeah. Not only does she try to fix me but she berates me about how I live my life (no boyfriend, no kids and no interest in marriage). She’s really pissed off because I still enjoy (anime, comic, geek) conventions and wants me to “grow up” despite having both a regular and graduate school diploma.
I know she’s never been had to go through hardship and I’ve never told her about how bad my family was (but she had an idea), but this is driving me nuts. I have no intention of changing who I am, we barely spend time together but she acts like she’s my best friend and that we hang out every day.
Our friendship has been on the rocks even since she took the side of another friend who destroyed a lot of my life’s work, set me back two years and took all of my friends in our “divorce.” I’m extra mad that she spent my birthday with this person because she knows how I feel about it, but she acts like I shouldn’t be mad.
She’s the type of person who tries to genuinely fix people and is tooth-achingly sweet, but at the time oblivious, ignorant and I’m tired of feeling horrible because I’ve worked really hard to come up from where I was.
I’ve been trying everything from talking to her straight out about how horrible she makes me feel to telling her to leave me alone her to trying to let us drift apart. Right now she is in another country and life is great but I dread the day when she comes back and she starts trying to fix my life.
Not Perfect, But Happy
Hello, Not Perfect But Happy, this is a great, GREAT letter. It immediately made me think of the film Me Without You, which is about how friendships that sustain us during one part of our lives become toxic when the people inside them get stuck in their roles and don’t know how to get out of the past
Back when you and your friend first met, you were The Fucked Up One and she was The Good, Helpful One. You describe her so beautifully: “She’s the type of person who tries to genuinely fix people and is tooth-achingly sweet” that it tells me that part of her identity is still based on the dynamic of your friendship. “I’m the good one, I fix people!” To keep seeing herself that way she needs you to keep filling your old role in her life. This friend compares herself to you constantly. You are the barometer she uses to measure herself. It’s possible that she’s jealous of your accomplishments – graduate school, successful career, ability to pursue your own artistic and intellectual interests – so it’s convenient for her to ignore your achievements and focus on the things (she thinks) you lack. She is probably unhappy with some of her own choices and drowns that unhappiness by overly investing in, or, uh, “fixing” other people’s lives.
You say that you dread interacting with her and that you’ve straight up told her to stop contacting you. I’m curious to know how she reacted to that conversation, as in, she’s obviously still contacting you and you’re still invested enough to be angry about her dinner with your enemy. I can think of two possible things would make the friendship worth keeping:
- I think it would mean a lot to have someone who knew you then really see you now and say “I’m proud of you. You were worth knowing then and you are even more worth knowing now.” In a way, she’s the barometer of how you see yourself, too. If knowing everything she knows about you from the past she could acknowledge the person you’ve become, you might feel your shoulders come down from around your ears. “Aaaah, finally it’s real.” Are you going to get that? What would happen if you asked for it in exactly that way, like “Hey, stop giving me advice for a second. You are my oldest friend, and my only connection with my childhood, and I need you to really see how far I’ve come and I need you to say that you get it and that you’re proud of me, and that I don’t need you to fix my life.”
- Could the two of you could find something you have in common now – an interest, an activity – that could form the core reason for your ongoing friendship? I have a friendship that is entirely based on having a beer and a bowl of chowder every December 28. So, what is the correct serving size of this friendship? “We call each other once a year during the Miss America pageant to make fun of the dresses like we used to when we were kids, then I hang up the phone and spend time with my real friends.”
Sadly your friend isn’t seeing you, she’s seeing herself in relation to you and trying to keep that relationship a constant. How likely are you to get what you need from her? And it doesn’t sound like you have anything in common today, so what would the friendship be based on?
Unfortunately while our culture provides many scripts for breaking up with romantic partners, it has no template for ending friendships. There should be a ritual.
“Dear Friend, please take this African Violet as a symbol of the close and wonderful friendship we once shared. Please enjoy it in good health, and if you are having a problem or just want to chat, please call someone else from now on.”
Your letter could be about any relationship that has failed to evolve. We get trapped into roles and habits of being with each other, and then we only see each other on holidays so we pull those roles out of storage and put them on because it’s easier to perform the scripts we know than to write new ones. It works right up until it doesn’t. This is so fundamental to how families and people who know us from our youth relate that I’m pretty sure it’s even in The Bible, like, Jesus grows up and goes home to preach a sermon in his hometown and everyone is all “Remember when we were on the playground and he was was all insufferable, like, ‘Turn the other cheek!’ and then we pushed him down and wrote ‘Loser’ on his other cheek?” and Jesus is all “YOU GUYS I AM THE SON OF GOD, COME ON NOW” and the people are like, “Eh, overrated.”
I think there are mistakes that people make in long-term relationships, and your letter pinpoints them perfectly:
Giving advice can be abusive. I had to exchange the African Violet of Broken Friendship with a lovely, talented, beautiful, hilarious, generous, wise woman who was always in crisis mode and where the core activity of our relationship was me listening to her boy problems. I know both the extreme annoyance of “I don’t understand why I have to come over right now just because Javier told you would look pretty if you cut your hair like Gwyneth Paltrow, I’m pretty sure he meant it as a compliment, and I have a lot of stuff to do today,” AND the delicious self-righteous pleasure of being The Relatively Sane One: giver of advice, deliverer of funny quips, maker of tea. The friendship made me feel important and like I had something to give.
Our roles got cemented, I was so sure that whenever she was calling me it was because she wanted to know my Thoughts and Opinions that I would launch into advice before she’d even completed her sentence, like, we completely skipped the “listening” and “empathy” stages of the conversation and went right to where “Well, what you should do is…”
It was horrible, and she very rightly called me out on it, and while things broke down in the end she taught me something very valuable when she said “I’m not asking for advice right now, and it hurts my feelings when you assume I am. Can you at least ask me, ‘Are you looking for advice?’ before you launch right in?”
We seek and value advice from our friends, and if you haven’t noticed I started my advice column, but it’s important to remember that unsolicited advice (no matter how well-intentioned and on-its-merits-correct) can be the perfect cocktail of presumptuous and judgmental. You’re basically saying “You’re doing that wrong, and I think I’m smarter than you.”
We think we know, so we forget to ask. No one knows how to make an Ass out of U and Me like families, old friends, and long-term relationship partners. We think that things that happened way back when constitute data that allows us to make assumptions about how things are now, like “You aren’t patient enough to be a teacher, remember how you were when you played school that one time with your little brother and I had to stop you from shoving the chalk up his nose?”
Ooh, look how that has nothing to do with how you’ll actually perform as a teacher and look how it conveniently reminds you that the other person remembers when you were small and powerless and not good at stuff and tries to place you back there. And then you’re standing there, like, um, I’m actually a teacher, like, I get paid to do it now for real, that’s what it says on my taxes and everything and why would you even bring that up? YOU DON’T KNOW ME!
And you’re right to be angry because that person made their memory of you more important than real actual you who is standing right in front of them. It’s like you just got erased. This is what your friend does to you when she gives advice or brings up old times – she is erasing you in order to feel connected and powerful.
We do this stuff all the time without meaning to or thinking about it. We probably just want to remind ourselves of a time when we felt connected. We don’t mean to erase each other. Which leads me to the last point:
You will never be so close to someone that good manners don’t matter. My mom channels her own social anxiety into asking my grown-ass dad and her grown-ass kids “Is that what you’re wearing?” before we go to family events and it took me being 35 years old and saying “Hey! That question is rude and out of bounds between adults!” to reset the relationship.
- Giving unsolicited advice = Rude.
- Assuming that friends telling you about a problem are asking for your advice = Rude.
- Telling people how their life is based on how it used to be instead of asking them how their life is now = Rude.
- Concern trolling, i.e., “I just say these mean intrusive things because I care about you so much” = Rude.
- If you start sentences with “I don’t want to be rude, but…” = Rude.
- “I don’t want to sound racist, but…” = Racist. And rude.
- “Well, I’m entitled to my opinion…” = You’re not entitled to say it out loud, to me, so fucking knock it off. Rude!
The code for resetting adult relationships where there is a lot of history and conflict probably needs to come down to basic good manners, like, let’s play a game where I’m someone that you don’t know that well, but you like me and want to get to know me better. Good. Now, don’t say anything to me that you wouldn’t say to that person. And if you can’t find the reset button? African Violet and a note on the good stationery.