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Reader question 111: What do I do about the woman who won’t leave my boyfriend alone?

Dear Captain Awkward,

I spend a lot of time with my partner and his friends.  There is an older lady who I shall call Esther who seems intent on saying nasty things about my partner after my partner told her a few years back he was not interested in dating her.  I guess that makes her justified in not liking him, nobody likes to be rejected, and not everybody is destined to get along.  However, the things she say are really obviously false and she would have no way of knowing at all unless she was stalking him because my partner refuses to speak to her (I seriously doubt he’d start sending naked photographs of himself to some girl in eastern Europe and I’m not sure if he’d even be capable of stringing along two different women at once while he was dating me exclusively), and it’s gotten to a point where my partner is really upset because people in our social group who don’t know him as well ask him – or me – out of the blue if he’s really cheating on me or if he really did this, that or the other (yeah, his friends think this is the best way to deal with situations like that).

It’s awkward for me to be confronted with prospective cheating and pity for being the girl who’s dating somebody who’s allegedly a love rat because I know these accusations are really silly and can all be chalked up to a bout of spite and sour grapes.

The obvious answer is to avoid her, but she’s a friend of close friends of my partners and is often invited out to events we don’t organise ourselves.  I’d like to just call her out on this but is it my place to cause drama amongst an otherwise solid group of friends?  Do I speak to her?  Do I just ask his friends to stop inviting her out places because she’s made it obvious she will not just quietly dislike somebody?  Just ignore her (I’ve been ignoring her for the past 2 years, for reference)?  When my partner and Esther were friends she mentioned she had a mental illness, which could contribute to this whole situation.  Maybe she actually believes he’s having an e-romance with Svetlana from Russia????

For reference, Esther is at least in her mid-thirties, I’m about 21 and my partner is 26.

Any advice on this would be great – I promise you aside from this I live a rather trouble-free life complete with butterflies, rainbows and video game action figures.

Sorry ’bout the wall of text and how ridiculous this situation is – what kind of nut actually goes out and says things so obviously untrue?

 – Frustrated

Dear Frustrated,

See, when women reach their mid-30s, their wombs start wandering around in side their bodies and it makes them crazy.  She can’t help it, ok?

Actually, I’m not going to touch the issue of “Esther’s” supposed mental illness and I suggest you educate yourself about mental illness before you diagnose it as a reason that anything is happening and please definitely stop using it as an insult, ie, “What kind of nut…?”   I highly recommend s.e. smith‘s amazing “We’re All Mad Here” series at Bitch Magazine for a discussion about how mental illness is represented in pop culture, and I’m sure the commenters can recommend more reading for you.

It is possible that there is some condition which makes it hard to break her fixation on your boyfriend, but you can’t really know that or deal with it on that level, so it’s best to just concentrate on the behaviors and insulate yourselves from them. The behaviors are not okay. They are unhealthy and unpleasant for you, and you should not have to put up with them.

You really can’t control what Esther will say or do.  You can set boundaries with your mutual friends about how much you talk about her and her rumors, and you can work on controlling your own reactions.  For example:

  • When your mutual friends say “Esther said such and such about your partner, is it true?” in front of you, say “No, it’s not true, and I don’t understand why she keeps saying this stuff about him. I know you mean well, but you can actually help me by not passing rumors like that on to me.”
  • The next time someone starts passing on a concerned rumor, cut them off at the beginning.  “Let’s not talk about Esther and her rumors again.” Then change the subject – ask them a question about themselves.  If you don’t know what the rumor is, it can’t send you into a tailspin of curiosity and drama.
  • If Esther says the things in front of you or to you, you can reply with “That’s not true, so why do you keep saying it?”  But I would not go out of your way to “confront” her.  I think ignoring her is a pretty good strategy, actually.  Good work.
  • Mostly, when she walks into a room, you should walk out of that room.
  • And you can ask your boyfriend, “Why do we keep going to places where she’ll be?  Can’t we just stop seeing her, ever again?”

Here endeth your involvement in this problem.  It’s really on your boyfriend to enforce some of these boundaries for himself.  Your boyfriend has a few options open to him:

  • Talk frankly with the mutual friends.  “Esther and I used to be close, but few years ago she asked me out, and I said no. Since then she has been spreading rumors. This has been going on for 2 years, and I’m really sick of it.  I don’t want to put you guys in the middle, but if she tells you anything about me, can you do me a favor and not repeat it to me or my partner?  I know you guys mean well, but whenever you ask us about it again it just starts the whole drama cycle, and I’d like to stop it in its tracks.”
  • Next time friends bring it up, interrupt them.  “Yes, yes, Esther’s spreading rumors again. No need to tell me the details, I don’t care.”  Then change the subject.
  • Decline invitations to stuff where she will also be, and then make plans to  invite the mutual friends out sans Esther to keep the friendships alive.  He may not mention why he is declining, but it’s okay to be frank – “I know you guys really like Esther, but I just can’t deal with her anymore.  You go ahead and have a good time, we’ll make other plans soon.” Telling lies about someone is really hostile behavior, and your boyfriend doesn’t have to pretend to be cool with it for the sake of social harmony.  If your friends get upset because you guys are ruining the party, it’s okay to say “Listen, this stuff has been going on for years, and I’m just sick of it. Hang out with her if you want to, it’s cool – we’ll catch up another time.”  There is a small risk that the friends will sort of “choose” Esther or that they pass the rumors on because they enjoy being shit-stirrers. That tells you a lot about how much you want them in your lives.
  • He could talk frankly with Esther – but I assume he’s done that already?  So repeating himself will only give her attention.

I’m going to recommend Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear for the umpteenth time.  There is a great section on dealing with people who have become fixated on you.  Things to know about people who become fixated on you:

  • They only hear what they want to hear.
  • Any attention, even negative attention, only deepens the fixation.
  • Tell them to stop it once.  Then ignore all further contact and provocation – voice mails, emails, Facebook messages, the rumor mill. They may escalate their behaviors after being told to stop in order to get a reaction from you.  You’ve already told them to stop, no need to repeat yourself and give them the information that their bullshit is working.
  • They don’t stop being fixated, really, but eventually if they are not getting any attention they go away and fixate on someone else.

I hope you guys can insulate yourself from her, and remember that the power she has in your lives is mostly the power that you give her.  Stop engaging with her, stop hearing out the rumors, stop hanging out where she’ll be, focus on each other and in building friendships with people who understand about boundaries.

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8 comments
  1. FarmerStina said:

    “Actually, I’m not going to touch the issue of “Esther’s” supposed mental illness and I suggest you educate yourself about mental illness before you diagnose it as a reason that anything is happening and please definitely stop using it as an insult, ie, “What kind of nut…?” I highly recommend s.e. smith‘s amazing “We’re All Mad Here” series at Bitch Magazine for a discussion about how mental illness is represented in pop culture, and I’m sure the commenters can recommend more reading for you.”

    Thank you for this! I’m crazy myself and I get tired of people associating bad/obnoxious behavior with mental illness. For a great series that helped me kick the habit of using hurtful words like crazy, nuts, ect, I recommend the Feminists With Disabilities Ableist Word Profile Series: http://disabledfeminists.com/category/ableist-word-profile/

  2. BF has already talked frankly with Esther, a few years back when he said he wasn’t interested in dating, and then she escalated to nasty rumors. I have a hunch that another frank talk (about the rumors) would simply result in further escalation. So yeah, don’t feed the troll. She already knows what she’s doing.

  3. Decline invitations to stuff where she will also be, and then make plans to invite the mutual friends out sans Esther to keep the friendships alive.

    One of my close friends is good friends with a person who doesn’t stop saying racist things. I met her once, and that was enough for me. My friend invites me to drinks with the two of them frequently, and I just say no, I can’t or don’t want to go, and meet up with my friend another time. As a strategy, the Captain’s advice works remarkably well at keeping unpleasant people out of my life, and I second the point that hostile lies are behavior you don’t have to endure, and good friends shouldn’t expect you to endure it just so they can have an outing with all their friends at once.

  4. frustrated said:

    Hi, I’m the person from the letter. I didn’t mean to appear insensitive to the mentally ill, and I am really sorry to anyone I offended with my poor wording.

    It’s inherently easier to dismiss something as a mental illness rather than entertaining the idea she might just do it because she’s a jerk, and I’ve seen both sides of this. Both myself and her friends dismiss the things she does as due to her mental illness, when it’s entirely possible she could just lack the empathy or the self control to not make things up about people. The only reason I mentioned the mental illness was because I thought it was a contributing factor to the issue – if she seriously believes it, she sounds that more convincing which makes my friends even more inclined to try and talk to me or my partner about it.

    Either way, she is unpleasant and while I cannot control her, you guys have made it very clear I can control my behaviour. It’s disappointing our mutual friends continue to invite her out places when it has become apparent on many occasions she generates drama, but I cannot make choices for them and they’re going to have to deal with the fact my partner and I do not wish to “feed the troll” by our presence. And if our mutual friends believe it and start avoiding my partner or me, that’s really their loss.

    Thank you for your advice, I really appreciate it.

    • JenniferP said:

      I’m glad you found it helpful, and your apology is accepted –

      Esther might be a jerk AND she might have a mental illness that makes it hard for her to stop being fixated or hard for her to get out of her own lies – you can’t know how much is one and how much is the other, so it’s better to just deal with the behaviors and your own tolerance for them. You guys aren’t the right people to try to “help” her.

  5. ‘See, when women reach their mid-30s, their wombs start wandering around in side their bodies and it makes them crazy. She can’t help it, ok?’

    I am going to assume this is a joke…? Otherwise I would find it sexist, VERY ageist, and a super offensive stereotype.

    • JenniferP said:

      It is 100% a joke, said the 37-year old blogger. :)

      • duck-billed placelot said:

        I think doctressjulia is new here. (Said with welcoming love, if I can be welcoming to a person on not-my-blog!)

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