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Question #139: How do I deal with my “cheap, cowardly” friend?

Dear Captain Awkward,

My friend is driving me crazy. We’re going to call him Dan.

Dan is in his mid-twenties, has graduated from university, and has been working a steady job in his field for two or three years now. He still lives with his parents completely free of charge. He’s generally a good person, if sheltered. I’ve had to explain to him why he can’t make “she-male” jokes, why certain internet memes are racist, etc, and while he doesn’t make any effort to think critically about the media he’s consuming, at least when you point out he’s doing something offensive, he stops and doesn’t do it again.

Unfortunately, he is driving myself and my friends group CRAZY.

1) He has a crippling fear of… pretty much everything. He drives around the city rather than through it because he’s afraid of the other cars, which makes planning anything with him a pain, as he will always be late or need to leave early. Bussing would be faster, but he won’t because he’s afraid the other people on the bus might hurt him. It’s gotten to the point where we can’t do ANYTHING with him that isn’t sitting around playing games, because he is afraid of crossing the street.  Deciding to wander down to [District] and look for a restaurant? Walk to the movie theatre? Go shopping in the mall two blocks from my house? Not an option, because “the streets aren’t safe”. (FTR: The area in which I live has the lowest crime rates in the entire city, and hasn’t even had so much as a car theft in ten years.)

2) He is really, embarrassingly cheap. Getting him to spend more than $10 is a challenge. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem, but he has no problem coming over, eating a very nice meal (my partner is a chef) on our dime, and then conveniently forgetting to chip in for what he used. The tipping point into rage was when he ate all my expensive (think $20+) imported candy, and then packed up all the snacks he had bought and took them back home with him. This is made even worse by the fact he has the best-paying job and lowest expenses (read: no expenses) of the entire group.

3) He has a victim complex. He was bullied as a child, and any effort to get him to do anything he doesn’t want to do results in accusations of bullying or peer pressure. This DRASTICALLY reduces the effectiveness of any sort of “use your words” strategy, as even gentle reasoning is treated as overt hostility. (It is also offensive to me, as I went through WAY worse than he did. It’s hard to be sympathetic about someone saying mean things to him when I required a police escort just to go to class. I accept this is a personal failing, and I’m working on it.)

He’s a nice kid, but he feels like an eight-year-old trapped in an adult’s body. His best friends, aside from our group, are his parents (he won’t go out and socialize with other people because he’s afraid). We like him, but the limitations he’s placed on his own life make interacting with him in any meaningful sense almost impossible.

How can we tell him that if he wants to be friends with us he needs to grow up to our level without crushing him utterly? Is there any way to tell him that letting his fears rule his life is ruining his social life when he doesn’t see a problem with his behavior? How do we tell him to stop being such a cheapskate without twigging his victim complex? Is there any way we can convince him to get the buckets of therapy he obviously needs? How can I tell him that high school was ten years ago and that he REALLY needs to stop licking his wounds without sounding like a judgmental jerk?

Thanks for any help you can give.

- Frustrated, Upset, Concerned, Keenly Tired

Dear Frustrated:

I love this question, because the answer is both easy and difficult. This guy is triggering all of the Geek Social Fallacies at once.

Stop inviting Dan to anything that isn’t “board games at someone’s house,” or if you do invite him to walk somewhere to the movies and he says he can’t, say “Okay, we’ll catch you next time” and then go do the thing you wanted to do. Don’t spend the night bitching about him and how weird he is – put the invitation out there (or don’t), let him decline it, and then do your thing.

Don’t make him expensive dinners anymore.  Or, if the culture of your friend group is that you chip in for ingredients at elaborate dinner parties, make that very explicit in the invitation, as in “Partner is making something amazing, we’re asking everyone to chip in $10 for ingredients and wine, hope you can come.” Clearly he’s not getting the message that he should offer.  I don’t know that I would, either – I assume that for dinner parties I bring wine or flowers or dessert or cheese, not cold hard cash. But whatever your friend-rules are, make them explicit. Don’t bring up all the times he didn’t chip in, just make the rule clear going forward.

When it’s time to play board games, invite him, enjoy his company for what you enjoy about it. Let the rest go.

He may notice that you guys aren’t around so much and start to feel excluded (rather than bullied or pressured), and he may complain that he’s not invited to stuff anymore or ask why.  THAT is your golden opportunity to use your words, though more gently than you described in your letter.  “Dan, you know we love you, but you always turn us down when we want to do stuff other than play games, so we assumed that you didn’t want to come (to the movies, to restaurants, to pubs or whatnot) when we go.  I wish you’d see a counselor for some of the anxiety you have about being in the city.”  It does sound like he has a phobia or anxiety disorder, and not “cowardice” as you labeled it in your subject line.

If he compares it to his past experiences being bullied, say “I’m sorry you feel that way, that wasn’t my intention. Just because I’m your friend doesn’t mean I never get annoyed, and I think it’s respectful for adults to just tell each other that stuff so we can deal with it openly.”  If he gets really upset, change the subject or end the conversation.  “Obviously you’re very uncomfortable, let’s talk about something else.”

He’s an odd guy who lives with his parents and doesn’t like to spend money and carries a lot of anxiety. He will change (or not) at his own pace.  It’s not your job to make him over into a cooler person, and if he’s making you feel constantly annoyed or like you need to correct his behavior, and the sense of reciprocity is out of whack in the way you describe, it’s time to seriously re-examine the friendship. I say give yourself and your friend group a break from worrying about his eccentricities, and give him a break from feeling judged and pressured.  Convert him into a “small doses friend” whose eccentricities are love-able, or at least tolerable, and stop trying to fix him.

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22 comments
  1. Obviously I’m not a doctor and I don’t know Dan but he sounds agoraphobic. He may actually be incapable of going out sometimes – my mother had a close friend who had this disorder and it got to the point where she would stand holding her doorknob, trembling, trying to force herself to leave her home and couldn’t.

    It’s a very serious condition and not something you can overcome with willpower most of the time.

  2. RedSonja said:

    Darn GSFs.

    Also, I’ve recently wondered about this trend I see in my circle of friends (and others to judge from the letters here) that we all feel the need to “fix” each other. My parents don’t seem to exhibit this.

    I’m entertaining two theories: one is that it’s an age thing, ie the older you get the more thoroughly you realize that you can’t fix people. The other theory is that reality TV, with its Biggest Losers and Interventions and Hoarders etc… has conditioned us to think that in an hour or two we can use a little pop psychology and make their lives SO MUCH BETTER.

    Anyway. Great advice, as always.

  3. Jason said:

    I’m certain that there’s a bunch of things in Dan’s favor, but simply based upon the content of the letter, I’m voting for “life’s too short”. Fixing him is not your responsibility. Now, if he would ever open up to expressing a frustration with his own issues, I’d be all over trying to help him. But until such time? I have other things to do.

  4. I would never suggest that friendship is some cold economic transaction or anything, but I do think it’s fair to do a certain kind of cost-benefit analysis in a situation like this. Do you enjoy spending time with him to an extent that outweighs the shit you have to put up with to do so? I could be wrong, but from the letter it sounds like you do not.

    I mean, yes, he’s your friend, and that justifies going out of your way for him to a certain degree, but being somebody’s friend doesn’t give a person license to be a burden on their life.

  5. Oh, this is a GREAT plan. I really like it.

    It is entirely possible that Dan needs to be led by the hand about some of the stuff that he is afraid of, though. There’s good reasons to be afraid on city busses and streets, god knows I certainly HAVE been afraid on city busses (one time cops had to be called to break up an impending gang fight!) and streets, but…hell, even I suck it up most of the time. I’m going to move my ass to a city I’m terrified at moving to, even. Also, Dan is a GUY and let’s face it, he’s going to be less of a target on the bus and street by virtue of having a penis alone, so I’m more inclined to be all “suck it up, GEEZ” at him. So inherently I am not a nice person for saying that bit.

    But I have been a scared, scared person like that. I grew up in the burbs and never went anywhere and didn’t have parents who wanted an independent child, and thank god we didn’t have a 4-year-school in my town or I would have never been allowed to leave home. And it did help when someone say, went with me on the scary city bus a time or two and nothing happened to get me killed. And walking down a city street while alone (and female) isn’t nearly as bad when you are accompanied. It is entirely possible that Dan might get over his fear if someone’s holding his hand for awhile and making him try the adult stuff. But he might be a lost cause for all I know, or totally unwilling to. It’s just an idea.

    • Jake said:

      Actually, men are more likely to be victims of violent crime by strangers than women. Women are more likely to attacked by people they know. It’s a myth that women are JUST NOT SAFE out alone and that myth is really limiting on a lot of women’s lives in a way that’s entirely unnecessary. Which is not to say that this guy would be in danger riding the bus, obviously.

      • k said:

        Yeah, this. And yeah, that still isn’t a reason for him to be scared of the city.

      • Lesley said:

        So glad to see this. I taught a sociology class a few years back and this was one of the recurring factoids we kept putting out there: women do NOT have to be afraid of strangers and men should NOT pretend that strangers will be scared off by their masculinity. The relationship of statistics shows precisely the reverse.

        Either way, walk with confidence, be aware of your surroundings.

        • JenniferP said:

          I have a half-baked thesis that men experience more stranger-violence, women experience more stranger-verbal harrasment (sexual come-ons, being ordered to “smile,” being followed, general bullshit from people who “want to be friendly.”). What say your sociology stats?

          • Lesley said:

            Let’s see what I can do; it’s been awhile (I’m in legal history and taught that sociology course only one semester about 5 years ago).

            I cannot remember the acquaintance attack rates on women (very high), but stranger-on-stranger violence is over 70% male/male interaction (based on stats from 2002). My fellow instructor used to remind students of bar fights, which occur overwhelmingly between strangers who are men.

            Additionally, mugging criminals target men 65% of the time and women 35% of the time (stats from a national survey in the US conducted from 1993 to 1998). There is an understanding that men are not supposed to attack women, and it is more “honorable” among thieves to steal a wallet than a purse (we read interviews with convicts to get that kind of insight).

            With crimes of physical assault (excluding sexual assaults) between strangers, attackers target men approximately 68% of the time and women 30% of the time (some grey areas in reporting and identity explain the remaining 2%). (stats from around 2000).

            By the way, convicted rapists work more in early morning than at nighttime, target women with long hair worn in ponytails rather than short hair (something to grab) and look for distracted people (cell phones, iPods). They avoid anyone who carries *anything* that might be an effective weapon, citing umbrellas as a major deterrent in selecting someone as a victim. See Dianna Scully’s excellent book “Understanding Sexual Violence: A Study of Convicted Rapists” where she interviews 114 rapists on their technique and victim-choices. SUPER interesting.

            Also fascinating fact that still haunts me: 1 in 12 transgendered people is murdered. The murder rate for the rest of the US is about 6 in 100,000.

            If you want updated stats relative to 2011 the Bureau of Justice has statistics that are searchable by gender, class, race, neighborhoods, etc. http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/

            I’m sure my numbers are out of date, since the US continues to experience a constant downward spiral of crime rates, even during the current economic recession. This is a really surprising development, too, since it’s the first economic downturn on record that was not also accompanied with a spike in crime (especially property crime but also violence).

  6. Frustrated said:

    LW here. A few things:

    1) He identifies as “cowardly” which is why I used it. He seems to view it as an endearing quirk, rather than something that makes people want to strangle him. I’m also pretty sure it’s an anxiety disorder, but I figured I would use how he identified it.

    2) It’s not a dinner party thing, it’s cooking for our local gaming group so we spend less money on restaurants. Him not chipping in is basically him skipping out on the bill at dinner. He knows the rules, he just “forgets” or tries to make excuses and nickel-and-dime us.

    I know I can’t fix him, but it’s very hard not to hang out with him when he constantly e-mails and talks about how we’re best friends. It feels like kicking a puppy, even if the puppy is chewing on your shoes.

    We’re already doing what you recommended, but he doesn’t seem to be connecting him refusing to expand his world with us not being around as much. I suppose that means we’re going to have to quietly let the friendship go.

    • Jason said:

      May I ask a question? What is provoking your reluctance to do the Big Fade with Dan? Innate niceness, or does Dan bring something to the table?

      Just curious.

      • Frustrated said:

        In nerd circles, it is incredibly hard to find someone who doesn’t make rape jokes. If that sounds like a lousy reason to hang out with him, it is, but it is a really significant point in my area.

        His girlfriend is also really nice (but with similar sheltered issues), but inviting her to hang out without him is difficult, as it is with all couples who share similar interests.

        I think the entire group is in the process of evaluating whether the lack of harassment is worth it. The other issue is that whenever one of us finally snaps and screams at him, he’ll change. That sounds terrible, but it HAS helped him in the past, and (he claims) he appreciates it. The only thing is, none of us want to get angry enough to yell at him, because hello there unhealthy dynamic! It’s a very awkward position where we know we COULD help him, but the way he has set himself up to be helped is really unhealthy for all parties.

        (Yes, I know he said he has a victim complex yet only changes his behaviour when faced with extreme confrontation. I don’t get it either.)

        • JenniferP said:

          This is why I keep coming back to boundaries (see yesterday’s post). It’s not your job to fix Dan. It’s your job to process how his behaviors (not his illness(es)??!!) affect you and decide how much time you want to invest in communicating with him and letting his issues control the social life of your group.

          A good friend of mine has a sibling who is a seriously picky eater and who can never be satisfied. I’m sure those food issues are very real for this person, but I know that I never, ever, ever want to have another 45 minute conversation about where to eat that is entirely controlled by this person’s pickiness where everyone is in a tizzy trying to cater to her and she does nothing to help – doesn’t suggest anything she WOULD like, doesn’t try to meet you halfway. If it were an allergy rather than a preference I would have slightly more compassion, but if she behaved the way I’ve seen her behave (again, not trying to help people find something that would be acceptable, just sitting there like a princess while we all spun our wheels) I still would never eat out with her again, or if I did it would be like “I’m going here, join me or don’t.”

          If you do want to keep inviting Dan to things (I’m not sure why, the more detail you provide), change the way you have those conversations.

          “Dan, we’re going to this movie at this time. Join us if you can.” Don’t worry about how he’ll get there. If he starts talking about his fears say, “Okay, whatever works for you. Maybe we’ll see you there” and cut off the conversation. Don’t give him attention for his behavior. Don’t arrange your schedule around it.

    • JenniferP said:

      The dinner thing would drive me batshit. The only answer is bluntness. “Dan, can you put your money in for this week? Also, you still owe us for last week, too.” “Dan, it’s the same amount of money every week – why do you make us chase you for it?” “Dan, would you rather eat at home before you come and save the money?” “Dan, are you having financial issues I don’t know about? I don’t want to embarrass you, but it’s awkward to have to chase you for the dinner money every week. If something is going on with that, let me know.”

      Which sounds tiresome.

      May I suggest creating a special email folder for Dan? All his emails can go there, and you can check it once a week (or whenever you feel like it) and control when and how much you interact.

      • piny said:

        I’m kind of tempted to suggest not letting him eat. But I guess that would be really mean.

        • Jason said:

          I’m having a grumpy day, so I’d figure out what $2 bucks of dinner was, and put it on a plate.

        • Jason said:

          Also, you say mean like it’s a bad thing in this case.

        • JenniferP said:

          Yeah, ask for the $ up front, and if he doesn’t chip in say “Are you not hungry? That’s cool” and go on with your night.

      • Megan said:

        My group of friends had a similar dinner-moocher problem, except we potluck. She would just not bring food when everyone else did. We finally did two things: a) directly called her on it when she showed up for dinner without any contribution, and b) when we had at least a day’s notice, we would assign her a specific food item. That way, if she showed up without it, it was really easy to be straightforward: Friend, where is the [food]? And then she would run to the store and get it. It took some time, but she’s a lot better now.

  7. drkrick said:

    I have to think this behavior is greatly reinforced if not actively enforced by his parents. If that’s true, it’s going to take a tremendous amount of determination on his part to break out of it, assuming he wants to. Given the apparent probability of that, I’d suggest finding ways to limit your interaction with him to non-infuriating situations. Whether that is “none” is you and your friends call.

  8. Doorslam said:

    He sounds a lot like me on my worse days, which is to say he sounds like he has a pretty big anxiety disorder. The going out thing is obvious, but I tend to hoard my money too and get incredibly uncomfortable about spending it, because I might need it later, and that would manifest in me trying to skip out of paying friends whenever I could (as they were more okay with spending money, I figured they wouldn’t mind as much as I did). Obviously I’ve dealt with that now, but if he’s putting down his own anxiety as “cowardice” he’s not going to change until he realizes it. And, unfortunately, telling someone that they’ve got an anxiety disorder isn’t going to work very well unless they’re close to coming to grips with it themselves.

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