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#335: How do I set a boundary with my friend without hurting her feelings?

Dear Captain Awkward,

I have a best friend.  We’ve known each other for a long time, gone through some really rough times together as we both coped with mental illness, toxic families, financial hardship and general shenanigans.  Being single ladies who are at the asexual end of the scale, we share a house, and have lived together for most of our adult lives.  We have a fairly active social life, with a lot of mutual friends. 

My BFF is magnetic and charismatic, and people are generally drawn to her.  She’s not conventionally attractive, but she’s one of those people you have to look at twice, just to confirm that yes, she’s real.  People tend to pursue her friendship (or romantic attention, which she does not give).  For a while, invitations from our mutual friends were sent only to her, “Can you and [LW] come along to X?”  (I put a stop to that when I found out BFF was refusing invitations on behalf of both of us, without even telling me about them.  “I wish I’d been invited to X.”  “We thought you didn’t want to come!”)

I’m quieter, yet more spiky.  I can be a bit snarky, and sometimes it takes a while for people to warm up to me.  And that’s fine, because it takes a while for me to warm up to people!  I’m currently in therapy to deal with my abusive childhood, and am only now learning to assert boundaries and refrain from taking responsibility for other people’s emotions.  

All this is great!  Here’s the problem:  BFF suffers from a major depressive disorder, and also a personality disorder.  It’s managed through medication, but she can’t afford therapy any more.  And she doesn’t take criticism well, even if the criticism is entirely deserved on her part.  When she’s in a low state, as she is now, she becomes a bit of an emotional black hole. 

For example, we have a friend.  I’ll call her Activist.  Activist was in town for the weekend, and she was talking about her particular area of interest, which she does a lot.  BFF said something that wasn’t precisely wrong, just naive.  Activist laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s because you have [insert relevant issue here] privilege.”  The discussion went on a bit longer, then the topic changed, no dramas.  Or so I thought!  Because that was a couple of months ago, and BFF is still talking about Activist, how rude and dismissive she was, how belittling, and how much Activist likes to set herself up above everything else.  At first I tried to argue, but BFF interpreted that as invalidating behaviour, which is one of her major triggers, and got hugely upset.  

Similar things have happened before with other friends.  One turned out to be a genuinely toxic person, and our lives are much better off without her.  The others are just … regular people with their own issues, who aren’t always able to prioritise BFF.  (In therapy I’ve wondered whether it’s just my low self-esteem and secret belief that I don’t really deserve friends that leads me to think BFF’s expectations are too much, but he thinks not.  Of course, NOW I’m wondering whether those same problems are what has led me to go so long without enforcing boundaries with BFF…)  These days we can’t organise a lunch date or a trip to the movies without having some kind of conversation about how [insert friend here] doesn’t really like BFF, or isn’t a very good friend, or is just somehow wrong.

What I want is to find a way to have a conversation with BFF that goes, “I know you secretly believe that you are a bad person who doesn’t deserve friends, and therefore everyone who claims to like you in fact hates you.  And I am not qualified to help you understand how untrue any of that is, but for now, your badmouthing of our mutual friends makes me anxious and sad, and also angry, and I wish you wouldn’t do it.”  Only in such a way that won’t lead BFF to feel betrayed, invalidated or angry, and that will lead to an actual change in her behaviour. 

If we didn’t live together, I’d probably contemplate introducing some space into our relationship.  Which, come to think of it, a lot of our friends have done already.  For one thing, the long term result of this pattern is that we’re going to end up without any other friends.  Just. The two. Of us.  And that was the pattern of my parents’ marriage, and also my first and only romantic relationship.  I don’t want to go there again, which is why I really need to find a way to assert myself.  But we’re just not in a position where we can take a break.  

Hey, listen, your script is great, with one small edit at the end:

“I know you secretly believe that you are a bad person who doesn’t deserve friends, and therefore everyone who claims to like you in fact hates you.  And I am not qualified to help you understand how untrue any of that is, but for now, your badmouthing of our mutual friends makes me anxious and sad, and also angry, and I wish you wouldn’t do it AROUND ME.” 

(Listen to her talk)

Okay. I want to respect your feelings, but I don’t have to agree with you about everything – we are actually allowed to have different, individual relationships with the same people. So the next time I feel like you’re crossing a line and badmouthing a friend in a way that is unfair or makes me uncomfortable, I am going to politely as I can change the subject or otherwise exit the conversation.

And then you enforce the boundary by changing the subject and/or exiting the conversation.

Your BFF is 99 percent going to come back with something like “You mean I can’t ever complain about anything or anyone? You’ll always take other people’s side over me?

To which you say “Of course I don’t mean that. There is definitely room for talking frankly if someone is being unkind to you or violating your boundaries and hopefully we can be a good reality check for one another. But sometimes (like with Activist), the complaints do really cross a line, like you’re trying to get me to not like the person just because you don’t or agree that they secretly don’t like you (when I know that’s not true). So when it makes me feel uncomfortable, I am going to make a subjective decision to try to change the subject, and I am asking you to respect that.

You’re on the right track, except there was a thing you asked me for that every letter writer asks me for: You want to stand up for yourself “in such a way that won’t lead BFF to feel betrayed, invalidated or angry, and that will lead to an actual change in her behaviour.”

See, that’s impossible, because you can’t do ANYTHING that will make another  person change their behavior, and you can’t control other people’s feelings. Your friend may well feel betrayed, invalidated, or angry. All you can do is ask as clearly and directly as possible for what you need and hope the other person will give it to you or at least respect the boundary when you lay it down. I’m not a magical Leprechaun who can cure personality disorders or change people who don’t want to change, and neither are you (I’m guessing). You’re not being an asshole by asking her to stop this one specific behavior. I, Captain Awkward, with the power that is vested in me* validate you and find your request to be Reasonable. BFF is going to do what she’s going to do and feel what she’s going to feel.

I know this is a fake apology and most of the time you should not use it, but you have given us a case study in when to use the “I’m sorry that you feel that way” apology. “I’m sorry that you feel that way, but those are YOUR feelings about our friend, and I don’t have to share them exactly. I know you feel like I’m invalidating you by not agreeing with you, but actually, you are trying to bully me into sharing your exact point of view of this person and I do not have to do that. Since there is no good way to have this conversation, let’s change the subject.

You’re gonna have a fight, is what I’m saying. It doesn’t have to be a relationship-ender, but you’re going to fight. And your BFF is going to test the shit out of those boundaries you’re trying to set. It is not possible for you to fulfill every emotional need that this woman has and unhealthy for you to try, so keep paying attention to your own needs. They deserve fighting for.

Here’s the new world order in your house:

BFF respects your boundaries, you are sweetness and light and kindness.

BFF does not respect your boundaries, you say “Let’s change the subject, please, this is making me uncomfortable.” BFF backs off, she gets sweetness and light. BFF pushes her luck, you say “I’m sorry, let’s end this conversation” and leave the room or the house. Take a walk, run an errand, do something else, come back, and reset the clock.

I know you don’t want to move out, but you also don’t want to become isolated from other people. I know your BFF is acting out possibly because of a disorder and that not everything is under her control, but isolating someone from their wider social circle is a red flag for emotional abuse.

So it’s time for Project Unfuck your Social Life

Step 1: You already did this one when you told your friends bluntly “If you’re inviting both of us somewhere, can you send us each the email? Sometimes BFF doesn’t want to go but I do.”  Gold star for you!

Step 2: Go out sometimes without BFF. You don’t need your BFF to come along on every single thing you do even with mutual friends. Stop hiding behind her supposed charisma when you’re making plans and take the reins of your own friendships with people.

Step 3: In fact, find an activity that you do weekly without BFF. Volunteer. Take a class. Take up skateboarding. You need a new social group that is not tied to BFF and that you do not experience through BFF. Make it something that you’ll love and she’ll hate. Meet some new people who have nothing to do with her.

Step 4: You’re seeing a therapist. GOOD. Keep doing that. Another gold star for you! Disclose your BFF’s condition** to your therapist and ask for specific accommodations & workarounds to help you guys get along.

Step 5: Still do stuff with BFF sometimes. Maybe make one night of the week time for just the two of you. Enjoy her company, show her that you having other friends/interests doesn’t mean you don’t care about her.

Step 6: Respect the boundary you made with BFF when you’re out and about without BFF, in that you don’t talk behind people’s backs with BFF, and you don’t talk about BFF with mutual friends when she’s not present. That’s what your therapist is for.

This relationship needs to breathe, big time if it’s going to survive. I know it’s hard to set limits when you have a history of not having or needing any, but it’s well past time here.

*No actual power is vested in me.
**Which we, The Internet, should not try to diagnose through the computer.
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52 comments
  1. LW, I feel for you. You pretty much knew what to do already, but you were hesitant in part because you knew what the probable reaction would be. And you’re right; you’re likely in for some turbulence. But the status quo isn’t OK. The longer things go on like this, the less OK it will be.

    So, good thoughts and crossed fingers for you. When you come out the other side of this conversation, be sure to do something nice for yourself!

  2. Cassiel said:

    LW, I’m in a similar sort of BFF relationship to you, and it makes me want to, at the very least, offer you encouragement that things will work out.

    My BFF and I have lived together pretty much all of our adult lives, which amounts to about 17 years now, with a 3 year break where I lived in Japan (we spent a lot of time on Skype then, and she never had anyone else move in). Like you, we are both single females who are closer to asexual, and have both been through a lot of mental illness issues, family problems, money problems, and the like. We’re not as socially active as you seem to be, but we share quite a few mutual friends, simply because anyone who befriends one of us ends up befriending both of us.

    In comparison to your friendship, I’m the more naturally charismatic one that people are drawn to (like your BFF) whereas my friend is the one who is a bit more spiky and snarky, but equally likeable once you get to know her. I also suffer from major depressive disorder, like your BFF, and to put it bluntly, I can be a total shithead when I’m in a funk. My friend has had to learn coping mechanisms for my depression, in the same way I’ve had to learn coping mechanisms for her severe anxiety. (We’ve both been in therapy, and you are definitely doing the right thing getting it. I really wish your friend could afford it still, because it sounds like she needs it.)

    One thing that’s been really important throughout our relationship is learning not only that we can disagree, but also that we can fight and get through it. We’ve had our share of fights with tears and screaming and the whole shebang, but we get through them, because our friendship is that important to us. We’ve learnt that we need to push each other sometimes, and we’ve learnt where and when to push, and where and when to back off. But that’s something that’s taken a long time, and of course is something we’re still learning when new things come up. And we’ve had these fights about friends, as well — mutual friends, or friends that only she has or only I have.

    We used to both be afraid of pushing the other. We’d both have things that we’d just swallow and try to deal with rather than upsetting the other person; both of us have issues and doubts about our “worth” as friends so we both suffered that whole “but if I say something she doesn’t like, she’ll never speak to me again!” But being that way tended to make things worse for us, because we’d end up getting snarky or short with each other about unrelated things or silly little things, just because we were bitter about having to swallow our other disagreements.
    It took years and some fights for us to both realise that we COULD fight, but it was an important realisation for us both… and one that just developed gradually. We’ve also learnt that we can have a screaming tear-filled fight one day, go away into our rooms and sulk and brood all night, and then get up the next day and be able to talk about it calmly and figure things out. Or even, that we can fight, resolve nothing, put it aside for days and just live normally as if it never happened while we stew through things in our heads, and then come back to it when we’re both more clear-headed.
    There have been times when the fight tears me apart as much as anything because I’m in a severe depressive funk, but once I get through the worst of the funk, I can look at it more realistically. I won’t lie; in the past I’ve guilt-tripped her and made her feel totally awful, all because she did something I didn’t like and the depression made it feel SO PERSONAL… but when I was able to get past that initial bout of severe irrational emotion, I apologised and made it up to her, and she forgave me, because she loves me. Your friend might end up hurting you in the same way, but I am sure she will also make it up to you because she cares about you.

    And on the friendship front, well, my BFF has another friend right now that I don’t particularly like, who pushes my buttons and who I see as more of a liability than a decent friend. But I know that my friend enjoys her company, and so I keep my opinions to myself. If my friend talks about her, I listen in a friendly way, and if she sounds like she wants advice, I offer it in an objective manner. However at the same time, if the friendship seems to infrige upon our boundaries (and it has in the past, when the friend essentially wanted to live with us) I’m not afraid to speak out about what is upsetting me. And because my BFF cares about me the most, she will listen and respect what I’m saying. It’s not all logical and easy to sort out (hey, emotions never are) but we can talk things out and respect each other’s opinions, and make concessions for each other.

    I’m not sure where I’m going with this exactly, except to say that I think taking all of CA’s advice will be really awesome for your friendship. You need to have that conversation with her. Yes, there is going to be hurting, and awkwardness, and probably even tears and screaming. But it’s really important — and worthwhile — for both of you to learn that you can fight and get through it; that you can disagree and be okay with it. And doing so will make your friendship stronger.

    And yes, you also need your own friends, and your own social circles, and activities you enjoy separate from your BFF. She may get interested in things just because you’re interested in them (happens to us a lot) and you can tell her about them and share your passion for them, but still keep them your own hobbies, and likely she will respect that.

    Anyway, as much as anything, I just wanted to let you know that there are people out there like you, and they’ve survived situations like you’re going through. You have a great friend, and your friendship may go through some rocky times, but I really believe that you can both pull through it. Lots and lots of luck to you, and I’m cheering you on!

    • Blue said:

      I think this is a really important point! Relationships need t be able to endure a little roughness here and there. I’m of the opinion that if you don’t have those kinds of moments, then someone isn’t being totally up front, and that’s just as bad for the relationship, as no one gets along super amazingly perfect all the time forever. It’s just not reality. I had something happen with some people I thought were my BFFLs, and the friendship did not endure the ensuing fight (which pretty much began because one of these former friends said something to upset me and I stood up for myself). For a long time I beat myself up because I thought I did something wrong in telling my old friends that what they were saying and doing was unfair and hurtful to me. In a way, it’s almost like a way of telling how genuine your friendship is. Sometimes it’s hard to accept that people you think are important in your life might not be the best for you, but just letting things ride are only going to make things worse for yourself and the relationship. If she’s really your friend, as the person above said, then I think she will at the very least be able to come back after whatever upsetting situation ensues and say, “I’m sorry, but I’ll work on it, and let’s remain great friends!” I think that will really highlight to you how important your friendship is to her, you know? It might help you decide how to proceed.

  3. nonny said:

    I wholeheartedly support the Cap’s suggestion of adding “around me” to your script. I have had a lot of luck using that construction to prevent people from doing shit I don’t like in front of me. E.g., “Please do not use ‘gay’ as a pejorative around me.”; “Please don’t badmouth so-and-so around me”; “Please don’t whistle like a dying tea kettle around me while I’m working”. (Oh god, that last. A coworker. The most annoying sound!)

    It really seems to let people be not so defensive about the behavior that I want to modify, and so allow them to be more open to changing it. And funnily enough, with some things, if they put the focus in to stopping it around me, they stop it in other parts of their life.

    • KittehServant said:

      Hey, we share a co-worker! :O

  4. Wow, an actual use for the “I’m sory you feel that way” non apology!

    • Leah said:

      Yes! I think it’s because it’s sincere. The LW is, in fact, sorry BFF feels that way… but not for anything LW or friends have done.

  5. Agnes said:

    Cap’n, I wish to submit an edit to your apostrophe- it should read:

    *By the internet.

    Because you win the internets, and it loves you. (Or hates you, if it’s the MRA part of the internet.)

  6. Stark said:

    Hi LW, I’m a therapist who happens to internet too much. I’ve worked with a few personality disordered clients, so I’d like to address a little bit of that. First of all, I *loathe* the entire concept of personality disorders, let me get that out of the way. Unfortunately, the current DSM doesn’t have any other way to describe ingrained patterns of self- or- other-damaging behaviors, so I get to use some crappy stuff.

    People with personality disorder characteristics are, like you describe your BFF, really bad at taking criticism. In extreme cases, I’ve seen people get offended at “red looks really nice on you!” when they happen to be wearing maroon instead. They tend to be highly sensitive to anything that might be construed as negative. In that light, it will be important to make this request About You and not About Her. If she tries to make it About Her, you can turn it around with “This is a thing that bothers me when anyone does it, it has made me uncomfortable around other people before. I’m speaking up with you now because I value our friendship too highly to not say anything about it to you.”

    You do need time away from your friend, though this may become difficult depending on which PD she’s been diagnosed with. Borderline clients tend to get very hot and cold about their friends enforcing boundaries. Histrionic clients tend to be weepy and melodramatic. Co-dependent clients tend to straight up refuse to allow it to happen. Anti-social clients may or may not even notice that you’re trying and bulldoze straight through the boundaries. This means you have to enforce ALL boundaries, ALL the time. Personality disorders THRIVE off of “this is an exception, I’ll relax this boundary just this once.” You’re not doing the *person* a favor by doing this, you’re helping the disorder by reinforcing unhelpful behavioral patterns.

    Of course, knowing all of this is of limited utility: diagnosis is not fate, it’s not even vague prophecy. It’s more like a newspaper horoscope: a vague description of events that fit probably everyone at one point or another. Know your friend, love your friend, let all of your choices come from that love. If setting and enforcing a boundary hurts now, it can only make your friendship stronger because it is being done out of that love.

    • If you were elected the new king and queen of the DSM5 (and it sounds like it needs one), what would you call the things that are now named personality disorders. I always looked side-eyed at that myself. The label implies that there’s something permanently wrong with who you are.

      • Stark said:

        See, that’s the problem. There is no good shorthand for “ingrained patterns of self-or-other- damaging behavior.” The phrase “Conduct Disorder” already exists to describe a separate (but similar) phenomenon, and “Behavior Problems” just sounds… not particularly clinical.

        I’d probably change Axis II to “Disordered Patterns of Thought and Behavior” and maintain the current subtypes if I were High Queen of the DSM. But between you and me (and the other people who giveadamn to read a post) I wouldn’t want the job. The DSM is such a political document that, unless you are personally a diagnosing clinician or receiving a diagnosis from one, it’s better to just ignore the whole damn thing and let the crazy statisticians bicker about spectrums.

  7. Yan said:

    Have to agree with Agnes, above — there is a power vested in you by the writers asking your opinions and those of us who follow along to learn and share. It is a power used for good.

    LW, this is all great advice, and all I have to add explicitly is “steel yourself.” I’ve been the more passive one in a long-term somewhat unbalanced friendship, and learning a) that you have boundaries, b) that they apply to your BFF, and c) that you can enforce them is going to be a sea change for your BFF. Even if she were open to criticism, this stage is hard. It’s also necessary to an adult relationship that is mutually beneficial. But get Team You in place so that you feel like you have some support for this. You will second guess yourself, so for me, it helped to write out what I needed and why, so that when I was being questioned later (and questioning myself), I could read the strength of the “before the conflict” statements. When you’ve learned to stand up for yourself, the after picture is even more awesome for you.

  8. the witching hour said:

    I lived for about two years with a close friend who had a lot of issues with anxiety and obsessive insecurity and sometimes depression. The “around me” thing really worked, and other things that made it about a. my feelings, and b. individual circumstances, not overarching themes of our relationship.

    The other thing that worked well for me was asking how zie wanted me to respond. Like this:

    “Well, of course X loves you/Y good thing happened for you, you’re perfect and amazing and I’m stupid and awkward and incompetent.”
    “I don’t know how to respond to that.”

    -or-

    “How do you want me to respond when you say things like that? I don’t agree with any of those things, but it doesn’t seem like it’s about what I think of you.”

    In my case, zie would say “I don’t know how I want you to respond” or “Yeah, I don’t think there’s any good response,” but it also helped snap her out of her spiral. Maybe by seeing it through my eyes, maybe just by engaging the problem-solving parts of hir brain and not the reactive parts. It also opens the door for conversations of the “when I do X thing, it helps if you respond in Y way” format.

    • staranise said:

      Sometimes questions like that just help to remind the other person that this conversation has two participants. They’re flapping their gums not just for the heck of it, but to communicate with you, and if they want the optimal experience here they have to think about the lines they’re feeding you.

      • the witching hour said:

        And that the other person’s responses are not something they are doing TO YOU, they are not laughing behind their teeth at you, they are not the mastermind of your despair.

  9. alphakitty said:

    I think the advice above is great, not just about the conversations you have with your BFF but about carving out your own place in the world — both with respect to the friends you already share, and in terms of making new ones.

    But you also need to be prepared for fallout/pushback.

    I once had a similar friendship, with the more charismatic friend dominating things; I definitely felt like the #2 in our relationship, though she said she didn’t see it that way. The thing is, I let her dominate. She picked the music, she picked the restaurant, etc., among other things because she had more confidence in her taste, and just stronger preferences. I genuinely enjoy all kinds of food and music for example, and was happier taking whatever she was in the mood for than taking responsibility for her (or others) being pleased with my choice.

    However, in the course of our friendship (the first 3-1/2 years of college) I developed more confidence in my own taste, stronger preferences, became a bit more outgoing (though still and always the quieter half of the pair) and over time came to resent being expected to fall in with hers all the time — though I had, after all, trained her to expect that kind of complaisance from me. I didn’t snit about it — I just got a bit more assertive about what I wanted. And I got steamrollered for it, as she tried to preserve the status quo. Perhaps because she thought change threatened the whole friendship? I dunno. It wouldn’t have, but her inability to accept it sure did. Things got ugly; her treatment of me became truly, actively, ruin-every-time-you’re-out-together unkind; our friend circle split into camps.

    Now, in our case there was another complicating factor. She told me later by letter that she had been discovering new dimensions to her sexuality, and falling in love with me. Again, I dunno. Like I said, she was treating me unkindly, so I was having a very different experience in that regard. I wound up, at least temporarily, really hating her. Because it was a survival thing: either I loved the person who was being that awful to me, or I loved me, and being me there was really only one healthy choice I could make, and I made it. I can look back with compassion and love the friend I’d had, be sorry she was going through such a tough time, and wish things had played out better in myriad ways, but I can’t wish I had chosen her over me, can I?

    Obviously, our situations aren’t identical. But part of what I see going on is you getting stronger and more confident in therapy, and feeling readier to be your own person and have your own opinions about other people and your own relationships with them that aren’t defined by her relationships with them. Meanwhile, she may be feeling extra vulnerable because she’s lost her therapeutic support (and dispassionate reality-check), and threatened by you (who are so tremendously important to her) liking people who (in her view/fears) don’t like her (and OMG does that mean you will join the ranks of People Who Don’t Like Her?)

    So you’re thinking “Y’know, I love BFF but this relationship is not altogether healthy, I need to set some boundaries,” — and you’re RIGHT — and you’re hoping it won’t hurt/upset her.

    That’s probably not realistic. She’s probably going to be really threatened by change and fight hard to preserve the status quo because she’s afraid if you get too strong, too independent, too-surrounded-by-friends-who-don’t-even-like-her you won’t need her and will move away from her, maybe literally and physically and out of the home you share.

    And that may happen — if, like my friend, she responds really badly to change and refuses to let you grow or set the boundaries you need to set for your own emotional health. Like my friend, she may ultimately force you to choose between your love for her, and your love for yourself, and if that happens you *have* to choose you. You just do. And it will fall on *her* that it became a choice, that you couldn’t have healthy, happy you, and her in your life.

    I tell you this not to discourage you, but because part of your conversation — not necessarily up front, but at some point — may need to be “Look, I know I am changing things. I know that is threatening, and consciously or unconsciously you may worry that these changes I’m making mean I don’t love you, that I’m trying to distance myself from you, that this is the beginning of the end that will culminate in me leaving you. That’s not what it means. I believe these changes are what will keep us TOGETHER — that if loving you and living with you does not have to cost me my friendships with everyone else, I can STAY. It is only if you won’t respect these boundaries that I’ll feel like I need to choose between you and happiness — and if it comes to that, I would have to choose happiness, even if that happiness comes with a great deal of regret at the loss of our friendship.”

    • xenu01 said:

      I just want to say that that script you wrote at the end was really, really, beautiful and to the point.

      • Kika said:

        I would like to second that.

  10. Lily said:

    I know you don’t want to hurt your friend’s feelings, but the thing is, you’re not doing her any favors by allowing her to get away with this stuff. You can very easily set up a spiral where her behavior becomes more and more “out there” because she’s seeking a limit she’s unable to set for herself.

    Not setting boundaries with her is essentially helping/signing off on the kind of behavior that makes her life so miserable. You can’t change her, but every time you say “no,” that’s one time when she’s not engaging in that self-destructive behavior. The fewer times she engages in that behavior the better off she’ll be.

    Being able to set boundaries with people is a core skill for you to have if you’re going to have a happy and productive life. The other skill you need to cultivate is friend selection. People who are going to violate your boundaries often tell you that right up front, even in the first time you meet them. They touch you without asking. They motormouth about their own story without any apparent awareness that they’re not letting anyone else talk. They tell you inappropriately personal things even though they don’t know you. They ignore and bulldoze over your “no” in small ways. (Example: “Do you want a soda?” “No thanks.” “Oh don’t be silly, I’ll get you one right now.”).

    If someone shows you early on that they’re incapable of respecting your boundaries, don’t hang out with them again.

  11. human said:

    Hoooollllyyyy crap, LW, you basically just described my relationship with my former best friend (minus the asexual part, but that’s not super relevant to the actual PROBLEM…)

    I had to laugh at “invalidating behavior.” So you’re not allowed to disagree with her, eh? Boy do I know how that goes. For a long time, I put up with it, for many reasons: I valued her friendship, had a lot of fun with her, and I also financially needed to continue living with her. It was 90% okay being the passive one and letting her mostly run our mutual lives. It worked, so I went with it.

    I was less comfortable when I realized how she was interfering with my friendships with other people. I actually stopped bringing new friends to the house because she would use her greater charisma and magnetism to kind of “take over” their friendship and she would become their primary friend — the one who could successfully issue invitations and get invited to things — rather than me.

    I did exactly as the Captain advises — I got a new activity she didn’t participate in and made some new friends that way, and it really saved my sanity during the shit show that ensued when her behavior got worse.

    Ultimately, our relationship ended because she got really angry with me when I moved out of town. It was demonstrably not personal to her that I did this — I moved for a new job, something I’d been working toward for almost the whole time I’d been living with her! It was a huge triumph for me, but for her it proved I was ungrateful for everything she’d ever done for me, or something. Whatever.

    Your relationship with your BFF may survive and it may not. Whether it does is going to depend, frankly, on whether she chooses to respect the boundaries you set. She might! Or, she might do like my former friend did whenever I tried to set a boundary, and throw an epic screaming hissy fit (once she threatened me with a knife over a political argument — I REALLY was not allowed to disagree with her!) It sucks super hard but that is not something you can control. You sound like you have thought all this through in a really smart way and I think you will do a much better job than I was able to of setting the appropriate boundaries in a way that is clear and kind and firm. And so I really hope it works out for you. And I also hope you don’t do like I did and just give up on setting boundaries, because it really does a number on your dignity to live that way and I don’t recommend it.

    Best of luck and jedi hugs if you want them!! I am rooting for you.

    • alphakitty said:

      “She would use her greater charisma and magnetism to kind of “take over” their friendship.”

      My then-best-friend gave new meaning to the expression “charm offensive,” too. I’d be talking to another friend and she’d come up and wedge her charismatic self into the conversation — louder, funnier, all sparkly and entertaining — literally edging me out of the conversation with her freakin’ shoulder, ’til I was on the outside looking in. Wallflowered, by my “best friend.” It was no longer just who she was, or who I was, it was something she was actively, deliberately doing to me. Boy, that sucked. Within two weeks of her beginning that behavior (which I suppose, given her later explanation, was meant to demonstrate her awesomeness to me?) I could not stand to be in the same room with my best friend.

      • BadSack said:

        That kind of social undermining is really insidious. Often the offender will protest that “they didn’t do anything”, when this could not be further from the truth. Is this behavior about jealousy, competitiveness or control or what ?

        • human said:

          I never said anything about it to her, because I knew that would be exactly the response I would get, and what could I say back to it? How can you PROVE someone did something like that? You can’t. It just makes you sound like a whiny kid to complain about it.

          • human said:

            Or anyway, I worried it would make me sound like one.

        • Xenophile said:

          And it’s so easy to second-guess yourself if you’re not fully comfortable in social situations anyway! “Am I just jealous that this person is more outgoing than I am? Maybe it’s just my irrational and unreasonable belief that extroverts are shallow; am I trying to feel superior to this person I’ve just met? How awful of me! Maybe I’m unfairly labeling them a Bad Person just because I find their energy exhausting, but they haven’t done anything overtly malicious…” Throw in a little gaslighting, and it can be really hard to trust your own perceptions. Suddenly “How dare you be rude to me and flirt with my boyfriend for hours and hours in front of me and in front of your own boyfriend” becomes “Well, maybe I was being overly judgmental because my blood sugar was low…she probably makes sex noises at all her male friends…” Not, uh, that I’m speaking from experience or anything.

      • the witching hour said:

        I have been this friend. My tendencies toward this are really strong, usually from a very straightforward place of wanting to be loved by Exciting New Person. The friend I mentioned upthread was actually really good at calling me out on it, but I still have to consciously force myself to make room for everyone in a conversation, and I still fail.

        It’s really hard (for me, at least) to switch my perspective from What Is Good For Me? to What Is Good For The Group?.

        • delbelcoure said:

          “It’s really hard (for me, at least) to switch my perspective from What Is Good For Me? to What Is Good For The Group?”.
          I don’t know if it would help you, but I have a mental work around for this sort of situation.
          I step back and think, for example, “Being in this group is an experience I value, therefore keeping this group healthy and working smoothly is good for me. Stepping back some so everyone has a chance to shine in a conversation is good for the group and therefore good for me”. When I look at situations from this point of view, it’s easier to act the way I want to act, rather than the way I’m naturally inclined/ programmed to act. I try to reassess these kind of thoughts regularly though. I still want to be honestly representing myself and advocating for myself, so I try to keep an eye on my actions and other’s responses to assess if they really serves my original goals.

          • the witching hour said:

            Yeah, I usually just remind myself that when I do all the talking I don’t learn anything, but when I listen more I often learn a lot. That usually keeps me balanced.

        • Xenophile said:

          That makes sense. A very charismatic friend of mine told me that he has to deliberately try very hard to not befriend his significant others’ friends. In the past he’s become very close very quickly with his girlfriend’s friends, until her friends were closer to him than to her. Then if she became unhappy with the relationship, she hesitated to end it because she knew that if she were to break up with him, she might lose all her friends. This dragged out a relationship that really should have ended sooner. After this happened two or three times, he noticed the pattern and now when he dates someone, he tries to avoid imposing himself on her social circle and even avoids spending significant amounts of time with her friends so that her social space remains HER social space. It sounds exhausting.

      • human said:

        Thanks for speaking up. It makes me feel less weird about the whole thing to know I am not the only person who has experienced this.

        • Alphakitty said:

          I was lucky… We had 3 roommates, who all recognized what she was doing. If I hadn’t had that, I would probably have lost 3-1/2 years’ worth of growth and confidence, because everyone else was all “isn’t she wonderful and fun?” And yeah, she was. She was just doing it *at* me, which is a really weird concept.

      • Nicole said:

        I had the EXACT same thing. I went to University with 3 semi-close friends. The one friend (the one who wall-flowered me) believed (and it might have been true at the beginning) she was BFFs with another one of the 3 friends. So in order to perpetuate that, she would constantly be trying to exclude the other two of us from events, so that she could prove she and the other girl (who is a wonderful person, but also insanely gorgeous and kind and attracts both boys and friends like flied to honey) were really BFFs…then other friends got a serious boyfriend. So awful friend attached to ME- and suddenly she was in every conversation with my friends, putting in subtle insults about me, and while flirting and smiling and explaining how wonderful she was. She pushed me out of a lot of my newer friendships, and made me feel like an anti-social, awkward person (I was in a much harder program than her, and she actively told other friends/people in the same residence that I lied about my workload, and just didn’t want to spend time with them). She got diagnosed with Bi-Polar disorder that year, and it made things worse, because she was genuinely going through a period of awful depression, for which she played every sympathy/you need to be here for me etc. card in the book, and made me feel like I couldn’t cut her out. But after 1 year of this, I did. She made ME have my own period of depression, and by the end I couldn’t stand to be near her. So I didn’t. I cut ties 100%, and I don’t regret it. She was a toxic person for me.

        In the case of this friend, I think because the “cool one” of the group no longer wanted much to do with her, and because she was having a tough time, she needed something to make herself feel cool/popular/good about herself. And she did that by proving she was prettier/cooler/better than me. She could take my friends- she could make sure everyone knew how boring and awful I was compared to her etc.

      • thegirlfrommarz said:

        This reminds me of what Gavin de Becker says about charm in The Gift of Fear:
        Charm is another overrated ability. Note that I called it an ability, not an inherent feature of one’s personality. Charm is almost always a directed instrument, which, like rapport building, has motive. To charm is to compel, to control by allure or attraction. Think of charm as a verb, not a trait. If you consciously tell yourself, “This person is trying to charm me,” as opposed to “This person is charming,” you’ll be able to see around it. Most often, when you see what’s behind the charm, it won’t be sinister, but other times you’ll be glad you looked.
        I found that paragraph completely eye-opening when I read it for the first time – suddenly all those “but Person X is so charming – why do they make me feel uncomfortable?” moments made sense.

    • ldubs said:

      This happened to me, too! I even went and made new friends apart from my BFF and she then just wedged herself right on in there. We lived together and she would get invitations to things meant for both of us (like the LW) and would go herself without passing the invitation on to me. OR she would organize plans with people and specifically leave me out. I eventually called her on it, but she twisted the whole thing into “ldubs doesn’t want me to go anywhere unless she’s going, too”.

      Our friendship essentially ended when I started dating a mutual friend and she just could not handle me having a relationship she couldn’t usurp. I also found out that once she found out I liked him, she had started saying all kinds of false things about me (“Ldubs is so needy and clingy”, “ldubs just dates guys and then dumps them when things get serious”).

      Setting clearer boundaries might have saved our friendship, but I don’t know. What I do know is that this isn’t behavior she exhibited early in the friendship. It showed up when I attempted to broaden my life outside of our friendship. I wish I had known the extent she would go to preserve the status quo; my life would have been more pleasant.

      • Ali said:

        My ex besties did the same thing about invitations. I feel so much less crazy knowing it happened to other people. We lived together for a while and they would just forget to pass on invites or refuse for me as well.

        • Ldubs said:

          Its so weird and kind of gaslighting-adjacent. I definitely felt like I was losing it a little because I KNEW she was doing it on purpose and it made me feel shitty, but at the same time, how whiny does it sound to be like “why didn’t I get invited to go get tacos?” or whatever mundane thing like, all the time.

  12. staranise said:

    Sometimes when it’s important for me to disagree without invalidating, I make sure to emphasize our different perspectives. It’s a way of promoting mentalization. Different perspectives and personalities aren’t bad, after all, and if you can make those differences multidimensional (instead of just good/bad) it helps.

    The formula is, “I see how you think/feel [emotion a] about [event/person], it’s very [quality]. But as I’m [attribute], I feel [emotion b].”

    For example, “I see how you love Fred; he’s so lively and outgoing. But as I’m an introvert and prefer peace and quiet, I find hanging out with him a little much.”

    Or, “I can see how you’re really upset by what Linda said, she was very harsh and judgmental. I have a history of talking about hard things with Linda and I’m used to feeling at odds with her and being friends anyway, so it doesn’t bother me so much, but I can see how it upsets you.”

    Of course someone who’s in a right-old attack of the brainweasels and feeling threatened can turn this around (especially by either denying you [attribute] or claiming it for themselves–“You love loud people but hate Fred especially!” “I can talk about hard things too!”). It’s not something for the heat of the moment, in my experience. I tend to use it when things are normally pretty copacetic, just so people are used to me thinking my own thing.

    • FlyBy said:

      Attack of the brainweasels is my new favorite phrase. :-) And that sounds like a good technique!

  13. General Expression said:

    LW, I just want to disagree with one part of your script, the part that goes, ““I know you secretly believe that…” I think it’s not going to be helpful to tell her what she secretly thinks, whether or not it’s true. I’ve been on both the giving and receiving ends of conversations that had the “I know you secretly think blah” or “I know what you’re thinking” and it doesn’t tend to go well. It has an inherent bit of condescension in it, to claim you know someone’s thoughts as well as or better than they do, that people don’t often respond well to.

    Also, it’s not an integral part of your conversational goal; it’s irrelevant to your thesis. Just as the Captain had you add in “around me,” I think it’s also helpful to concentrate on desired actions and outcomes rather than trying to fix her thought patterns.

    • Redgirl said:

      You beat me to it–I was going to say the same thing. Personally, I hate when people inform me of what i’m thinking or feeling. The fact is, the LW can’t possibly know what her BFF secretly believes, but it doesn’t matter anyway. Simply saying “This particular action upsets me so I’m asking you not to do it around me anymore” should suffice, and it will prevent the conversation from devolving into, “I don’t believe that!” “Yes you do!” “No I don’t!”

    • drst said:

      I would agree with this. Maybe frame it as, “If the situation were reversed, I’d be worried this is a sign you’re trying to end our friendship and be really upset about it. I don’t know if that’s what you’re thinking, but if it is, I promise, it’s not true.”

      ?

      • the witching hour said:

        Or “seems” like. That restricts it to LW’s experience. And maybe throw in a “I know I might be misreading your feelings, but either way, this much shit talk of our mutual friends is really upsetting to me.”

  14. Ninja LW said:

    LW here! And first I wanted to say, wow, the turnaround time here is AMAZING. And, Cap’n, if you want to join my therapist in the facepalmy dance of “She’s so close! There’s just this really obvious step she’s missing!”, feel free. A couple of hours after I sent my email I kind of went, “Hang on, there’s no magic wand that will not make BFF feel invalidated and betrayed! Captain Awkward is not a magical leprechaun who can fix personality disorders! GOD DAMMIT, THIS IS GOING TO BE HARD!

    Adding “around me” is not going to prevent drama, but it will help minimise it.

    Anyway, I’m already developing a separate circle of friends through a local writing group, and am making more of an effort to see mutual friends without BFF. This can be difficult, as sometimes I get back and BFF asks if they talked about her (and if not, why not?), but I just shut that conversation down and go into my room. (Yes, another red flag.)

    So now I just need to woman up and say something. Or, maybe, keep reading the comments here for a bit, because the Awkward Army really is great.

    • alphakitty said:

      Soooo…. Good luck with that! Remember, as you gather your courage, that the boundaries you are setting are a) utterly and completely reasonable, and b) genuinely for the benefit of both of you, because if you can’t work this out you may well wind up throwing up your hands in frustration and walking away, with a lot of hurt feelings and regret on both sides. Trying to work it out is an act of love, and respect, and kindness, even if the process is painful.

    • JenniferP said:

      Actually, the turnaround time here SUCKS. I’m pretty buried in letters. But sometimes it’s easier to knock out an answer to something that just came in while it’s fresh in my mind than to go digging through the embarrassing amount of archives for materials. There really is no system.

      Glad you found it helpful, I hope it goes well.

    • Ethyl said:

      I actually once composed a letter to CA in my head when I was laying in bed fretting about A Big Drama, and suddenly realized, as I tried to logically lay out the story, that I basically knew exactly what the response would be, so I did that instead of sending the letter :) What I find is that the act of laying things out so that a third party can understand what’s going on is really valuable — it allows a sort of distance and perspective that running over stuff inside your brain doesn’t. So! Yay for CA! And the commenters!

      As to your particular situation, Ninja LW, maybe something I did when I was dealing with the aforesaid Big Drama might help. I listed maybe four or five statements about myself and my boundaries and the fact that I was allowed to have them, and I put it in a note in my phone, my iPad, my computer, anywhere I thought I might need a burst of strength. I found it really useful when I started to second-guess myself to go back and read “I am allowed to have and enforce boundaries even if the other person thinks they’re unfair,” for example. Good luck, I hope it all goes as well as it can!

      • tinyorc said:

        I also do this! In fact, when I encountered a Big Drama a month or so back, I actually drafted an email to the Captain and saved it. Then I came back and looked at it a couple of days later, and I felt like I knew exactly what the Captain and the Awkward Army would say and what I needed to do. It always boils down to “Be honest about your feelings and motivations, be honest about what you need, be honest and direct with the other people involved.”

        The archives are also also pretty much by No. 1 resource for dealing with difficult people/situations.

        So Captain, even if your turnaround time is not as fast as you would like it to be, you are providing invaluable support and insight just by existing and running this site and creating a space for an Awkward Army!

  15. katyisbutthurt said:

    You’re going to have to suck it up and set your boundaries, and worry about her feelings later. Your emotional well-being has to come first to you, because I can guarantee you it won’t come first to her – what she thinks, and how she feels, and what she wants is going to come first to her. You won’t even be in consideration.

    It’s very tiring to be around someone who constantly uses the Charm Offensive to edge you out of conversations with other people, or out of developing close friendships with other people. And really, you bear some responsibility for doing this, by not making as much effort as she does…..but that’s your issue to deal with in therapy.

    In my experience as being the person who set immovable boundaries with a boundary-pushing now-former friend who used the charm offensive to schmooze everybody around her, especially in the gaming group that, before my husband invited me along, she was the only female involved…..it didn’t go well. She tried to turn her bad behavior, that I was setting boundaries for, around on ME. When it was pointed out to her by other people that she constantly pushed me to the edge of the conversation so she could be back in her I’m The Only Female In The Group spotlight, she claimed that she was just responding to my outrageous flirting with all the guys. When it was pointed out to her that I didn’t flirt with ANY of the other guys EXCEPT MY OWN HUSBAND, she told the other guys that they just couldn’t see it because I was playing Mean Girl Games. When it was pointed out to her that these Mean Girl Games she claimed I was playing were the exact same things that she was doing to me? She lost her shit. Seriously. She tried to physically throw me out of another friend’s apartment. Her husband packed her and their shit up and they left….and my husband and I exchanged a look that said we were Having Words in the car, and we left.

    I stated, calmly and clearly, that the cost of having her husband in our lives was her…..and if I was going to be around her, then she could no longer use the Charm Offensive on me, she could no longer be allowed to get away with hitting on my husband (there might have been a pointed glare inserted with that remark), and she could not edge me out of conversations with other people. And that I was going to enforce these boundaries.

    The next get-together did not go well. She tried the Charm Offensive, and I told my husband, “Okay, we need to leave.” She got offended that he was going to leave with me, you know, his wife, and made a suggestive comment. I told her that hitting on my husband was inappropriate, and not going to happen again if she wanted to remain friends with both of us. She then tried to edge me out of the conversation with him, physically pushing me out of the way to try to talk him into staying. My husband backed every single boundary. The others in the group of friends, including HER husband, backed every single boundary. They were just as tired of her crap as I was.

    You can either set your boundaries, and communicate them clearly, or you can let her steamroll over you. I would suggest not allowing her to steamroll you, and set your boundaries.

  16. Holy freakin’ heck. This, and latter commenters, describes a relationship that I was a third wheel to for four years. I had to double check, but some of info doesn’t match (my friend who was in the LW’s shoes was Ace, but her roommate/BFF was highly sexual. At least, last time I checked over a year ago), and some info isn’t present (such as the BFF hitting/throwing stuff hard enough to hurt my friend, and calling her names like ‘dog’ and ‘bitch’ in front of guests) so I don’t think this is them.

    I, ironically, would have probably been the toxic friend they are glad to be done with. (I tried multiple times when my friend came to me for advice about her BFF to get her to move out, make some space, get some boundaries- etc. and I had some issues as well at the time. When their collective BS got to be too much for me, I did NOT handle it gracefully at all and kinda pushed the self-destruct button in the final months, albeit not consciously). A year later and only now am I recovering enough to start making meaningful friendships again, and I kinda had some triggers happen while reading this- but after reading the comments it helped me realize that oh, it seems to be some kind of common pattern that people fall into and that there really was little I could do. Which actually helps me deal with some of my old baggage.

    So, LW- I obviously have some biases here. Anyway, I am going to say stuff to you that I wish I had laid out to my friend now that I know better how to phrase it. I got rid of the anger long ago, so don’t worry, this isn’t gonna be ragey or anything. Looking back I can appreciate those hours we spent talking about anything and everything, and the times we supported each other. I was just always secondary to their codependency, which wasn’t healthy for me (who was often used as the sympathetic ear when fall outs happened, which was every other week) or them.

    You are far, far, FAR more awesome than you give yourself credit for. You have your issues, who doesn’t, but that doesn’t give her a right to walk all over you. Her issues do NOT give her a right to walk all over you. You need space, because the longer you stay as dependent on her as you are now the more you will lose yourself. You need to be your own person, because your own person is amazing and unique and brilliant. It doesn’t matter if you are “partly to blame” too. Because all that matters is that she makes you afraid to say what you actually feel, almost all the time, and that’s not healthy for you. I can guarantee that if you two continue this way, it will be left with only you and her and no one else. I saw it happening. So please, lay down the boundaries, be brave because I know you can be. And in the end, know that you will find amazing people who will not steamroll over you, and you will get healthier and healthier. *hugs*

  17. Late to the party, but I just wanted to say…Captain, you sound tired. I proffer hugs, which you are welcome to take, or not, as you wish.

    Also fistbumps to NinjaLW, who seems to Know Where Her Towel Is, and that’s a fine, fine thing.

  18. LW, WOW you are loyal….. I would jump ship, but that’s me! I have had issues with long term friends & once it’s all over I have realized I’m better without them.

    Know that when a person is toxic, it is because of their own issues.
    Accept that a toxic persons behaviour has nothing to do with you.
    In life each of us has to take responsibility for our own actions.
    Toxic people do not do this.
    They have a habit of turning things around, so that you feel bad, you feel guilty, and you feel like you are at fault.
    Realize this and take back your power.

    “Long term friend” doesn’t mean you suffer forever. If trust, loyalty & respect aren’t returned, then MOVE ON!!!!

  19. gmg said:

    Like others who have commented, I had a friendship like this. It was with my best friend from grad school, who was also my roommate for about a year and a half until we went our separate ways amid a big blowup — mostly initiated on my side, I’ll freely admit, because at that time I still had a lot of work to do on learning how to calmly Use My Words as opposed to angerbombing people. By then, unfortunately, we’d set a very bad pattern: I was perceived as the mess, and she was the put-together one who always had to save me from myself. (She’s a bossy pants and proud of it, though I give her credit for working to slowly let that go over time.) Despite the perception, somehow at the same time I was giving quite a lot in the friendship, whether it be free use of my car, free houseroom for two months to one of her childhood friends, introductions to/inclusion in my own circle of friends, etc etc etc. It was the latter that was the last straw — like the LW’s BFF, she started to be the one getting the invites instead of me and had magically and simultaneously become everyone’s favorite new friend. When I finally said hey, I need some pieces of my own life to myself here, she upped the charm offensive and started with the sneaking around and the “forgetting” to pass along invites and even a little bit of gaslighting (“Maybe you aren’t as close with your friends as you think you are”).

    It was a mega-super-duper-important lesson for me in how to set boundaries. My friend, who remains my friend despite a very rough patch of a year or so, has proved herself over time to be better than the behavior I describe here; I think the unhealthy, unequal dynamic of our friendship up to that point was what was enabled it, and we both had to take steps (see above) to fix that. Without boundaries she was running over me like a monster truck, and instead of being a grownup and getting out of the road, I was standing on the double line and throwing a tantrum. With boundaries, we can ride along together, whether it’s on a trip overseas or just chilling around town, and have a good time. (We don’t have any more trouble sharing friends, incidentally, either.) Are we as “close” as we were before? Maybe not, but when “closeness” equals no boundaries, then it’s not the kind of closeness you want — on either side.

    LW, just keep in mind, if the friendship is worth fixing, you’ll be able to fix it even if you have to scream about it for awhile, as scary as that sounds. You’ll each end up taking the steps you need because at the root is something recognizably worthwhile for both of you. But neither of you can ever do that as long as you remain stuck in a friendship pattern that doesn’t work.

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