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.