Dear Captain Awkward,
My friend N alternately acts like she feels threatened by me and like she wants to be me. It’s really creepy but I don’t know how to address it without sounding jealous and paranoid.
I met her three years ago. We became close quickly, and she had a crush on me, which I suspect was a nice distraction from the awful breakup she was going through. She invited me on a camping trip hoping to hook up with me, but was surprised that bringing a second woman along meant she was no longer the only woman in an otherwise all-male group, and she was no longer the group’s tomboy because I have more camping experience. Several guys hit on me, including her ex. She spent the whole weekend sulking and making passive aggressive comments.
I thought her resentment would subside when I started dating someone, but she became really possessive of my boyfriend. They’ve never dated, but sometimes play-fight when they drink. My boyfriend and I both practice martial arts, and our rather hilarious how-did-you-two-meet story involves a fight club. Often when N and I are meeting someone new, I mention my boyfriend’s name. The other person asks, “Oh, who’s that?” Before I can answer, much less tell our story, N interrupts me with, “That’s her boyfriend, who ***I*** introduced her to, who I fight in the street! I’m a street fighter!” and she tells the story of that time she tried to fight my boyfriend, but fell and twisted her ankle and he carried her home. Then she talks about herself at length. If this new person is male, she doesn’t let me get a single word in edgewise. If a guy hits on me, she pouts and starts up the passive-aggression. She also tries to one-up me on comics trivia, which she only got into after meeting me.
I’ve tolerated this because she’s a great friend when sober. But lately, we only see each other at parties, and her behavior is getting more obnoxious. Recently she interrupted me talking about work to tell the “street fighting” story to people who had already heard it a million times, while positioning her chair in front of me so that her back was to me and I was physically excluded from the group. Later she glared at me, sat on my boyfriend’s lap, and talked about how great he is.
I’ve asked my boyfriend to deliberately invite me back into conversations when she excludes me, and to not make physical contact with her. I don’t know what to say to her though, and our once-close friendship is becoming a sad competition where no one wins.
–Not-Single, Not-White Female
How deep do you want to go into working this out?
I ask because their are two paths you can go by.
“N, I’m really not feeling our friendship lately, and I’d prefer that we not hang out anymore. I realize that this isn’t good news, but it’s the best decision for me. I will do my best not to make it weird at (group events), as in, let’s say a quick hello and then keep the interaction to a minimum.”
If that seems too permanent, try “let’s take a break from hanging out.” This won’t land well, no matter how you say it, but if that’s how you feel it’s better and less cruel than drifting away and waiting for her to catch on.
“The specific thing (specific thing) you did the other night kind of weirded me out. What’s going on with that?”
Rules for constructive conflict when you want to repair a relationship:
- Keep it to one or two specific recent incidents, not an entire list of grievances.* Not because those grievances aren’t real, but listing all of them can be overwhelming and immediately put the person on the defensive. Over time you can work on the whole gestalt of the relationship. The first time you bring up a conflict, keep it simple and short.
- Emphasize how whatever it is affected your specific recent feelings (Don’t speak in generalities or patterns or get into the history of competitiveness – it makes no one look or feel good).
- Do not make any assumptions or suggestions as to why. Facts only. “The thing you did hurt my feelings/bothers me. Your friendship is valuable to me, so I thought you should know and have a chance to apologize or explain/so I thought we should talk about it and see if we can’t work it out.” Bonus: This makes the other person do the work of piecing it together and offering an explanation.
Her answer might lead you back to Path 1, but if you think it might be worth delving into, give it a try and see what she says. It is unlikely she will admit jealousy or vulnerability, but you can tell whether this is salvageable by her response.
Salvageable: “Whoa, sorry, now that I think of it that was really out of line. I will not do that anymore.“
Unsalvageable: “God, why are you so paranoid and jealous?“
Because these behaviors are centered around your boyfriend, it’s good to give him a heads up, and his reaction will also be telling.
“Boyfriend, I think I am going to take a break from hanging out with N. She is getting on my nerves.”
“Boyfriend, I am going to ask N. to stop telling the fight club story (for example). It’s crossed a line into making me really uncomfortable.”
You don’t have to get into his behaviors, again, stick with facts and don’t overexplain yourself or justify. His reaction will also be telling.
Supportive: “That’s sad, but you do what you need to and I will back you up.”
Unsupportive: “Why u so jealous and unfair?“
Things I would let go:
- Comics trivia. Does it matter how we get into comics trivia? If we find out that we love comics trivia, we get to be just as into it as the person who first invited us there. In fact, let go of the entire question of who was in what group first.
- The entire question of interrupting when you get hit on by someone. There’s no way to control what other people (hitters-on) do or feel, and no way to bring this up that makes you look good, i.e., talking about this will make it seem like you actually are in competition for male attention and keeping score about such things. Are you? If her behavior is as rude/interrupty/obvious/strange as you say, people can tell what’s up and make their own decisions about how they want to engage her. A dedicated hitter-on will circumvent her.
- Her past crush on you, unless she brings it up. Sometimes we have crushes on people we’d really like to be like. The graceful thing to do is to pretend it never happened and let her save face.
- Who is better at camping.
That leaves: Interrupting and one-upping you in conversation (God hates a story-topper), telling the fight club story over and over again (this might genuinely be an oversight that can be corrected with a “I don’t want to embarrass you, but did you realize you tell that story every single time? It might be time to let that one rest,” ignoring you/shutting you out whenever a dude is around or physically shunning you out of a conversation by placing her back to you (this behavior is truly annoying), and behaving territorially around your boyfriend (which I imagine is hard behavior to pin down, but you know it when you see it.)
The things on the bulleted list, in my opinion, cross over into the “Someone is getting on my nerves, now everything about them is part of the story of how they get on my nerves” territory. You’re over-justifying somewhat, and I think fairness and good sense mean doing some healthy separation between behaviors she is doing “at you” and behaviors that she is not. I think it’s also important to remember that while these behaviors have been going on for a while and in some cases date back to the beginning of your friendship, when you are trying to have constructive conflict with someone the clock restarts when you bring up the problem. Someone who is actually your friend gets some time to react and try to change the behavior.
The grievances on the bulleted list do have their uses in asking a question: If these issues date back to the beginning of the friendship, do you actually like her and want her in your life? If no, then script #1 is the way to go.
There is no awesome way to handle this where everyone gets out unscathed and with their feelings and self-image totally intact, but remember, IT’S ALREADY WEIRD. I trust you that something is off here. You are just putting a name to a weirdness you didn’t make. Friends don’t always behave perfectly, and sometimes they tread on your toes without realizing it, and a cool friend will recognize when she’s been given an opportunity to make things right. If she responds favorably things may be salvageable with a little time to heal bruised egos. If she doubles down on the behavior that’s bothering you, it only confirms that you made the right decision to put some distance in the relationship.
*I am talking about constructive conflict in interpersonal relationships, not activism. There is a difference between repairing a friendship between equals and seeking justice, where the historical record of abuses is necessary no matter how uncomfortable it makes someone. If someone is your friend, the suggested advice is a way to ask for what you need while taking care of their feelings a little bit. In a situation with extreme power imbalances and a history of injustice, the oppressed person does not have to take care of the feelings of the oppressor, and indeed “tone policing” or “I would give you justice if you just asked more nicely” is a derailing tactic. I just want to be clear about that from the get-go.