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Your friend isn’t “a batshit harpie,” she’s sad and handling it very badly.

Jezebel has an advice column about friendship, which I wish was not called “Friendzone.” The first and third responses in last week’s post were pretty spot on, but the second letter, here, about the expat leaving town and the friend getting suddenly clingy, is unsettling and the response is also unsettling.

Real talk: Refusing to leave someone’s apartment, threatening tantrums, and making a person who is leaving town (and who, by the way, was always going to leave town) emotionally responsible for your happiness, including all the other times anyone has left/died, is NOT COOL. This behavior has escalated from “whoa, awkward” to “eek, unsafe!” and would have me second-guessing whether I want to see this person ever again at all. I get that the person has a lot of sadness and grief and is expressing it in a way that is self-sabotaging, but here’s the thing about self-sabotaging behaviors (like stalking/clinging/passive-aggressive comments/tantrums): They are actually effective at sabotaging relationships and are very hard to come back from. With a lot of self-awareness, some direct communication, and an ability to rein in the behaviors going forward on the part of the saboteur (which is within your control) IN ADDITION to a lot of grace and generosity from the other person (which you can’t control and should not try), friendships may survive. But there’s no a guarantee, and trying to manipulate a person who is leaving into staying is a guarantee in the other direction.

I would say, in that moment, the goal for the Letter Writer has to be to get the person out of the apartment rather than to dig into the feelings or behaviors. “I have no idea how to respond to that” or “You seem really not okay right now. I think it’s time for you to go home and we can talk about this in the morning” are probably the best I would be able to do in that situation.

It’s unlikely that this friendship will feel entirely comfortable again, but since the Letter Writer is leaving town anyway it may be possible to find a way to allow the friend to save some face and end the friendship less awkwardly. Once the person is out of the apartment, IF you feel safe and actually do care about the person, you might want to send an email asking how she’s doing.

Friend, you really scared and worried me the other night. I know you are sad about me leaving, and believe me, I will miss you too, but when you say stuff like (awkward stuff) and (refuse to leave the apartment/verge on a tantrum) it puts me in a terrible position. I felt very uncomfortable, and also like I had no idea what to say or do to make you feel better. This is not really characteristic behavior for you, are you okay?

Don’t apologize. You did nothing wrong. You are doing nothing wrong by leaving. You are doing nothing wrong by wanting to visit with your family and not include people who invite themselves along.

Don’t try to manage the feelings or whatever she does about them. Don’t give her advice. Just state your truth, that she freaked you out and you did not like it, and ask how she is. Give her an opportunity to share, straight up, what she is feeling and apologize. Any face-saving will come from her being honest and direct with you, not from you pretending it’s not a big deal.

Don’t initiate social plans for the nonce. Yep, she self-sabotaged in this situation. Her worst fear is that you won’t want to hang out anymore, and she made pretty certain that you’ll be wary of hanging out. That is a completely sucktastic cycle to be in when you feel sad and abandoned and like you can’t help yourself, and I feel her embarrassment & shame & grief keenly, but it’s an entirely predictable consequence of her behavior.

If you sent a “Whoa, not cool – what’s up with you?” email, and you got back some version of “Friend, I am so sorry, I know I was really out of bounds. I am okay (or I am not okay, but I am going to call my therapist/a good friend/take some other self-care steps). I would love to see you before you go, please reach out if you’d like to set something up” it would be a sign that this person can keep their shit together enough for you to hang out at least once more. If you send it and you get a 15-page FEELINGSMAIL/itinerary for every second of your family’s visit in response, you will know that you are on “this isn’t really fixable” territory and can act accordingly.

The most I’d agree to, planswise, is some kind of farewell dinner or coffee at a favorite place, very close to the time you are leaving. All the better if you have mutual friends and can make it a group farewell event. No going to her house, and definitely NO inviting her into yours. (Refusing to leave my apartment is a great way to get yourself never, ever invited back to my apartment. See also: Complaining that you were not invited to a thing at my apartment.)

I would not necessarily mention your family’s visit to her again. There is no reason for her to know any plans, for instance, and be watchful of what you share on social media. Definitely do not indulge the assumption that she is coming along. That was an assumption on her part, not a set plan. If she brings it up, you may have to be pretty blunt: “I know you wanted to come along, but I just want to hang out with my family during that time. Let’s schedule some (farewell event) just for us.” Watch out for favor-sharking here – “But I took that entire week off work so I could come with you!” ‘But I’ve arranged us an audience with The Queen!”  – “Wow, I am sorry to hear that, but no one asked you to do that. I know this isn’t good news, but I would prefer that you not come along with us.

If she really is incapable of respecting boundaries, it will manifest pretty quickly & obviously, and you will be able to lock things down accordingly. If this was a case of her being really sad and putting her foot in her mouth, direct communication is probably your best chance of salvaging a farewell where you both save some face.

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40 comments
  1. storyranger said:

    In university I made a lot of friends in upper years, which meant that every year I had a batch of people leave me to go off into their crazy new lives and I got left behind, again. The thing that I found most helpful during these times was to remember they weren’t moving AT me, they were moving because they needed to.

    Was I honest with them that I was upset that they were going? Yes. But I was calm about it and we set up ways to contact each other if we needed or wanted to. And I made sure to congratulate them on the awesome jobs/grad schools they were going off to. (Because I was honestly SOOOOOOO proud of them, these be hard times and finding something to do after school is awesome.) That way it was not all about me and my sadfeels, but about us working out how to keep a friendship alive with distance added.

    I really hope that the LW’s friend can learn from this awkward situation, because a friend going away doesn’t have to be horrible, and you don’t have to lose them from your life. Sadly reacting like she did tends to ensure that it is/you do.

    • The best part about keeping cool when college friends graduate and/or move away is that you stay friendly with them for fifteen years later when you’re in the same city again. You won’t be instant best friends again but there’s real value in having a relatively low-stakes network in different cities/countries/whathaveyou.

      It’s kind of easier with college, though, because you know everyone’s going to graduate and move away, more or less. Although you’d think that you’d say the same thing about ex-pats in most parts of the world.

      As for the original LW’s friend, oddly, the thing that I find least offputting is the inviting herself along to the family vacation. I mean, obviously the answer is no. It’s not an insane idea, though, it’s just not cool to invite yourself to things. I have visited people while touristing with family, and I know folks who have had local friends show the family around. When you really miss someone you grab onto to OMG YOU WILL BE WITHIN 50 MILES OF ME for any excuse — that’s not batshit!

      I hope the friend finds a better way to manage her grief, in this case, and I hope she’s not self-fulfilling her prophecies all around. It sounds like it’s going to be a tough week or three (or whatever) for both of them.

  2. Can we also talk about the fact that the letter response in friendzone is quite racist? ‘She wants to wear your skin and smoke your bones’?! Isn’t Jezebel supposed to be feminist? Surely they can do better.

    • CMart said:

      Could you elaborate on the racist tones? I, perhaps ignorantly?, was assuming the skin-wearing was an allusion to Silence of the Lambs.

      • storyranger said:

        I too assumed it to be a Lambs reference. I see how it could be taken as a voodoo one though.

      • Of course if it IS a reference to Silence of the Lambs and the transphobic Buffalo Bill character, that’s not great either.

      • Oh! I haven’t seen Silence of the Lambs, so I guess if it is a reference I didn’t get it. Because of the expat context I was assuming the writer was implying some kind of problematic tribal generalisation.

    • Anti said:

      I also thought it was a Silence of the Lambs reference, but Jezebel has a history of, if not outright racism, then certainly aiding and abetting racism. The website was heavily involved in the . . . uh. don’t know if it’s safe to say his name. Dude is like Beetlejuice. In the case of the Professor Who Preyed On Students, Raped A Woman, Attempted Murder, and Tried To Torpedo The Careers of Feminists Of Color Among Other Terrible Things.

      So yeah. They’re not guaranteed allies to POC.

      • Yeah, don’t say his name. Wigoo Sniffler has snuffled around these parts before when his name was spoken. But yeah, Jezebel are not guaranteed allies by a long stretch.

        • JenniferP said:

          He has never actually commented here, to my knowledge, but mentions of him and links to his empty, empty works have been pre-emptively deleted since pretty much the beginning of the blog.

        • Xenophile said:

          Long before they started working with He Who Must Not Be Named, Jezebel published a lot of outright racist pieces. An editor got fired over one particularly egregious example, but as we can see, it didn’t change much.

      • I went to that school. Dude was creepy and weird before his incredibly creepy and weird Twitter meltdown.

  3. CMart said:

    Captain, your response to that entire situation is, unsurprisingly, kind and nuanced. I know from experience (on the ex-pat end of things) how awful a super-sad, clingy friend situation can be, and I definitely didn’t handle those situations well at all–for my friend’s sake, or my own emotional well-being.

    Being able to understand what, perhaps, sad-friend is going through and being compassionate about that while still protecting yourself is such a hard line to toe, and your advice is absolutely something I wish I’d had knocking around my brain-box before being confronted with a similar situation.

    • Guava said:

      Yes, yes, yes. I’ve done a number of cross-country moves before, and have had friends (and someone I was dating) respond in ways that reminded me of the sad friend. At times, it really was scary to realize that someone I’d considered a friend was actually obsessed with me, and had projected stuff onto me that I was in no way equipped to handle. Once, I had someone threaten suicide, and call my parents and make jokes about adopting me – and then call my mother every so often for months after I’d moved to beg her for my new address. I did unequivocally cut this person off after I moved, and felt guilty about it for years.

      But it’s a continuum. Some people express sadness badly in the moment, but mean well. Others have deeper issues and require different boundaries. I think it’s good to balance the need for personal safety with compassion as much as makes sense. I wish this post had existed many years ago too!

  4. This is very good information to have. I’ll be leaving my university city permanently in about 6 months and moving 3000 km away, and I know that some of my friends here won’t handle it really well. Probably not as badly as this, but not well. I’m really glad to have a good example of how to draw boundaries. I will miss them, but there’s no way in hell I’d ever stay here, and sometimes they seem to take that personally.

    • Do you have an online communication habit with them? Skype, facebook, email, whatever? If not, try to get one going before you go so everyone’s in the habit. It’ll help! And congratulations on getting the hell out of there!

      • Thanks carbonatedwit and VA, that is a great idea. I will definitely suggest skype and facebook chats. Most of us already facebook message a lot, so that’ll transition reasonably smoothly. And also yes, I am soooooo ready to get out of this place. I HATE cities. So naturally, I should move to the largest one in the country, yes? I love my program, but I dearly wish there was more than one university in the country that actually offers it. I suppose the fact that I’m living in Toronto also explains a bit how some of my friends cannot wrap their heads around anyone ever wanting to live somewhere else.

    • VA said:

      YES to taking advantage of online communication. My recently scattered social circle has scheduled a “Google hangout happy hour” once a month. BYO computer and beverage :) It’s a great, low-pressure way to stay in touch.

  5. Moh said:

    There could also be strong cultural factors at play as well. The LW didn’t specify what nationality they are and where they are living, but it’s possible that their friend is only “laid-back and happy” in the context of this relationship with a foreigner. If the friend feels strangled by cultural expectations and free to express their feelings only with this one friend, losing that might feel like losing part of themselves. (As well, if the local culture doesn’t share feelings easily but the LW is from a feelings-sharing culture, the friend may be assuming that they have a far deeper level of intimacy than the LW does.) And finally, I wonder if the LW is from a culture where the friend might assume that “showing their feelings no-holds-barred” is acceptable (US TV shows and films, for example, often give that impression of US Americans).

    Which is not to say that the LW has been leading the friend on and was asking for it, but rather that the LW and the friend may have vastly different perceptions of what the relationship means to both, of what the expectations of such a relationship are, and of what is and is not acceptable within the bounds of that relationship. If the LW was inclined to salvage the relationship, these might be areas to clarify before proceeding.

    • Xenophile said:

      This. Different cultures can sometimes have different interpretations of ‘friend’ and ‘acquaintance,’ or ‘long-term’ vs ‘short term.’ Of course, the staying-friend might simply be an anxious attachment type of individual, but this post brought back all kinds of memories for me. I’ve lived in a few different places but in one in particular, it was a culture where many people live their entire lives in the same community where they were born, and if you left for school or something, it was expected that you would come back as soon as possible. Saying goodbye permanently was something they didn’t have much experience with.

      As an example, a couple times I mentioned when meeting someone new that I was just there to study the language for a short time and I’d have to leave soon, and they’d say, “How soon is soon? Like, two years?” I’d say, “Four months.” Every time they were totally and utterly shocked.

  6. jael said:

    Agree on the comments about needing a cultural context.

    This: “Which is not to say that the LW has been leading the friend on and was asking for it, but rather that the LW and the friend may have vastly different perceptions of what the relationship means to both, of what the expectations of such a relationship are, and of what is and is not acceptable within the bounds of that relationship. If the LW was inclined to salvage the relationship, these might be areas to clarify before proceeding.” from moh is 100% spot on.

    We also don’t know about respective social class and any other factors that matter. We also don’t know about the income level of the country in question.

    6 months is really, a very short period of time to be living somewhere. It’s far to short a period of time to really get a sense of the social etiquette involved in relationships. “Back to front” understandings of space and responsibilities are can occur after years in a different community. Even if there were boundary issues being traversed here, it’s possible there are significant intercultural misunderstanding happening here too.

    • JenniferP said:

      This is such a valuable perspective.

      The LW cannot UN-leave. And whatever grief that is at the center of the friend’s reaction, it is not for the LW to cure. But s/he can try to be kind & sensitive on the way out.

    • Nell said:

      *nod nod nod* The relationships we have with people may not be the same relationships they have with us.

      • miss_chevious said:

        The relationships we have with people may not be the same relationships they have with us.

        Wow, this statement is so relevant to me. My high school class is in the process of planning a reunion, and I am constantly being reminded that I don’t really know how people saw me (and vice versa). It’s really interesting to discover.

  7. Holly said:

    “Don’t initiate social plans for the nonce.”

    Captain, what did you mean by this? In England at least, “nonce” means paedophile.

    • JenniferP said:

      I was not aware of this slang. Primary meaning is “for now” or “for the present” or “for the time being.”

      • Bunny said:

        I’ve heard “the nonce” as a “for now” expression in olde-timey language, had no idea it was still in use aside from as a word to mean what Holly said!

        I admit it made me do a double-take as well, but whenever that happens I just assume UK/US language differences are in play.

        • As far as this US American knows, The Captain is just using old-timey language for [reasons]; that word isn’t common in the US. However, it also doesn’t mean pedo here. So that’s something.

  8. Of the far shores said:

    My sis (who was also my best friend of 20+ years) has left me like that. I still cry when I talk about it, even though there were no real confrontations or anything, even though I understand the subjectivity of idea of leaving and the whole things is very stupid it is still very painful and I don’t think I will ever get over this. (I decided not to have any close friends and it really helps, I am not worried about them leaving and good with talking over coffee ones a week).
    The best thing she can do for the friend she is leaving is not to talk with her at all, the painful feeling will stay, but at least neither of them will have to think about each other more then the occasional unpleasant reminiscence or two. When you try to salvage the things like this it can only lead to more pain.

    • Zooey said:

      This comment makes me really sad, Of the Far Shores! Of course I don’t know what happened with you and your sister/friend, but as has been mentioned elsewhere on this thread, leaving doesn’t mean someone is leaving AT you. Your sister might still love you and want to be in contact with you and still feel like it’s the right thing for her to move to another continent to pursue her dream of yak farming or whatever. If that’s the case, it’s a shame to reduce a friendship of 20+ years to the occasional unpleasant reminiscence – perhaps it could be ‘That friendship where I still feel really sad that I can’t drop by for marshmallow toasting whenever i feel like it, but where we have amazing Skype catch-ups once a month and we visit every two years and eat ALL THE MARSHMALLOWS’.

      If it’s not possible for whatever reason to have that with your sister then I hope you’ll eventually feel able to have close friends again. It can be good to give yourself a mental space where you don’t have to feel anxious about people leaving – which is obviously totally working for you right now – but holding back from close friendships forever seems like a lonely way to live. Sometimes the risk is worth it.

      Be well.

  9. Esti said:

    Honestly, I think both this and the Jezebel column were good advice (though the Jezebel column was obviously snarkier than would be appropriate here, since CA is a more-or-less explicitly safe space).

    There are all kinds of things likely going on with the friend in this situation, and it would be great if the ex-pat was willing and able to gently try to repair things by setting boundaries and only hanging out in certain contexts/a limited number of times to create a dignified exit for the friend. But given the level of negative behavior the friend is displaying, the fact that it’s happened on several occasions, the relatively short period of time they’ve known each other, and the fact that the letter writer says the friend is scaring her, I kind of understand the Jezebel advice to just tell the friend her behavior has worried you and you want some space, and then not contact her again after leaving the country.

  10. Copcher said:

    Wow. Not only is Jezebel’s advice mean-spirited and ableist and possibly racist, but I don’t think it’s something the letter writer can necessarily follow that easily. Cutting off all contact with a person is really difficult.

    I love your advice (as usual) because you actually give the LW a script to follow or at least work from. Jezebel’s advice is way too general. “Tell her that her behaviour has really freaked you out,” and “just say you don’t think it’s appropriate to bring an uninvited guest along” isn’t very helpful. In my experience, people know that they should tell someone that they’re uncomfortable with their behaviour. They just need the right words to do it with.

  11. Jolly said:

    Yeah, I dunno. The LW says this woman is their closest friend in their current country, but we also don’t really know what that means? I can well imagine that a “closest friend” made when you’re planning to stay in a country for 6 months might still basically be a casual acquaintance. To me, the letter doesn’t read as being super concerned about maintaining a friendship, so much as avoiding a worse situation. If I was her, I would probably distance myself from the situation as well, since that is exactly what is about to happen either way.

    Moving countries is really stressful. In the LW’s situation, I am not sure how much of myself I’d be willing to invest in making this transition easy for someone who was managing to make it more difficult for me. I’d probably just let her know, either over coffee or via email, that I found her behavior inappropriate/smothering, and that it was causing undue stress for me in an already-tough situation. I’d tell her I value her friendship and look forward to staying in touch, but that I had too much on my plate at the moment and couldn’t afford to tackle her emotions surrounding the situation, too. I’d still go with the Cap’n’s suggestion of inviting her to a going-away party (and hope there is no melodramatic blowout), or going-away coffee, but I would avoid trying to lighten someone else’s load at a time when yours is probably already pretty huge.

    But, yeah, certainly no reason to be insulting to her, even if she is acting out of line. She doesn’t sound like a monster, even if she isn’t someone you can afford to have in your life right now.

  12. se1ze said:

    Pretty rad response which totally outdoes the original Jez response by many bounds.

    Giving a person manifesting uncool relationship behaviors a chance to understand why those behaviors is uncool is very valuable.

    Obviously, if the person shows zero self-awareness, it is time to make like a banana. However, I do think that dear international friend deserved a wisp of a chance to bounce back from her crazy behavior.

    Well done.

  13. Ms. Pris said:

    I am very troubled by the fact that the Captain is addressing this as though a)the friend had a tantrum or b)the friend refused to leave the apartment. She didn’t do either of those things. She said “I feel like having a tantrum” and “I don’t want to leave.” She was expressing how she *felt*, not engaging in unacceptable or creepy behaviors. (And since she didn’t actually refuse to leave the apartment, talking her into leaving is totally irrelevant.)

    I suspect this might be a language gap. In some cultures it is normal to communicate one’s feelings with melodramatic statements like these. I do think the friend is suffering from some depression and grief, but she isn’t a stalker or a tantrum-haver.

    • JenniferP said:

      “I want to throw a tantrum.”
      “I don’t want to leave your apartment.”

      are, depending on tone & delivery, threatening statements. At that point, I am wondering, ok, is this person gonna throw a tantrum? Are they going to refuse to leave my apartment? They are putting those scenarios on the table as a thing that might happen. Good job on not following through with those, mysterious friend-of-expats, but once those things come out as possibilities, I am not inviting that person into my space again. They’ve warned me. Warning heeded.

      People aren’t jerks for having strong feelings, but once “I might scream and cry or not leave your apartment when you want me to” is on the table, things are majorly askew in that relationship.

  14. LDN Layabout said:

    Thank you for this post Captain, I’m dealing with a similar situation, not the moving away part, but the clinginess/manipulation.

    The problem I’ve found with people who act like the friend is that a lot of the time they can’t seem to differentiate between ‘this is a behaviour that’s not ok’ and ‘omg I hate you go awaaaaaaaay!!!!!!’

    On the other hand, I’ve been the person whose self-esteem is not just in the toilet, but down the drain, in the sewers and on its way out to sea, I know how hard it can be to take the criticism. So when the tears start falling and the inevitable ‘I’m terrible, why are you friends with me, I don’t deserve you’ starts, I feel like the worst person in the world.

    Then angry because it’s blatantly manipulative, whether they mean to be manipulative or not.

  15. espereth said:

    Ugh. The first response was awful too IMO. Just reinforces the double standard that women are supposed to try to get dates with men of equal or lesser “attractiveness”, whatever that means – attraction is subjective after all – and LW1 presumes to speak for the entire world by saying “everyone” considers her friend below average or odd looking. What, did she ask everyone on the planet to rate her friend just so she could tell her to play within her league? What an asshole. Meanwhile men who try to “score” dates with women much “hotter” than themselves are encouraged etc. Way to feminist, jezebel. Fail.

    • JenniferP said:

      I though the letter writer was awful, but I thought the advisor told them where to go. Maybe I missed something in the awfulness glare from the second letter?

      • espereth said:

        I guess I just think the response missed the main point which (for me anyway) is… nobody complains like that about their “unattractive” dude friend. Mostly the attitude is “Awesome, buddy, go for it! Can’t lose anything by trying!”

        I think the response, while telling the LW where to go, still did so within the framework of that double standard and failed to identify the sexist premise of the question. IMO for a feminist site, that’s a pretty serious fail.

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