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.