I have a friend. He’s a reasonably good friend and has been there for me during some tough times. Which is why I feel guilty about what I’m about to say.
For the last year or so, we’ve spent a lot of time together chatting and hanging out. We had some sexual tension and a very brief romantic fling before deciding it was not to be. I am way happier now that we’ve decided this, but he – was and probably is still – a bit upset about it. So I have a lot of guilt over that. We chat quite a bit on FB and via text and at the moment it’s pretty constant throughout the day. However, the more we talk the more I kinda think – while I want to be friends, I want to pull back a little. Well, a lot.
The thing that is getting me down the most is that he’s so negative. Every message is about how much his life sucks or how much something hurts or how much he hates his job or his parents or how everyone else is stupid… Like I genuinely can’t remember the last time I had a positive comment from him. I know his health isn’t great, so he is being genuine. But it’s just so wearing.
I’ve tried making helpful suggestions (these go down like a lead balloon). I’m currently just leaving a while before replying (although that’s tricky cos he can see on FB when I’ve seen a message) and then saying something like “you poor thing” and either changing the subject or not really engaging further, unless the subjects shifts to TV shows or something neutral. Some days I just ignore messages altogether. But it’s getting to the point where I just don’t want to hang out with him any more – via chat or in person, because I just end up so depressed. But I don’t want to make him feel worse. I feel really guilty about all of this, because I know I used to participate in the negativity. Nowadays, I’m trying to be more positive – and seeing positive results from this – but I don’t want to just abandon him either like “my life is better now, yours isn’t, so bye!”.
The second thing is that he’s super clingy – and quite aggressive in his clinginess. He ends up scolding me about our friendship if I try to pull back a little. It starts out with if I don’t reply within an hour or so, I get a text asking if I’m mad at him. Whether I say no, or I try to be honest, he gets really really upset and starts attacking me – saying I don’t reply to him enough and when I do I’m being superficial and I’m not hanging out with him enough or when we do he feels like I’ve scheduled him in like everyone else and I’m making him feel bad… or else he brings up other stuff, about our brief fling or my new boyfriend… This sort of thing also happens if I mention something that I didn’t tell him about instantly – I get “ why didn’t you tell me?!” and then the rest of the guilt trip. If I get upset about what he’s said, he backtracks and tells me that I’m overreacting and that I “always do this” and I’m being ridiculous and that he’s just venting so “why do I always think everything is my fault?” This happens by text and in person – and in person he shouts. I’m really bad at confrontation, so as soon as he goes on the attack I forget all my words and just get upset.
I just find it all exhausting. I don’t want to be friends like this. But I feel really bad that I used to engage in all of this and suddenly don’t want to any more. I feel like a terrible friend and I’m just abandoning him when his life is still difficult and mine is getting better. I don’t know what to do.
A Terrible Friend
I don’t even know this guy, but he is making my shoulders go up around my ears through the Internet.
Being a friend doesn’t mean being an on-demand counselor or attention dispenser. The thing where, if you don’t text him back right away, he asks if you are mad is BULLSHIT. And turning someone down as a romantic partner doesn’t mean that you owe them guilt dues for as long as they feel entitled to it. Also, just because you tolerated something before doesn’t mean you have to tolerate it forever.
There are two big conversations to have here, and both of them might blow up this friendship, but they are also the only conversations that have any chance of fixing this friendship. So I say “bombs away!”
Conversation #1: Negativity
“Friend, every time we talk you seem really down. I want to support you, the way you’ve supported me, but I think you need to talk to someone, like a therapist or counselor, because it’s gotten to feel like more than I can handle.”
There are more scripts here.
He will say some stuff. It won’t be happy or nice. He will basically accuse you of being a terrible friend who owes him, or he will turn it into how much he sucks and how no one likes him so you’ll be in the position of having to reassure him. Anticipate this so that you can hear it for what it is: Manipulation. It might be manipulation born of genuinely bad or fearful or sad feelings, genuine loneliness, etc., but it’s still you setting a boundary and him looking for a way around it.
Manipulation often has a characteristic of typecasting and deflection, where you point out a behavior that you don’t like, and the manipulator makes about what kind of person they are or you are. You: “Please stop doing x thing” Them: “You’re just saying that because you are a selfish person who doesn’t care about me.” You: “I’m not a selfish person! Do you really think that?” Them: (possibly unspoken, but the subtext is loud): “Then prove it by doing what I want you to do.” They want to deflect the conversation away from their behavior and onto qualities about you. Once you recognize the pattern, it’s still hard to circumvent, but that’s because the person is making you walk on quicksand. The reason I know for sure that this is happening (and working) is because you signed yourself “Terrible Friend” rather than “How do I get rid of my effing terrible friend who won’t leave me alone.”
The way to resist is to hear him out, and then reaffirm the boundary: “Whether you talk to a counselor or not is ultimately up to you, of course. But going forward, when I feel like a certain topic of conversation is too much for me, I’m going to change the subject to something lighter.”
And then going forward, you do that thing. Next time you talk, allow a few minutes for various venting, and then when you start feeling tense and overwhelmed, change the subject. If it won’t stay changed, tell him. “Friend, maybe you didn’t notice, but I’ve changed the subject twice. I am sorry you are dealing with x, but I need to be done talking about x for today.”
The thing is, he gets to decide that this is not what he needs from a friend, this does not make you his definition of a good friend, this is unfair, he doesn’t like it, etc. To make this work, you have to be like, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but this is still what I need to do. Maybe this is a sign we should wrap this up and try again another day” and then throw down a smoke bomb and get out of there until next time.
Conversation #2: Clinginess
The next time he does the thing where he berates you and wants to know if you are mad because you didn’t respond to him immediately, text him back. “I didn’t respond earlier because I am busy. But right now I am mad. This behavior is very clingy and annoying, and I don’t like it.”
Yes, that risks ending your friendship. You know what else risks ending your friendship? HIM CONSTANTLY FEELINGSTEXTING YOU. The pattern now is that you engage and reassure him. Stop reassuring him and stop engaging him.
Brace yourself for “Why didn’t you say anything?” “You always seemed okay with it before,” etc. This is more manipulation. It’s taking the conversation away from the fact that he is behaving badly and trying to put the responsibility back on you. “Once you tolerate something you have made an agreement to tolerate it forever without actually changing your feelings” is not actually a rule.
I highly recommend that you don’t get into the whole argument via text right when he demands to hear from you. Say something back like “This is not a good time. I’ll get in touch with you in a few days when I have time and we can talk about it” and then turn your phone off for the next while so you’re not tempted to engage/not even more annoyed while he blows it up.
No lie, this is going to make him very anxious. He will want to fix it fix it fix it. You may have to get very explicit, as in, “Friend, you are not making it better right now, so STOP. We’ll talk in a few days. Let me be the one to get in touch.”
The next few days will be telling. If he sends you a gajillion messages – texts, calls, FB, gchat, emails, etc. – after you’ve asked him to stop, he is telling you that he is not getting it, at all. No bueno. At this point, I have to ask, what are you even salvaging? Script: “Friend, I am sorry its come to this, but I don’t think we can be friends anymore. Please stop contacting me.” And then filter/block/avoid/do not respond.
If he says “Ok” and then leaves you alone, it may be possible to talk it through. “Friend, I definitely don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I do need us to reset some of the ways we communicate. I am feeling smothered by the constant contact and overwhelmed by the need to be your emotional support. Please talk to a pro about the stuff going on in your life, and please give me a chance to respond to communications before you inundate me.”
Again, brace yourself for:
- “You are a bad friend.” (Prove that you’re not!)
- “You never liked me anyway because I am such a loser.” (Comfort me!)
- “Why didn’t you tell me before.” (This is your fault).
To all that stuff, you could say “Fair enough, but what we have going on is making me exhausted. I want to find a way that we can be friends without so much pressure. We either need to renegotiate some stuff about how we interact, or bail on the entire thing. I am attempting to avoid the second thing, but I am annoyed and smothered enough that it actually is an option, and you need to know that. Right now, this conversation is about your clingy texting behavior that I don’t like, and how I want you to stop it. Let’s stick to that, ok?”
I do not honestly think that he would accept this proposal, but if you are getting to this point in your discussion it’s not going to make anything worse:
“Friend, this is my best case scenario for what I’d like to happen. Let’s take a month off from hanging out or talking. Frankly, I need some time for my shoulders to come down around my ears. After that, if you still want to stay friends, I would probably be up for getting together for something fun, like a movie, once a month or so. That’s what I have energy for. I can’t handle anything more intense.”
No one would enjoy hearing that from someone they care about, for real, so if he is hurt and sad or that’s not enough for him, he’ s not being a jerk if he doesn’t handle it perfectly in the moment. It’s what happens afterward that counts. You can say, “We don’t have to decide anything right now. Let’s take that break for the next month. I’m sorry it’s come to this, but I am feeling very smothered and it has been making me very angry at you. Continuing the way we have been is simply not an option. I’d like to let the bad feelings dissipate for a while and see what’s left, but I need a break to make that really happen” and then leave the conversation. His negative feelings are not yours to sort out. That’s been the dynamic that’s been going on for too long, where he just hands them to you like a college kid bringing home his dirty laundry. You’re allowed to say “the washing machine is in the basement, right where you left it” and not wash the funky socks of his loneliness for him.
It’s okay, recommended even, to practice saying this stuff. It’s okay to do this in an email, unilaterally, especially if you worry about being brow-beaten into agreeing to something if you talk face-to face. In fact, that’s more manipulation – when people get texted information they don’t want and they insist on taking it to email, or the phone, or “You owe it to me to talk to me face to face.” (Translation: I will change the venue of this conversation to one more likely to give me the result I want). You don’t owe him a face-to-face conversation, actually. You owe him honesty and sticking up for yourself in whatever medium feels right to you.
If a month goes by and you dread talking to him, that’s okay. That’s information. You get to change your mind and say “I know this isn’t good news, but now that I’ve had some time to think I think it’s better if we don’t resume our friendship. I wish you well.” You don’t have to predict and perfectly anticipate everything that will happen. And maybe it will work out okay, and that having bright lines drawn is what you both needed – him to get over his crush on you (which is still RAGING, btw), you to practice setting and maintaining better boundaries.
But the status quo is not sustainable. You are not his emotional laundress.