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#600: How do I “help” my friend (my friend I’m totally in love with)?

Dear Captain,

In essence, I absolutely adore this girl, but there’s someone else, and she has problems being away from home. As a disclaimer: this isn’t some crush, or the case of a naïve adolescent. This is my fifth relationship (though I wouldn’t call myself experienced in relationships). I’ve dated this girl, and known her for over a year, during which we’ve been comfortable friends for long stretches of time. I want her in my life, at least as a very close friend.

Lets call her Emma. We met last August in college, and very quickly, naturally, spilled all our feelings and pasts to each other. Emma was emotional and had a troubled history of depression. I’m an open and helpful person, so I was more than happy to be there for her. She didn’t need me, but felt much happier with me around. She was single, but had lingering feelings for her ex, who she’d gone out with for two years, but had broken up with because she didn’t want to do long distance in college. His presence was visibly ruining her emotionally. At this point I had no intention of going out with her – I was more than happy to have her as a close friend. Eventually, I had a sit-down with Emma, explaining to her she wouldn’t truly be happy if she didn’t let him go.

About a week later, Emma stopped contact with him. She was noticeably happier, and I was proud to have helped her. I started to develop feelings. She had had feelings for a while, before she broke things off with her ex. The natural progression of our friendship led to us going out. This lasted over 3 months, until break. She went home to her closely knit friend group, which included her ex. My family had just moved to a remote location with a harsh winter, and was alone for break. It was hell.

This took an emotional toll on me. When we returned to campus, things weren’t the same. She broke up with me after a week with no clear reason. Emma got back with her ex shortly thereafter. It was because her ex was more accessible over break than I was, by default. It wasn’t my fault.

Two-three months later, she texts me. We start talking again. She had stopped talking with her ex. Emma talked about how horribly he treats her. He refused to call her his girlfriend, but insists that she doesn’t see anyone else. Basically, he wants her for sex, and is too embarrassed to call her his girlfriend in public. He sounded like an absolute douche, based off her own first-hand account. To the extent where the bad things he’s done for her greatly outweigh whatever good he’s done for her. She tells me I treated him better those three months than he ever treated her during their two and a half years together. I’m flattered, but more importantly, I’m glad she’s happy with the way I treat her.

We are well on our way to going out again, but I don’t let it happen, because summer break is coming up.  I feel it wouldn’t be practical to attempt long distance for three months after going out, at most, for a few weeks. Emma tells me she plans to stay single over the summer, and is by no means going to resume contact with him. I’m thrilled for her and I’m glad she’s taking that initiative to figure herself out by finally being single for an extended period of time.

We continued contact, as friends, but I found out she resumed contact with her ex. He badgered her and she ignored him for the longest time. I guess she gave in. This took a toll on our conversations, and I’ve stopped talking with her completely. I just don’t trust, or respect her as much as I used to. Not as a girlfriend, not as a friend.

There’s a certain duality to her life – the one back home, and the one at college. She wants me at college, but she wants him back home. Her relationship with me, platonic or romantic, can’t coexist with her relationship with him – though that is what she’s going for. She resents long distance, so in truth, she can’t have a healthy relationship with anyone because she spends months every year in two different places.

First off, how do I properly react to this, in the way that is healthiest to me? I’m not speaking with her until we arrive back on campus, when I plan to express my disappointment about her actions. What do I do until then?

Secondly, as her friend, how do I help her? I’ve helped her so much up until this point. But If I can make her as happy at college as she is at home, it would mean the absolute world to me. First and foremost, we are close friends, and as such, I want to help her. In addition, the aforementioned duality hinders our friendship. Is there anything I can do to help her with it?

I care about her immensely. I want her to be happy.

Any help is much appreciated, thank you in advance!

Sincerely,

Confused but Hopeful

P.S. There was really no way to shorten this to 450. I tried. I hope you can omit what you find unimportant, and retain what is important. Any additional info can be attained by contacting me.

Dear Confused but Hopeful:

I left in all of the text in your letter. The anonymized name you chose for your friend/crush has to be a coincidence, but your letter would remind me of the linked article that spawned  this post even if you hadn’t accidentally stumbled on the same Nom de Plume. You are not displaying the same level of entitlement (or apologia for violence, thank goodness) as the author of the Medium piece, but you are doing something that he also does, something that I think is harmful and controlling: You are making an argument that what you want just happens to coincide with “what’s best for Emma”and in that light you are attempting to diagnose her decisions and discarding the ones that you don’t like as stemming from pathology/depression/deep-seated issues/distance as a way to invalidate them. The giveaway is in statements like “… in truth, she can’t have a healthy relationship with anyone…” 

Here’s what we actually know about Emma’s decisions, so far:

  • She likes you and finds you easy to talk to about emotional stuff.
  • She broke up with you (in the absence of a given reason, assume “She did not want to be with me” as the reason) and doesn’t seem to want an exclusive relationship, romantic or otherwise, with you.
  • She is okay with being in at least some kind of contact with her ex, especially since he is big a part of her social circle back home.
  • Emma is the A+ #1 authority on what Emma wants to do and what will make Emma happy.

The ex may very well be bad news, but she will interact with him until she decides to be done with him. You cannot logic her into making a different choice. You may well be an altogether better man than he is by every standard of measurement. But you cannot logic her into making a different choice. Her decisions may have some basis in homesickness, depression, the thrall of an unhealthy relationship, or what have you. But they are still hers, and you cannot logic her into making a different choice. She doesn’t owe you her love, she doesn’t owe you all of her thought processes and reasons, and she also doesn’t owe you making decisions in her life that make sense to you and that you 100% agree with. Why would you want to be with someone whose judgment you trust so little, and whose love for you can be shaken by a brief visit home?

One of the biggest red flags for me is this one: You have cast her as the illogical, irrational, “troubled” one and yourself as the “open, helpful” one, and you cast your role in her life as the unselfish Helper. Your question isn’t “How do I find some kind of normal way to hang out with my friend after a weird intense breakup limbo times”, it’s literally “…how do I help her? I’ve helped her so much up until this point. But If I can make her as happy at college as she is at home, it would mean the absolute world to me. First and foremost, we are close friends, and as such, I want to help her. In addition, the aforementioned duality hinders our friendship. Is there anything I can do to help her with it?” (Emphasis mine) while also saying ‘and “I just don’t trust, or respect her as much as I used to. Not as a girlfriend, not as a friend.”

Has she asked for help? What if she came back to college and she didn’t need any help from you? What if she didn’t tell you all about her bad boyfriend back at home and actually had a counselor and a wide network of people to rely on? What if your friendship with her weren’t based on “helping” at all? Because THAT is the answer to your first question, “how do I properly react to this, in the way that is healthiest to me?” Answer: QUIT HELPING. Remove yourself from the dramatic love/help triangle. Disengage from dealing with her around what you perceive to be her problems. Script: “Emma, given our weird quasi-romantic stuff, I don’t feel comfortable talking about your relationship with your ex with you. Can’t we just go to lunch, or study together? Maybe take the serious stuff to student counseling where they can really hear you out without being biased.” Change the subject. A lot. Tap out of conversations that make you feel disappointed or rejected. See if there is a friendship left here when you remove yourself as a helper and remove the idea that she is a romantic possibility or in need of rescue.

That might make you less close, and that might make you seem and feel less important, but it’s healthy to have boundaries with your friends. If you’re not down for endless discussions of this dude back home, why not draw a line there? That seems way better to me than “I’m not speaking with her until we arrive back on campus, when I plan to express my disappointment about her actions. What do I do until then?” I mean, who wouldn’t be looking forward to that? “I can’t wait to get back to school, where my ex is waiting to tell me how disappointed he is in me and punish me for hanging out with old friends over the summer.” You’re not her parent, or a teacher, or a mentor. Why is it up to you to be “disappointed” about who she talks to? Why would that make you a good or helpful friend? You describe her ex as badgering her until she gives in and talks to him again, and I would submit that the cycle of helping/disappointment can be another form of badgering.

I know I’m being a little hard on you, and that’s partly because I used to be exactly this brand of creepy. “You’re just so troubled and sexy, you don’t even know what you want, let me show you how happy I can make you.” I would invest a lot of time in troubled, sexy dudes, wanting to hear about their problems and nurse them back to emotional health and groom them into my perfect (grateful) boyfriend, and be utterly confused when they would rather spend time with the people they actually wanted to be fucking instead of (objectively so much better and cooler and nicer) me. The dudes in question DID like me a lot, and they liked the attention and home-cooked meals and occasional no-strings-attached* sex and comfort and sounding board, which I offered up because I am so very, very helpful. Who wouldn’t enjoy that kind of attention and adulation from a basically likeable person? I was so very good at rationalizing away any information that I did not want to deal with. I would give and give and give all this stuff that they never asked for, and then close the trap of entitlement and disappointment around them. Hadn’t I done so much for them? Hadn’t I been a good friend? Didn’t I “deserve” to be loved? It turns out that you cannot logic people into loving you back, even if you make a really good case complete with chapter headings written out on the good stationery. “He’s so fucked up and confused, he doesn’t even know what he wants” was my rationalization when I didn’t want to deal with the fact that whatever “he” wanted, it was Not Me.

You didn’t use the words “Friend Zone” once in your letter, which I appreciate, but it’s clear that that’s where you see yourself. You clearly want to be with Emma as more than a friend (boyfriend, or you’d settle for chief advisor and confidant and authority on what she should do), and you lay out the arguments: You’ve put in the time with this chick. She is objectively “happier” when she excludes the other dude from her life. She says that she’s happier, which is evidence! But when she says stuff like “I don’t want us to be together anymore” that is not really evidence of anything, because she didn’t even give “a reason.” She vacillates wildly in what she wants, for instance, when she gives into pressure from the ex to be back in contact. But you don’t see how pressure from you (like the current silent treatment) might affect how she describes their relationship and her intentions there. You are seriously describing a situation where you are “punishing” someone for their “disappointing” behavior, and planning future interactions months ahead of time, yet you say this person is a friend. This is not healthy! This is very controlling behavior, actually, where you are monitoring her excessively and Emma must conform to what you want her to do in order to have your attention. No bueno!

Let’s conclude with some positive steps you can take:

  • I think it’s entirely reasonable to not want to date someone who is still hung up on their ex, and it’s reasonable to want a monogamous relationship with someone if that’s how you roll. You should date someone who actively and passionately chooses you. Since Emma is still entangled with her ex, and has a pattern of re-engaging with him, you have all the information you need to know about how this will go. So remove the possibility of dating her from the table, yourself, by not dating her and not trying to. Admit that’s what you’ve been trying to do, grieve the breakup and the loss of what you had, and put all of the energy you were putting into “helping” her into meeting new people who might be good dating partners and meeting new friends in general.
  • The way you are worried that Emma’s time at college might be too tied up with ex-boyfriend/home worries? I worry about yours being too tied up with Emma and her Stuff. You wrote to me in June about something that’s not even really going to happen until August/September. Refrain from planning out how your next meeting with Emma in the fall will go or from expressing your “disappointment” to Emma. Keep your questions about her summer to “How was your summer?” Let her decide how her own summer was. Use the school break to focus on everything that is not Emma.
  • Write this down somewhere: Emma is the #1 Authority on Emma and What Is Best For Emma (Even If She Makes Mistakes Sometimes). You don’t have to get it or agree with her to be her friend, but if you try to control her decisions and her perceptions of those decisions you are not being a friend.
  • Consider a no-advice policy with Emma. When and if she wants to unload troubles on you, you can recommend that she see a counselor at school, or you can simply say “Emma, I’m sorry you’re going through a rough time, but I need to be the friend-who-distracts-you.” It’s ok to articulate your own needs. It’s not good for you to hear all the ups and downs of her relationship stuff, especially not right now, so disengage. Do it kindly, but do it. Find other stuff you have in common. Video games. Movies. A weekly show. If you don’t have That Thing that you can just hang out doing, and you cannot find a basis for your friendship that isn’t intense emotional conversations/advice/helping, maybe you’re not meant to be friends at all.
  • Consider talking to a close friend or school counselor yourself about your helping impulses and getting an ongoing reality check to see when and if they cross over into controlling behavior.
  • As you meet new people and maybe date them, watch yourself for patterns and the impulse to combine dating + helping/halping/helpiness. Are you always seeking out the “troubled” girl who has boyfriend problems? Are you always looking for ways to make yourself useful/indispensable to win someone’s love? When you look at your five past relationships, do you think of yourself as the logical, together one and the women as troubled/irrational/emotional, etc.? I say this from the heart and from experience: Focusing on other people’s problems can feel like a distraction from your own and make you feel healthier and competent in comparison…for a while. But you will eventually have to deal with your own stuff. You can make yourself seemingly indispensable to someone and still find yourself dispensed.

Everyone has issues, so it’s not about looking for some perfect person, but maybe right now it is about looking for people who have their stuff mostly together and who don’t seem to want or need any help from you. Bad simile time: When you adopt a cat from the shelter, the volunteers will always try to sell you on the ancient one-eyed cat who needs 4 injections a day and an expensive diet of special food. It is okay to keep saying “I’d like a healthy, young cat with no known medical issues.” That one-eyed cat is somebody’s special perfect cat, but you don’t really even know that cat yet, you don’t already love it, and it doesn’t have to be yours. All cats will eventually need expensive vet visits, and we all help our romantic partners at some point, with something, even if it’s just reaching for heavy things from high shelves or formatting a resume. But maybe it’s best for people like you and me to stay away from romantic relationships that are built from the start on a principle of  “I, the competent and wise one, can help/save poor problematic you!” Look for people who are really available, look for people who don’t need help right out of the gate, and look for reciprocity.

I truly wish you well in resolving this. It is possible to recover from a Helping Addiction (or at least channel it into blog form) and have relationships that are reciprocal and not based on control.

*SURPRISE THERE WERE SO MANY STRINGS

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183 comments
  1. Sparrow said:

    LW’s situation seems to boil down to an ultimatum- “Stop talking to this jerk, or we can’t be friends. How can I help you not talk to this jerk?”

    I think Cap’s point about being the distracting friend over the advice friend is a good one. Step back from helping, because the very act of “helping” is complicating her issue. She’ll come up with her solution in her own time.

    • Silva said:

      Jerk may be a jerk, but it seems like that ultimatum would ultimately only lead to good things for Emma, if LW would actually leave her alone.

  2. paddlepickle said:

    Ugh yeah dude, you lost me at “I had a sit-down with Emma, explaining to her she wouldn’t truly be happy if she didn’t let him go.” Start with implementing a basic rule where you don’t sit someone down and explain something to them unless they have asked you to do so or the thing you are explaining pertains to something they are doing that directly affects your life.

    • … and EXPLAINING! Arrrgh that phrase.

      See, there’s A Truth, and he is an expert on the subject, being the kind and understanding person that he is, and he is condescending to enlighten her with knowledge she surely lacks! /sarcasm

      I can’t think of a better example of ‘splaining than this guy here.

    • tinyorc said:

      “Let me now explain to you your relationship with this dude I’ve never met who has known you twice as long as I have, if not longer.”

      Also, might be time to gracefully step down from your self-appointed role as Grand High Arbitrator of True Happiness.

    • allreb said:

      That line was a HUGE red flag for me. I obviously don’t know LW’s life, maybe Emma asked him “what should I do to be happier? Please tell me!” but it’s still hard to imagine that conversation wasn’t super paternalistic and condescending.

      • Me, too. Not to pile on, but that was klaxons. Oh, man, I can almost HEAR my college self doing this to someone. Painful.

      • Me three. I kept trying to imagine some way it didn’t deserve to evoke them, and I just couldn’t. Possibly the phrase “I had a sit-down” just drips too much condescension. That feels like something that happens between a superior and a subordinate, not between equals.

        (See also: no, just because someone is unhappy, it does not make them your subordinate.)

    • Jane said:

      Frankly the only time the “we had a sit-down and he Explained Me a Thing” scenario has not been a sure sign of Badness was when the Thing to be Explained was how to construct a force diagram for my Physics I homework.

      • Yes! Having a tutor / friend who knows more about the topic you are studying explain a Thing is relevant and helpful. Love life? nope. Nopeity nope nope nope.

      • Light said:

        Yeah, that brings back memories of my dad teaching me geometry. It is not an image that works well with someone my own age. Very creepily patriarchial.

    • Blue Meeple said:

      My sister used to have a friend who was horrible and the rest of us knew she was horrible and she made my sister feel awful but my sister was very protective of her. And you know what I did? I said I don’t want to hear about Friend, please; let’s talk about this tv show/book/band/computer game we both love! How about that weather! How’s work? Have you talked to Mom and Dad recently?

      And you know what I did not do? TELL HER SHE COULDN’T TALK TO HER FRIEND! Ahem.

      And that’s my sister, who I’ve known my whole life, who I actually do get to give advice to occasionally, when she asks for it.

    • YES. I just can’t even express how much I love this paddlepickle because it’s a perfect encapsulation of the issue. Do not explain things to people about their own choices that don’t directly affect you. Perfect. And really, how often does someone else’s choice directly affect anyone? Really, not that often unless you’re married to the person in question. I had someone in my life who felt the need to explain things to me, question my choices and generally try to instruct me on how to live my life. That person has been out of my life for 8 months now and the relief is palpable. The only time you should be explaining anything to anyone about their choices is if you gave birth to them and they’re five years old. Otherwise, back off, sit down and shut up should be the basic rule.

  3. tinyorc said:

    LW, the Captain’s advice is golden, as always, but I just wanted to draw your attention to another repetitive quirk in your letter.

    “I want her in my life, at least as a very close friend.

    “I was more than happy to have her as a close friend.

    “We continued contact, as friends, but I found out she resumed contact with her ex.”

    “Not as a girlfriend, not as a friend.

    “Secondly, as her friend, how do I help her?”

    “First and foremost, we are close friends,

    “the aforementioned duality hinders our friendship.

    Seven times, you reiterate in one way or another that you and Emma are JUST FRIENDS NOTHING BUT FRIENDS NOTHING TO SEE HERE MOVE ALONG JUST CLOSE FRIENDS. Seriously – whose benefit is this for? Because the Captain and Co. have demonstrably excellent reading comprehension skills. It sounds to be like you are desperately trying to convince yourself that you and Emma are JUST FRIENDS. It sounds like you are paddling desperately up a river in Egypt in the baking heat of the midday sun while crocodiles snap lazily at your oar.

    And don’t get me wrong, it’s entirely possible you have successfully convinced yourself that your feelings for Emma are strictly platonic, despite the fact that you dated and you have decided that Emma’s “relationship with me, platonic or romantic, can’t coexist with her relationship with him”, despite the fact that you have never met the dude and he doesn’t live anywhere near you. But look at your own subtext here. The Captain is right. Acknowledge your feelings. Find a safe space – far away from Emma – to cry, rage, mope and put yourself back together. Then move on.

  4. ”It was because her ex was more accessible over break than I was, by default. It wasn’t my fault. ”

    Well, hello, creepy tingling. That’s is leaning preeeetty close to the LW calling out ”No blood, no foul! and it is just plain out rude and belittling.

    ”Her relationship with me, platonic or romantic, can’t coexist with her relationship with him ”paired with ”First and foremost, we are close friends ”

    …. does not match up.

    You’re not friends, though. You don’t seem to have even a basic amount of respect for Emma.

    Look, she doesn’t owe you anything and you don’t owe her anything. You have every right to make a choice about what you can deal with and go from there. That’s healthy. Preparing to tell her off isn’t.

    You can’t cope with Emma + her on/off again BF, that’s okay. There’s no rule saying you have to like her choices or be around them when they hurt you. But respect is the bare minimum.

    I’m sorry you’re hurting and I’m sorry that reading these answers will probably be more painful for you. But I hope you consider what we have to say.

    • ”It was because her ex was more accessible over break than I was, by default. It wasn’t my fault.”

      Yeah, that made my shoulders try to meet through my ears. It’s like there’s an absolute erasure of the idea that it might have been Emma’s choice rather than One Of Us Boys’ fault.

      • Silva said:

        Even working within the assumption that Emma is an arbitrator of men, rather than an autonomous individual, feeling the need to say “it wasn’t my fault” suggests that the boy doth protest a bit too much to me.

  5. Oh man. I was Emma my first year or two at college, and I definitely had a friend like this dude. Basically, I was still figuring out how relationships work and how I work, so I had the whole “confused, don’t know if I want to be with guy at college or guy at home” thing going on. I probably treated some of those dudes horribly in the process, but I really didn’t know how to relationship.

    I remember one instance in particular. College Friend Who Was Not So Secretly Into Me was about to go abroad to England for a semester, and I made the mistake of telling him I felt like I wanted to be single for a while. Which was true, but a few weeks into the semester I started dating Horrible Guy, in part because he relentlessly manipulated me into doing so. Friend found out I was dating Horrible and was so indignant and angry that I had GONE BACK ON MY WORD and not been 100% single for the entire semester, and how could I date someone so horrible as Horrible?? Etc. And he was right that Horrible was bad news, but that didn’t give him the right to control my romantic life. I could have used some Captainly advice back then, to help me tell both of these dudes to fuck off.

  6. It is entirely possible that that is the best footnote ever.

    I’d like to say I’m sure that LW is a nice person with good intentions who’s just going about it wrong, but the second I read “…explaining to her she wouldn’t truly be happy if she didn’t let him go” I lost every speck of sympathy.

    Dear, dear LW: Emma doesn’t want to be with you. Probably because your idea of being a boyfriend was telling her what to do all the time and calling her irrational when she had her own reasons for doing things, but who knows? Not us, and definitely not you, since it sounds like you don’t actually ascribe her any agency in her own decisions, which means even if she told you you probably didn’t listen. Yes, she briefly dated you. You’ll notice how brief her time with helpful, supportive you was compared to her time with her mean, awful ex-boyfriend. This should tell you something, and it’s not how irrational Emma is.

    For the love of dog, don’t be her friend if you can’t do so without an agenda. Also, don’t tell her how disappointed you are. That’s a really gross manipulative attempt at control. Ick.

    • JenniferP said:

      When I was behaving like this, I was a nice person with good intentions, but my life would have been a lot better if someone – a friend, one of my affection-objects, someone – had said “Hey, you know what? That’s out of bounds and I don’t have to explain myself to you.”

      • Well, you are clearly *actually* a nice person with good intentions. The good thing is that LW is young and hopefully this will be the wakeup call they need to use better dating practices! It’s not just about not being a controlling sphincter, it’s also about knowing what kind of person will bring out negative behaviours or reactions from you, and avoiding them. No matter how hot they are. :)

      • Cari said:

        For people who aren’t the um targets (?) of the Helper, does them not saying anything have anything to do with this attitude we seem to have in society of “it’s not my business, I’m not going to get involved”? Because that belief certainly needs to diaf for a whole load of situations :/

        I think any Helpee would be unlikely to tell the Helper (even a Nice Helper) to back off explicitly, given the attempt to control them is probably already making them feel it wouldn’t be safe or drama-free to do so…

      • Somuchthis said:

        Same here. I’ve totally been LW though in a non-romantic context with one of my friends and I’ve been Emma too. Neither side feels good and it would help a ton on both sides to be able to say “Back off, explanations are not owed to anyone.”

  7. Myrin said:

    I think it’s really, really important for all kinds of relationships to be very aware of the fact that Other People Are The Bosses of Themselves.

    When my little sister continued hanging out with her abuser after their breakup I wanted to shake her and scream at her and cry and hold her close and chase this guy away so that he could never get close to her again. But I’ve already been reading CA back then and understood that this was not my thing to do and decide. When she asked me about him/a situation involving him, I would tell her honestly that I don’t like him but that she gets to decide how she wants to interact with him.

    Now, one and a half (I believe?) years later, she’s so absolutely done with him it’s downright amusing. She rarely sees him anymore and if so, it’s in a larger group of friends. She gives him mean-but-hilarious nicknames when talking about him and had two not-without-problems-but-generally-healthy relationships after him. We saw him the day before yesterday at a concert and he was so embarrassing that my sister rolled her eyes and actually loudly complained about him, something she wouldn’t have dared to even think about two years ago. Now she can. But she had to decide that for herself and in her own time.

    • When I finally got out of my abusive relationship the friendships that had been maintained, the people that I don’t resent today, were the ones who acted like you did with your sister, who stood by me AND my relationship and said “We love you and are here for you and you are the important component, not your relationship.” It meant so much to have people respect my decisions and not belittle me and fight my decisions.

      • Myrin said:

        I’ve often heard that since (not in reaction to my story, but generally) and always remind myself of it when I find myself wanting to “save” someone.

        One question though, if you don’t mind: What would you say is the best reaction to someone directly asking you how you like/how you feel about their abusr? As I said, I was honest with my sister in saying that I didn’t find him very likeable, but I didn’t go much beyond that and she’s my sister (who I’m very close to) so I could kind of estimate her reaction.

        I’m kind of torn if it ever happened with someone else, though. Because on the one hand, outright telling the victim that you don’t like their abuser might lead them to become defensive of the abuser, on the other hand I’ve seen people say that it can serve as a reality check and make the victim realise that something is indeed wrong with the dynamic. What to do?

        • Fuzzy said:

          Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone, because reactions are as varied as the people who have them. For me, personally, in my two major past abusive relationships, if I was actually seeking out someone’s opinion on my partner (beyond the initial introduction to all of my friends in the first week or two), it was either because 1. I was trying to silence that quiet doubt in the back of my head with an avalanche of, “OH, he’s WONDERFUL!” or 2. because I was at the point where I actually DID want out, but I had such a low opinion of my own instincts that I needed to assemble a lineup of people who also saw the bad before I felt able to say, “No, this is bad.”

          In the first instance, a friend honestly saying, “I really don’t like him,” would not have been what I WANTED to hear, and I probably would have gotten extremely defensive and possibly mad at that friend for a while. That said, in the context of an asked-for opinion (as opposed to just saying out of the blue, “Hey, I think your partner is a jerkface.”) it might have been something I needed to hear. I can’t say for sure, because I never once had a friend answer me honestly in that situation (ie: still with the guy, “obviously”–to their eyes–happy with him, and they didn’t want to rock the boat.) I will say that it SUCKS to be told AFTER the breakup, “Oh yeah, I never liked him. I always thought that it was really creepy when he did xyz.”

          Based on my own experience, I would say, IF ASKED, honesty is the best policy. If you lie and say Abuser is great, and then later come back and say that zie always squicked you out, all you’re doing is eroding your friend’s trust in you. Lying to someone “for their own good” or to keep them calm is something that many abusers do, and while your motives would clearly be different, sometimes, when in the middle of an abusive situation, it’s hard to tell the difference.

          That said, while I do think giving your honest opinion in response to a direct question is a good call, give it ONCE, and then leave it alone. Don’t keep bringing it up, and don’t engage with your friend if zie wants you to go into massive detail just so zie can tear down all your arguments. When my mother did this with my second abuser, she honestly had the best of intentions. She saw him mistreating me and wanted me OUT OF THERE. But because she wouldn’t leave it alone, I became so invested in defending him and proving her wrong that I ended up ignoring a lot of things that even I identified as Not Okay, because to acknowledge them would make it harder for me to defend him against her judgment. Some of the Captain’s scripts for dealing with friends with Darth Vaders would be good for this: “It doesn’t matter if I like him, as long as he makes you happy.” etc. Above all, keep in mind that if your friend is in an abusive relationship, zie is getting SOMETHING out of it, even if that something is unhealthy. By being honest but not pushy, you set yourself up as part of Team Your Friend for if and when zie decides on hir own that something needs to change.

        • Ginny said:

          I think something like, “To be honest, I’m kind of uncomfortable with the way they treat you” is a good response, if you’re asked about it directly. I don’t think giving your opinion works as a “reality check” in most cases, but it can work as an external validation of that tiny ignored voice in the back of their mind saying something is wrong here.

          Making it about personal dislike is less likely to help (in my inexpert opinion.) Especially if the abuser has a narrative of “A lot of people dislike me because I’m too rational/honest/confident/whateverbullshit” going on. And going full-on concern troll isn’t going to help either, for reasons already much-discussed. But a quiet, respectful voice suggesting that they deserve better treatment can help give confidence to the whispering part of themselves that’s saying the same thing.

        • Cari said:

          Third time lucky, fingers crossed I haven’t triple-posted!

          If your sister asks you about future partners, be honest with her, but as Fuzzy says, you don’t need to drive the point home repeatedly (not that you seem like the kind of person who woould!). She’s likely asking for your opinion because she doubts her own instincts after getting duped the first time.

          I know I’ll be getting my sis to vett any future partners ’cause she can spot the bad ones a mile off. Her arsehole senses are impeccable :D With my abusive ex, she pretty much did the same as you did with your sister. Had her reservations but left well alone and didn’t try and beat me over the head with her opinion of him if I ever complained about his behaviour to her. The rest of my family were the same when the rest of us realised my partner wasn’t the best person for me after all, and that the psychopath had fooled us all. Egg on our face or what lol!

          This worked out really well for me because home remained a safe space and I was able to extract myself from the awful situation pretty quickly and painlessly :) You definitely did the right thing by your sister in your story! And well done on your sister for getting out.

        • I, uh, honestly never asked anyone. In part because I already knew their response would be negative which would lead to the spiral of defensiveness and all that. But also, in some ways that made it worse for me because it was all unsolicited opinions and I pretty much never like those. That said, when things started to crumble and I went to the supportive friends and I had and asked if I should cut the ties or fight for the relationship the most appreciated response was “Do whatever feels right and we will help you through it either way.” When I would ask if I could bring him to events they either ignored their discomfort (those beautiful tropical fish) and let him come or just said things like
          “well it’s girls only tonight” or “we’d really just like to spend some time with you while you’re home.”

          Someone below implied that they didn’t have any problems with a friend stating once that they didn’t like the decision being made and left it at that instead of harping on it, and I think that would be the best way just saying, “You know, I’m not down with this, but I’m down with you so whatever you need”

        • Myrin said:

          Thanks a lot to all of you, I’ll keep all your answers in mind! :D

      • Laughing Giraffe said:

        When I made a massively bad decision, one person in my life said, “I think that is a colossally terrible idea”…once. She didn’t harp on it. I still talk to her. Another person kept trying to tell me, “I think what you are doing is unhealthy and you should stop, for your own good,” every chance she got. I also still talk to her, but she’s my mom, and I STILL resent the hell out of her meddling even though she was right. (Partly because she was right for the wrong reasons.)

  8. Glass_Hurricane said:

    I’ve been there, LW. I was THAT girl. The perfect friend. The one who was almost never chosen over the “evil” ex. After all – the dichotomy is as old as time. Many of us are subconsciously trained to the “Patient Griselda” archetype and it takes years to overcome that shit. I’ll admit it – I used to be super entitled and going through psychological stuff of my own that I didn’t want to deal with, so I concentrated on the psychological stuff of some dude I wanted to date. In a sick sort of way, I think I almost enjoyed the angst of being rejected. Being rejected fits nicely into the narrative of contemporary love stories.

    So as I was reading this letter, I wasn’t so much focused on how entitled you were coming off, but rather on what a not-great friend/partner Emma was being to you. Yes, she has every right to choose her romantic partner for herself, but I wasn’t keen on how often you ended up as the emotional sham-wow while Emma was sorting things with her ex-boyfriend. I thought to myself that even though your language choices in the letter might not be the best, you deserved someone who was totally into you. Emma is not that person.

    Captain Awkward has given excellent advice, as usual. Concentrate on yourself and take a giant step back from the Emma situation. I know this goes against all the Patient Griselda training the good people at Disney(TM) have given us, but I think you’ll be a lot happier when your life is less about helping Emma (who is capable of helping herself or at least seeking out a counselor) and more about making yourself happy. Nobody appointed you to be Emma’s go-to unlicensed therapist, so please don’t feel any shame in quitting. You are not a Bad Friend for setting boundaries that keep you from getting hurt.

    Best of luck, LW. Break free from that troublesome narrative – write yourself a fucking epic in which you kick butt, do a bunch of cool things, set healthy boundaries with your friends, and only pursue romantic relationships with people who dig you back. You deserve an awesome story.

  9. 1. I just don’t trust, or respect her as much as I used to. Not as a girlfriend, not as a friend.

    I keep trying to wrap my head around this, and it doesn’t make any sense. I can’t see anything in the described behavior that makes her an untrustworthy friend. An untrustworthy girlfriend, sure, someone who’s already chosen to not be with you once before is someone who you might not want to try again with. But a friend? Unless your requirement for “friend” is “follow all your advice, in every matter, no matter what.” And that’s a totally unfair requirement for friendship. I listen to my friends’ advice, and sometimes I follow it. But it’s not a betrayal of them when I don’t. It’s advice, not an order. My friends don’t give me orders.

    I get that you may not want to be friends with her. For lots of reasons. She’s hurt you by breaking up with you. You seem to have a friendship where you function as a relationship counselor which is pretty un-fun even when there isn’t the you-broke-up-with-me pain tagging along. (Maybe that’s because you encourage that kind of conversation, maybe she pushes it into every conversation. Either way, it’s not a great way to have a friendship.) And maybe it’s entirely unrelated to your romantic interest, maybe it’s more along the lines of “I can’t sit and watch you keep hurting yourself like this, I need to exercise self-care and distance myself from the situation.”

    But, whatever the reason, this isn’t something that she did to you. She didn’t get back with her ex AT you. You can get to a place where you don’t want a friendship and have it be for reasons that aren’t “it’s all her fault, she’s a bad, untrustworthy, person, who doesn’t deserve respect.” And putting it all on her, making it about how she isn’t good enough to be your friend, that concerns me.

    2. In general, there seems to be a lot of “woah things just happen, I didn’t do anything” in your letter. You describe the beginning of your friendship as something that just happened “naturally.” You describe your decision to start dating as “the natural progression of our friendship led to us going out.” When she breaks up with you, it’s not because she had reasons to, it just sort of happened, because of proximity or something, you say it’s “by default. It’s not my fault.” And then when she starts dating the ex again, it’s “giving in” rather than making a decision. Everything in this letter seems like the only one doing anything is, like, fate, or something. Maybe the ex. And that’s not fair to anyone in this story. You made decisions. She made decisions.

    • That line really confused me as well. Like you said, a piece of advice isn’t an order — and if someone really, truly expects another grown-ass human being to follow their “friendly advice” to the letter or risk the silent treatment, they’re a pretty poor excuse for a friend. Trying to control someone else’s decisions about their life is not a friendly goal. Also, whether we’ve given them advice about it or not, our friends are sometimes going to do things we think are mistakes. They have one too many shots of tequila, they sing a ten-minute ballad at karaoke, they date people who seem like a bummer to us. And if we’re good friends, we don’t lose respect for them because they’re doing something that we ourselves would never do in a million years. We recognize that they may have different information or a different understanding of the situation than we do that led to them making those decisions, and also that even if that’s not the case, they are adults and can choose to make their own mistakes. If you can only respect people who act and think exactly the way you do, that’s a problem, because people are different.

      LW, I think you’re looking for something you can do or say that will make Emma cut off her jerky ex for good and also make her want to be your girlfriend. Unfortunately, there’s no magic spell to make that happen. To make your dream scenario come true, two decisions have to take place, and both of them are Emma’s to make. Not yours. She can choose to cut off her ex. She can choose to date you. Since it sounds like you don’t have a lot of evidence that either of these things are likely to happen, I would recommend accepting that you’re not going to get back together, grieving the breakup however you need to, and probably focusing on your other friends and not hanging out with Emma much for a while. You cannot logic her into making the choices you want her to make, and you really really shouldn’t try. I’m sorry it didn’t work out, but those are her decisions to make, and if you can’t be a true friend and respect that, you’re both probably better off going your separate ways.

      • Zee Lady said:

        The “I want to help her, can you give me advice on how I can help her?” part of the letter reads to me as
        “I want her to make the decisions I’ve chosen for her and that would benefit me, can you give me advice on how to make her choose what I want her to?”. Which, as you said, shows the LW only respects Emma when she goes along with what he wants, and isn’t a healthy or fair way to approach friends or relationships.

        I think it’s natural to be frustrated when the answer to your Happily Ever After internal narrative involves someone else making a particular choice (like committing to you), and they choose to do something different – it can feel like you’ve been cheated out of something you deserve. But just because it’s natural to feel that way doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t make it okay to treat other people harshly because you’re not happy with their choices; it’s important to remember that you don’t automatically deserve something just because you’ve emotionally invested in it.

        • Jane said:

          Yes!

          Something else guessed that the LW might be in his first year of college/uni, and that sounds about right to me. (LW, if you happen back through, and that’s not the case, correct me!) There is a sort of a dynamic here that I went through, at least —

          When I was a freshman, I was coming out of an extremely isolated high school environment (in my case, about two hundred fifty people in all four years, and maybe half of whom I had known for 10+ years) into a big-ish university (10,000 students) in a big city FULL of students. My whole high school life, I had been sold on the idea that if I could just get THROUGH, I could find my real people at university — a boyfriend/soulmate being one of those people (bear with me on the soulmate thing.) My social experiences were extremely limited at that point; I basically had one or two good friends, and a range of people I felt differing levels of awkward toward.

          Up until that point I had been stuck in a very small fishbowl, and I believed that if you found that spark anywhere you better fucking pursue it or you were risking a life spent alone. And I think in high school, particularly when you don’t drive (which I didn’t until 17) and live in a place in the middle of nowhere, that’s kind of true? Or in any isolated environment, really — you kind of have to pick up on whatever similarities you can find.

          I think moving from a scarcity situation (socially speaking) to a place where there is an abundance of choice, PARTICULARLY when you’ve been sold on the cultural narrative of finding your ONE TRUE LOVE, your OTHER HALF, your SOULMATE, really fucks with people’s heads. You’re coming from a place where “ignoring that spark” could far greater consequences than it does now, and you’re in an environment where (you assume) you are constantly looking for that ONE ULTIMATE SPARK, and what if THIS spark is the ULTIMATE spark?? WHAT IF I MISS IT? I MIGHT NEVER HAVE A SOULMATE!!

          Mix that in with a heaping dose of “LOVE DOESN’T LET GO, IT JUST WORKS THINGS OUT” (family dynamic responsible for maaany crossed boundaries, no?) and “LOVE MEANS TENACITY” (the phrase that launched a thousand romcoms!) and you have a person who, maybe not consciously, believes that not running every potential friend to the ground is a grave and dangerous error. Letting go of a potential love seems far riskier and stupider than hanging on like a bear trap until they chew off their arm to get free of you. (Sorry, gruesome metaphor.)

          And — to get back to Zee Lady’s comment — it’s easy to think that your reasoning is PERFECTLY OBJECTIVE (because so many of these assumptions about how friendships and loverships are supposed to work are unconscious and assumed,) based on PERFECTLY OBJECTIVE REALITIES, and not on your own upbringing and hangups. I think for the LW, Emma ditching their friendship probably feels a bit like watching some ninny pouring out a five-gallon jug of water in the Sahara — WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT??? DON’T YOU REALIZE THAT LOVE IS A PRECIOUS, PRECIOUS RESOURCE THAT CAN NEVER BE REPLACED??? WE MUST MAKE THE CHOICES THAT MAXIMIZE THE AMOUNT OF LOVE CONSERVED!! WHICH ARE THE CHOICES I WANT YOU TO MAKE!!

          LW: relationships are not like water. There is not a limited quantity and you will not die if you let go of even a precious one. Moreover, there is no moral value associated with someone else “wasting” what seems to you a precious resource.There are TEN MILLION PEOPLE who are not Emma who you will feel that sweet, sweet connection with. If you don’t chase this spark to the ground, you will not be giving up your chance at love and happiness.

          Even if Emma passes out of your life — which will be sad and painful — you will find other people to love and adore and NOT help and eventually, maybe, after your friendship is on super mutually respectful solid ground, help too. I HAVE BEEN IN THAT PLACE, where I basically had to let what seems to me a really magnificent friendship slide into the oblivion because the other person was (for reasons I didn’t understand AT ALL) not holding on to their end of it. And it sucked and I was angry and resentful, and I thought IF YOU LIKED ME SO FUCKING MUCH BEFORE, WHY COULDN’T YOU JUST KEEP LIKING ME TO MAKE ME HAPPY, FUCKER. But — as has been explained repeatedly on this website — though chemistry is rare, finding it still isn’t an obligation or a free pass for any sort of behavior. Your relationship with Emma maybe is special and irreplaceable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be ended by either one of you. Sometimes important people pass into our lives and pass right back out of them, and that sucks, but it’s life.

          • Painted_lady said:

            It is so so so so hard to explain to someone who is new-ish at love and dating that despite all the cultural narratives to the contrary, there is no one so special that making them and/or yourself miserable is worth just being able to keep them around. I went to a very large high school in a large suburb amidst a bunch of other large suburbs within spitting distance of a fairly large city, and I *still* fell for this, hanging on to my two big college romances like some anaconda of love, squeezing the life out of them and insisting that BEING FRIENDS WITH THEM WAS BETTER THAN NOT HAVING THEM AT ALL, all the while hoping that they would stop being stupid and get that I knew better than they did what would solve all their pain.

            I think some of that I WILL NEVER FIND LOVE LIKE THIS AGAIN panic comes from the fact that there isn’t a whole lot of empirical proof that you *will* find love like that again. Before Major College Romance 1 and Major College Romance 2, I had had two relationships where I’d felt that same recognition of YOU ARE MY PEOPLE! And one of them, actually, was Major College Romance 2 – he was just known then as Major High School Romance 1, which made it worse because instead of going, “Oh hey, we still have the same problems we did three years ago when we tried this,” it was me telling all my friends and family, “I KNOW HOW TO HANDLE THIS SHIT I HAVE DONE IT BEFORE AND THAT IS WHY WE ARE MEANT TO BE BECAUSE I CAN DEAL WITH THE FACT THAT SOMETIMES WE DON’T LIKE EACH OTHER MUCH AND DON’T WANT ANY OF THE SAME THINGS AND WE FIGHT ALL WRONG AND I DON’T DEAL WITH EMOTIONAL WITHDRAWAL WELL AT ALL.” Sigh. It just felt like each time was potentially my last chance, because I hadn’t had that many chances, you know? And so I ran them completely into the ground and am not really friends with either one anymore, which is sad because they’re really very nice people, both of them.

            LW, if I could go back in time and give 19-21-year-old PL advice, it would be just simply to tell me that I would have lots and lots of romantic partnerships before I eventually end up with someone wonderful who wasn’t either of those boys and to just enjoy the ride without trying to force things that weren’t meant to be. I wish I had just been able to be friends with them without every interaction being infused with the hope that there might be a reconciliation. I actually look back at some of the moments of the friendships more fondly than I do the romantic relationships, but I know in the moment I couldn’t enjoy it fully. So LW, I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t continue to be around Emma, but I am saying that if you do continue, you need to enjoy the relationship for what it is, not for what you think it should be. And you should appreciate Emma for who she is and what she decides, not who you’d prefer her to be.

          • JenniferP said:

            Thank you forever for the image of the Anaconda of Love. <3 <3 <3

          • I am partially tempted to draw the anaconda of love.

          • JenniferP said:

            Be all the way tempted!

          • JenniferP said:

            :wild applause:

          • (Morgan Freeman Voice Activate!) “Here we see the wild Love Anaconda in it’s natural habitat. Ah, we can see here it has someone in it’s coils…fortunately, these anacondas do not aim to harm. Unfortunately, as you can see here, their affections are entirely too much for their victims, though the Anaconda is often blissfully unaware of this until it is too late.”

          • Feel free to use the image in any of your posts anytime you’d like!

          • Beth B said:

            This is such a fantastic and insightful comment.

        • Cari said:

          I would say feeling frustrated by such a thing is natural if one is an self-entitled arse-face. Feeling *sad*, maybe even a bit disappointed that you won’t have your Happily Ever After, otoh, totally natural for people who actually care about those they would like to have a relationship with. And people who feel sad by such things don’t tend to treat their One True Love like crap for choosing someone else that isn’t them :)

          • Silva said:

            There’s a big difference between shaming people for their choices, and shaming people for their emotions, which are not a choice. You are doing the latter.

  10. The important thing for me to note for the LW is, you can’t logic Emma into loving you… because it won’t work. In trying for resigned assent to coercion, you are dooming yourself and Emma to, in the “best” possible circumstances, a future of slowly-stifling unhappiness because you have an unequal relationship where your perspective matters more than hers. You both deserve to be with someone who wants to be with you, in all your neuroses and fucked-up mistakes.

  11. allreb said:

    So here is a thing that happened recently. I was talking to my therapist about my various anxiety/control issues, and actually yelled: “Well OF COURSE I want to control everything all the time, IF I’M IN CONTROL I CAN MAKE IT ALL PERFECT, no one will ever be hurt or sad and everything will be great!!”

    My therapist very quietly raised an eyebrow at me.

    At which point I realized, that’s pretty much a super villain monologue.

    Don’t be a super villain, LW.

    • Glass_Hurricane said:

      Well put!

    • Reeb said:

      Goddamn if I don’t do that on a regular basis. Nice to know I’m not the only one (slash someday we will be fighting for control of Metro City).

      • PBnoJ said:

        +1

    • Legacy of Silence said:

      “At which point I realized , that’s pretty much a super villan monologue”

      Thank you for this. That is beautifully put and something I’m going to keep rattleing around in my brain the next time I’m feeling like that.

    • muse142 said:

      Aaand you’ve given me a motivation for the villain in my next piece of writing! Thank you!

      • oregonbird said:

        Aren’t muses supposed to work the other way around?

    • espritdecorps said:

      “At which point i realized, that’s pretty much a super villain monologue.”

      *mind blown as that sinks in*

      Could we form some kind of Super Villain Reform group? Cause I need to get in on that.

      • Somuchthis said:

        Me too, but of course I will need to be appointed the president of the group… ;)

        • espritdecorps said:

          :D

    • hexafelid said:

      oh god I’m a super villian

  12. Jane said:

    HI OKAY I HAVE NEVER BEEN LW BUUUT I HAVE BEEN EMMA.

    Based on a combination of low self esteem and poor relationship models, every dude I have ever been emotionally involved with has been on the basis of me saying “I AM SO FUCKED UP AND STUPID” and him then dispensing his Manly Advice about how to unfuck my life. This works briefly to foster an unhealthily close bond, and then abruptly it stops working at all.

    Here are my theories based on my experience.

    1. LW, even if you “helped” Emma right back into dating you, the dynamic where you always have to support her, so she has to be always damaged so you have something to do, so you have to always be with it and together so that you can hold her up, LEADS ONLY TO EXHAUSTION AND HATRED. The bond of helper and helpee is very sweet while it lasts! . . . and when it breaks, the helper is angry because fucking ungrateful asshole couldn’t appreciate all the hard work snarlgarblegrowl and the helpee is resentful because motherfucker never respected me ANYWAY hissragesnap. THERE IS NO SURER WAY TO BITCH EATING CRACKERS HATRED, IN MY OPINION.

    2. DO A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: If you knew FOR ABSOLUTE CERTAIN that you would never be emotionally close to Emma again, would you still want to hang out with her a lot? OKAY SPOILER: It is already a certainty. MAKE THE DECISION YOU MADE.*

    3. BUT MAYBE YOU STILL DO WANT TO HANG OUT WITH EMMA. (yes of course you do!) Here is your mantra: “I TRUST YOU TO MAKE THE RIGHT DECISION.”

    Emma: BAD EX! Unhealthy relationship. Sadfeels!
    You: I trust you to make the right decision!

    This accomplishes not one not two but THREE important things: a. ends the conversation about NOT-YOU DRAMA b. tells Emma you respect her autonomy and MOST IMPORTANT c. REMINDS YOU TO RESPECT EMMA’S AUTONOMY.

    *BASED ONLY ON MY EXPERIENCE. I am a mean little troll who cannot be friends with people I am still half in love with. And then by the time I am no longer in love generally I’ve moved 1000+ miles away so oops there went that friendship.

    • Emily said:

      yes, I love that line in #3! If I were in her place I would love to hear that, not just so I know my friend respects my autonomy, but also so that if I break up with Horrible Dude, I’ll know it was my decision and I won’t have lingering doubts that maybe I just did it because my friend thought I should.

      perhaps also good to mentally remind yourself: “I trust her to make the right decision EVENTUALLY.” Maybe she doesn’t know what it is yet, maybe she is going to make a terrible decision first and learn from that, maybe she knows what the right decision is but can’t/doesn’t want to act on it just yet. You can’t make any of that happen on your own timeline.
      and “I trust her to make the right decision FOR HER.” Because I can think of so many times my friends were dating the woooorrrst people…or so I thought because I hadn’t figured out the difference between someone who’d be a terrible partner *for me* and someone who’s a terrible partner in general.

      Your letter describes her struggles to figure out who/what she wants as if she’s screwing up and needs help. Try reframing that story as she’s trying different stuff and learning things about herself and figuring out what makes her happy.

      • Jane said:

        Admittedly, my helper/helpee dynamic was screwed up in a different way, where I was always yelling WHY AREN’T YOU HELPING DAMMIT STOP DOING YOUR OTHER STUFF AND HELP ME NOW into the void, but for me, at least, as a crappy helpee, it would have been helpful (and maybe would have helped preserve those friendships, which are now firmly in the Toilet of Badness) to be reminded that no matter what, I am the person who has to finally make the decisions about my own life.

        This is also (again, in my experience) often a gendered thingy — it can play out in different ways, obviously, as the good Captain’s experience seems to be more in line with a dude saying “I HAVE THE MANPAIN, MANAGE MY EMOTIONS FOR ME” — but for me and my female friends, it has often been the case where we entered a male/female relationship with different assumptions that than the dude did. We went in thinking that problems are something to be vented about and then taken care of, whereas the dude tended to think that we wouldn’t bring up a problem unless we wanted help with it. So both parties did what they thought was right (vent vs. offer “I CAN FIX IT”) and neither one realized that there was a breakdown in communication happening. The woman in this scenario either thinks the help is normal and then gets hurt when she realizes it isn’t (me) or gets frustrated when her abilities to cope with her own problems are undermined constantly (my friends, also me), and the dude gets angry that she is asking for help ALL THE TIME, without realizing that she wasn’t actually. . . asking for help. (Pointed side note to the LW: EMMA IS PROBABLY NOT ASKING FOR HELP.)

        It’s something of a cliche, isn’t it? “I DON’T WANT YOU TO FIX THINGS, I JUST WANT YOU TO LISTEN.”

        But! Maybe if you can’t “just listen” this is not the proper friend position for you! One of my semi-successful (?) friendships with a dude operates on the principal that I only bring up problems that I am perfectly comfortable with him offering solutions for — for example, “My bike intertube has a hole, and I do not know how to fix it!” It is not as close a friendship as some of my female friendships, but at least it is based on mutual respect.

        • Zatchmort said:

          “We went in thinking that problems are something to be vented about and then taken care of, whereas the dude tended to think that we wouldn’t bring up a problem unless we wanted help with it.”

          A thousand times this! I try to think of it as being a matter of different individual communication styles rather than an inevitably gendered thing, but that is often how it seems to fall. I’ve always been the type that people go to for advice, but I got SO MUCH BETTER at it when I realized that people always want you to listen but only SOMETIMES want you to respond with advice, and the way to figure out the difference is just to ask out loud “Is this advice-time or sympathy-time?”

          • Jane said:

            Oh yeah, it’s definitely not always gendered! It just. . . has played out most horribly in my life when it was gendered.

        • We went in thinking that problems are something to be vented about and then taken care of, whereas the dude tended to think that we wouldn’t bring up a problem unless we wanted help with it. So both parties did what they thought was right (vent vs. offer “I CAN FIX IT”) and neither one realized that there was a breakdown in communication happening. The woman in this scenario either thinks the help is normal and then gets hurt when she realizes it isn’t (me) or gets frustrated when her abilities to cope with her own problems are undermined constantly (my friends, also me), and the dude gets angry that she is asking for help ALL THE TIME, without realizing that she wasn’t actually. . . asking for help.

          …somebody teach me how to cross-stitch.

          (I may edit slightly for pacing and personal relevance. But seriously. Sampler. Yes. This.)

        • Myrin said:

          We went in thinking that problems are something to be vented about and then taken care of, whereas the dude tended to think that we wouldn’t bring up a problem unless we wanted help with it.

          That sometimes happens to me with my mum of all people. She is very practical and hands-on and often sees solutions to problems faster than others. Incidentally, I am the same. The only difference is that I like to vent about stuff that’s annoying or a problem to me first (I need to let some of the steam out or I’ll explode sooner or later) before going on to fix it. Most of the time, I already have a solution, I just want to talk to someone about it without actually wanting their help or sometimes even their opinion. My mum knows that and still sometimes slips into practical helper mode immediately and offers solutions when I’m all “No I already know what I’ll be doing will you just let me talk?”. It’s not a huge problem for us, especially since I make a habit of now being clear in advance that I only want her to listen to me and maybe generally talk about Thing but not actually proposing anything; I can see however how such a dynamic without clear communication can become confusing and frustrating pretty fast.

          • Catherine said:

            This is exactly what happens with my boyfriend. I would always want to vent about my day and then he would start offering solutions. Then I would feel defensive and horrible about the choices I wanted to make if they differed from his solutions. Turns out, whenever I went to him he thought that I wanted help coming up with a solution, when I don’t. Now, I can just say, I want to vent, I don’t need you to help me fix my problems.

          • Kade Azkyroth said:

            I’m, um, kind of envious that your mom doing this isn’t a huge problem between the two of you. x.x

          • Myrin said:

            Kade Azkyroth: I think it would be a problem if it had happened very often in the first place (which it didn’t, it was maybe once every few months?), if our relationship weren’t as good as it is (I’d consider us very close), and if she weren’t respectful of my “Just need to vent, don’t say anything!”; if she falls back into the habit of providing solutions when none are wished, she immediately apologises and also stops doing it (and maybe it happens again half a year later but I can totally live with that because she stops it right away when she remembers).

          • ThatHat said:

            Oh my gosh, exactly this. I have a plan and usually even a back-up plan (I’m a pretty paranoid person, so I try to think of multiple outcomes, even if I’m not always prepared), but I just need someone to listen to my feelings on the subject.

          • Laughing Giraffe said:

            I recently allowed myself to be sucked into a discussion in which the other party and I weren’t discussing our own problem, but someone else’s. It went down basically like this:
            Them: If people have this particular problem, they should speak up about it to the relevant authorities and then it will be solved.
            Me: That doesn’t always work. Sometimes there are very negative consequences if you speak up about it and it might still not get solved.
            Them: But there are systems in place to counteract those negative consequences!
            Me: Yes, but those systems ALSO don’t always work!
            Them: So what, I have to solve EVERY problem with the system?! Since you know everything, what do YOU think these people should be doing?!!!!
            Me: I didn’t say YOU had to do ANYTHING about it, and I didn’t say I knew what should be done either! I just think you should acknowledge that the problem EXISTS, and not blame people who are already getting screwed over for their problems!
            It was an enlightening moment. I was trying to say, “What you are saying is not helpful; please stop.” What they were hearing was, “Solve this problem, immediately.”

          • espritdecorps said:

            Laughing Giraffe, I can’t reply to your comment, but I wish I had read it before I had a year and a half of frustrating conversations with a co-worker where my attempts to absolve her of responsibility for institutional problems were treated as putting all the responsibility for dealing with it on her.

            I would state the situation (X is VP’s step-son, everyone is aware of his performance issues, no one blames you) thinking that acknowledging it would let her feel better and move on. She would get upset that I wasn’t going to help her solve the problem. I didn’t think anyone could solve it (except VP), and gave him unimportant make-work instead of relying on him to do his job.

        • Gytherin said:

          I’m a practical hands-on type and it drives me nuts when people take up my time and energy “just venting”. If they know what they want to do, why don’t they just do it? Problem gone, source of stress gone, let’s get on with our lives! Let’s do fun stuff!

          OTOH this might be coloured by the fact that I once spent several years supporting someone through her angst when her husband walked out. I will not do that again.

          • mehting said:

            Well, sometimes the problem is generating emotion, that remains even when the source of stress is gone, and venting lets people get that out; Or maybe it’s not currently solveable, just something to endure, and talking about it is a way of getting the poison out. Sometimes venting can be a negative cycle that people get trapped it, but frequently, talking about the rotten problem to a sympathetic listener is incredibly helpful. It helps reassure that the skewed perspectives the problem may impose are not accurate, and that the person is not alone.

          • Kade Azkyroth said:

            Two additional considerations:

            First, I in particular find that verbalizing a problem can often help me acquire some combination of perspective on it and a solution, without needing the other party to provide those things – sort of “rubber-duck debugging” for lifethings. I doubt I’m alone. If you find this intolerable, consider gifting those who do it habitually with a rubber duck. :)

            Second, venting to another person can provide a needed reality check, especially in a situation where one is being gaslighted either by participants, or one’s internalized expectations and assumptions.

          • I’m a venty person and I know it can be easy to get carried away with venting…but it’s so, so exhausting to be on the receiving end, especially if the ventor always chooses the same ventee.

          • lliira1 said:

            It can be worse than exhausting to be on the receiving end. My father started “venting” at me when I was about 12. When I was 19-21, he went through an incredibly difficult time and his dumping his emotional waste on me ended up with a total self-destruct on my part. (Very quietly, because I wasn’t allowed to have problems.)

            I realized a couple years ago when a woman was telling me about her horribly abusive ex-boyfriend whom she claimed really loved her so she should just keep putting up with it — over and over and over again — and asking me for advice which she would not take, and then venting all over me some more, that I’m done. It’s happened too often, and it’s cost me too much.

            There’s a difference between treating the person you’re venting at like a person with feelings, and treating them like a garbage dump. Sometimes the reason the poison gets out is that you’ve transferred it to someone else.

          • espritdecorps said:

            Lliira1, good for you!
            I feel you on the parent who sets you up to be an emotional dumpster, and how hard it is to break out of that role.

          • SarahTheEntwife said:

            @mehting — agree! Especially if the problem isn’t solveable — or possibly even has passed by with or without being “solved” per se — the help I want is often just for another human being to go “yes, I see you and your situation, and I concur that it is sucky”.

            My boyfriend and I both tend to over-help, so we’ve gotten into the useful pattern of saying “wait, do you want solutions or just listening?” before we dive into trying to fix things.

          • Cari said:

            I’ve had this problem too! Oh, so many disagreements with BFs where they’re the venting type and I’m the “want to help” type. It took me ages to recognise they just wanted to vent and weren’t asking for solutions. And now I can use my words if I’m not in a place to be vented at, or I can ask if I’m not sure the person wants to vent or wants some help.

          • @Lliira1 and @espritdecorps – Boy howdy, do I hear you both. My mother was taking care of my father in the last years of his fading health, and I was her therapist. Even though I was losing my parent by inches, I still had to set that aside and take care of my mother because SHE JUST COULDN’T TALK TO ANYONE ELSE, ONLY I WOULD TRULY UNDERSTAND. I would gently suggest counseling but of course there was always a reason why that wouldn’t work (cost, time away from dying father, etc.).

            I finally had to draw the line, “Tell someone else about this or I’m hanging up the phone.” I’m still hanging up on her, because telling her this (no lie) only means that she talks louder and faster so she gets it all out before I can enforce that boundary. When the only answer to WELL THEN WHO CAN I TELL? is “NOT ME,” she doesn’t know what to do, and I’m done with that being my problem. It shouldn’t have been my problem in the first place.

    • OH damn that is good advice.

    • Amy said:

      “The bond of helper and helpee is very sweet while it lasts! . . . and when it breaks, the helper is angry because fucking ungrateful asshole couldn’t appreciate all the hard work snarlgarblegrowl and the helpee is resentful because motherfucker never respected me ANYWAY hissragesnap.”

      Ouch, this is painfully familiar. I’m an Emma, and I’m struggling (and failing) not to resent my Helper at the moment.

      What started out with him trying to teach me how to be a decent friend (and briefly, decent romantic partner) and me trying to learn has spiralled into constant negativity. He’s angry at how much I’m hurting him with my behaviour, and I’m almost uncontrollably bitter – about his claims that I’m not trying hard enough, about our “he is the authority/I am the ignorant problem creator” dynamic, about my feelings of being dismissed, about the way his language seems to signal that he believes that I should be grateful for how he’s still continuing on, because I don’t really deserve the benevolence of his friendship. Recently, he’s told me that I’ve become so closed off to criticism from him that the only way he can get through to me is by informing me about all our mutual friends who agree with his point of view – and, well, you can imagine how that’s ‘Helping’ my feelings of being dismissed/disrespected.

      I still haven’t been able to call it quits, so apparently part of me really wants to believe that this friendship is salvageable (that or his accusations of me being a quitter are getting to me – I have to admit that I’m not sure how much of my continued efforts to stay in the friendship are out of a genuine wish for things to improve, or out of a desire to prove him wrong). Whatever the reason, the comments on here are leading me to suspect there’s very little that can be done.

      So – last resort of the stubborn – has anyone ever successfully dismantled a Helper/Helpee dynamic and salvaged a once-close friendship before? Or is it time for the African Violet?

      • lliira1 said:

        Yes, but it had nothing like the toxicity of your dynamic. I wouldn’t call him a “Helper” or even “white knight” so much as a “Darth Vader.” He’s dismissing your feelings and acting like you should be grateful to him for it. You’re not “bitter,” you’re justifiably angry at how much he’s hurting you with his behavior.

        • espritdecorps said:

          Exactly.

      • sorcharei said:

        I’ve done it. It was hard and scary and involved falling back into our old patterns and dragging ourselves back out of that hole and trying again.

        You know what else it involved? BOTH of us recognizing that our pattern sucked for BOTH of us. And BOTH of us committing to trying to burn that fucker down and build a new one.

        Unless your HELPER wants to change it as much as you do, it can’t change.

      • unlurking said:

        Emma is, and you are, already a decent friend, a decent romantic partner, and a decent person. It’s okay to so-called “quit” (or, rather, find the strength to leave a particular situation) when the situation includes someone being mean to you all the time, constantly criticizing you (what?!), and alienating you from your friends. Rawrg.

        Agreed with the above, that it’d require both people to want the dynamic to change.

      • Alexis said:

        I’ve had a relationship like that (not quite as bad, I think, he never tried to get mutual friends on board, but he did do a lot of appeals to external authority), and part of your description: “I’m almost uncontrollably bitter – about his claims that I’m not trying hard enough, about our “he is the authority/I am the ignorant problem creator” dynamic, about my feelings of being dismissed…” sounds exactly how I felt.

        My Helper wasn’t interested in recognizing me as a person with equally valid opinions about how to relate to other human beings, even after I pointed out the problems with the dynamic and asked that we try to relate differently and that he listen to my preferences about how I liked interacting. (I only ever once heard him even admit that he might have played into that dynamic a little. JUST A LITTLE!) So I decided that I was done with the relationship not meeting my needs, and eventually quit talking to him (it took about 9 months to convince myself to completely disengage, ergh).

        I’d never understood why he didn’t just end our relationship if it wasn’t meeting his needs (which I don’t think it was, for the basic reason that we’re quite different people with different needs) but your comment kind of elucidates the possibility that given that he didn’t, he could continue to consider himself the Helper and look at it as me not being able to Figure My Shit Out and Learn Things From Him. I have the impression that this is indeed how he still thinks.

        Maybe not helpful, but a) you’re not alone, b) in my experience you only have hope if you both want things to change and are willing to work for it. It doesn’t sound like he does. :(

      • Cari said:

        Personally, African Violet time definitely.

        My abusive ex-partner was exactly like that from the very beginning and well, he got increasingly manipulative, controlling, self-absorbed and violent until I left him.

        And wow, did dumping him and being free of him forever feel good! It is so nice to have a clear head again and not be under his influence and control, and fear negative reactions for not living up to his ridiculously high (and hypocritical) expectations.

      • Jane said:

        I have not ever salvaged such a relationship, at least . . . not in a way that was nice for me. :(

        My former friend and I (who had a bad helper/helpee dynamic) run into each other now after a year of not really talking, and we are polite and friendly, but we aren’t friends and I don’t wish him well. I have no idea how he feels about me.

        • Jane said:

          At the end of the friendship, he also pulled out the “WE’RE ALL WORRIED/WE’VE ALL BEEN TALKING ABOUT HOW FUCKED UP YOU ARE” card, and remembering that makes me want to walk into his office and projectile vomit on his desk. So, um, maybe don’t make yourself endure that.

      • Baytree said:

        Successful dismantler here! But you’re not going to like my story.

        Long story short: I moved in with a close friend (now partner) after high school. She suffered from awful depression, anxiety, the works. I was very much the Helper, who gave comfort and advice and stayed up all night when she needed someone to cry to. We moved to different states for a few years and continued to be long-distance friends. Now we live together again and are still super close, but NOT in a helper/helpee way.

        The thing is that we never did resent each other, nor did we ever feel the relationship was unequal. My “helping” never took the form of criticism (and if someone is criticizing you “for your own good” that’s a huge red flag). She didn’t rely solely on me – she saw a therapist for help dealing with mental health issues, and got support from other friends and family. We had mutual respect for each other, and spent time together doing things that were fun and not just “you-have-problems-i-will-fix-them.” She helped me with stuff too… stuff that might not have seemed important from the outside (or to her when Jerkbrain was in charge) but to me was huge. And most important, we’d been friends for 10 years before the helper/helpee thing started. It was obvious all along that this was a temporary dynamic and that the real foundation of our friendship was built on more substantial things.

        Helping a friend through tough times (or reaching out to friends for help) is a strain on even the best relationship. It is NEVER the core of a good relationship. In our case I think that the emotional intensity of it actually brought us closer together… we know it was rough, and the fact that we got through it and still love each other means we can get through just about anything. It is possible to do it and come out the other side with a beautiful friendship.

        But to be honest, the way your dude is acting sounds more emotionally abusive/manipulative than helpful. Maybe try some time apart and see how you feel?

        • When my husband and I first got together romantically – like you, we’d been friends for a while before then – we had a bit of this dynamic. I was in a bad way, having escaped a violent marriage, having quite profound PTSD symptoms while still struggling to use words like “abuse” or completely sever communication with my ex. But Mr Goldfish listened. He listened and advised me about how to take care of myself. Even though he had a massive investment in my shutting out my ex for good, he never suggested that. He never criticised the entirely haphazard way I was negotiating my life and health. He was just there for me, encouraging my confidence, trusting my competence.

          It terrified me at the time that this was not a temporary dynamic – I felt like a mess because I’d been living with someone who had convinced me I was a complete and utter mess. It would have been dead easy for me to walk out of one kind of abusive relationship into another, slightly different one because I saw myself… well frankly, a bit like the LW sees Emma. Like I was broken and didn’t know my own mind.

          I did, I just needed time and support to work it out myself. And that’s crucial. Advice I always give to people supporting those in abusive relationships is to trust them and do things to help them to feel trust-worthy – ask for *their* help, expect them to be competent, never directly question their account of their own experiences (the opposite to everything an abuser does). It’s usually an innocent mistake, but treating people in crappy relationships like they don’t know what they’re doing just reinforces their role in that crappy relationship.

          • Nerdlinger said:

            “treating people in crappy relationships like they don’t know what they’re doing just reinforces their role in that crappy relationship”

            ^THIS!

            I recently had to end a friendship with someone who kept insisting that I needed that kind of “help.” Repeatedly The last straw came I right before I was going to make the call to end things with a not-so-great-person, I had texted then-friend saying “ending things – wish me luck!” To which then-friend immediately called me to tell me I needed ALL THE FIXING, and that I needed to rethink my relationship patterns, and that it was hard for him to hear about me hurting etc etc etc. All things that were technically “right,” mind you, but completely inappropriate for so many reasons.

            I resented that he didn’t realize I was already thinking about those things, and that by my own agency, I would learn from my experiences. Looking back, I realize that that then-friend never really was on my side and always needed me to be a mess that he could advise. He was the type of person to ask me how I was doing, and even if the answer was “good!” he would proceed to give me advice or lecture me on “how they just wanted me to be happy.”

      • Terrified Gardener said:

        This reminds me a lot of my mother! I am trying to salvage the relationship by setting down and enforcing boundaries but this is more about wanting to have some kind of relationship, I doubt it will ever really be like a friendship.

        Good luck! I recommend reading the Captain’s posts about boundary setting, particularly anything about ending conversations which cross boundaries.

      • Cari said:

        Pesonally? Dismantle and don’t bother salvaging, your comment is waving all the red flags to me.

        I could be projecting, but my abusive ex had exactly the same attitude and behaviours towards me throughout our relationship, and it only stopped when I left him after his behaviour escalated and he really did a number on my mental health.

        I too thought the relationship was salvageable, that one day he’d stop treating me like someone that needed teaching and looking after, and start treating me like an equal. It did’t and never was going to happen. And like you seem to suspect of yourself, I hung in there partially out of stubborness in not wanting to prove him right. It’s that last bit that they rely on to keep us there to feed their Bad Helper ego.

        • Cari said:

          Double post fail :( sorry!

      • allreb said:

        Personally, I say African Violet the dude away.

        I don’t know your life or circumstances that led to him trying to teach you to be “a decent friend” or whatnot, but that’s the sort of thing you learn by making friends. (Which is not always easy! But there are tons of threads on CA about it.) And a friend may eventually say something like, “I need you to do Y to support me,” or “Please stop doing X, it upsets me,” and then you know how to be a better friend to that person. (And you learn how to do the same for your own needs. Because hey, friends do these things for each other!)

        But I can tell you for sure, someone who is “a decent friend” doesn’t make you feel like “an ignorant problem creator,” or feel dismissed, or accuse you of being ungrateful for his friendship. He certainly doesn’t try to convince your mutual friends that something is wrong with you.

        Trust me, you don’t want to salvage this just for the sake of not quitting. All not quitting gets you is more time with this toxic Darth. That is not a reward.

        If he makes you feel like crap, kick him to the curb. We will all be cheering you on. <3

        • Jinx! What you said ^_^.

      • …him trying to teach me how to be a decent friend (and briefly, decent romantic partner) and me trying to learn…

        Wait…what?

        Can you elaborate on this a little more? Because honestly, “trying to teach someone how to be a ‘decent’ friend” does not sound like work anyone who is ACTUALLY interested in friendship would want to sign up for. I consider myself pretty good “friend” material, and there is no way in heck I would want to sign up for “teaching another adult human how to be a Good Friend (TM)”. That sounds exhausting. It doesn’t sound like the basis for a mutually fulfilling friendship.

        • What I’m saying is that I doubt very much that you were ever NOT “Decent Friend” material.

          And if you do feel like you need work on being a good friend, that is work that you can only do for yourself. It’s not work that can be done by some “benevolent” Friend Coach. The fact that this dude was apparently eager to sign up for that position makes me think his definition of “Decent Friend” is “Lady who I can coach into being my romantic partner/whose behavior I can control”. And that’s icky, Darth Vader-y, and deserving of some African Violets.

          • Vicki said:

            Yes, this.

            A friend of mine has consciously put significant work into being a good friend: but it’s stuff he mostly did before we even met, and as far as I know not because someone told him to. Rather, he thought about the kind of person he wanted to be, and the kind of frend he would like to *have*, and tries to be that kind of friend to others. (That won’t make him the ideal match for everyone, of course, but nobody is that: the point is that he’s not going in and saying “if we’re going to be friends I need you to do/be XYZ”. It’s about things he does in order to be a good friend (and he looks for people who do similar things).

      • Kade Azkyroth said:

        What started out with him trying to teach me how to be a decent friend (and briefly, decent romantic partner) and me trying to learn

        DA FUQ?!

        ….seriously. I pretty much had to stop and reread, because I can’t think of more than one or two scenarios where this could possibly be merely a “friendship gone toxic” rather than “straight-up gaslighting and abuse.” O.o

        I have, in fact, successfully dismantled a Helper/Helpee dynamic in one friendship and one marriage, neither of which survived it and in both cases there was a lot of other complicating stuff going on too (I also consciously avoided developing one in another friendship, which has continued to blossom). And my reaction is to consult the inadvertent supervillains downthread to try and develop some giant carnivorous African Violets. O.O

        • Cari said:

          If anyone does develop said Carnivorous African Violets, I’ll be their first customer :D

      • morethani said:

        I just want to join those saying that this sounds like an abusive dynamic I had in a previous relationship. I don’t know for sure what’s happening in your relationship, but involving your friends in arguments between the two of you is a bully’s tactic, and any guy who acts like you don’t deserve the benevolent kindness of his condescension is not worth one more minute of your time. I reccomend Lundy Bancroft’s book “Why Does He Do That?” If you want to understand certain kinds of not-okay behaviors your boyfriend may be doing.

    • *claps*

      I have no real comment. I just love yours. To bits.

  13. lliira1 said:

    I used to have friendships where I was the counselor and all my friends gushed about how great I was at listening to them and giving advice. When I had problems, they didn’t want to hear it. When my problems were big enough that I couldn’t be their free counselor, they dumped me. I didn’t know how to have an equitable relationship, or believe that people would want to be around me just for me, so I only attracted people who wanted to use me as their free psychologist. And I was using them right back to feel better about myself without risking showing who I really was.

    This letter makes me think you have a similar pattern, LW.

    How often has Emma been there for your problems? You might not have had the drama she has — and I know how much other people’s drama can be addictive — but you’ve had problems. Do you feel she gives you support through them? Do you feel she even knows what they are? Does the thought of telling her your problems make you cringe?

    We all need someone to lean on, and we all also need to be leaned on. You’re not letting Emma be there for you, and considering the mess you two have both participated in creating, she probably can’t be, so you cannot meet her needs.

  14. Dear LW:

    The Captain is a lot gentler with you than I would have been.

    Let me just add one thought: Emma doesn’t want you romantically. Can you still be her friend? Not her “helper”, her friend.

  15. LW, the Cap’n and everyone are giving you excellent, clearheaded advice, so I’m not going to repeat them. But I am going to come at this from a different angle.

    Emma isn’t making you happy.

    When you’re with Emma, and everything is going your way, you’re happy, for that moment. But when things aren’t going your way, when you feel like Emma’s choices aren’t matching up with what you want, or when Emma is away from you for an extended period of time, you’re not happy. And that unhappiness is manifesting as a need to rationalize (or disregard) her choices. But the fundamental thing is that you’re not happy, or you wouldn’t have written in.

    Story time. I used to be in love with this dude. I mean hardcore, teenage angst kind of love. I mean he would look at me and it would feel like a wonderful knife to my gut. And we were good friends and shared a fairly close circle of mutual friends, so he looked at me a lot. And with a little less self-awareness, I could have been you. This guy rarely had his shit together, at least to my standards, and had a girlfriend that treated him, well, not horribly, but not very well. I could have coddled and groomed him just like the Captain describes in her old relationships. I even slipped into that role, once, in a particularly emotional moment, and then I went back and apologized because it was shitty of me. But for the most part I kept my hands off of his situation. Because I loved him heartbreakingly, but he didn’t make me happy as a romantic partner, and I knew, even in my very worst moments, that there was no way for him to make me happy unless he became a completely different person.

    Same with you and Emma. Throughout your letter there’s this pretty obvious underlying assumption that you and Emma could be blissfully happy, *if only she wouldn’t do the things that Emma does.* Why do you want to put yourself through that? Not only the work of molding a person until they satisfy you, and then maintaining that mold, but the stress of being with someone who refuses to be molded, or the (maybe subconscious) knowledge that the person you are now blissfully happy with *isn’t real.* It’s supremely unfair to Emma, but it’s also unfair to you.

    The advice you mostly seem to be getting, from the Captain and most of the comments, is to dial back your “Helper” friendship with Emma and see if you can maintain a normal one. Based on my experience, I’m going to tell you something different.

    Stop being friends with Emma. Stop putting yourself in a situation where you have to turn off your desire and your drive to help her, and instead take some time–maybe the next semester, maybe the next few years, maybe forever–to let that desire and that drive fade on their own. Recognize them for what they are, and don’t indulge them with Emma or anybody else. If you meet another woman who makes you feel like you want to Help Her Fix Her Life, walk away. Hang out with people who are mostly together. Get yourself mostly together–focus on doing well in school, and at your job, and in your hobbies. Focus on being the kind of person that people hang out with not because they need your help, but because you’re pretty chill and you’re fun to hang out with. And then go and only hang out with people that you find are pretty chill and fun to hang out with, and that don’t make you unhappy by needing fixing that you’ll be compelled to give.

    Good luck.

    • Jenna said:

      I know someone who, when he finds a damsel in distress(usually long haired blonde woman who performs femininity reasonably well), just HAS to assist her. It is a pattern. It is a pattern that his friends believe has been deliberately taken advantage of at least twice by people looking for exactly his kind of response.
      If he would at least see women as individuals and people, and not keep choosing “damsels” that seem to need his help….but, one of the reasons that I can not be a close friend of his is that he pigeonholes women into roles, and women who don’t fit(including his own daughter. Argh!) are incomprehensible or bad.
      So.
      Find people that make you happy and that don’t require fixing. So very much of happy relationshipping is partner choice. Surround yourself with people who treat each other well, and you and they will have more resources when problems inevitably do hit.

      • I think so much of it has to do with self-confidence. Once reason I could resist the temptation to Help Him Be A Better Person was because by that time I knew that I mostly had my own shit together and I didn’t have anything to prove, so getting myself into that mire would legitimately set me back. I’ve had friends with their own profoundly fucked up issues who consistently dated people who needed “fixing” because it made them feel stable by comparison. It sounds like the LW is in college, and given that I don’t know a single person who wasn’t in some ways a complete moron during those years (myself included), hopefully reading these responses to their letter will help them grow up a little.

    • 30ish said:

      This. I think it’s funny how sometimes people don’t really notice that they aren’t happy with someone (it has happened to me, too). It is easy to believe that a few hours of passion and intense connection from time to time make up for all the angst and pain you’re feeling the rest of the time. I think the solution partly is to recognize that sometimes what you want is not what is going to make you happy. It’s quite possible to fiercely want to be with someone who’s toxic for you and makes you unhappy the majority of the time. Asking “how happy am I with this person in my life” is a surprisingly simple and pretty much foolproof way of deciding whether you should keep them around. Much better than asking yourself whether you love them or want them.

      • Sarah said:

        Oh, I wish I’d remembered that about 7 months ago when I passionately wanted somebody that made me miserable and anxious 90% of the time, who shared no common interests, and who often used offensive language (even after being asked to stop and told why it was problematic). He was SO BAD and I wanted him SO MUCH and a simple “Do I respect this person? Am I happy with this person” check in would have really helped me open my own eyes.

    • Policy of Madness said:

      Definitely agreed. There was a phase in my life when it felt like a friendship ending was literally The End of Everything, so I had to maintain my established relationships no matter what. If I felt romantically toward someone and that person did not reciprocate, that meant that we had to be Friends, Close Friends, because being In No Association Whatsoever was an unthinkable outcome.

      It’s draining and exhausting, and really it’s possible for friendships to end and for me to survive that. LW, you don’t have to be friends with Emma. Give yourself permission to just be done with Emma. Is it “quitting”? Maybe, but quitting is not actually the terrible thing that we sometimes think it is. Being a quitter means taking time and energy that is invested into a thing that makes you unhappy and freeing it up for something different and new.

  16. I remember someone once telling me that they were “disappointed” with my choices that were none of their business. It was my ex in highschool (oh GOD! The FEELINGSvomit gauntlet that is every young relationship!) and he had dumped me and hurt my feelings. He then proceeded to police any interest I showed in other people because we were “friends!” and he was “helping!” He shamed me for getting a crush on a boy that he didn’t like. Guess how that friendship went, LW?

    • Laughing Giraffe said:

      I think I dated your ex’s soultwin. He once told me, post-breakup, that he got worried about me with other men because he felt like my older brother, and did not understand why I was fairly enraged.

      • At least you were smart enough to be enraged. I was just sad and confused that he didn’t want me but he wouldn’t let me be with anyone else either. Eventually we graduated and I never had to see him again. Is crying and begging a type of rage?

  17. Megan M. said:

    LW, I also couldn’t help but be reminded of the letter that the Captain links to, the one with another “Emma.”

    In your letter, LW, you keep using the words “help” and “friend.” I don’t think these words mean what you think they mean. Please, please, please try to accept and follow the Captain’s advice to you. It will probably be hard. You might have to re-read it a few times and think on it. No one likes to realize that the “nice” things they’ve been doing aren’t so nice after all, or that maybe our idea of being a “good friend” is actually not so good.

    That plan you have, to tell Emma how disappointed you are in her? Please don’t do that.

    I think that you and Emma would benefit from you taking a giant step back from her. Don’t be her sounding board for what’s going on with her ex. Don’t be her quasi-therapist. Don’t “help” her make decisions. You’ve already given her your opinion on what she should do – and it’s TOTALLY UP TO HER whether she listens or not.

    You say you don’t trust or respect her as a girlfriend or a friend anymore. If that’s true, then you should not under any circumstances be the person who “helps” her to be happy. Would you want someone helping you who didn’t respect or trust you? I certainly wouldn’t. Emma needs to figure out what makes her happy on her own, and you need to focus your attention and energy elsewhere.

  18. anon said:

    Wow, okay, this dude reminds me of basically every guy who’s tried to get with me/”befriend” me because they saw me as vulnerable. All of them, to a man, were arrogant, condescending, predatory creeps.

    So, LW:
    – Did Emma actually *ask* for your opinion, or was she just a girl existing with problems in your vicinity?
    – Do you actually care what happens to her if her choices don’t involve being your twu wuv forever?
    – Are you a trained and licensed therapist?

    If not, fuck off.

    • If you’re a trained and licensed therapist, please consider seeking therapy or supervision, because this kind of unhappiness and overinvolvement can lead to unethical behaviour that can lead to you losing your license. “Clients” and “people you were/are/will be in a romantic relationship with” should be NON-OVERLAPPING CIRCLES in your Venn diagram of life.

    • Cari said:

      This is a perfect comment.

      Not buying the “I’m nice, I just want to help and be her friend” tone of the LW _at_all_.

      LW – do “Emma” a favour and take your “friendship” elsewhere, preferably to a professional that can help you through your feelings and attitudes towards friendship and build up healthier, respectful ones.
      If her bf/ex is bad for her, the last thing she needs in her life is an emotionally abusive “friend” who punishes her with the silent treatment and plans tellings off months in advance, for not recognising the brilliance in them and their help.

  19. annstarrr said:

    I agree with what the Captain said. I have totally also been there. From a different perspective, though, I wonder about the phrase “I just don’t trust, or respect her as much as I used to. Not as a girlfriend, not as a friend.”

    Maybe this is a toxic friendship for you and you are not seeing that because of your feelings for Emma? I have a hard time trusting and respecting friends who become toxic for one reason or another – one of which is usually that they’re *always* having some sort of ridiculous drama that could be easily solved by just DTMFA. If your friendship has become nothing but Emma venting to you about her clearly bad relationship… maybe it’s time to bow out. For yourself. Let her find another friend to bear this burden.

  20. dfwl said:

    LW, the Captain’s advice is excellent and hopefully will help you. That does sound like s sucky situation. But this reminded me of Letter #305 (aka “Quit helping so much, I’m not going to fall in love with you”), where the LW was creeped out by a guy who kept trying to help and “fix” her, likely so he could date or sleep with her after she was “fixed” (despite the fact that she was asexual and Not Interested). The Nice Guy(TM) is clearly straining to come through in every sentence.

    But….I’ll admit some of it sounded familiar. In my case, I was helping and supporting friends who I had no romantic interest in (they were even the wrong gender) and we had been friends for several years before the Bad Relationships started (so I wasn’t seeking out people to fix). Also, my friends would frequently seek me out to pour out their problems and would say things like “You’re the only person I can tell this to” and “You’re such a great friend and so non-judgmental” etc. (I should have taken the “You’re the only person…” as the warning it was.) It did make me feel Important and Helpful and a Good Friend. I’m sure it was helpful, but sometimes I got too involved and definitely had feelings like – Why aren’t they listening to me? It’s so OBVIOUS that they need to end the relationship! They’re not being logical and are really delusional! If they listen to me, then they’ll be happy!

    It really helped after a couple of these made me realize that I couldn’t MAKE anyone do anything about their relationships and that most people don’t want “helpful” advice as much as sympathy and someone who will listen to them. The other thing the Captain addressed was your own boundaries and sometimes mine weren’t so great (e.g., one conversation where I said something like “That sucks, but you should talk to a therapist about it” like 6 times in a row) – something I’m working on.

    • lliira1 said:

      one conversation where I said something like “That sucks, but you should talk to a therapist about it” like 6 times in a row

      That is scarily familiar. I have had that conversation with SO MANY PEOPLE. And a few dozen times with my father. So obviously I was trained to be a mini unpaid psychologist by at least one parent. Breaking that pattern has taken well over a decade, and I’m not entirely there yet.

  21. A. Y. Mouse. said:

    This entire letter reads controlling and creepy to me, actually, in the same way as my controlling, creepy male relatives have gaslit and and manipulated my female relatives for decades.

    It sounds like LW doesn’t want a person, but rather a Manic Pixie Dream Girl or maybe a FemBot.

    • A. Y. Mouse. said:

      I would also like to add: LW, you are not Emma’s friend. You are not acting toward her how friends act, and I think the best course of action with her is a slow fade so you can both move on with your respective, separate lives.

      Additionally, maybe seek the help of a mental health professional if you treat women generally the way you treat Emma .It is not something to be proud of and is in fact a pattern of behavior which removal from your repertoire would make you a better person.

  22. In my experience there are two significant risk to a relationship that grows out of one person being the helper and emotional support and guide for the other person.

    The first risk is that the helpee will get better and need less help. Then the two people will lose what was creating their intimacy and closeness. They didn’t have a foundation of true friendship (shared interests, things they enjoy doing together, enjoying happy times together, a view of each other as equals, mutual trust and respect. etc.) and now the big thing that brought them close and together is gone. The helper can’t help anymore and the helpee doesn’t need them… and there’s nothing left.

    The second risk is that the helpee will not get better. The helpee had bigger problems than simply being lonely or in a bad relationship. Maybe the helpee has depression or some other significant issue and the helper can’t just fix that or make it better. Then the helpee will start to resent the helpee for still being unhappy or broken despite getting to be in this wonderful relationship with the helper. It totally destroys the helper’s mental narrative and fairytale vision of fixing the helpee and how if the helpee would simply be with them, then everything would be great. But the helpee still needs help – real help – and isn’t getting it. And the helper starts to begrudge being cast in the role of relationship partner who does not magically make their partner’s life happy and lovely and glorious.

    Neither of these scenarios tends to go well. And that’s assuming the helper doesn’t start doing things to make the helpee continue to need the sort of help the helper can provide. I think that’s a possible outcome, but not one I have personally witnessed.

    If you want to play supportive quasi-therapist to a friend, you get to do that. But I would strongly encourage anyone who does that to remember that professional therapists are not involved with the lives of their clients. And this is important because it keeps them objective. They don’t have a personal stake, and they do not have anything to lose. Even if you were trained as a professional therapist, which I am assuming you are not, it would be a massive ethics breach to try to “fix” somebody you are closely involved with. If you feel somebody needs that sort of help, you can suggest they get that sort of help from a therapist who isn’t part of their social circle. But you don’t get to be therapist and lover in a healthy, ethical way. And given that Emma is already an ex, a serious step back from any therapisty like behaviors is a very good idea.

    I agree with the Captain’s advice for the letter writer to focus more on non-Emma things and activities. Emma and him do not seem to mix well for either of them. And if he does decide to continue interactions with Emma when the school year starts up again, I’d strongly recommend doing so as an equal – someone who assumes that their friends are roughly equally good at running their lives as they are, someone who lets their friends run their own lives and focuses more on what decisions and issues they have for themselves. There’s nothing wrong with giving advice when it’s asked for or being emotionally supportive, but it should generally roughly balance.

    And if you can’t respect Emma, then I think you are right that it does damage the friendship. That’s okay. You’re allowed to not respect someone else’s choices. That just means you need to tell Emma that you need some time apart. When you can’t interact positively with a friend, then you can politely tell them you won’t be interacting with them. Emma isn’t entitled to your time or attention, and if you can’t give it in a healthy manner, you certainly can ethically choose to not give it at all. But please, don’t interact as a friend with someone you don’t respect. That way leads to subtle psychological poison.

    • Jane said:

      Yes A+ this comment. I have found that often the helpee generally is getting better and doesn’t get better — because people are complex! some things get easier, some thing get harder, and it changes by the day! — and the helper gets super duper frustrated because expectations and needs are changing all the time. Therapists are trained and paid to deal with this, LW! You are not.

    • I’d think that the first scenario is not a risk.

      I mean, if your honest goal there is to be a helper, you do build a degree of trust, but of course you won’t be hanging out with the person a lot afterwards unless you find an event/hobby you both happen to attend/partake in. And I think that building that trust is a beautiful thing even if it doesn’t culminate in a close friendship.

      The second scenario would only be the case if you were a bad helper, right? I mean, if as a helper you find yourself getting angry at the other person and feeling bitter, that means that in some way their problems have transferred to you. Rather than actively helping and solely doing that by receiving the information they are giving you and presenting them with your perspective, now you are turning the responsibility of help on them, while still pretending you are helping them.

      At that point it’s more important to disengage because you present a risk to them rather than to still think of it as a risk to yourself.

      I agree with most or your final points. Treating friends as equals, being objective, and not having enough emotional investment to wreck yourself. I’m 1000% behind the conclusion to all this: if LW can’t respect Emma as a friend, that’s definitely a sign that something is wrong.

      I’m only disagreeing with the risks. I’ve been the “helper” in many situations, and there seems to be a lot of antagonism from commenters here about helpers. Your comment would be one of the more lenient ones, and as such perhaps easier to address directly. I’m friends with some “helpees” still, though none of them are “helpees” any longer. Some “helpees” I’ve lost contact with because of exactly that first scenario, where we found out that after our initial rapport due to the problem we were both wrapped up in, we actually didn’t have that much in common. Which is totally fine and never struck me as

      Oh No A Risk.

      Am I making sense here?

      • It sounds to me like what you’re talking about doesn’t have a romantic component to it. I am referring to cases that did, because this letter writer is also an ex-boyfriend. The second risk is specifically when the helpee does form a romantic relationship… and still has problems, because the problem wasn’t just Not Dating You (general you there). See, the letter writer seems to focus on the dating the other guy as the big focus of Emma’s issues, but there’s a very good chance that if Emma does have significant life issues that require help that they aren’t because of dating that guy and will not just go away if Emma dates the letter writer. And accepting that a friend is unhappy and going through some tough stuff is one thing, but accepting that your girlfriend is and that you weren’t the thing that would fix it all and make her happy is a whole lot tougher.

        I think being the designated helper in a relationship (general sense of the word, any sort of relationship) is a position of power. Using a position of power to try to get someone to date you strikes me as abuse of power 101, like the most basic and obvious form of an abuse of power. And that seems to be what the letter writer is doing. Even just trying to use it get a closer friendship for yourself is an abuse of power. So, basically, this letter writer is not up for the role. You have to be able to accept some painful realities like it’s a distancing role not a close one and you still can’t make anyone do what you think is best, and that isn’t even what your role in it is before I think you’re likely to be able to really be a helpful helper. It also is important to be good at setting boundaries, so you don’t end up with it causing you problems. Helpers without good boudnary-setting is a recipe for somebody getting hurt. It’s so hard that I think it is generally best to only dabble lightly and generally leave these things to professionals. Especially if the problem seems significant (like possible diagnosable depression, which seems like we don’t have enough info to know if it’s a thing here, but the letter writer seems to imply it might be). If something more significant is even a possibility, it’s so much better to make sure an expert in that sort of thing checks and helps. You don’t want to be the helper who prevented somebody from getting the medical treatment they needed. Or the one who kept them from mentioning it to their doctor, because they had some help, and oops, it was the first symptom of something physical. A lot of physical, treatable ailments have psychological effects. Helpers just aren’t qualified to screen people for sleep disorders, autoimmune disorders, cancer, depression, anxiety, etc. Even if you are trained, you probably don’t have access to enough of the helpee’s medical info.And most of us are not trained; I certainly am not. This is why often if it’s more serious, strongly encourage someone to talk to someone who is trained. Why get unprofessional somewhat useful helping when you can get actual treatment?

        The letter writer seems to really feel that the primary thing Emma needs is him. And I’ve seen that dynamic before. And I’ve seen the Emma in it get together with that guy. And I’ve seen that guy have a whole lot of trouble accepting that the Emma still had a whole lot of problems and it wasn’t primarily about who was being dated at all.

        Since the letter writer is an ex-boyfriend, the chance to be the objective, more distant friend does not exist. Especially since the letter writer constantly mentions strong desires to be closer to Emma. You can sometimes help friends and be a consistent helper and have it not blow up, but as you seem to recognize, it requires a more distant sort of friendship – one with a lot more boundaries. And it’s really something the friend needs to be on-board with. I see this most often happening with a large age disparity (although I do not think that is inherently required), where one person is more the nice, sage older person who is sought for advice and guidance. That can be a healthy relationship, but it gets creepy really fast if the sage, older person starts hitting on the person romantically. I’ve done this sort of role a little, especially in special circumstances where we volunteered together and I explicitly was in a position of authority. And one of the things that made it not turn into a horrible mess was I had a lot of really strict boundaries. The more I was in this role, the more it meant I couldn’t be the relaxed person around those people, because I always had to present carefully. A small degree of annoyance or disappointment at someone that I would not worry about just talking to a friend about could be seen as a significant threat to someone’s ego when I was in this role, because you can’t just unstep down from being the source of guidance. It’s like how you wouldn’t use a child you were actively raising as your venting source. Maybe later, when you can transition to a relationship of adults, but there’s a power dynamic in play when you’re the helper, and it requires being a lot more careful and responsible and accepting that it is a different kind of relationship.

        • Thank you for your thoughts. This was an extremely helpful reply for me, and has made me rethink things in a good and healthy way, I think.

          The romantic component was something I kind of associated as separate from the helper desire somehow or other, but you’re right, they can intersect in many unpleasant rather than pleasant ways. The power dynamic is also something interesting that I haven’t considered. I always felt so…idk…honored??? that people thought I was worth trusting that I saw myself more as in a serving role rather than in a dominant role.

          The point about professional vs. unprofessional treatment is also an interesting tidbit. I tend to think of most problems of the sort presented by LW as things that don’t *require* professional treatment, because getting professional treatment is kind of an acknowledgment that things are no longer salvageable by normal means. You’ve now turned that on its head by pointing out that we deserve the best treatment possible, and normal means are not that “best”.

          I think I will have to disagree with that last point personally, but it depends on the luck of the draw in terms of friends and what skill-sets they have, as well as how aware one is of friend skill-sets, I guess. I tend to assume that if someone comes to me for non-venting help, they actually want that personal assistance rather than something professional. The resources are something I often make people aware of, I just dislike pushing them toward resources in a case of what sounds like standard relationship blegh.

          Overall though, again, thank you for taking the time to write that out. It really opened doors for me, thoughtspace-wise. :)

          • The problem is that your friends probably aren’t medical experts either. Have personal story time. It wasn’t long after I’d graduated from college. I was being a young adult and trying to support myself for the very first time. I was also in my first professional job. And it was going horribly. I was incredibly anxious, and it got bad enough that I started having general anxiety about everything, even little things like going outside to get the mail. I thought this was a difficult psychological issue. I thought I was trying to adapt. But it got worse. Eventually it culminated in what I felt must be a nervous breakdown. And I went to a doctor about it… and the doctor’s very first thought was thyroid disorder. He ran a lot of tests, and sure enough, all of my thyroid labs were abnormal. My immune system had started attacking my thyroid. And the symptoms were treatable. Treatment was amazing. I think I did some pretty bad damage to my cognitive functioning by not getting treated sooner, because I was having a ton of cognitive symptoms by the time I finally did seek treatment. But I really thought I had a psych problem, and hey, doesn’t anxiety sound like a psychological problem? But that’s the difference between a layperson and a medical expert. The medical expert knows (or should know) what the other possibilities are and can check to make sure they are ruled out.

            When a friend is having an ongoing issue, it could be something that you can help with (although if it keeps ongoing and not getting better, then that is a clear indicator that you are not enough), but it could also be a symptom of a problem being ignored. A lot of my teen and college emotional stress was probably severely augmented by my then-undiagnosed sleep disorder. Live and learn. Turns out sleep disorders really mess with your emotional well-being.

            Talking to friends is great. But so is making sure friends have talked to professionals. It’s bad enough being the person who didn’t realize I needed medical help for myself, but how bad would I feel if a friend were using me instead of a professional and then it turned out that friend was going to have significant lasting health damage due to a missed treatable illness?

            Sometimes you can be pretty sure it’s safe to help out. And if you’re supplemental help, then that’s fantastic. You can be the supportive friend that they go to to cheer up after they’ve gone to their doctor and/or therapist. Or if it’s a clear, obvious issue that is time-limited, when you can point to the outside cause and things seem to be getting better quickly, sure you still may miss something big due to coincidental timing, but generally this is a good place for friend-helping.

            But I’ve seen the pattern before where someone is all, I’d be happy if only I had X. Then you try to be supportive and help them get X (X is often something very reasonable and that the lack of would impair the happiness of most people). But then they go, I’d be happy if only I had Y. And the lack of Y is also pretty reasonable to be upset about, so that kinda makes sense too. But then someday they get Y, and then it’s Z and you realize, while the lack of X, Y, and Z were real problems, they aren’t happy because they have depression and you helping them to get X, Y, and Z was good, but until something works for the actual depression, they’re just not going to be happy. And I think a lot of helpers end up thinking someone needs X, when they really need help with depression or anxiety. If someone doesn’t need more significant help, then why are you the designated helper in the relationship? Usually when someone doesn’t need that sort of help, then the helping goes back and forth and is pretty balanced. So, the very fact that you’re always the helper is a warning sign, unless there is a very good reason, such as you aren’t in a friendship of equals but are in a mentoring role or some other relationship where being the consistent helper makes a lot more sense.

      • Cari said:

        Can’t speak for anyone else obviously, but my feelings regarding Helpers are negative for the Bad Helpers, not the Good Helpers. It’s pretty clear some Helpers are not helping out of the best interests of the Helpee, or are acting out of some need to control. Those are the Bad Helpers :) Not all Bad Helpers are lost causes, but certainly some of the Bad Helpers can be downright dangerous people, and it appears from the comments there’s quite a few of us who have been Helpees of the dangerous Bad Helpers… which is where the animosity towards Helpers may be coming from.

        Also in the interest of full disclosure (or w/e it is called?), I also have Helper tendencies and this post and the comments have given me food for though regarding which way I lean (and how to avoid stepping into Bad Helper territory).

    • purple0 said:

      I’ve been on both sides and here’s the thing, too: in some relationships that depend on one person being broken and the other person fixing them, the only way for the designated fix-ee to actually get better is to exit the dynamic. I had a friendship develop this dynamic after I went through a bad breakup and some anxiety and depression, and I am not proud that in the process of recovery I burned that friendship to the ground – but the other person couldn’t handle my needs changing, and neither of us understood what was happening or how to change it in a healthy way. For me the final straw was figuring out how badly both of us had slipped into seeing us as unequals and seeing me as The One With Problems; realizing that a friend doesn’t respect you, in that way, can be fucking devastating. It’s been a year and I’m still sad about it all the time – and I’ve also made huge strides in actually dealing with my shit now that I’m handling my problems with professionals and now that I’m not in a major relationship where maintaining equilibrium requires staying in that patient role. Codependency has a lot to answer for.

      (When I was in the opposite role, it was over a romantic partner who’d made me part of his avoidance around some major health issues. The more I pushed, the more he refused to deal with them. When we broke up, the next thing he did was actually start handling his health. Maybe it was a similar thing, I don’t know, I can just say that breaking the dynamic seems to be central to change.)

      • fredmounts said:

        My problem is figuring out how to work through the damage I caused when I didn’t understand what was happening to me combined with guilt over not getting help sooner. I’m in therapy, but either my dysthymia or ingrained thought patterns seems to be preventing CBT from doing much good.

  23. Yes to everything above: regardless of whether you’re right about the dude at home being a toxic influence on Emma, it’s still not your place to tell her what to do and certainly not to scold or punish her for not taking your advice.

    Is there a name for the fallacy that is the classic Nice Guy belief that “I treat her better than he does” proves that “She should be with me instead of him”? LW, I’m taking at face value your claim that you do actually treat her well and aren’t, say, irritating her by being patronizing, controlling, etc. But the thing is, the two of you are not the only other people left in the world, so dumping him doesn’t automatically mean going out with you! And if she prefers him to you, it’s probably not because she doesn’t believe that being treated well is a good thing, it’s because there are OTHER FACTORS that make him so much more attractive to her that she will choose him over you *despite* him not always treating her that well. In other words, she’s probably Just Not That Into You, and no amount of being nice (or passive-aggressively “nice”) or trying to logic her into seeing the error of her ways or waiting for her to have a sudden epiphany is going to make any difference. I mean, LW’s problems go beyond just this but it’s something I see so much I couldn’t resist commenting on it.

  24. Anisoptera said:

    Hey LW, I think a bit like the Captain I used to be that helpful (yet possibly controlling and certainly not respecting of boundaries) person. Here are some things I’ve learnt about it.

    I have terrible self esteem, my upbringing was not great and tought me not to value myself. I’m only now in my mid 30s realising the extent of this. There are a couple of stupid ways I work around this – one my achievements are really important to me, so I’m a perfectionist and I get really messed up by failure at anything. Because my worth = what I do and how other people value it.

    The second stupid thing is believing on some unconscious level that other people couldn’t possibly value me for me. So instead I like to help people.
    To be understanding. To be always accommodating. When I’m supplying some tangible value to a relationship I’m happy, but I get really really uncomfortable when it’s just my company I’m supplying, as if that couldn’t possibly be enough. This means people who are in (or seem to be in) a bad messed up place and need help are the people I end up with. Because I can listen and comfort them and give them advice (and maybe feel competent in comparison, like the Captain said). And I don’t feel like I can ever need anything for myself, or demand anything, or expect anything.

    This was never a conscious choice. I just ended up having these really intense conversations with people where they told me about their woes and I comforted them and dispensed advice. That was how I formed bonds with people.

    The massive catch with this is that it’s really easy to be used by people when you’re like this. It’s easy to be someone’s college relationship, who they dump for their back-home relationship in the holidays, for example. It’s easy to be so giving and understanding that you never notice you’ve ended up with someone who won’t be there for you when you finally do need something (because we all need/want stuff eventually). It’s easy to start feeling entitled to something for all the uncomplaining and unasked effort you’ve put in. And it’s easy to end up connecting with people by helping them with their issues, only to end up losing respect for them because of those issues, and because you’ve put yourself above them as advice-giver. And it’s easy to form a relationship that actually has no common ground other than helping them with their issues.

    Basically it goes nowhere good. Especially in the long term, because the kind of person who sticks with you when you’re like that is usually someone who loves a one sided relationship where their partner does all the heavy lifting.

    LW – value yourself. You want a girlfriend who wants you back enthusiastically. You want friends on an equal footing who you think are awesome as much as they think you are awesome. It’s OK to have feelings for Emma, and to feel hurt that she left you and got back together with the other dude – you don’t have to bury those under a mountain of “for her own good” excuses and weirdness. Let her choose what’s for her own good, and you choose what’s for yours, even if that’s just not being as close to Emma for a while as you grieve and move on.

    • newlife said:

      “the kind of person who sticks with you when you’re like that is usually someone who loves a one sided relationship where their partner does all the heavy lifting”
      This – so much this!

    • Beth said:

      Oh my god you have just made me uncomfortably aware of my own patterns in frirndships. Not with everyone, but there are too many people where i try to help because i think my own self isn’t enough to bring to a friendship. Food for thought. Thank you.

  25. TK said:

    Ohhh, LW. Oh, dear. I feel like there’s some sort of weird cosmic scheme going on, because just today I had to deal with a friend who has the same sort of “helper” mentality you do, and he just failed at “helping” a woman he was in love with for some time, so he’s now trying to “help” my former Darth Vader, who used to get his “help” from me… it’s like an endless cycle of bad.

    The Captain and other commenters have all given excellent advise so far on why this is Not Healthy, so I’ll just add what I told my friend, because this is what really helped me get out of this mindset. Maybe try a little thought experiment with me: try thinking of this whole thing as a movie. Since we’re talking about Emma’s problems, let’s have Emma be the protagonist.

    Thing is, you don’t actually know what role you play in her story. Maybe you’re a friend, maybe a really important one. Maybe you’re a Love Interest, maybe THE Love Interest. You don’t know and can’t control that, because the one thing you’re DEFINITELY not is the director.

    You don’t actually know where her character development is going or how long it will take to get there. You don’t know the magic words to say that will stick with her and inspire her to make the “right” decision. You don’t even know what this part of her life is supposed to be ABOUT, or how she’ll think of it years down the road. You can’t really make yourself a bigger part of her life (or make another guy a smaller part), no matter how logical it seems to you. No one has that kind of power, nor should they.

    All you can really do is treat her (and yourself!) with dignity, respect her decisions, and continue on with your own story.

    (And, side note: you’re not obligated to be “just platonic friends” with someone when your attraction is too mighty for you to ignore! You don’t have to be friends like nothing’s wrong if you’re unhappy/dissatisfied and need some distance from them! It’s okay to just pull back for a bit, and you don’t have to sit them down later and explain how you’re so disappointed. I just had my “helpful friend” say that to me, right down to him trying to tell me how much I’ve grown and how I’m now taking a step backward. It didn’t make me feel like he cared; it made me feel horribly disrespected and condescended to. Please don’t do that.)

  26. 30ish said:

    The picture that came up in my head while reading this was of someone trying to keep their garden tidy in the midst of a raging storm, asking “how can I keep gardening effectively in the storm?”, when in reality that’s just not possible and what you need to garden is good weather. Only in this case you actually have some control over whether the weather is stormy or sunny. OK, this may have been a bad metaphor. What I’m trying to say is that sometimes people decide that they will keep someone (or something) in their lives, no matter what the cost is to them emotionally, and then do an elaborate dance to make the consequences more acceptable. A part of that will usually be a lot of analyzing of the thing or person they can’t let go of, and a ton of rationalizing. A sign that that’s happening is if you catch yourself devoting considerable headspace to analyzing another person’s actions. If you have to do that, that’s a sign that the relationship you have is toxic.

    I think there’s no healthy alternative to reducing contact with Emma and deciding that you’ll never get back together. The solution is the one thing you’re refusing to consider – stop being friends with Emma! There’s simply no way for you to get her to do what you want (which is a good thing). She’ll do what she wants. The only thing you can do is disengage. If you stop talking to her, you WILL eventually notice the feelings fade and care less about her.

  27. lynda said:

    ooh, timely. Thanks, Captain and commenters.

  28. Joan of anon said:

    I think this comment sums up what you’re doing at the moment, LW. Don’t be that guy.

  29. Light said:

    LW, I think the best thing you can do is to realize that there is only one expert on Emma’s life, and it ain’t you.

    If you do want to be her friend, as opposed to “that guy I briefly dated who thinks he knows what I want better than I do,” then step back. Let Emma make mistakes, or simply choices that aren’t what you think are best for her. Maybe spending time around her ex is a mistake, maybe it isn’t. She’s the only one who can make that call.

    Something else to consider- by “fixing” things for Emma, you’re blocking her from developing and using her own coping skills. That is not a kind thing to do for either of you.

    And lastly, if you really don’t respect her now, do both of you a favor and don’t be around her or in contact with her.

  30. Corsen said:

    “My family had just moved to a remote location with a harsh winter, and was alone for break. It was hell.

    This took an emotional toll on me. When we returned to campus, things weren’t the same. She broke up with me after a week with no clear reason.”

    LW, this is just speculation, but there might be information here about what you can expect from Emma if you try to reset the relationship dynamic. It sounds like winter break, and the time back on campus, was a moment when you needed to focus on your own needs more, so you acted less inexhaustibly attentive. Out of sheer fatigue, you were forced to back away from the tried-and-true interaction of her needing help and your offering support. That could be exactly why things “weren’t the same,” and why the relationship didn’t seem to be working as well.

    I don’t mean to open a door to exploring all the reasons Emma broke up with you– the Captain is right to say that her reason to break up with you is that she wanted to break up with you. But this crossed my mind because i have absolutely been in relationships that fell apart this way. I have been the person receiving an unbalanced, unhealthy, skin-crawly amount of support. As soon as my partner faced some big life issues, our dynamic fell apart. We couldn’t keep playing the parts of Rational Helper and Fucked Up Helpee, and we honestly didn’t like each other very much outside those codependent roles.

    LW, it sounds like there was already a moment when you tried (or were forced to) behave differently around Emma. Maybe you didn’t intend to withdraw your support but were so emotionally tapped out you couldn’t keep going at 200% helpfulness intensity. You weren’t able to transition to a different dynamic with Emma then, and this could be a predictor of what happens if you try to reset the relationship again.

  31. This doesn’t address the messy romantic feelings in your particular situation, LW, but here’s a story about the helping urge and its attendant frustrations.

    Years ago, a woman I knew was dating one guy but still had feelings for her ex, who wanted her back. The woman and the ex, both good friends, unloaded on me frequently; her boyfriend and I were less close, but he also unloaded from time to time. I was more a Listener than a Helper. I didn’t have much advice to give. Still, every once in a while I would give it, and because I wasn’t constantly telling them what I thought they should do, they didn’t resent it.

    But not one of them ever followed my advice.

    One night, I found myself wishing that they’d listen to me. I imagined them as little kids who’d climbed into a car, locked the doors, and disengaged the emergency break. The car had rolled out of the driveway and was making its way down the street. I was running alongside the car, beating my fists against the window, yelling instructions, begging them to LET ME IN so I could save them.

    Then I realized.

    1. My friends are not children.
    2. I am not in the car. I will never be in the car.

    What I’ve learned is, the sooner you can make peace with being outside the car, the better it will be for your mental health.

  32. Anyanka said:

    LW, you mention over and over again that you’re just Emma’s friend. But at the same time, you aren’t acting like her friend. You aren’t acting like a romantic partner. You’re acting like a possessive, creepy Nice Guy. You sound angry because Emma is *daring* to make choices that you don’t like and you don’t trust her to make her own decisions. You admit you don’t respect her and you don’t sound like you’re happy around her, either.

    It’s time to face up to the fact that you’re not Emma’s-friend-just-trying-to-help-her, you’re Emma’s-creepy-ex-trying-to-control-her. And it’s time to leave that relationship and go take a cold, hard look at yourself and not try to play White Knight ever again.

  33. sorcharei said:

    “I absolutely adore this girl”

    No, actually, you don’t, at least not based on what you wrote. You adore your idea of who she would be if she lived her life the way you think she should and made the choices you would prefer she made. That person you adore? Is a person you made up inside your head. All that helping you are doing? It’s really just your attempt to take a real person and force her to change n order to turn her into that made-up person.

    In general, you cannot be a good partner for anyone you cannot see clearly. As long as you keep trying to have a relationship with someone who doesn’t exist, all the while trying to convince her to become that version if her you carry around in your head, there will be no workable relationship.

    Emma exists. She is a person, one with agency and power over her own choices. She is not a pale reflection of the person you know she could be. If you insist on continuing to be involved with her (in any way whatsoever), make it your goal to find out who she is. Stop trying to decide who she ought to be. (And especially stop trying to advise, help, convince, logic, badger and manipulate her into being that person.)

    Instead, approach her with an air of respectful curiosity. Who is she? Who would she like to be five years from now? What does she like? What scares her? What makes her giggle?

    Right now, it seems like you have this idea of who she ought to be. She is not that person. I say this partly because you are going out of your way to deny that she is who she is and that you don’t actually like that person she is all that much. From what you write, it looks like you dislike her in proportion to the distance between who she is and who you wish she were.

    So stop it. Explore who she is. Listen to her when she says who she is. Find out what the world looks like from where she is. Investigate (in a non-creepy way) how she situates herself in her world. What is her favorite color? What book does she love even though she knows the Suck Fairy has visited it? If she had to eat the same supper every day for,a week, what would it be? Ask her questions, not to “help” her change her ideas so that they match yours, but so you can listen to her answers.

    Emma is not a figment of your imagination who, for some reason, fails to act like you imagine she should. She is a human being, complex and confusing and convoluted. Get out of your fantasy and get to know her. Maybe you will find that you like her a lot, and maybe you will find that you don’t care for her all that much. At least you will be relating to an actual person, which is way more interesting than relating to a fantasy.

    • Cypress said:

      I spent about fifteen minutes yesterday trying to figure out a way to articulate precisely this and ended up throwing up my hands in despair, so huzzah, sorcharei! LW, if you’re still reading, please give some serious thought to this excellent advice. I spent most of my freshman and sophomore years of college in love with an idealized version of one of my tribe, and dude, seriously, you do not need to go there. (And having already gone there, you now want to get out.) Mostly because there is no universe in which this story ends well: someone who does not exist will never–can never–be either a friend or a lover. Grieve your relationship with the Emma-shaped person in your brain, get to know the real Emma if you so desire, and move on. Easier said than done? Hell, yes. But necessary.

  34. So, why is it important as a friend to say “I don’t feel comfortable talking about your relationship with your ex with you?”, for example? I don’t really understand how that’s healthy for either person, since if he has to say that line, that presumes that Emma has already started initiating the conversation and wants to talk about it. He clearly does too. How does saying that line help either person in terms of consent?

    There’s also a lot of this recommendation in the commentary that he should refer her to a counselor, but honestly if I were in trouble in my relationship I’d prefer for a friend, even an ex, to just give me an opinion rather than forwarding me to a counselor. Honestly that seems more pretentious than just giving me an opinion. Am I missing something?

    Also Cap recommends he see a counselor about helping impulses…which I wouldn’t see as helpful. LW’s thought process behind helping is definitely controlling, but the impulses themselves strike me as healthy empathy? Healthy empathy, in fact, that sometimes I find myself wishing I had more of, especially during depressive episodes. Like, I legitimately asked my counselor how to get MY “helping impulses” back.

    • It’s…really those three points I’m having problems processing. I definitely agree with the rest of the commentary here: that the LW’s phrasing leaves much to be desired and sounds both creepy and patronizing.

      I agree that providing unsolicited advice is not helpful, and that in the end Emma’s agency is the thing that takes precedent over whatever LW’s analysis of the situation.

      Furthermore, I’d agree that he needs to acknowledge his desire to be more than friends and to find some way to come to terms with that besides hanging out with Emma and being solely relegated to this role of helper-friend. I agree that stepping back and looking at how he views the situation as “him explaining to her” is absolutely necessary, and that planning this conversation out months in advance is setting off warning bells.

      But yeah. Those points above confuse me.

    • lliira1 said:

      He wants in her pants. He’s jealous of her maybe-ex. He is not a disinterested party here. Talking about her ex is only going to cause a confused entangling of his wants, her wants, probably her ex’s wants… massive drama at the least. Also, all this drama is preventing either Emma or LW from finding out what they really want, because what they really want is imperceptible through the smoke of this drama fire. (Hi, stretched metaphor.) Honestly, I suspect this drama fire is what’s keeping LW so fixated on Emma.

      As for wanting an opinion from a friend rather than a therapist: would you rather have your appendix removed by a friend than a doctor? Please don’t put your friends in the position of trying to do emotional surgery on you. And having a “helping” impulse is great and can be used in many positive ways, like volunteering for good causes. LW’s helping impulse has been warped into a controlling impulse, in which he thinks if he could only CHANGE this woman, specifically her romantic life (eesh), she would be perfect and perfect in his bed too. Pygmalion is not a positive role model.

      • So…I get how the helping impulse has been warped. You invoking Pygmalion definitely helped me see why it would be in her best interests not to talk to him. Thank you for that!

        I do take issue with your appendix analogy though. By extending that, you’d be condemning all people who have ever gone to a friend for emotional advice in the position of “putting their friends in the position of trying to do emotional surgery”, which I think is hardly fair. Perhaps, for Emma in the moment, going to a non-LW friend would be beneficial rather than to a marriage counselor. I might want a doctor to remove my appendix, but I would not go to a doctor to apply a bandage on a hard-to-reach spot (say, a small incision in the middle of the back) if I had a friend available.

        • lliira1 said:

          I used the appendix thing rather than something less severe on purpose. If you need a bandaid, asking a friend is perfectly legit. If you need surgery, you need to go to a doctor.

          If you just need a friend to lean on for a bit, that’s fine. If you’re taking your serious emotional/relationship issues that never go away to a friend rather than to a therapist, that’s not okay. I don’t see Emma’s situation as a bandaid one, but as an appendix one.

    • I’d say because he’s tried helping and it hasn’t helped Emma and it has damaged his relationship with Emma. So, clearly the pattern he is in is broken, so it’d be good for him to start a new pattern. A pattern where he doesn’t put himself in the role of helper who listens to stuff about Emma’s ex might be functional. Or it might not, in which case another new pattern should be tried (like maybe not hanging out with Emma at all). But what good does it do to keep maintaining a pattern that we know is causing harm?

      I’d also say that most impulses start from a good place. But seeing a counselor about helping impulses might help the letter writer to find a healthy way to express those impulses. The point is not to stop caring about people or wanting them to be helped, but to learn when and how it is appropriate to act on that. To learn healthy patterns. I don’t think counselors generally even attempt to make you stop feeling basic emotional reactions to events. I’m pretty sure the focus is usually on processing and responding to that in better ways.

      • I like the “pattern” framing. It helps me kind of take myself out of the situation personally and yeah, it does help me see things in the letter more objectively, and now that portion does make sense to me.

        Learning healthy patterns is definitely a good way to look at it. It’s also a nice framework because it puts both LW and me in the “going through unhealthy patterns” box rather than me in the “no helping impulses” and him in the “helping impulses” and having us swap boxes despite both being a “bad place” for us.

        Thank you for the teaching moment!

    • sorcharei said:

      I agree that LW is showing empathy, but LW also has unhealthy impulses. Here are some:

      — denying Emma agency when she does something LW does not like (attributing her seeing the ex to “default” behavior instead of to Emma’s choice to do so)

      — lecturing, hectoring, and telling her what to do instead of supporting her in living her life

      — the impulse to interpret Emma’s individual choices about her life as making her untrustworthy

      — the impulse to act like Emma’s parent when the two of them are apparently peers

      To me, impulses are expressed in actions. The underlying feelings may be positive and helpful or not. You can do useful things for bad reasons and take less than ideal actions because of helpful feelings.

      In fact, “but my intentions are to help you!” is a very common way to avoid looking at what one’s actions are actually doing. Seeing a counselor in a case like this isn’t about shutting down empathy; it’s about learning new ways of acting on empathy that are helpful for both parties. Right now, we may have some LW empathy, but we also have inappropriate actions justified by that empathy. Not to mention a friendship that they once both valued which is causing both of them pain right now

    • JenniferP said:

      I suggested a counselor because the LW wants to “help” Emma where “help” means “help her fall in love with him again.” He’s using some very troubling language to describe their relationship, one where he “sits her down” and tells her how to live her life, gives her the silent treatment when she doesn’t do what he wants, and is planning months ahead to tell her how disappointed he is in her choices. He says in the letter that he doesn’t like her or respect her much anymore.

      If Emma is so in need of help that dealing with all of that looks like a good plan, a counselor (which young, college-aged people don’t always have on their radar as a thing you can do and don’t need to be in dire trouble to access) might give her some better perspective than her ex who is very, very, very disappointed in her.

    • Jacuzziant wrote: ‘So, why is it important as a friend to say “I don’t feel comfortable talking about your relationship with your ex with you?”, for example? I don’t really understand how that’s healthy for either person, since if he has to say that line, that presumes that Emma has already started initiating the conversation and wants to talk about it. He clearly does too.’

      What the LW wants here isn’t any version of the conversation that’s actually going to happen. He wants the fantasy version he imagines will happen, in which Part 1 consists of him convincing her she shouldn’t go back to her ex, and Part 2 (possibly at a later date) is the part in which, as a result of his Great Helpfulness plus ex now being out of the picture, Emma falls in love with him and they live happily ever after.

      This is not going to happen. What is actually going to happen, in such conversations, is a lot of Emma visibly *not* falling in love with him or being delighted to throw over her ex for him just because he says so. (He *might*, if he browbeats her enough, convince her not to see her ex again, but browbeating isn’t a good way for the conversation to be going and should be abandoned by the LW as an option.) This means that all possible healthy non-coercive versions of The Conversation About Emma’s Ex are going to be uncomfortable for the LW, and thus the healthiest thing he can do in this situation is consciously give up on the idea that these conversations are going to lead to the outcome he wants, and disengage from them, at least until he’s had a real chance to get properly over his dream of Emma-as-potential-romantic-partner.

      As for Emma, she clearly *does* want to have this conversation, and clearly should be having it with someone, but that someone does not have to be the LW, and her desire for him to be the one she has the conversation with is outweighed here by his right to opt not to have a conversation that’s going to be painful and awkward and fuel the ‘But eventually she’ll realise *I’m* the one she wants!’ fantasy he’s secretly nurturing in his inmost heart. So, if he does decide to go with the ‘embargo on talking about romantic stuff with Emma’ choice, then he gets to do that and she needs to take this conversation elsewhere, whether that’s a counsellor or simply a less involved friend.

    • Vicki said:

      Consent isn’t always about going with your impulses: it can also mean choosing to do, or not do, something because you have thought about it and decided that acting on impulse would be bad for you. Consider anyone who turns down a food that they like but are allergic to, or deciding to study for an exam instead of going to a party. You don’t have to ask for, or accept, things that seem as though they would feel good, if you expect that the aftermath would feel bad.

      The Captain’s advice is based on the idea that the ongoing relationship discussions aren’t helping LW, and probably aren’t helping Emma. Given that, it’s a good idea for the LW to tell Emma that she should talk to someone else about this, maybe a counselor, or maybe other friends without the emotional investment. LW wrote in and asked the Captain for advice; that’s implicit but pretty clear consent for her to offer some.

    • Also Cap recommends he see a counselor about helping impulses…which I wouldn’t see as helpful. LW’s thought process behind helping is definitely controlling, but the impulses themselves strike me as healthy empathy?

      I know I used to be a compulsive helper, and if I hadn’t worked through those issues extensively with a therapist, I would have run my life into the ground. Empathy isn’t just a one-way scale of “wanting to help people good, not wanting to help people bad.” Empathy literally means your ability to understand the emotions of others, and is totally different from whether or not you act on that understanding. Helping people means achieving a balance between distance and closeness–if you’re too close, you’re trampling on their feelings and desires with all your advice and opinions, and you’re not giving them the space and respect they need to flourish.

      Sometimes, being a consistent emotional helper means being someone a) with low self-esteem who feels the need to “make up for” their perceived lack of value as a friend, and b) someone who has trouble putting up with emotional discomfort, so when people around them express difficult emotions, they feel the need to control that person’s emotional experience until the discomfort goes away.

      All of which a counsellor can definitely help with.

  35. Cyberwulf said:

    “why is it important as a friend to say “I don’t feel comfortable talking about your relationship with your ex with you?”, for example?”

    Because if he doesn’t feel comfortable talking about her relationship with her ex with her, how will she know that unless he says so?

    Like, this whole thing with sort-of-girlfriend and her ex is clearly upsetting the LW, whether you think he’s being a helper or an entitled nice guy or a creepy ex. Listening to friends and letting them vent is great and everything, but not if what they’re venting about winds you up or makes you upset. Example – I used to have a coworker who was extremely paranoid when it came to office politics, and always picked me to talk to whenever he wanted to unload all his negativity. While I’m grateful to coworker for giving me a heads-up on some things, because not all of it was paranoia on his end, in the end I began to feel fraught and nervous whenever we were alone together. I had conversations with him over lunch that left me unable to finish my food, because I found them so upsetting. I felt sorry for him because I had good reasons to believe I was probably the only person he could talk to, but I really wish I’d told him nicely to back off, because my own emotional health suffered.

    If being around someone is emotionally draining, and there’s not enough good stuff (or quality of good stuff) to compensate, it’s okay to walk away. If there’s just one subject that you literally cannot hear any more about, it’s okay to draw a boundary and say “I literally cannot listen to you talk about this any more”.

    “he has to say that line, that presumes that Emma has already started initiating the conversation and wants to talk about it. He clearly does too. How does saying that line help either person in terms of consent?”

    I have zero idea what you mean here.

    • THIS is SOOOOO important!
      CN:death, addiction

      This inability to say :” talk to a professional, I cant help you and furthermore listening to this is not good for me, so please stop talking to me about [topic x] can be VERY dangerous. Please please all people, learn that

      1. YOU DONT HAVE TO BE A COUNSELLOR OR TAKE ALL EMOTIONAL PROBLEMS OF PEOPLE YOU LIKE TO EARN THEIR LOVE/FRIENDSHIP.
      2. YOU DESERVE IT REGARDLESS!
      3. SAYING NO IS NOT A SIGN OF A BAD FRIENDSHIP BUT SELFCARE.
      (which is a fundamental thing for a healthy friendship/love)

      I am so adamant about it because this problem, this bug in the ‘can I help:
      jes or no’ pogramming circuit can crash the whole OS into a bluescreen of death.
      That happened to my mom. She learned that she got love and attention only when she ‘worked’ for it by being an emotional dumpingplace and that her mom only liked her when she ‘was’ happy(means: not allowed to be unhappy, so dont talk about your problems)
      Well in the 70 here people didnt go to a counselor and psychiatric hospitals were a boogeyman and only ‘really crazy’ people went there.(even her GP said to her that she wasnt ill enough to get therapy) so she started ‘self medication’…with alcohol. She got sober but relapsed after 12 years because a friend who was seriouly ill used her for therapy and she just could not say no, but also not ask for help(and was ashamed because of that stigma) she died of liver failure but this inability to say no to preserve her mental help and ask for help herself was her killer..
      So please.. know that nobody is required to put others before themselves to be a real friend.

  36. THIS is SOOOOO important!
    CN:death, addiction

    This inability to say :” talk to a professional, I cant help you and furthermore listening to this is not good for me, so please stop talking to me about [topic x] can be VERY dangerous. Please please all people, learn that

    1. YOU DONT HAVE TO BE A COUNSELLOR OR TAKE ALL EMOTIONAL PROBLEMS OF PEOPLE YOU LIKE TO EARN THEIR LOVE/FRIENDSHIP.
    2. YOU DESERVE IT REGARDLESS!
    3. SAYING NO IS NOT A SIGN OF A BAD FRIENDSHIP BUT SELFCARE.
    (which is a fundamental thing for a healthy friendship/love)

    I am so adamant about it because this problem, this bug in the ‘can I help:
    jes or no’ pogramming circuit can crash the whole OS into a bluescreen of death.
    That happened to my mom. She learned that she got love and attention only when she ‘worked’ for it by being an emotional dumpingplace and that her mom only liked her when she ‘was’ happy(means: not allowed to be unhappy, so dont talk about your problems)
    Well in the 70 here people didnt go to a counselor and psychiatric hospitals were a boogeyman and only ‘really crazy’ people went there.(even her GP said to her that she wasnt ill enough to get therapy) so she started ‘self medication’…with alcohol. She got sober but relapsed after 12 years because a friend who was seriouly ill used her for therapy and she just could not say no, but also not ask for help(and was ashamed because of that stigma) she died of liver failure but this inability to say no to preserve her mental help and ask for help herself was her killer..
    So please.. know that nobody is required to put others before themselves to be a real friend.

    • lliira1 said:

      This.

      There’s a lot of discussion about how abusers seek out a certain kind of person. Well, people who like to siphon all their crap into others seek out a certain kind of person too. “Boundary-challenged” is probably the major overlap in the victims here. I really identify with your mother — I’m lucky in that I basically told everyone to fuck off rather than becoming addicted to anything, but my life still derailed (depression) thanks to others using me the way that “friend” used your mother.

      It’s why, though LW is definitely in the wrong here, I don’t think Emma’s in the right either. They’re both getting something out of this nonsense they’re putting each other through

  37. Cari said:

    Reblogged this on heulwencadi.

  38. O'Doyle said:

    I once had a guy friend who would glom on to every non-related woman in his life. It started out with me being his emotional dumpster (to be clear, there have NEVER been any romantic feelings for him from my end. It has always been completely platonic) while he pined over someone half his age. It was obvious that she did not want to be with him, but he would doggedly pursue her in the typical “nice guy” fashion of pretending to be a friend but never stating his true feelings then wondering why it wasn’t happening. Over the course of a year, he began talking about her less because, unbeknownst to be at the time, he was turning his affections to me. It was so gradual that I didn’t notice for a while.

    The reason I bring this up is because he would do this “Oh come on! Talk to me! We’re friends!” spiel in order to foster a more intimate relationship with me and to arm himself with ammunition to make a case for himself. He’d say things like “I’m your friend. You’re supposed to tell me these things! Why won’t you talk to your friend?” Then I would reluctantly open up more in order to demonstrate that yes, he was my friend*. He would try to twist anything and everything I said about any other guy into him being “bad for me” whether or not it was actually true. He was doing it solely to prop himself up as the best choice for me and convince me to leave whoever I was with for him.
    In the end, when it was finally clear to him that I wasn’t going to change my mind and choose him (I’m a very direct person. I said exactly this many times: “I do not like you like that. I have never liked you like that and I never will.” and he still took that as a maybe), he yelled at me for not being a good enough friend because I used him to dump all my problems on. I was floored and angry. The thing is, he wasn’t yelling at me for not being a good enough friend. He was yelling at me because I wasn’t acting like his girlfriend. We haven’t been friends since. Maybe I’m putting this in where it doesn’t exist, but I get the impression from his letter (some little things that tip me off) that he’s the one pushing for the over-sharing in order to make the case for himself and to foster a more intimate relationship with her.

  39. Chuck said:

    As someone who has experienced Sister and Mother being very disrespectful to my autonomy and agency while simultaneously trashing me and one of my best friends in a really gross, vitriolic and hateful manner, this type of manipulative and controlling behaviour is the quickest way to get your friend to:

    a) feel like the biggest pile of complete shit of all time
    b) resent the ever-loving fuck out of you
    c) act accordingly and put distance between you in every. single. way. possible.

    LW as much as you may feel like you’re acting in your friends best interest, you’re not. You seem to be very much, coming from a place of fear. Of everything. Maybe your friend would be better off without a jerk-bag as a part time lover. But it’s not your call and it’s not your decision. Be the friend you desperately want to be and support her. If you can’t find the balance, tap out.

  40. Sam said:

    This guy once befriended me and then spent several months subtly manipulating me into wanting a relationship with him. By which I mean, he was attractive and intelligent and thoughtful and I’d had feelings for him but there was another guy he encouraged me to dump. He encouraged me *as my friend*, see, because I’d given him all this information b/c he was my friend. I gave his opinion weight b/c he was my friend. Only he had an agenda. Maybe he thought it was what was best for me, but it was what he personally wanted for himself, too. And he had the same traits as the guy he encouraged me to dump. So I identify with Emma, a lot.

    LW uses the word “naturally” A LOT in describing his relationship with Emma. It just honestly made me think the LW spent a while naturally pushing pieces into their natural places and when they were supposed to click naturally…they didn’t. Unnaturally. And he’s confused.

    LW isn’t Emma’s friend and isn’t interested in being her friend. So walking away is the best thing for them both.

    Sometimes we go for the douches that are “bad” for us because they are easier to identify. We can know what they’re going to say/do. The Nice Guys ping our radar but we can’t figure out why b/c they have such *nice* smiles and are so *polite* and *supportive*.

  41. Camocarrion said:

    Jeez, I was getting bad vibes throughout this letter but it’s the question of what LW can do to help Emma that seems most telling. What is it that you think Emma needs help with? Her having been somehow manipulated into speaking to her Ex again? Her supposed inability to maintain a healthy relationship? Her general emotional state?

    LW really needs to consider A) How many of these things Emma has actually asked for his help with, B) Whether these issues are a dealbreaker for any potential relationship between them and C) Whether it’s healthy to even be friends with someone that you think so little of. The vibe from this letter is that Emma is someone riddled with problems, and LW wants her to get better. But if that’s the case then the only relationship that’s likely to result is one that revolves around ‘fixing’ her. At best, if Emma genuinely does want LW’s help, this will still likely be too much to take on considering how little trust there is between them at this point. At worst, they try desperately to curb, control and ‘fix’ someone who didn’t want their help. Regardless of what LW think Emma needs, paying attention to what she /wants/ is what will tell them how to proceed here.

    C is the one that hits home for me, since I’ve been in relationships where the other person doesn’t think well of you and it’s always pretty awful. People can stay invested in each other for a number of reasons while not really respecting the other’s person’s decisions, and slowly building up this impression of them as unreliable and troubled. Either they go the way the LW seems to be leaning and constantly try to ‘fix’ you, or they stay invested enough to make criticisms and give half-hearted advice but don’t respect you enough to listen to you in return. Dating people you don’t respect is all kinds of awful, and it seems like the Captain is absolutely right to warn you off here.

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