I have an acquaintance who is getting on my nerves. I say acquaintance – he thinks we’re really good friends. I feel more like I’m spending time with him out of social responsibility, because he is incredibly lonely and incredibly unhappy (I’m one of a couple of people acting as cheerleaders to help him get some help for various problems he has, including some mental health issues). We have very little in common that brings us together outside of my concern for his wellbeing.
I can handle that – but what’s starting to bug me is that he’s incredibly touchy. INCREDIBLY. It’s nothing creepy, but definitely needy and clingy in a way I don’t like. I’m okay with sitting next to him and holding his hand while we talk, since touch is clearly important to him. I can deal with him crying on my shoulder, but often while he is doing that, he will hug me very tight, touch the back of my neck (clearly accidentally but still something I don’t like), and he’s started to tug on my arm insistently until I’ll put it around him too. Which I do, because, well, the guy’s crying – as well as awkward it feels mean to say ‘no, the touching stops here’ or ‘how about you stop crying so I can say I don’t like people touching my neck’. The touched-out feeling is also corresponding with a feeling of empathy-burnout, which doesn’t help – I don’t feel like being particularly comforting, I feel more like I want to crawl out of my skin.
My issue is – I want the excessive touching to stop. I can just quietly and gracefully let the acquaintance die, and leave the guy in a mystery as to why I no longer talk to him or visit, and hope that he can find other people to take up the slack in the support network. OR I can talk to him about it – but because both the touching and the dislike of the touching escalated slowly, it feels super incredibly awkward to say anything now. Particularly as I can’t just say it in the moment, because usually in the moment he’s in tears. Any advice?
A lonely unhappy person who doesn’t understand personal space? I can’t imagine why you are uncomfortable?
We covered how to handle the “no touching” talk in a past column (the circumstances were different, but enough of how you handle it is the same that it’s worth reading).
To sum up:
- You don’t have to submit to unwanted touching, even to spare other people’s feelings, and you can change/set the boundary at any time.
- I see what you’re saying about it being hard to say something in the moment. I think maybe you can start by sitting further away? And trying not to get drawn into the clinch to begin with? Or gently taking his hands and unwrapping yourself from them? At whatever that first touch is, just say gently, “I know you are sad, but I’m not comfortable with this.”
- The news “Hey, stop touching me so much” is never going to land particularly well, but a real friend would say “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize I was making you uncomfortable” and then stop it, and after some initial awkwardness things will even out. The chances of this guy going “Whyyyyyyyyyyy?’ and turning into a giant thing where by the end you are apologizing to him for rejecting him (instead of him apologizing to you for making you uncomfortable with too-frequent touching) and it is all about him and his pain are…high. You know they’re high. I know they’re high. Everyone reading this just took a shower.
What I really want to ask is, what’s your end game with all of this? Helping him through this current crisis is not bringing you two closer together, it’s making you dread seeing him. Can you see the day when the two of you will actually be friends and you’ll actually seek his company out of something other than concern or guilt? Or is he going to hang out awkwardly on the edges of your social circle, never quite invited in, the person who keeps getting invited to parties even though no one really wants him there?
Friendship is based on actual feelings of affection and reciprocity, not pity. I’m usually on the side of just getting the awkward feelings out in the open and dealing with them honestly, but sometimes bailing on a relationship that is draining you is the right answer, and you’re not obligated to teach other grownups how to be. If you want to invest further in the friendship, have a frank discussion with him about the touching. If you don’t want to invest further, Captain Awkward gives you permission: Refer him to as many helpful resources (mental health?) as you can and then employ the slow fade.