The Self-Centered Friend: Return of the Side-Eye (Question #115)

Firefly's Jayne gives the old side-eye
Jayne, not the most empathetic of men, gives your "friend" the side-eye.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’ve been reading your column for a while, and am dearly in need of advice. To cut right to the chase, I have a friend. He is a lovely lovely person, but there are some things about him that have been making maintaining that friendship well…difficult. Complicating this is the fact that both of us recently cut a mutual friend out of our lives (independently of each other and at different times) for much the same behavior. I have only been in this city a year and am in an extremely demanding job that makes making friends difficult in the first place, and we’ve been through a lot together (when he’s a good friend he’s really really amazing) so I don’t want to just cut another person out of my life, but I’m at a loss to figure out how to make this livable.

I guess what it comes down to is he is incredibly self centered. He’s kind and caring and really there for you when it works for him, but….he never meets someone halfway let alone on their terms. It’s his way or no way at all. He hardly ever comes to my house, though we live close. I’m at his place all the time, on his invitation. He consistently can’t make it when I invite him. When I am at his house he continues about his day like I wasn’t there. He hangs, but he’ll continue to answer emails, fix his bike, play guitar, even if I’m dying of boredom. He’s fine if you leave, but if I want to see him at all it’s 100% on his terms: his time, his place, his choice of activity. “No I won’t go get coffee with you and chat, but you can watch me play guitar!” Even when, say, I’d love to catch up or really need to talk. I tried bringing it up, but that brings me to the second point:


Omar from The Wire giving an exasperated side-eye.
Omar says "You've got a lot of heart, and I think you can do better."

He absolutely cannot take criticism. Of any type. I know for a fact I’m diplomatic in this area, but it’s not just direct criticism he can’t take. Any disagreement, even the type that would lead to a fun debate with others or just a normal difference of opinion (Him: That was a good band! Me: Meh, I didn’t like them. Him: Why must you insult my taste?!?) with him is a personal attack. When I was irritated that he seemed to feel I should be content to come over and listen to him play guitar when I just wanted to hang out with him, talk, do something together, he did NOT take it well, despite my bringing it up as mildly as I could manage. He said something today I found hurtful, something he’d said before that I’d just bitten my tongue about in the past. I find myself biting my tongue around him a lot. I told him I knew he didn’t mean it that way, but the way he was talking upset me. He as usual took it as a personal attack and left abruptly, despite my apologizing.

It’s getting to the point trying to hang out with him is almost to stressful to handle. Friends have disagreements and get on each others nerves. I’ve dealt with that on both sides. But it’s fine because you talk it out. What happens when you can’t talk it out? When you just have to smile and agree to whatever they say? To do whatever they want in order to see them? I can’t cut ties with him. It would decimate my already minuscule number of friends. I don’t want to either – he can be a better friend than most when it suits him. I just have no idea how to deal with this.

Thank you so much,
Resentful Doormat

Tim Olyphant as Raylan Givens delivers some side-eye.
Raylan Givens asks, "Why can't you just make some new friends?"

I hope he’s really, really good at guitar.

I don’t know if you’re going to like my advice, but I’m flashing back to this question and giving your friend the side-eye.

Listen, you can totally still be friends with this person as long as you accept that the friendship will take place 100% completely on his terms.  When you hang out, you will do so at his place, listening to him noodle around on his guitar and agreeing with everything he says unless you’d like a tiresome fight.

So only see him on those rare occasions that you’re looking for a night of listening to him play guitar and agreeing with whatever he says.  On all other nights of the year, spend whatever energy and love you would normally pour into maintaining and deepening a friendship with him into making some new friends who actually, I don’t know, are interested in things about you and can maintain a basic level of reciprocity?

And when you say “Let’s hang out!” and he says “Sure, come over and I’ll play guitar,” say “Eh, can’t we go out and grab some dinner?” and if he says “No, but come over!” say “Sorry, maybe next time.”   Like any time you enforce a boundary for the first time, it will feel super-weird for a short time and then it will feel normal and you’ll start feeling much better.

You don’t have to drop him from your life – I believe you that you’ve shared some good times – but you do have to teach yourself to need very little from him and to accept that he’s limited in what he can give you.  I would pour your limited time and  energy into making some new friends.  I realize that’s easier said than done, especially with a demanding job, but I think that effort spent will pay off much better than beating your head against the wall of “We will do things my way at my convenience.”  Hang out with him once in a blue moon when his self-centered ways amuse and comfort you with their utter predictability and don’t grate you down like fine cheese.

5 thoughts on “The Self-Centered Friend: Return of the Side-Eye (Question #115)

  1. LW, my heart goes out to you. I had a friend who was very like this; we’d known each other for over ten years, and been through quite a lot together, but things changed over time. This was a painful transition for me, and I tried for a long time to keep it up: I’d call, send emails, invite him out places, that kind of thing, and once in a blue moon he’d do something to show he still cared, like treating me out to dinner on my birthday. But other than those very rare occasions, it was mostly a lot of “Maybe”s which always became “Sorry, can’t”s, and eventually just silence.

    The Captain suggests training yourself to need less from him. I have to second this advice. I learned the hard way that no amount of holding open the door would make him want to go through it, and it’s been a full year since I’ve voluntarily initiated contact with him. He texted me to wish me a happy birthday a week late, and I said thanks, and that’s pretty much been it. In the meantime I’ve had more emotional resources to devote to my partner, my children, and the friends I have who are actually interested in hanging out and being friends.

    I wish you the best, LW, and hope that you find people who can be full-time friends to you in whatever way you need.

    I recently (in essence) dumped one of my most core of core group friends because she was **exactly this** (except instead of playing guitar she would play with her iPhone). To the letter. If she felt like it, she was AMAZEBALLS as a friend, advocate, supporter, whatever. And she trusted her heart with me on some serious stuff in her life. But man, need her for the smallest minute when she’s busy inventing drama for herself, and it’s all disappointment and pain. And sometimes on prescheduled things, it would devolve to her making me entertain her, but not engaging at all. Long term toxic.
    It is really hard making friends, new ones, especially if you had a little tribe going already. But when the alternative is keeping semi-friends, fair-weather friends, or “friends,” it’s best to find the time to make new ones. The older you get and the less free time you have, yes, it’s a bitch.
    I made friends by drilling deeper with existing ones and their other friends, volunteering at local community theatres, taking improv classes, joining a club, and even through OKCupid. There’s also and such.
    It’s worth the effort to get the self-centered folks out of your life or at least comfortably on the periphery where you can still raise a glass to your shared history but not depend on them for your future.

    1. For finding new friends I’ve had good luck taking language classes at community college. If the instructor is any good, they will make you talk to each other and you learn a lot about people’s personalities pretty quickly.

  3. I agree with the Captain and everybody else–you don’t necessarily have to dump this person, but you do need to limit his ability to stress you this way.

    My sister in law is *just* like this. She’s a great person, helpful, loving, fun to be around, but nothing must ever, ever inconvenience her. Ever. She’ll help out or do whatever, so long as she feels like it and it is on her terms. And this extends to dealing with family obligations (like her mother) as well. It has even gotten to the point where her behavior about their mother has impacted my relationship with my husband, because I am pretty resentful of the fact that *he* (and by extension, me) is always the one responsible for actually taking care of stuff because she can only be bothered to be involved when she feels like it or when it will make her look good.

    I’ve found that severely limiting contact, as much as is possible, has helped tremendously. It doesn’t always work, like when the mother in law decides to come stay (she doesn’t live in the US, but she regularly comes to stay for weeks at a time) and then we have to deal with the logistics of taking care of everything *and* working around S’s schedule of when their mom can stay with her and we have to make the 4+ hour round trip drive to drop off and pick up (because S is just too busy to do that herself or even meet us part way most of the time) and deal with their mom’s travel plans and book everything and so on and so forth, while both of us also work full time (and I go to school) and have kids and lives on top of it all.

    Can you tell I have some issues about this? Long story short–some people are just like that and you will deal much better if you can get yourself to the point where you don’t need *anything* from such a person, because they certainly won’t be lining up to provide you with anything except for when they feel like it. It really is manipulative and (IMO) emotionally abusive behavior, stringing you along like that.

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