Hey Captain Awkward.
I love your column. I think I found it through a link at Feministe (???)in the comments. Anyhoo, here is my problem that I will try to explain as simply as possible:
I have had a couple of very rough years. My partner of 15+ years had a horrible legal battle against his former business partners, which left him with what seems to be Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He became very emotionally abusive, depressed, and is now barely able to function in any aspect of his life. We have separated, but this cast a giant shadow over my life, as you can probably imagine. I was left doubly traumatised by the awfulness of his legal situation, and by his increasingly hostile aggression towards me, especially as I had been very supportive of him throughout the legal battles, and never doubted that he was being wronged. He is now on his third therapist, who does not seem to be helping him at all. I sought counseling and support through a clinic for domestic violence, which helped me. Throughout this time I had reached out to people that I thought were my friends. One by one I discovered that their underlying attitude towards me, after I had disclosed the abuse, was that somehow I was responsible for letting this abuse happen to me ! I was told by one friend that “I wouldn’t let someone talk to me this way”. I was told by another, after she talked to him and me separately that “she and B. both noticed that I seemed to have lost my confidence”(who wouldn’t after being yelled at for months about things that weren’t my fault that pertained to his case after it was settled out of court?). Another claimed that I was “enabling” his abuse towards me ! No one seemed to “get” the dynamics of emotional abuse, or how messed up he had become. It really shook me how unsupportive my so called friends were, which added to my anguish and isolation.
I had been friendly with my neighbor S. , who lives across the street from me, for six years. She is about 15 years older than me, but we had some similar backgrounds and attitudes. We would talk on the phone once in awhile, and did some social things together. I knew some very personal stuff about her, and she knew about me as well. We had been invited to Thanksgiving and Christmas at her house for the last five years, and were included in social invitations. I did not think she was my best friend, but I thought she was a good friend. She knew about my situation with B. and how bad it had become.
Our neighborhood has a huge issue with stray and abandoned cats. My neighbor cared for and adopted some, I have adopted, fostered and cared for others, and am working with a rescue to spay and neuter as many cats in the area as possible to reduce the number of strays. I don’t drive, so I asked my neighbor for very occasional assistance(ie once or twice in a year) like a ride to a far off clinic. I always helped her with her cat issues, and made things like access to free spay and neuters possible for her, which she used a couple of times. I never wanted to give the impression that I was using her, or making excessive demands. I offered to pay for gas, which she always declined.
A stray that I had fostered was transferred to a different foster home as he was too aggressive with my cats. Several months after his transfer, he went missing from his new home, where he was happy. I helped to look for him, and kept in touch with his foster who was very upset. Three weeks later I received a call from Animal Services that he had been found alive(microchip from when I brought him in to be neutered). He was in very bad shape, with unknown injuries. He was at a local vet, where I could either use that vet’s services or transfer him to my own. I called the rescue first, but could not get anyone directly, and called his foster second, who was not answering her phone. The rescue called me back, and said that I could take him to one of the vets they use (the rescue does not have a shelter/building, and uses several vets across the city who they have accounts with). To further complicate things, most vets in this city close early on Saturdays, so that made the choices very slim. I had dealt with the vet clinic he was taken to previously, but I disliked the vet who owned it, as I found him to be shady bordering on unethical. I was faced with picking up this cat, to transport him to a clinic that was a 25 minute DRIVE from my location(ie $60.00 cab ride each way), or to pay the shady vet out of my pocket to use his clinic. I was also extremely broke at this point, so this was not a reasonable possibility. In desperation I called my neighbor to help me, since I felt this was an emergency. S. was fussy about helping as she a)claimed she could not help with him financially, which was not a problem as the cat was being cared for through the rescue who would pay for his expenses b)she had other plans for that afternoon. I had to beg her to help me, so she did(grudgingly). We got lost on the way to the first vet clinic, in a far off suburb (my Google Map was wrong !), and the vet there was dismissive, recommended euthanasia and plainly wanted to close for the afternoon. The rescue then sent us to a different clinic, 25 minutes away in the opposite direction. The staff here were amazing, and stayed hours after closing to treat his injuries. To make his story short: against all odds he made an astonishing recovery from his injuries (wounds with live maggots in them, severe starvation and dehydration, and a fractured jaw) and is being adopted by his foster home.
It was a terrible, stressful afternoon, but I was very grateful that my neighbor had helped to save his life. I thanked her many times for helping. As this afternoon unfolded, I remained as composed as possible. While I was stressed, I was not crying, yelling, swearing, demanding or freaking out at all. I expressed to S. how awful this was and that I didn’t know what to do. I was on the phone with several different people from the rescue about what decisions to make about this cat, as they were paying his bill, so none of the decisions were mine alone.This was an extraordinary situation for everyone !
Since this happened, my neighbor became very cool towards me, and completely stopped speaking to me ! We spoke a few times in the weeks afterwards, but she would not even cross the street to say hello to me. I made inquiries with mutual acquaintances/neighbors, and they gave me some vague answers about not knowing anything, or that she “needed her space”. To put this in context again — the cat troubles were not the only major thing happening for me then — it was a time with several intense and emotionally draining things that were happening within a two week period. It was a time that I desperately needed friendship. Weeks of her silence turned into months, and I still don’t know why she behaved this way towards me !
(I also have to add that within days of the cat drama that S. sent an email to the woman from the rescue who had made it possible to save his life. S’s email was full of complaints about why the rescue sent us to such far off clinics, and her tone was very rude. I had explained to her multiple times that afternoon, and afterwards, that not every clinic will give reduced rates to the rescue, that they establish accounts with specific clinics, and that since it was Saturday afternoon that few of these clinics were even open, so the choices were very limited. Needless to say, the woman from the rescue, who had been very helpful to me with many cats, was extremely angry about this email !)
Three months later I received a puzzling email from my neighbor that was labeled “An apology and an explanation”. I have attached it so you can read it. It really did not make much sense to me. I forwarded it to a friend to see if she could understand what the problem was, and she could not make sense of this either. The email is full of vague generalities but without specific details. I replied to it explaining my confusion, requesting clarification, but of course received no reply.
> From: REDACTED
> Date: October 17, 2011 11:56:25 AM GMT-04:00
> To: REDACTED
> Subject: An apology and an explantion
> Hello REDACTED ,
> I apologize for the distance that has grown between us.
> For some time I have been trying to sort out how to approach this
> and now
> I will just explain my piece in the hopes it does not cause any
> further difficulties.
> You triggered my sensitivities around boundaries a few times, and
> now I have
> triggered your issues around people distancing themselves, for that
> I am sorry.
> Initially I was no more angry then those issues I had vented
> directly to you.
> When I expressed my frustration over the extreme cat situations and
> my need
> to establish boundaries around those activities you exclaimed “what
> about me !”
> This caused me to take some space.
> Then I was simply enjoying my summer of fun.
> You started avoiding me on the street and I heard from our mutual
> friends that I was angry with you when
> it was not so, this further distanced me causing me to remain removed.
> It is my view friends should respect one another and not enforce
> particular expectations,
> you had given me the impression by some of your comments that I was
> not fulfilling your definition of “friend” the way you had hoped.
> We all have our own lives to navigate. For me I prefer to offer help
> when I can.
> This has been a very demanding year for me as well !
> In my time, I have had an inordinate amount of expectations around
> helping others,
> and used to be how I would ingratiate myself to others.
> Now I am ultra sensitive and guarded on this front.
> My hope is that none of this insults but helps clarify my side for
> You are a very talented, bright and considerate woman in your way
> and I do respect you and regret the extent of the wedge that has
> formed between us.
> Wishing you well,
So Captain, my problem is now that I feel so hurt and so angry at my neighbor that I literally HATE to see her house out my window. I am using my back door whenever possible, sewing opaque curtains for my front windows, and avoiding as much neighborhood interaction as possible. I am not in a position to sell my house right now so I can’t just move ! Can you understand what I did wrong, and can you explain it to me, and how I can stop riding this wave of hurt, anger and rejection when it comes to my friendships ?
Dear So Mad,
I am publishing and answering your letter, even though it breaks all of my personal rules about length, because you are falling into some mindtraps that are very, very common.
I’m confused as to why you told me the story about your emotionally abusive ex and the way your friends behaved as if it had something to do with your neighbor/cat conflict.
I realize that sounds mean, but bear with me.
To you, your neighbor’s rejection of you is part of a long, terrible battle you’ve had with your boyfriend and the way your other friends treated you – it’s just another brick in the wall, or row in the pattern – choose your own bad metaphor! Your neighbor’s rejection is one more piece of evidence that your friends reject you when the chips are down and you need them most, and also, she should have known better.
To your neighbor, it’s one very bad day, where she had other plans but her neighbor that she likes ok most of the time made an emergency about a stray foster cat into *her* emergency, and then sucked her in for a whole day of sad, expensive, annoying, emotionally wrenching tiddlywinks that she regretted signing up for as soon as the “eh, okay” came out of her mouth.
What I read in your email is “I’ve had a really hard year! My neighbor should have been nice to me and cut me all the slack!” What I read in your neighbor’s email is “I’ve had a really hard year, too! One way I am taking care of myself is to not get sucked into doing favors for people that I don’t really want to be doing, and that day I broke my own rules and then regretted it, so I took it out on you a little. I’ve cooled off. Maybe if you understand where I’m coming from, we can be cool again?”
I see this pattern a lot when people talk about past romantic relationships and carry worries from those relationships poisonously into new relationships. “I know I seem super-jealous and controlling when I take your phone and scroll through your text messages to make sure you aren’t cheating, but don’t you realize that my exes cheated on me and I’m just hyper-sensitive to that? If you loved me, you’d understand.” Yeah, not necessarily. It’s not a friend or lover’s job to make up for the performance of the last people to inhabit that job. To take it even further, sometimes people tell their new friends or lovers about this sad past behavior, and then expect that the new person will magically connect the dots of “Oh, she’s really sensitive about that, I’d better be careful to take care of her around that lest I trigger her issues” instead of saying “That sucks, I’m sorry you dealt with that, would you like some hugs now?” and generally comforting/empathizing with you.
This simultaneously grossly overestimates and underestimates people: They may not connect that your sad story requires them to do something (or avoid ever doing something), because hey, they’re not that guy, and when you told them the story they put themselves in your shoes and not in the shoes of the person who was mean to you that time. The underestimating people comes in because you’re in the process of creating your relationships all the time as you go along, and it’s probably a bad idea to retrofit them to the model of failed relationships and treat them like people who hurt you before you give them a chance to maybe not be that person.
I had a good, lovely friend who I had to part ways with because she did this to me all the time. She had grown up in an abusive situation, and was constantly scanning the world for signs that she was not loved enough by it, so would interpret innocuous things I did as proof that I didn’t “really” value her. She was constantly “triggered” by things I did and said because they reminded her of family stuff or exes, and she devised little tests that I didn’t know about that I then failed, and I was constantly apologizing to her for “triggering” her. Over time the apologies became more “I’m sorry that you interpreted it that way” and “WTF?” non-apologies and finally it came down to me feeling like I could not do anything right and breaking off the friendship. Maybe your neighbor didn’t give you what you needed. Maybe she didn’t handle things well that day or explain herself well. Maybe she can’t give you what you needed, and a friendship you saw as close was always kind of an arms-length thing to her. Maybe I was a dick all those times my friend felt hurt or “triggered.”
However, some things I know about relationships are:
- If the people in the relationship constantly feel like they are owed apologies, something is unbalanced.
- If you’re spending the majority of the relationship talking about and re-negotiating the dynamics of the relationship, and that feels exhausting to you (vs. for poly people, where it’s known as “foreplay”), something is unbalanced.
- If thinking about the person sends your shoulders up around your ears, and you feel constantly misunderstood and like you have to clarify things with long emails later, something is unbalanced.
It’s one big unfair subjective sad self-fulfilling prophecy – the more you treat a friend like they are going to let you down, the more they find interacting with you confusing and difficult and the the more they avoid you, and then they feel guilty for avoiding you, which leads me to my next unfair and subjective pronouncement: When someone has failed you in some way and they know it, they become more likely to avoid you (instead of wanting to hang out and make things up to you), because seeing you makes them feel guilty and you become someone who is causing them to have negative feelings about how they see themselves. People don’t like that. That’s your neighbor realizing she overreacted by sending the emails, and explaining why she took a time out, though the fact is she DID help you when you asked, even when it was inconvenient for her and grew more inconvenient as the day went on.
The best you can do (sometimes) when communication breaks down with a friend is to give them a lot of space and let some time pass and see where you end up. Hopefully you gain a little perspective. Maybe you readjust your expectations for what this friendship has to offer you, and you find some way to set the reset button back to “friendly nodding and hello” instead of walling yourself off in your house behind the blackout curtains.
Now I want to circle back to the stuff you went through with your ex and your other friends. After going through what you did, it’s not crazy that your inner compass will be set to North-by-It’s-Only-A-Matter-Of-Time-Before-They-Let-Me-Down. Abuse colors our worldview – How could it not? It’s part of the toxic legacy of abuse is that it pays itself forward and cuts us off from developing healthy relationships until we put a lot of work in and figure out how to work around it. Part of recovering from abuse is healing and resetting that internal compass. You’ll always be a little bit wary, but you don’t have to carry those old relationships into all of your new ones. When you’re having a strong reaction to something that reminds you of your ex (or ex-friends), you can choose to take a step back and figure out – Is this person legitimately screwing it up? Am I reacting disproportionately to this because of my own history? Am I punishing this person for the way I’ve been treated in the past? Am I constructing a story where I am always the sad, abandoned one and using this one incident in an otherwise fine friendship to “prove” that narrative? Are they doing something for their own reasons that have nothing to do with me? There’s no right answer, it could be a combination of factors, and it sucks beyond sucking to even have to ask the question. As unfair as it is that you should have to do that work, no one else can do it for you and you risk repeating history until you do.
I’ll leave you with three concrete suggestions:
- If you haven’t already, seek out some therapy to help process everything that happend with your ex and your friends.
- Send your neighbor a note that goes like this: “Hey, could we both forgive and forget what happened with the cat and go back to the friendly nodding/occasionally chatting place? I’d like that. I promise: No more emails about feelings. Happy holidays!” If this event has proved anything, it’s that your friendship cannot handle feelingsmail.
- After you send that email, let the whole thing go. The ball is totally in her court, and she gets all of the time/space she needs to come back and talk to you again. If she does, NEVER ever EVER ever bring up the Day of the Sad Cat. Also, never ask her for rides or assistance with cats again. Your friendship can handle neither feelingsmail nor cat rescue. If she doesn’t answer, write it off – it’s her subjective choice, not something you did. Grieve the passing of friendship, but don’t let it cut you off from the neighborhood.
I wish you some peace with this going forward.