Should there ever be a Captain Awkward Dot Com Meetup, I will acquire a bunch of these coloring books and the big boxes of crayons (and some silver and gold gel pens) and have a table where people can hang out and color. Right? Right. Thanks, Cleolinda!
Today’s letters are on the less happy topics of broken, abusive friendships.
Dear Captain Awkward,
I’ve been friends with this woman for about 10 years, since 7th grade. We’ve been through a lot together, and I care about her a lot. However I believe this relationship has come to an end. About two months ago, we had an argument that was entirely my fault. I derailed a conversation that she was having with me, (I had been awake 72 hours, and told her several times I couldn’t really talk, because I was trying to write final papers) and it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize what I had said, and apologize, and she understandably became extremely frustrated with me. As a result of this, she decided it would be best to cut off contact with me for a month or so. We were supposed to re-establish contact on one of two dates (I don’t remember exactly because sleep deprivation). I tried to contact her in on the earlier of the two. The later is now passed, and I’ve received no response.
Reasons I’m kind of okay with this:
-I am paralyzingly afraid to disagree with her, or express needs, complaints, or even information about myself because Consequences.
-She demands my attention and emotional support constantly, regardless of what I’m doing at the time.
-She rarely shows interest in my life, and is persistently dismissive of my interests, accomplishments, and problems.
-Most of our conversations involve her lecturing me for hours, while I make affirmative noises and ask redundant questions, because she won’t talk to me if she isn’t upset, or educating me about something, whether I’m familiar with it already or not.
-When I do get to talk, she often interrupts me, talks over me, or completely ignores that I said anything.
-She ignores boundaries like “I’m at work” “I’m studying” “I need to sleep” “I’m in a club meeting/out with friends” “it’s 4am and I have an exam in 4 hours, can this wait?”
-For the last couple years we’ve often had sexual encounters that I didn’t want, but didn’t feel like I could refuse.
-She’s actively tried to logic her way around my consent when I’ve made myself say no.
-She’s guilt tripped me into sending her photos of myself when she was lonely after a break up, after I’d expressed my not-being-interested that way.
-She made my coming out as gender fluid all about her sexual orientation.
-I’ve tried to talk to her about the majority of these things multiple times, nothing has really changed, and I always end up apologizing.
-I’ve started having panic attacks when I as much as think about interacting with her (which I feel like is horrible and utterly unreasonable of me, because I’m pretty sure I did all of this to myself, somehow. And I’m not even convinced that these are legitimate problems, for me anyway)
Reasons I’m really not okay with this:
-Her life isn’t exactly easy, and if she demands so much from me she might need me and I won’t be there.
-She’s an old friend, and I miss her.
-Her not contacting me feels like proof of my failure as a friend and solidarity worker.
-She’s really the only person I have to talk to about gender and sexuality issues.
-It’s can’t be insignificant that the problems I have with our relationship (self centerdness, manipulation, sexual-pressure-y-ness, social interaction stuff) are a lot like negative stereotypes used against trans* women and autistic folks, and she is both. Clearly I am just an oppressive, ableist, transmisogynist asshat, fabricating this for myself out of threatened entitlement or something because reasons.
-I am prone to severe depression and anxiety, and am disinclined to trust my on brain anyway.
-It’s not as if I’m a perfect friend, and I want to make my mistakes up to her.
I really haven’t talked much about this, because I was afraid of Consequences and also of the possibility that maybe I’m just a needy self centered jerk. I didn’t even tell my partner this stuff was going on until the big fight itself. So, I guess I’m hoping writing this down, and getting outside perspectives will help. Mostly, if you feel like it, I would love advice on moving on with my life, and what to do if she does contact me again. Really a lot on what to say if we do end up in contact again. The self preservation-y, social justice educated side of me says to run away, but the rest of me can’t be certain that I’m not the bad guy, and being manipulative and overly needy and possibly oppressive myself, and I should try to fix things with her.
Dear LW #313:
You didn’t DERAIL the conversation when you didn’t want to talk because of lack of sleep & being in the middle of writing papers. You needed to finish your papers and get some sleep more than you needed to talk to her. You owe her exactly zero apologies. That’s called setting a boundary and is totally reasonable and normal. “Friend, Is this an emergency? No? Okay, cool, I need to call you back tomorrow when I’ve had some sleep and am done with these papers. Thanks, bye.”
Okay, and then I read the rest of your letter.
This person has some funky ideas about boundaries. They don’t rhyme and you can’t dance to them. They include coercing and abusing you sexually: “For the last couple years we’ve often had sexual encounters that I didn’t want, but didn’t feel like I could refuse,” and gaslighting you into thinking everything is your fault: “I’ve started having panic attacks when I as much as think about interacting with her (which I feel like is horrible and utterly unreasonable of me, because I’m pretty sure I did all of this to myself, somehow. And I’m not even convinced that these are legitimate problems, for me anyway). She’s got you so spun around and manipulated that when she cut off contact you’re the one trying to get the friendship back. The list of the ways she treats you is, frankly, rapey, abusive, and horrifying -not in a “these are common bad stereotypes of people who are like x” kind of way, in a INDIVIDUAL DOCUMENTED ACTUAL REAL LIFE TERRIBLE BEHAVIOR kind of way- and you do not need or deserve ANY of that in your life ever again.
Sorry to yell, but those panic attacks are your body sending you a message. “This person is poison. Do not engage.” Take her current absence from your life as a gift. Stop making pro and con lists. Any one of the things on your list of reasons to not be friends would be a good reason to never talk to her again. Stop contacting her, stop worrying about her, stop feeling bad for her. The Venn Diagram of “Has Problems” and “Inconsiderate Dickhead” overlaps. You can be both oppressed in some way and an abuser.
Put your time into meeting new LGBTQ-friendly folks. You can find allies and be an ally to people who aren’t inconsiderate dickheads. Honest. Stop making her your Favorite Adopted Oppressed Person and excusing her behavior. Also, good grief, you do not have to fuck people to prove you’re down with their sexuality, ok? Anyone who says different is selling something, and what they are selling is bullshit + an unscheduled trip to Their Pants.
Don’t worry about closure or having one last conversation or giving her a chance to explain. Don’t contact her. When she resurfaces (she will resurface – there are very few people on heaven and earth who will put up with her bullshit) say “I know I contacted you a while back, but the more time has passed the more I enjoyed our break from each other and think it was the right decision. Let’s make it a permanent one and stay out of each other’s lives for good.”
That’s way more polite than she deserves, but it’s hard to convince abusive dickheads of their dickheadedness, and this cleanly and coolly cuts off contact. Brace yourself for being called names or some manipulative bowing and scraping where she tries to worm her way back in. It will pass and then you won’t have to talk to her anymore. Talk this over with your therapist or counselor (if you don’t have one already, get one by any means necessary – you’ve been really beaten down by this and need a sympathetic pro in your corner), rehearse various scenarios. Give yourself time and permission to grieve for the childhood friendship you had, but yeah, it didn’t last for a reason. That reason is: Your friend is an abusive, inconsiderate dick who doesn’t treat you very well, and she flounced as soon as you stood up for yourself a tiny bit. I give you permission to say “Adios, Jerkface!” to this person.
- Do not contact this person again.
- Block from all social media, email, etc. Do that TODAY.
- Change your cell phone number and do not give her the new one. Tell mutual friends not to give it to her.
- Call your therapist and make an appointment. If you don’t have one of those, talk to your school’s counseling office. Many recs are also here.
- Tell your partner what’s up. Get that person on Team You.
- Be really nice to yourself.
- If she contacts you, respond once and request that she refrain from all future contact. Then never respond to anything she says or sends you ever again for any reason. She will eventually go away.
It will be hard at first because you are overcoming a lifetime of training on how to interact with this person and you will receive some fierce negative feedback from her, but you can do it and you deserve so much better. After a while apart, you will start to feel so free.
This lady has activated your fight or flight instincts, hardcore, for a reason. Your entire body is trying to save you. Choose flight.
Dear Captain Awkward:
If you know someone is a secret asshole, is it right to reveal the truth?
Dear Angry Coward:
I understand the temptation to reveal this person’s crimes and institute some kind of group shunning, and maybe it will come to that, but I think there are a few steps where you stop being a coward first.
Step 1: Contradict her more strongly. Rehearse if necessary. There is so much power in speaking up about bad behavior in the moment. It goes against a lot of the stupid “niceness” training girls get, but with time and practice it becomes a habit that saves you from a lot of agonizing and second-guessing yourself later.
“Hey, stop saying that about friend and her mental illness. You’ve said something like that a few times now, and it’s able-ist and gross. Don’t say stuff like that around me, ever again.”
“Wow. That information you just told me is private. Do you tell my private information to other people? You’re really out of line.”
Step 2: Don’t hang out with this person alone anymore. Just absent yourself from making one-on-one plans with her or from going into private corners with her at group gatherings.
Step 3: She will probably notice. Tell her why. Possible script:
“The last few times we’ve hung out, you’ve been really mean about (other friends). I really didn’t like what you said about (topic) or when you revealed (friend’s) private information. It makes me feel like I can’t trust you with my own private stuff and wonder what you say about me when I’m not around. What’s going on with that?”
Let her talk.
What’s going to come out is either a) embarrassment and a sincere apology (“Whoa, I’m really sorry, I have been talking a load of negative crap lately and I guess I didn’t realize it until you said something. I will stop.”) or b) a bunch of defensive and self-justifying bullshit. Bonus points if it includes trying to make you feel sorry for her in any way.
If she responds with a), it doesn’t mean you have to stay close to her or ever trust her again, but it speaks well of the possibility of self-awareness. This isn’t an excuse for her behavior or a reason to put up with one more second of it, but sometimes people get in a bad pattern of feeling crappy about themselves and then everything that comes out of their mouth is poisonous and negative. That becomes a self-fulfilling habit, and it takes being told bluntly to STOP IT by someone they respect and care about to halt the flood. Also, she hasn’t been carrying this around like you have. This is the first she’s really having to come face-to-face with the problem. So if she answers with an apology, I would respond with something like this:
“Thanks for apologizing. It’s been weighing on me a lot and I really need you to rethink how you handle (x topic). Let’s not get together right now, but I’ll see you at Group Thing.”
Hopefully the lesson will be learned. Remember the Geek Social Fallacies – not everyone has to like everyone else. You don’t have to invite her to stuff you’re planning. You don’t have to give more than a quick “Hey” + nod of politeness with her at someone else’s party. So you can keep your distance from her if you want to.
If she responds with b) Horrible Justification, say “Hey, you know what? That’s bullshit, and until you can stop saying crappy things about our mutual friends or revealing private stuff about them, I don’t think I want to be around you. I’m leaving.”
That’s right. Have a fight. An argument. A tiff. A kerfluffle. GET PISSED OFF and SAY SO.
It’s on HER to wonder what you’ll tell the entire friend group.
It’s on HER to make amends and worry about group harmony and whether she’ll continue to be accepted.
It’s on HER to fucking behave better in the future.
Time for a quick review of what “drama” is:
Drama is not saying “Hey, knock it off” directly to the person who is doing bad stuff.
Drama is not saying “Yeah, X and I aren’t getting along right now. She said some crappy sutff and I called her out on it and until she apologizes I’m not really up for hanging out,” to mutual friends…provided you’ve told X directly how you feel. You’re being direct and letting people make up their own minds about what they want to do. You can’t control everyone’s emotions and behaviors around this, so don’t try. You need to not engage with X. That’s a good enough reason to not engage with X, no matter what other people do.
Oh, if people pressure you to make up with X before you’re ready for the sake of group harmony or whatever, please feel free to give them the full volley of your unpleasant feelings about that. Nice “on the surface” counts for exactly zero.
I think this is generally a cooler & more adult way of handling this particular situation than calling everyone in the friend group and convening a meeting and trying to get them to shun her, with two caveats:
- Group meetings & group actions have their place.
- If she’s crappy to you, chances are she’s crappy to others, and it’s possible that other people are also afraid to make waves now but will rally.
Ultimately you know the situation best, but hopefully there are some helpful strategies in here. You don’t have to be friends with crappy people, even if your other friends like that person.
If you’re wondering: What have African violets ever done to you? Here you go.