Tl:dr – What do you say when someone needs you to tell them that you care about them more than you do care about them? Is there a way to be honest but not make them feel like you actually dislike them? Is there a way to lie so that they actually believe you? Is there a way to get them to knock off asking you?
My partner has a long-time friend who is lonely, isolated, sporadically employed, and who has some mental health issues. Friend is smart, funny, usually well-meaning, and knows how far to push friendship and charity without pushing too hard. My partner gives Friend lots of time and occasional money.
None of this is a problem. Friend doesn’t intrude on our family time too much, and my partner’s friendships are theirs to manage. Partner doesn’t bring Friend into every conversation or insist that Friend is at all of our events. Friend doesn’t usually inconvenience me at all, and if they do it’s in ways that I’m happy to do to for my partner, and because I have goodwill to Friend and I don’t mind hosting them or hanging out.
My problem is that Friend will sometimes initiate conversations with me about what a burden Friend is to me, and how Friend feels ashamed to be included in events that are important to me when they are Partner’s Friend and not My Friend. I don’t think Friend actually wants to be my friend – they don’t usually ask how I am, or talk to me when my partner isn’t around, or seem to care about me except as someone to listen to them (although they are like that with my partner, too, because Friend is very self-absorbed). I think that Friend would like it if **I** really felt a true friendship-like connection to Friend that would cause me to **really** want to invite Friend to stuff not as a charity, and to **really** want to hang out and chat with Friend, even though I don’t think Friend feels that way toward me or wants to feel that way toward me.
Friend is very smart, and certainly is very sensitive to how people feel about them and react to them, so Friend knows that, in fact, I don’t feel those ways. I feel charitable good will, Friend isn’t an unbearable pain to have around, and I love my partner and don’t want to keep someone out of our home who matters to my partner. Friend also knows when I’m lying.
So when Friend asks me these things, I usually do some combo of lie and deflect. I say that Partner and I both brought lots of our own friends and family to the relationship, and that we each hang out with and play host to each other’s peeps. I say that it’s my pleasure to have Friend over. But even though both of those things are true, I’m not answering Friend’s real question, which seems to be something like “don’t you care about me,” or even “why don’t you love me.” I do think that my partner loves Friend. Love is a wonderful mystery, because I can see that Friend is not a very good friend in a traditional sense, but that if you love a person, you just do love them. I don’t love Friend, and I like Friend only in a casual way.
Friend’s need to be loved and to be reassured both touches me and also annoys me. Friend is not good with social conventions like “don’t make people choose between lying or saying mean stuff,” and when they ask me these things I usually fall back on really strict social conventions like, “I am at best saying empty nothing right now and at worst lying because That’s What We Do,” but I don’t like it. Moreover, it doesn’t give Friend any of what they need – it’s neither honest nor kind.
Is there a better, more honest, kinder way to respond?
– Not Your Friend, But Not Mean About It Either
Hi there, Not Your Friend,
It’s possible that Friend is doing some kind of automatic ritual “I’m not worthy” shame dance that is 99% between Friend and Friend’s jerkbrain and has almost nothing to do with you. Since Friend is not accepting your platitudes at face value, and you’ve come across this question and request for reassurance more than once, Friend is most likely not asking you for a critique along the lines of “Actually, since you mention it, I think you’re pretty self-absorbed, and it’s annoying that you keep asking me why we’re not closer friends when you rarely bother to even ask me how I’m doing, but my partner loves you so I am resolved to put up with you for the rest of time. That will go a lot easier if you stop forcing these strange discussions onto me, thanks so much!”
If you do want to address this a little bit more than you have been, I have two suggestions:
A) Talk to Friend, strategically. Next time Friend asks you the awkward question or does the shame dance ritual, try this:
“I *definitely* think of you as Partner’s friend, the way _________ is more my friend. My partner would probably never call up ________ to take her to a solo lunch without me, just like I probably wouldn’t think to call you for a one-on-one visit. But I’m glad you’re here, the same way they are glad to see _______. Does that answer your question?”
It’s probably not the “Are you kidding, I LOVE YOU” answer that the Friend is looking for, but it’s honest and if you keep asking someone if they like you you gotta be open to the possibility that once possible answer is “Not as much as you want me to, sorry.” If Friend wants to be closer to you so much that they keep asking importunate questions, and they won’t accept your attempts at letting them save face, they can’t also turn around and be mad at you for answering more directly. (Well, they probably can, but it won’t endear them to you further, with good reason).
- “Hey, you’ve brought this up a couple of times now, and my answer hasn’t changed. What would it take to get you to take my word for it that it’s really no trouble/my pleasure?”
- “You know what, I never really worry about it – You’re Partner’s Friend, and Partner’s friends are always welcome here, the same way my friends are.”
- “You already know what I’m going to say.”
- “I’ve already answered this question a couple of times – why are you asking again?”
- “This is a very awkward question. What would you like me to say?”
- “That’s all I’m really comfortable saying. Can we change the subject?”
Saying some version of “I don’t feel like getting into this with you” is an answer.
B) Talk to your partner. Ask them to make hangouts with Friend more solo hangouts vs. the-three-of-us hangouts, ask them to give you warning if they are inviting Friend over (b/c that might be a night you do something social outside the house), ask them to take Friend-hang time to Friend’s place or a neutral location more often than they do now, ask themrto check with you before automatically inviting Friend to you-centric events (so you’re not having one of these weird chats at your birthday dinner).
At least some of this problem is because you don’t like Friend that much, but you’re bending over backwards to be a good sport for your Partner’ss sake. What if you were honest with your partner about how Friend is making you feel? “I usually like Friend just fine, but these requests for reassurance and closeness are really taxing and I could use a break.” Or even simpler, when your Partner texts and says Friend will be coming by for dinner tomorrow and is that all right, text back and say “Sure, have fun catching up – I’m going to go to the movies.”
Probably your partner is going to be very cool and understanding about this – they know that Friend can be a little draining and will appreciate having some clearer boundaries. In the off chance that they give you grief, remind them about the Geek Social Fallacies. “Hey, I want your friends to always be welcome here, but I’m not Friend’s biggest fan, so, some balance please?” The flip side of any good “Your friends are always welcome, and I promise to be a good sport” agreement with a partner is probably “And out of consideration for how cool and welcoming you are, I agree to limit how much I inflict people you don’t like on you.” After all, if your partner doesn’t want to cook dinner for Friend solo, without you as social buffer, maybe they don’t want to hang out with Friend that badly.
It might never be comfortable, and that’s okay. I get so many questions from readers along the lines of “How can I prevent these kinds of awkward discussions from happening in the first place/ever again?” and the answer is: You probably can’t. What you can do is get better at handling them in the moment (with scripts, strategies) and handling the aftermath (practicing letting go, reminding yourself that you’re not responsible for everyone’s feelings all the time). So, if you want to keep politely deflecting for the rest of time – “Nonsense. Friend considers you such an important friend, and it’s really my pleasure to host you for xyz event” or simply “Really, it’s my pleasure” – then do it without guilt please! You don’t have to engage more deeply with this than you already are, and it’s okay to let it be slightly weird indefinitely.