As promised…more “If you’re ‘not allowed’ to say no to someone, they are not acting like friends” content. I have kept the Letter Writer’s subject line as the post title so that readers too can have the “Wait, where is the part where this person is an actual mom” “Oh wait, phew, this person isn’t anyone’s actual mother, that would be even more horrifying” realization that The Goat Lady (my trusty inbox sorter) and I did.
I (she/her) have a friend, “Mary” who is, by her own admission, a “mom” friend. Mary is very kind– but emotionally overreaching. She feels responsible for making sure her friends are well cared for. Mary has even joked that if it weren’t for her, her friends would buy nothing but junk food and toys at the grocery store, instead of groceries. When we get together, Mary will insist on cooking, even when somebody else volunteers to cook instead. If one of us DOES cook, Mary will hover, or “help” by essentially taking over the cooking–adding ingredients and more or less pushing the other cook out of the kitchen. Mary will consistently cite any accident or mistake any of us have made as an excuse to swoop in. Then she will complain that she is always the one stuck with the cooking.
Mary also feels very much–if she thinks her friends are upset or potentially upset, she will become upset for them. (For example, I have been very stressed at work and with personal projects, and Mary started crying because I “am going to burn out” and that I am “such a perfectionist that you are going to hurt yourself!”) If I complain to Mary about anything, be it annoyance over traffic to a problem with a coworker, it becomes a “problem” and Mary is quick to give me unsolicited advice, get defensive for me or otherwise volunteer to help me solve this “problem.”
If she knows I am struggling with something, Mary will constantly bring it up (probably in an attempt to reinforce what she thinks is the “positive” message), or turn even a casual comment (“I wish could sleep for five years,”) into a big referendum or discussion on my mental health. If we have a difficult conversation or discussion, it will end with Mary crying, clutching me like I am some sort of child and even kissing the top of my head while I am just feeling frustrated. If I try to establish boundaries (“This isn’t a topic I am willing to discuss with you, let’s talk about something else”), my boundaries are immediately overridden. In fact, it seems as if my attempts to establish boundaries are interpreted by Mary as a further excuse to involve herself in me and my life!
I know that Mary is coming from a place of love and care. What reads to me as “manipulative” and “immature,” aren’t necessarily that–it’s just that it is to me! (Ed. note: IT’S NOT JUST YOU) I care very much about Mary but I am reaching the end of my rope. I understand this is part of the “mom” friend aspect, but Cap, I HATE being mothered. My own mother doesn’t even “mother” me. It has never worked on me, and will never work on me, no matter how many times Mary tries to become my surrogate mom. I’m trying hard not to become a hallmark-movie-style troubled teen and start yelling “You are not my real mom!” at her.
Sometimes, I just need to vent or talk about my issues without needing a “solution” or it turning into an “argument.” I feel like I have to walk on eggshells around Mary because even a casual joke (the kind that everyone in our generation and friend group makes!) becomes an emotionally exhausting exercise where I am left feeling emotionally infantilized and I start to resent Mary’s lack of maturity.
On top of this, Mary is attending therapy and seems to think herself the authority on all matters now–she declares herself an expert on conflict resolution but her form of “resolution” is to cry until she gets what she wants or can manipulate the narrative to seem like she was correct (in case it wasn’t obvious by now, Mary has an INTENSE martyrdom complex.)
I don’t want to lose Mary as a friend, and I can’t really get away from her for now. I don’t know how to explain to Mary that I don’t need a “mom” or a “mom friend,” and that her “mothering” is making it impossible to just be “friends.” How do you get a “mom friend” to stop “mothering” her friends?
I don’t know how to ask Mary to emotionally detach herself from me and my problems without making it seem like I am asking her to get out of my life. I also don’t know how I could possibly have these difficult conversations with Mary without it turning into an emotional meltdown on Mary’s part that she then projects onto me, as further evidence that I “need” her. Can you help me find a script to deal with Mary?
She’s not my mom (friend)
Optional P.S. Neither of us are parents, apologies if it was confusing!
Hi there, thanks for your question.
The “Mom-friend” thing was indeed confusing but I’m glad you expressed it that way because it drives home how incredibly far from “This is a good friend with just one problem that needs work” territory we are.
Good news, this lady is not actually your mom. If she were your mom, I’d be telling you that good moms don’t behave like this, moms who inspire actresses to win Emmys by turning the scenery into mulch when a best-selling memoir called Engulfed: Kicking Myself Free Of The Suffocating Maternal Prison gets adapted for TV behave like this. I was also relieved to know that she’s not anyone’s parent yet, since when the “Dear Captain Awkward, I know I’m only eight, but how do I divorce my Mom? She won’t let me do anything by myself and every time I try, she brings up all my mistakes as reasons she has to do it herself while clutching me to her bosom and crying into my hair” letter rolled in I’d feel ethically conflicted about teaching a third grader to fake their own death.
(I’d still do it.)
(But I’d feel conflicted.)
You say Mary is “kind,” “well-meaning,” and “coming from a place of love and care” but the description of how she uses every opportunity to bring up your mistakes and anxieties as proof you “need” her doesn’t sound very kind, it actually sounds exactly like what bullies do, and the creepy way she clutches you like a child and kisses the top of your head – even when she knows you don’t like it – had me cringing down to the marrow. “Kindness” that nobody wanted and that people specifically tell you to stop doing isn’t kind. “Help” that has to recite all your mistakes and remind you that you’re a weak piece of shit who couldn’t make it without them isn’t helpful. If this is Mary’s kindness and help, how does she treat people she doesn’t like?
The clutching and kissing especially feels like the kind of vampire shit that led my Yia-Yia to carry raw garlic in her bra and festoon it around all the windowsills in case something followed her from the old country so it could drain her life force. Mary doesn’t suck your blood but she does suck your agency, joy, attention, autonomy, trust in your right to set boundaries, or ability to express any authentic emotion in her presence without her feeding on it somehow. If I knew of magical emotional vampire-repellent that would work without you needing to endure more difficult conversations where she tramples your needs and applies her mouth to your head, you better believe I’d be shipping it to you and instructing you to smear it on all of your thresholds and also to research whether the civic water supply or an airborne formula delivered via crop-duster is the best way to inoculate the rest of the town.
I don’t know Mary, I don’t like Mary (spoiler!), I don’t know what’s likable about her (I accept that there must be something sparkling there, since people kept on inviting her to things after the first “Only I, Mary, Can Cook Dinner, Unlike You Fools, Who Would Starve Without Me” incident and all the other incredibly obnoxious behaviors you described), but I do know this: People who steamroll other people’s boundaries and have dramatic emotional outbursts whenever they hear the word “no” really love to keep the conversation focused on their feelings and intentions, as if they can mean so well that it stops mattering whether they do well, as if they can intend so much kindness that the people in their lives must absorb any unkind word or action without complaint. These people behave as if their feelings are so much more authentic and deeply felt than other people’s feelings that their tears have the power to neutralize all other human feelings within a 100 mile radius, a seismic event that it’s better to prevent at all costs. Said prevention is (conveniently!) best done by complying with what they want and never holding them accountable or disrupting their view that their intentions and feelings are the most important thing in the entire world. They will resist you at every turn because as long as the focus stays on their intentions and feelings, they might not have to change anything or admit they did anything wrong or feel bad. To fight them, you have to wrest the narrative away from their intentions, you have to decenter their feelings, you have to keep talking about their actions and the impact of those actions and what you’d like them to do in the future.
For Mary to stop and realize, “Well, my instinct is to parent my friends, either because I like to be in charge and feel like I’m in control or because that’s what I think I need to do in order to feel valued and important or because I think they are a bunch of ridiculous incompetent babies who can’t even feed themselves. But actually it doesn’t matter why I’m doing it because my friends are telling me they don’t like it at all so I should probably listen to them and stop,” she’d have to consider both that the impact of her actions is different than her intentions and/or (I’ll even accept an “or” here) that your feelings matter at least as much as hers do. “At least” because when it comes to your life, work, nutrition, etc. your feelings are the only ones that matter. It sounds like she would rather not do that. Or that possibly she can’t do that. Or that what’s happening right now is exactly what she intends, a possibility I am unwilling to fully discount.
Whatever Mary’s aim, whatever her level of self-awareness, “I intend to be a really good friend but actually everything I do is patronizing, rude, and traumatic, and when my friends try to tell me how they feel, I not only refuse to change a thing, I also get so upset they will do anything to avoid upsetting me, even at the cost of letting me upset them quite a lot” doesn’t add up to “Mary is a good friend.” Her kindness is completely misdirected, she makes you incredibly uncomfortable and exhausted and wary of setting her off much of the time, she’s decided that she gets to be the most upset about any upsetting thing that happens to any of her friends, and this makes her a pretty terrible friend, in my opinion. As long as your friend group all keep playing by the rules that say “Mary is a kind, wise, helpful person and telling her ‘no’ is just a mean, selfish way of proving how much we really need her,” nothing will change. Maybe she can be a good friend someday? To be a good friend to you, now, she has to stop with this intrusive forced parenting bullcrap. All future good intentions have to start from there, the true “yes” that comes from respecting other people’s “no.”
You are an empathetic and reasonable person who cares about other people’s feelings, you don’t want to tell a person you care about that their feelings don’t matter, you’ve been taught that’s what mean people do, so, yikes! But by ignoring all reasonable and gentle attempts you’ve made to fix this issue in the past, Mary is forcing your hand: You either “hurt” her feelings by being direct, refusing to get distracted from how her behaviors affect you, and assigning consequences like “Sorry to hear that, let me know when you’re ready to stop acting like my mom and start acting like a friend” (giving her more grist for her martyr complex or driving her away) or you submit to her rules, her creepy hugs, and her patronizing shitty head kisses of maternal disappointment.
People are allowed to cry, I cry all the time, it’s not inherently manipulative* to tear up during a difficult conversation. But if we have an argument about a thing I need you to stop doing because it hurts me, and you get upset during the discussion and cry, I still need you to stop hurting me whenever you’re done crying. Your tears didn’t erase my needs. But that’s the expectation that Mary is setting: Once she cries, you’re supposed to stop needing whatever it was and never mention it again, ’cause look how upset Mary got the last time, do you want to be responsible for making someone feel like that?
*Note: We haven’t talked about how tears can be weaponized along power structures. When white women cry to deflect critiques from Black women and other women of color and treat boundaries as bullying (which they do so often there’s a name for it, White Women’s Tears, people have been locked up and executed behind White Women’s Tears), the tears are a power move based in white fragility, designed to silence criticism, paint the critic as the “real” bully, and resist any need to ever change anything. Crying is normal, weaponizing tears is not okay.
Back to the personal, Mary is converting “being told no” or “hearing that someone needs a different thing than she assumed” as “Now look what you made me do!” and “Why are you hurting me?” She is weaponizing her tears in a way that is incredibly Not Cool in any context. How are you supposed to find a script that gets around that?
You don’t want to stop being friends, you don’t want to have another exhausting conversation, so let’s do a thought experiment. What are some other things you and your friend group could try to avoid setting off one of Mary’s famous meltdowns?
[Entering the Thought Experiment Zone, Where Anything Can Happen, Including Bad Advisor Proposals]
1. Immediately cancel all get-togethers with Mary where there is food or cooking.
You could go to a restaurant or order food, but what if Mary complains that it’s too expensive or unhealthy for what she thinks her growing family should be eating, and after all, she’s happy to cook? If you were to say “Mary, I want to cook by myself” and then you kept on cooking without letting her take over, Mary might cry, or push past you anyway and grab the utensils herself, plus, do you want her to review all the cooking mistakes you’ve ever made in front of everyone yet again? Why put yourself and everyone and most importantly Mary through all that? Also, all of you ungrateful assholes keep saddling her with the cooking, why not give the poor woman a break?
Solution: Simple! Everyone should eat by themselves at home from now on. Everyone. Why risk upsetting Mary by sharing a communal meal with friends in a social setting or daring to turn on a hot stove or touch a potentially too-sharp knife unsupervised by her?You can always present your personal grocery receipts to Mary to reassure her that you ate responsibly. “Look Mary, no toys this month!”
2. Never express any negative emotions in Mary’s presence, even as jokes. Especially as jokes.
Why give her fuel? If you being upset where Mary can see you makes Mary get incredibly upset, why would you upset her that way? It’s better if she sees and hears about only happy emotions.
Since you know Mary can’t process “humor” or “hyperbole,” she takes everything literally, and then she literally uses her literal interpretation of everything you say as a literal excuse to literally treat you like a toddler, it’s time to stop saying jokes that make Mary worry about you, cry, and have inappropriately cloying reactions. Instead, speak only in short, declarative sentences that contain nothing funny when you know Mary is around, maybe stick to wishing one another “Blessed Day” or “Well met, Comrade” or “Everything is fine!” whenever she’s in earshot and leave the heavier stuff (jokes, differences of opinion, struggles, aborted and unsafe attempts at cookery, things that happened to you in your life that day) for after she’s safely tucked in bed. Otherwise…you know what the consequences will be. Honestly, it’s best if you’re mostly silent (but not silent enough that Mary will notice and worry about you).
3. Never discuss any problems that could be happening at work, in your life or the world with her or where she might hear you.
Why did you let yourself get into such a mess at work anyway, didn’t you know that Mary would be unable to resist taking your burdens on, adding to the already unbearable load of the career path, nutritional needs, and emotional well-being of everyone she knows? You know Mary can’t resist clutching you and tearfully kissing the top of your head when she finds out you have a silly-iddle-problem-woblem, why would you risk making her do that by sharing a detail of your life that is less than joyful or optimistic? Don’t you know that every problem you have affects Mary more deeply than anyone, because of how empathetic and kind she is?
4. Put everything that Mary, Conflict Resolution Expert, has taught you into practice by never having conflict with her or mentioning any where she can see it.
You wouldn’t want Mary to sustain any injuries for the weeping she’s forced to do whenever you incompetent, wretches with no understanding of human interactions have a different memory of an incident that she does or (EMERGENCY!) express a conflicting want or idea. She’s had some therapy! That means she KNOWS. Pretty reasonable, right? And, come on, you wouldn’t want Mary to ever feel bad and think that if she didn’t stop acting this way you might not want to be friends anymore!
“Wait, Captain Awkward, are you saying we should arrange our entire social lives and police our interactions so that Mary never has reason to swoop in, remind us we’re doing it all wrong, theatrically cry until she gets her way, or creepily hug us and kiss our boo-boos as if we’re her personal gaggle of toddlers that she is definitely responsible for even though nobody asked her to be and I personally have asked her not to?”
[/Leaving The Thought Experiment Zone]
No! I’m saying that’s a ridiculous thing to try to achieve and these are ridiculous expectations of what friendship requires. This lady is too much fucking work and I think you should all stop doing so much work to placate her, especially when she refuses to do any work to listen to or respect you, and yet keeps presenting all the work she does that you didn’t ask for as a sign that you owe her something.
If there’s no patient reiteration of “Why You Should Really, Really, Stop Acting Like My Mother, I Hate It When You Do That, Also, Please Stop Freaking Out Every Time You Hear The Word ‘No’, Also, I Don’t Think That Therapy Works How You Think It Does” that Mary will ever accept it’s time to try some less patient tactics, like saying “Cool story, Mary” or “Yeah, I’m just gonna cook by myself, thanks” or “Oh, I wasn’t asking for advice,” or “I was joking, it’s okay to just say you didn’t get it or not laugh, it wasn’t an invitation to therapize me” or “Ok, let’s change the subject” or “Please don’t touch me, I don’t want a hug” and “Oh, I already have a mom, thanks” and turning back to whatever you were doing like you expect that Mary will respect that and react proportionally.
If she feels embarrassed and bad, okay, what she’s doing is really weird and bad and embarrassing!
If she starts to “have an emotional meltdown,” consider…mostly…ignoring it? The trick with this is to be very boring and to make it very boring. What if she were to throw a tantrum and nobody came?
“Captain Awkward, are you asking me to ignore a crying human friend who means to be nice and who is obviously feeling upset?”
Kinda…yeah?…when it concerns this particular human who you know cries specifically to manipulate people into giving her what she wants? You’ve tried asking her and telling her, you’ve tried appeasing her, has anyone tried a) inviting her to approximately 95%-100% less friend-stuff and b) when she does behave badly and then melt down when she’s called on it, just letting her meltdowns happen without judgment but also without comforting her or having any particular reaction, like, whoever is cooking says, “No, Mary” and keeps cooking.
You asked how you can get Mary to detach emotionally from you and behaving this way, but you can’t control that, so could you detach from her outbursts and just let them happen, like, go inside your head and calmly observe, like, “I guess this is happening now, but I still don’t want to have my jokes analyzed , I hope she figures it out.”
Ever seen a parent spirit an overstimulated toddler having a meltdown out of a restaurant plop them gently on the sidewalk and hang out a little distance away while the kid screams it alllllllllllllllllllll out? From what I’ve observed, the trick with a “wailing in unspeakable rage and sadness ’cause I asked for butter on my rice and the restaurant put butter on my rice, the world is obviously ending” three-year-old is to 1) acknowledge the kid is sad (CommanderLogic to WeeLogics when whey were wee-er and had fewer words at their disposal: “Yes, I can tell that you are very sad right now”), 2) do some quick due diligence to make sure the kid isn’t actually sick or hurt in some way that’s not immediately visible and that it really is a Mad At The World meltdown, and then 3) give them some space and don’t engage until they’ve had a chance to cry it out and are ready to calmly rejoin the Big People again. Same deal applies to adults who throw tantrums when they don’t immediately get their way, except for grownup tantrum-havers you don’t even have to do the part where you lift them up and carry them outside or idly scroll through your phone while you stand watch against passing cars or kidnappers. They can go outside or to the bathroom or they can cry the restaurant ceiling down right here at the table, they’re grownups, it’s really up to them.
I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t incredibly hard and stressful and upsetting to just stand there while a fellow adult dramatically loses their shit without dying of second-hand shame poisoning and incredible pressure to fix it. And people who use big emotional meltdowns/tantrums to get their way KNOW this is hard and they USE IT, they train the people around them that it’s better to avoid a scene than it is to risk an eruption of Mount Feelings, they use the fear of embarrassment and discomfort and guilt for not empathizing enough to cultivate an environment where it’s just easier to let them have their way all the time.
Easier…it’s easier to just go along…easier to not bring it up…this is what the Outburst Prone always imply, but I must ask, easier than what, exactly? When someone blackmails you, your best bet is to tell the secret yourself. When an adult threatens to cry until they get their way, maybe today’s the day we find out how long a person can cry. When someone is willing to behave like this to get their way, and you try every reasonable and kind way to defuse it, sometimes all that’s left is “Ok, cry it out then, let me know when you want to try words again, in the meantime I’m going to be over here/go home/chop these peppers all by myself with a grownup knife that grownups use.” And then maybe you let whatever it is happen, even if it’s messy and awkward and embarrassing and Mary feels real sad when she’s not obeyed. You don’t have to reassure the person who won’t stop hurting you that it’s okay if they feel sad about hurting you. Let ’em cry!
You’re probably feeling pretty defensive of Mary right about now, Letter Writer, if you’re still reading. She’s your friend! I don’t know her like you do! SHE MEANS WELL. She tries. She can’t help it. This is just how she is. Ok, but what if “just how she is is” really incompatible with how you are and what makes you feel good in a friendship? What if Extremely Aggressive and Patronizing Self-Appointed Mom (That Nobody Asked For) Who Throws Tantrums When She Doesn’t Get Her Way Because She Thinks She Is The Best At Conflict is as good as it gets? What if your options right now really are a choice between:
- Patiently endure more emotional meltdowns that end with you clutched to her bosom while she plants tiny kisses the top of your head every time you say the word ‘no’ with her clutching little mouth, or —
- Stop putting up with the mothering behavior, say bluntly that you don’t like it and need it to stop, and if Mary decides that she’d rather stop being friends than have to respect a boundary or change her entire personality (fair), wish her well and let her go.
What if no third option exists, since Mary has already repeatedly and with great fanfare rejected the world where you set a boundary and she listens to you and stops doing an incredibly weird, intrusive, obnoxious thing and you get to live happily as nice relaxed adults who see each other as equals?
Perhaps this song from the Story Bots will convey which above option I think is both healthier and more likely with the appropriate amount of fanfare (transcript of lyrics available at the YouTube link):
I do have sympathy for Mary and would for anyone who is acting this far outside of reasonable behavior to the point where they are about to lose all their friends if they don’t stop, it probably feels terrible inside her head. That’s not for us to sort out or diagnose, though.
Even if we knew for sure that a diagnosable condition were present I promise you – I promise you – that the cure would not be your continued compliance with everything Mary prefers. People who are having legitimate trouble maintaining reasonable boundaries with others need their friends and loved ones to pick up the boundary slack, not abandon the idea of boundaries in the face of Hurricane Feelings.
You get to have needs. You get to have different needs than Mary thinks you should. You get to have needs that directly conflict with Mary’s needs. You get to not need Mary at all or give any lip service to her idea of herself as the needed one and you as the needer, you get to say “don’t tell me what I need” and “let’s leave need out of this, except for the part where I asked you to stop acting like my mom, ’cause that is what I actually need from you.” You’re allowed to want to make jokes and talk about a less-than-perfect workday and cook your own fucking food without fear of setting off a giant emotional storm, and Mary can have extremely sad feelings and at the same time you can have feelings called “Mary, it sucks that you feel this sad about something that is happening in my life, but I still need you to stop [clutching at me][trying to diagnose my issues][taking over the kitchen whenever I’m in it][turning every joke into an opportunity to show how smart you are about my life] and give me some space, right now, so stop.” You don’t have to solve Mary’s feelings every time you have a feeling in order to be her friend.
Let me leave you with some possible (non-ironic, un-ridiculous non-Thought Experiment) action steps:
First, the blog theme for 2019: If a relationship sucks and makes you feel bad all the time, what if you stopped trying so hard to fix it? Not, what if you ended it forever or made a dramatic pronouncement or big decision about it or had one more big serious talk, or found a way to try a little harder, just, what if you stopped working on it. Mary’s gonna Mary, you can’t fix Mary, so what if when you’re not in the mood for Mary you stayed home (or went home) and when you want to hang out with people you prioritized the ones who aren’t so much work?
To build on that, if you’re not ready to end this friendship, you’re the boss of you! But, what if you didn’t hang out with Mary for a whole month? What if you saw friends in smaller groups, met up with people solo, hung out in different venues, and took a 30 day break from Mary. No need to inform her, just, don’t initiate contact with her and when she seeks you out say, “Oops, I’m pretty busy right now, I’ll get in touch when I have some free time” and don’t jump at her commands. (Remember during your break: SOCIAL MEDIA FILTERS ARE YOUR FRIEND, don’t give a person you’re trying to keep at arms length a ton of tools and information to monitor you.)
When the 30 days ends – Ask yourself, do you miss her? If yes, I guess call her. If not, try another 30! And, what if every time Mary violated your boundaries after that you decided to take a break from spending time with her? Instead of explaining or reasoning or comforting or enduring more emotional conversations and baggage, what if you let whatever she did or said pass without a big discussion in the moment, but once you were out of her presence you let it be a sign to stop hanging out for a while? A message that can’t always be delivered in words: Respect my boundaries, we hang out and have fun. Act like my mom, we don’t hang out, because I can’t trust that it will be fun for me.
Third, I do think you should stop telling her details about your life or talking about any heavy subjects, that wasn’t a joke suggestion before. She uses everything you tell her as fodder, time to keep everything real light and breezy and vague for a while.
Fourth, what if the next time Mary does something that bothers you, you told her, “Mary, I really need you to hear me. The thing where you act like my self-appointed mother annoys the living fuck out of me. I care about you and I want to be your friend, but you need to stop x, y, z specific behaviors, starting now, they make me feel infantilized and exhausted.” Don’t explain more than that, reasons are for reasonable people, we’re wayyyyyy past reasonable. It’s okay to raise your voice, it’s okay to be furious if you feel furious.
Also, it’s okay to communicate this in a letter or email, or on a phone call that you cut short when you’re ready to be done talking, you can avoid sitting down in quiet venues or situations where a long discussion is easy or likely. Everybody who gets news they don’t want to hear insists that they would have reacted better if it had been delivered differently, and they might be right, but you still get to prioritize your own comfort, especially when you know a person is prone to dramatic reactions and that you don’t like those.
Fifth, what if you tried the above strategy of asking Mary to knock off the Mom-stuff, and she had a giant meltdown, and you waited out her reaction and then repeated what you needed. “Ok, I get that you feel unappreciated and upset right now, but what I need hasn’t changed. Please stop all Mom-like behaviors like (specifically name them again, it’s part of shifting focus from her intentions to her impact on you) when we’re hanging out.”
Sixth, what if you held firm, and stayed consistent, even if Mary tried other tactics to manipulate you? Offering favors that no one wants and then using that to demand deference or favors or access in return is manipulation 101, one word for it is “favor-sharking,” it’s never actually kind or nice, it’s just manipulation. Then there’s this thing creepy people who were obviously hitting on you do when they get called out, where they get fake-outraged and accuse you of imagining the whole thing, like, “How dare you imagine I like you that way” and tell you you are ugly. People who attempt these abrupt reversals and gaslighting ‘negs’ are almost always trying to trick you into reassuring them that you understand their pure intentions (there’s that word again, intentions) and will forget their overstepping actions, they win when you get flustered and apologize to them for misconstruing an “innocent” remark, you win when you say, “Okay, great, I’m so glad it’s just a misunderstanding, so I definitely won’t have to worry about [specific creepy behavior, name it, always name it] anymore, what a relief!” If Mary tries to project her behavior all back on you, accept, with aggressive positivity! “Phew, that’s good to hear! Just to be clear, if I’m cooking, you’re going to stay out of the kitchen and not comment or try to fix my food? Sweet, that’s all I wanted. Thanks, good talk everyone!”
When you pull this off successfully it’s the best, ’cause there’s not a thing they can reasonably say back without obviously becoming the asshole in the room. You’re agreeing with them! You’re accepting their version of events, as long as [here’s the catch], they knock off the crappy thing you wanted them to stop all along.
This all still feels like Too Much Work, and I want to be clear that none of my recommendations are going to be the perfect script or the perfect approach, simply because I don’t think there is actually a way to convince someone who finds the idea that you might be the expert at living your own life utterly inconvenient to her concept of herself as a good person (who just happens to be better at everything than you including knowing the best way to be…you!) to Just Fucking Not, Already. You’ve been perfectly clear all the other times you’ve tried this, what was missing was the willingness to step away and stop working so hard if she refused to adjust.
Letter Writer, good luck salvaging…something…here, even if it is blessed freedom from being mommed to death if your friend decides to take her marbles and goes home. You’ve been incredibly patient and tried to see the best in Mary, even when it’s invisible to me, I hope that pays off how you want it to. You have my sympathies if it doesn’t.
Everyone else: I think we find out who people really are when tell them “no.” If you’re worried you’re dealing with A Mary, start sprinkling the word “no” liberally all up and down your friendship and see what happens. If you feel like you can’t say “no,” like you’re not allowed to say “no,” consider if this is a relationship you want to keep at all, it might already have gone too far wrong to salvage.
If you do say no and the resulting conversations are all about your friend’s intentions and feelings, try dragging the discussion back by naming specific actions, focusing on how the actions affect you/the world, and describing what specific things you need to happen now. Friendships can survive “no” and having different needs. Relationships that can’t survive that aren’t friendships, they’re something else, and we don’t have to stay in those.
If you’re worried that you ARE a Mary, when a friend tells you “no,” consider stopping whatever it is you’re doing at once and, if you’re feeling extremely upset by being asked to stop, try waiting at least 24 hours before you respond further or try to explain yourself to see if the urge passes. If you feel the compulsion to cry, okay, but try to do it privately, not because tears are wrong but so that there’s no pressure for your friend to comfort you for something you fucked up.
Remind yourself that when someone says “stop,” it’s not actually the time to explain why you shouldn’t actually have to stop or promise to intend to stop. Just stop! Maybe it doesn’t matter what you meant, or how embarrassed or upset you feel at being asked to stop, maybe it matters that the thing stops. The stopping IS the demonstration of good intentions. The best, only, necessary way to prove you are a person who can take no for an answer is to be a person who takes no for an answer.
Edited to Add:
I’m closing comments as of 6/13 – I think all the angles are more than covered.
THANK YOU, Letter Writer for your updates in the thread, which quickly showed that it’s time to 1) consult a domestic violence hotline for help making a safety plan and 2) consult a lawyer for getting Mary (who is a roommate in a house the LW owns) out of the living space.