#1327: “My best friend’s other best friend is The Worst. How do I free myself without losing my friend?”

Hello Captain,

I (she/her, 40) have an acquaintance, “Attila” (she/her, 36), and a friend, “Philomena” (she/her, 37). Attila and I are Philomena’s best friends. We’ve known one another since college. I only ever interact with Attila through Philomena.

Philomena and Attila are both type A and professionally successful. I for one have been struggling with mental illnesses (plural) and neurodivergences (also plural). My first years out of grad school have been gruesome.

Attila’s sole topics of conversation are philanthropy, leadership, and resilience. She also brags a lot: about her busy schedule, her achievements, her acquaintances’ achievements. She once bragged Philomena helped her fix her leaking ceiling, while my asking Philomena to help me move has been met with avoidance and mild disgust that I would need help with anything.

Philomena puts Attila on a pedestal. She also constantly brings up women who have achieved cool things. She seems invested in her idea of me as “kick-ass”, a phrase she uses a lot to describe the women she admires (as well as “strong” and “independent”). This is not how I view myself. My mental conditions mean I need logistical and emotional help sometimes.

 Attila also has this pattern of pushing people around.

 Exhibit A: In college, she invited six of us to a group dinner at her place. She made us buy her entire groceries, including flour and sugar. I have no idea why she needed flour in our student-grade pad thai dinner. She asked us $10 each for the meal, meaning the groceries would have amounted to $70. Hardly possible. This was significantly over my super-tight student budget.

(I hinted at money being an issue for me to Philomena after that.)

Exhibit B: Our graduation dinner at a fancy-ish restaurant. I purposefully ordered a cheaper meal and didn’t drink, while they treated themselves to the place’s expensive specialties and had wine. One of them asked to split the bill evenly.

Exhibit C: The day before a brunch, Attila texted me to bring pastries, then called me ten minutes later to ask if I had seen her message. Her urgent tone pushed me over the edge. During the brunch she made a nervous, keening, giggly comment that she had made the urgent phone call from a spa. Contrast this to another brunch instance where I asked her to bring pink grapefruit juice which I knew her grocery store carried since I used to live in that neighborhood. She turned up late with orange juice, claiming the three places she went to didn’t have grapefruit.

Exhibit D: I worked at a third-party company that dealt with payment processes for organizations. She pressured me to ask the CEO to change their billing method to accommodate her team sports club, while urging me to keep the club’s name a secret. I told her she had to contact support and mention the club’s name, and that I wasn’t going to tell the CEO what to do. She urged me to do it anyway. (I didn’t.)

Exhibit E: When I showed Attila my handmade hobby product, without even asking how much the items were, she said, “I’m giving you X dollars”. It was under my selling price.

Exhibit F:  Her birthday (I). We went to a karaoke with private rooms as per her wish. Philomena split the bill between the rest of us, because birthday. It was over both my expectations and my budget. I had been jobless for a year. They both had jobs.

Exhibit G: Her birthday (II). Attila said a hired bartender giving home cocktail lessons would be fun, so Philomena hired a bartender to give a home cocktail lesson. This also was way over my budget. I was still jobless at that time. They still were not.

Exhibit H: My birthday (I). I told them I wanted to brunch at my favorite place. Philomena replied: “But Attila wants us at her place so her new boyfriend can make us pancakes!” I had to insist. That one time, Attila paid for my meal, which made me wonder if I wasn’t “overreacting” about her.

Exhibit I: My 40th birthday. Philomena said she’d considered organizing a themed quiz about my favorite decade, but then she’d “thought that Attila would not enjoy herself and comment”, so did I have other ideas? The only thing I could come up with to make this videoconference party special was having a fabulous dress code à la Christmas party. (At that point, purple with rage that Attila’s enjoyment was even a consideration on my milestone birthday, I sent Philomena a faux-breezy email hinting at the things we’d done for Attila’s birthday to stress that this would be a good occasion for them to step up within the means permitted by the pandemic.) Philomena scheduled the party on a Tuesday night. Attila turned up late wearing plain clothes and Christmas lights. She giggled faux-apologetically about her outfit, as if mocking the effort she was asked to make. She then proceeded to talk at length about the several-course feast she had had delivered to Philomena for her birthday the month before. Note that Attila had nothing delivered to me for the occasion. She left the call after an hour, prompting the fourth person to log off, leaving only Philomena and me, which killed the party.

Attila’s behavior has left me blindsided with rage every time, but enough time passed between such incidents that I mostly forgot about the previous one by the time the next one came around. And so the cycle continued.

Until a turning point was reached when I did a job for her last year.

Prior to that, I’d done a translation contract in a very technical field which had gotten me praise for the quality and swiftness of my work from the company’s CEO.

She phoned me asking if I could translate her research paper by the following week. She claimed her budget was $100. The real cost of this job was at least six times as much. I compromised because I was getting my freelance career started. I asked her to write me a testimonial, to compensate. Around that time, she also asked me to design a logo for her foundation, for free.

Her feedback came six weeks later.

She claimed each page would take her two hours of re-working, for a total of 70 hours, and started enumerating subtleties between terms I had gotten wrong (that I couldn’t possibly have known about). She spelled out the “70 hours for 35 pages” on top of the “2 hours per page” part, as if to hammer home my perceived failure. I am highly skeptical of that time estimate though: The revisions were merely word substitutions. The testimonial that followed contained not even half the reasonable word count I’d asked of her.

I cannot even refer to her by any name other than “fucking Attila” anymore. Except around Philomena, where I change the subject at her mention. Philomena hasn’t noticed Attila’s pattern of taking advantage of certain people, or is turning a blind eye, or is maybe even enabling her. I’m not sure.

Avoiding her has been easy lately, but things will reopen. I will be invited to brunch at her place and be tempted to hate-attend out of habit. I’ve only been tolerating her for Philomena’s sake. Because the thing is: I find everything about her grating. The high-strung-ness. The fussiness. The pushiness. The bragging. The nervous giggling. The keening noises. How having her around is about as relaxing as a networking event.

Philomena has an uncanny ability to steer conversations away from emotionally loaded topics. There has never been an opening conducive to bringing up the translation job incident. Her bringing up Attila in passing hardly calls for a diplomatic word vomit where I can barely conceal years of escalating rage.

How do I address the Attila issue with her? What is even going on here?


Purple Rage

Hello Purple Rage, 

Your grudges against Attila date back to college and the time she brought orange juice instead of grapefruit juice to brunch, and I can only bow before this consistency, persistence, spite, and pettiness. I have seen legal briefs and HR complaints with less documentation. Respect. 

You have more than made your case that you don’t like this Attila person. So now, as things reopen, is it not the perfect time for some spring cleaning? 

Step 1: Open up your phone’s ‘contact’ screen and scroll to where it says ‘Attila’ or ‘Bitch Eating Crackers‘ or however you’ve filed her details, and press delete. 

Step 2: Log into whatever social media platforms and messenger apps you use and use the mute, unfollow, unfriend, and block buttons until you feel a sense of calm and freedom. If you need to do this in baby steps, “mute” and “unfollow” settings are generally invisible to anyone but you, whereas “unfriend and “block” send a more palpable message. 

Step 3: Create an email filter that automatically redirects communications from Attila to their own special folder, maybe something called “Nope” or “That’s Certainly An Opinion.” 

Step 4: If Attila invites you to brunch or some other event and it somehow gets through your filters, RSVP “No” and don’t go to it. Don’t go to things at her house! Definitely don’t work with her again! 

These steps have something in common besides disengaging from a person you don’t like: You don’t need to inform anybody else or get anyone’s permission to do them before you do them. 

You will of course encounter Attila from time to time at events hosted by Philomena, at which time you can be vague and polite on your way to finding someone else to talk to. Use your platitudes and inane pleasantries: “Oh, hello! Yes, it has been a while, hasn’t it. It’s certainly a nice day for it. Glad the weather is cooperating. Yes, this is delicious. Doesn’t Philomena look great.” Be boring, breezy, and use no question marks if you can help it, and then move awayyyyyyyyyyyy. If it sounds like I’m telling you to be fake with her, it’s because I absolutely am. Be minimally, on-paper polite and then disengage. Can’t compare your life to whatever Tahani-level name-drops or amazing “leadership” shit she’s got going on if you don’t stick around to hear it, and your next birthday can’t revolve around a person who isn’t invited. 

Inevitably, Philomena will notice, and you will have to level with her, to a point. “Phil, Attila and I have always rubbed each other a little bit wrong. We’ve both tried hard to get along for your sake, I think, but the whole translation disaster just broke me, and I’m going to keep my distance from now on.” 

She’ll want to fix it, of course, but hold fast. “I know you want everyone you love to love each other, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way. Please, stop trying to fix it or force it. I’ll do my best to be polite and civil to Attila and not make it weird at parties where we all wind up in the same room, but it’s past time for the college trio become a Venn diagram where we both get to love you and studiously ignore each other like shelter cats.”  

Additional scripts that may be adapted for Philomena, Attila, or curious bystanders: 

  • “We tried to collaborate on a work thing that really, really didn’t work out. It’s for the best that we take a long break.”  
  • “Every time she asks me for a favor, which is a lot, I end up regretting it, and she treats me like she was the one doing the favor. It’s exhausting, and I’m done.” 
  • “We both adore Philomena, of course, but we’ve never really liked each other and that work disaster and the pandemic just made it more obvious that we really have nothing in common.” 
  • “We both made a lot of effort to get along because it took a lot of effort to get along. I wish her well, but I’m going to prioritize friendships that aren’t this much work.” 
  • “As much as the pandemic sucked, I realized that I didn’t actually miss hanging out with her. Now that we’re able to meet up in person again I’d rather save it all for people I’m actually close to.” 
  • “It sucks, especially since we’ve known each other for so long, but it was time.” 
  • “Social media spring cleaning: I highly recommend it!” 

As much as you want Philomena to understand why you had to do this (and, deep down, agree with you), your best move within the social group at large is to keep the conversation moving and not elaborate the way you have here. Anecdotes like “she said there was no grapefruit juice but I know for a fact there was,” without context, are going to make you appear obsessed. Leave those here, with me and the entire Internet. In the likely event that there are fellow Attila haters around, they will read between the lines of your polite deflections and you can all indulge in a long, therapeutic gossip session at that time. The deep-down truth here is something like, “Philomena, she treats me like an afterthought, even when she needs my help, and whenever she’s in the picture, you start to treat me like an afterthought too, to the point that even my own birthday was somehow all about her. I don’t think that’s your fault, I think that’s just part of who she is, but for my own sanity, I need to uncross the streams where she’s a part of all my social ties.” Philomena probably isn’t ready to hear that and isn’t going to give you that catharsis, so don’t blow up your friendship with her by trying to extract one.

Make fun, solo plans with Philomena that aren’t about avoiding Attila but are about you seeking out your friend. You say that Philomena doesn’t enjoy fraught conversations, so, harness that instinct. Next time Philomena relates some “amazing” thing Attila did recently? Be blandly boring about it (“Oh, neat.” “Sounds fun!”), resist the temptation to snark or get more details that will only make you feel bad, and continue changing the subject, often. Hopefully this will be enough to interrupt the pattern, but if it isn’t, you can also harness the “worship” part. “Philomena, you always see the best in people, and it’s so lovely, don’t ever change. What’s new with [giant subject change]?”  If you argue with her or try to set the record straight, Philomena’s instinct will be to double down on defending her friend’s honor and Attila will become the focus, again. If you turn it into a compliment about Philomena, there’s nothing to fight about. If that fails, you can say “Philomena, I don’t even like Attila when she’s here, please don’t make hang out with her in absentia all night!” But for now, start with changing habits and patterns, and give it some time to work. 

One more note on your friendship with Philomena: It looks like money disparities are a recurring theme in this friendship group. When planning hangouts with Philomena, can you stop hinting and  strive for more clarity around money? Ask the server for a separate check right when you sit down at a group restaurant meal. Clarify costs of plans up front, like,“Karaoke, yes! Do you happen to know what the room rental will be and how we’re splitting it so I can budget?” Periodically remind her that you are on a budget, and opt out of plans that you know are outside of it. “I can do dinner OR a movie this week, howabout a matinee and ice cream after?” My read is that Attila was judgmental of you around career/”success”/disability in a way that made it hard to clarify things around money (while also being incredibly cheap where your labor was concerned, how charming!) If we’re resetting social expectations generally, the dynamic where you get sucked into paying for things you can’t really afford based on hints and other people’s assumptions is well worth revisiting.