#1365: “I am being held hostage by the phone.”

Hi Captain,

I (she/her) have a friend who is, in most respects, a lovely person. We live about an hour apart and both have pretty busy schedules, so it’s hard for us to see each other in person more than about once a month. In between visits, we tend to catch up via phone calls.

I have no problem with talking on the phone for an hour or so at a time, so this is generally fine. But she WILL. NOT. GET. OFF. THE. PHONE. I used to try gentle, but not excessively subtle, cues like “Well, it’s getting late”, or “All right, I’m getting a little tired”, or “I haven’t had dinner yet and I’m getting hungry, so I think I’m gonna let you go so I can make dinner”, but nope. She’ll either argue (“It’s not that late”) or tell me I can stay on the phone with her while I do the thing. If I tell her I really do need to go now, she’ll “jokingly” act all offended that I don’t want to talk to her and must not like it anymore.

This is, as you might imagine, exhausting. Some days I see her name on my phone, decide I don’t have the mental/emotional bandwidth to deal with the inevitable end of the conversation, and just don’t answer. Then I get a voicemail message “jokingly” accusing me of being mean and not wanting to talk to her because I don’t like her.

I do like her, but I would like her a lot more if she didn’t pull this crap! I’m usually pretty good at being assertive and maintaining boundaries while keeping things pleasant, but she is… a challenge. I’m writing this after a phone call where I told her at the beginning that I’d had a headache all day, then an hour later told her I needed to feed the cat (“You can do that while you’re on the phone!”) and make dinner (she immediately tried to change the subject). I finally resorted to an emphatic “[Friend], BYE”, which she obviously didn’t take well.

I’ve been trying and failing for years now to come up with clear, unambiguous, polite scripts for “I enjoyed our chat but I am now choosing to end it whether you agree or not”. Can you help?

-Telephone Hostage

Dear Telephone Hostage,

I can think of any number of strategies for addressing this problem with your friend. None of them involve trying to patiently out-polite someone who is being extremely manipulative, though. The time for hints is over.

You could try to schedule routine times to talk, and set more realistic expectations by including an end time from the start. “Oh hi, great to hear from you. Before I forget, I have to be off the phone by 7:30.” Set an alarm for 7:25. When it goes off, start wrapping up the call. At 7:30, GO.

You could stop preemptively supplying reasons for why you need to get off the phone, since you know your friend will discount whatever reason you supply. And if she demands reasons, call this behavior out! “Well, since you ask, I want to start dinner and feed the cat, but the important part is that I’d like to hang up now. Talk to you soon!” :click:

You could try taking a break from phone calls altogether, maybe switch it up with other activities that can be done together from a distance, like watching a show or playing an online game. You can try setting her number to “do not disturb” or putting your phone away during times that you know that don’t want to talk to her. (Like when you have an awful headache and aren’t in the mood).

You could try being very direct with your friend: “Friend, from now on, when I tell you that I need to hang up, I need you to say ‘Ok! Bye!’ and just let me off the phone. No arguments, no interrogations about why, no more passive-aggressive texts about how mean I am. I love talking to you, but when I say I need to go, I both need to go and want to go. Have mercy!”  

You could try translating your past hints into actionable requests: “Friend, when I say ‘its’ getting late’ or ‘look at the time,’ that means I’m ready to start winding down our call. Do I need to be more specific? If so, okay! Iloveyoubyehangingupnow!” :click:

Alternately, at the beginning of a phone call, when tensions are low and she’s not behaving badly, you could bring the problem to her attention and ask her why she’s doing it. “Friend, I’ve noticed a pattern where, whenever I tell you I want to hang up, you argue with me and try to keep me on the phone longer. What’s going on with that?”  If you need an example choose one very recent, very glaring one.

Expect some deflection, defensiveness, justifications, attempts to play it off as a joke, etc. I suspect that whatever anxiety-avoidance dance (where she’s an adult literally begging someone to not hang up the phone, not a toddler with bedtime FOMO) does not feel good to her, either. Don’t argue, just listen. She may not be self-aware enough to articulate why. Fair enough! The exact reason she supplies isn’t really the point. The act of listening in the service of airing out the grievance is the point. And just to be absolutely clear: If she tells you a very sad, sympathetic reason about why she’s doing what she’s doing, that’s good information, but it does not obligate you to keep doing what she wants. Continued compliance is never the cure.

When it’s your turn to respond, try something like this: “What I’m hearing is _______ and ________ [a rephrasing of what she said to you goes in the blanks]. The reason I brought it up is, when I tell you it’s time to get off the phone, I need you to stop pressuring me to keep talking. And I need you to stop sending “joking” texts about how mean I am or how I don’t like you. It turns talking to my lovely friend –  a fun thing that I enjoy! –  into a bummer, and I don’t want that. So help me out here! Also, I’m not going to argue back and forth about it in the future. Once I tell you I need to go, that’s it, I’m going!” 

Or, since this is a known, recurring problem, maybe you don’t have to talk through it in detail.“Friend, I said I needed to go, stop making it weird!” “I like you a lot, but not when you act like this! I’m going now!” “Five minutes ago I ‘politely hinted’ that it was time to wrap up, now I’m telling you! Bye! Talk to you later!” “Friendname, bathroom time is alone time! Good night!” “I enjoyed our chat, but I am done now whether you agree or not!”  

You can also tell her that her”jokes” aren’t funny.  If she’s “just joking,” then she won’t mind, right? (Ha.) One way to defuse the “just joking”/”I didn’t mean it like that”  gambit is to ask the person what their real thoughts are. “If you didn’t mean it, great! What did you mean? Surely not…that I’m not…allowed…to hang up the phone….right?”

Now for the catch: Any of these methods can work, but absolutely none of them will work unless you actually hang up the phone when you want to.

Maintaining boundaries isn’t really about what you can persuade other people to do, it’s about deciding what you are willing to do in order to get your needs met when and if someone isn’t persuaded. She wants to talk longer. You want to hang up. Someone is bound to be disappointed here. Your friend has apparently decided that the disappointed person is always going to be you. Until you stop martyring yourself, so have you. When people say “actions speak louder than words,” this is exactly the kind of shit they’re talking about.

Which means, regardless of what scripts or strategies you want to try, you’ll have to hang up, knowing that she won’t like it, knowing that it will be uncomfortable and awkward. And for best results, you’ll need to hang up the very first time you say goodbye, whether she’s cool with it or not. The more you linger and repeat yourself, the more it will appear that there’s still something to discuss. This isn’t that scene in action movies where it takes two people with two separate keys to arm the bomb in the submarine. It doesn’t require consensus to say “Oh hey, it’s 7:30, I need to say goodnight! Let’s talk soon!” and hang up. Save yourself! Save her from herself! :click:

The first time you do it will be the hardest. It will feel jarring and awful and you’ll probably second-guess yourself a million times. Your friend will likely escalate at first before she adapts. (There will be weird text and voicemails. Delete them.) Moving forward, when you do interact normally, be the pleasant and loving friend you always are. You’re not mad at her, you don’t hate her, you just need this one thing to be different. If she insists on manipulating you after she’s been told outright, then take a break from phone calls for a while. “I don’t want to fight with you, but I was serious. When you make getting off the phone into an ordeal, I have way less energy for getting on it.” 

I’m reasonably sure that many people read your letter and thought, “OMFG, you need to just get off the phone already! How is this even a problem?!?” Those people are not technically wrong, in that “hanging up already”  is what you are going to have to learn to do if you want this to ever change.

But often, I find it useful to mentally edit “You just need to” “obvious” “tough love” advice like this to something more like “That wouldn’t be a problem…for me. In your shoes, I would just….” Once I reframe it as the person talking about themselves, then, sure! Knowing what worked for somebody in a similar situation can be damn useful at times! Especially when, let’s say, an advice-asker’s parameters for what “normal” is like are somewhat sketchy. Except, what’s easy for one person isn’t universally applicable, and I would venture that this website is one decade-long exercise in me figuring that out, publicly, in real time. 😉

Letter Writer, if hanging up is hard for you (and I believe that it is), I’m assuming there’s a reason for that. People-pleasing tendencies like the ones I see in your letter don’t occur in a vacuum. I don’t know your life, but I’m willing to guess that somebody (possibly many somebodies)  taught you that your time and your preferences and your feelings don’t really matter as much as other people’s and it would be much more pleasant (“for everyone”) if not literally safer (for you)  if you just kept quiet.

Unfortunately, lots of the skills people learn to survive dysfunctional environments are not useful outside of those environments, and need to be un-learned later. The good news is, you’re a grownup now, safe and warm in a place where nobody can make you do anything. The unlearning can be done (even if it takes a while), and one otherwise lovely person you quite like, who does one specific thing that really annoys you, is a very good place to start.

. :click: