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I have a friend who thinks I’m her best friend, and I convinced myself of that for a few years. However, in tandem with a few years of therapy, medication, and ongoing self-growth, I have slowly distanced myself from her. Why? I never felt appreciated or considered. I was always available to drive her to school or doctor’s appointments, take her shopping, even to help her move. I fought battles for her for which I am suffering repercussions to this day. I paid for lunch, dinner, outings for which she promised to “pay me back” — she never did after repeated requests to do so. Or, she thought that bringing alcohol to my house (which she acquired for free through her job) was compensatory enough.
She is an emotional vampire — constantly telling me her woes and who is the current target of her dislike. I allowed this to happen for years because I was a negative and even petty person at the time. I engaged in conversations against people who I now consider good friends. I allowed this, yes, she didn’t force it, but I realize that being around her encourages me to fall into these habits. Perhaps because she is superficially interested in hearing about me — she would get silent or at best briefly acknowledge and move on to what interested her more.
I fell into a deep depression and didn’t hear from her. When I asked her why, she said it was because I was strong enough to deal with it on my own, and she knew I would come out of it eventually, and there was not much she could do. It’s very hard for me to ask for help — I’m still working on developing that vulnerability. I accepted it by rationalizing that she does not have the emotional capability to support a depressed person. And, I DO have the skills to go through a depressive episode. But even if this is true, do I have to accept that quality of friendship?
The final straw was when I called her one day at 3 a.m. for an emergency. Not only did she not pick up, she didn’t check in with me that day until we later saw each other at a friend’s house, where she was quick to state that she didn’t want to get involved in my personal issues. Polly, I needed her!
I started to drift away after this event. I invested the energy into other, more fulfilling, two-way-street friendships, where I am happy to give. I am happier than I have ever been. But she recently complained about my lack of involvement in her life, and while I promised to try harder, I realized that I don’t want to. I know she senses this distance, and I feel like I’m being mean and hypocritical. I find it difficult to communicate what I feel, and when I do things usually come out wrong. I end up offending people by telling them exactly what I feel. Do I have to explain my rationale to her? How can I make a decision to move on without feeling like I’m doing something wrong?
Call Me Average, Not Mean
Dear Call Me Average, Not Mean,
Fuck bad friends. I used to think they were part of life. I used to tell people “Hang in there! Old friendships are so important!” I used to say, “Treat them like family members. Accept them as they are. Prepare to eat shit and deal with it.”
But old friends aren’t family members. I’m not saying you can’t promote them to the status of family members. If your friend is a bad friend, though, why the fuck would you want to do that? Well, chances are you’d do it because your bad friend’s flaws match the flaws of the people in your family. She doesn’t listen the way your sister doesn’t listen. She judges you the way your dad judges you. She turns away the way your brother turns away when you try to say a thing you’re going through. You feel ignored and undervalued, and THAT FEELS JUST LIKE HOME.
To be clear, my bad friends have traditionally (and perversely) combined some of the milder flaws of my family with other, more serious, more exotic flaws to create a strange combination of seduction and punishment. The conditions of my upbringing are thereby reenacted against a new, in some ways even more dramatic, backdrop. The rejections feel even more stinging. My core self, my vulnerability, my assertions are treated with even more suspicion and disdain. “How romantic and terrible it is,” some part of me must believe, “to be misunderstood and neglected, even now!”
At the center of this bizarre reenactment is one driving assumption: “I am someone who deserves punishment. If I were better, this person wouldn’t reject me and treat me like toe cheese.” This belief makes it incredibly tough to confront the bad friend in question. Not only do you already know that you won’t be heard, but you also suspect that merely stating your needs or standing up for yourself makes you mean and hypocritical. Also: The bad friend is somehow always in the middle of a crisis of her own. So how dare you bring up your own crisis when her crisis is so much more dramatic and terrible than yours?
So you wait. For a long time. You accept that you need to be kept at arm’s length. As long as you’re going through something that requires her to hear a word about your feelings (even if they’re unrelated to her, even after her crisis passes), then you still have to be kept away. Plus, you really don’t deserve to be going through anything or to need anyone because, unlike her, you’re doing just fine, you have the tools you need, you don’t need any help from anyone else.
See how it works? When you have feelings, you’re exaggerating or being dramatic. When you need something, you’re just being petulant and needy. Your needs aren’t real to her, somehow. Even when you show up for her, that’s a liability, too. Because she doesn’t like to lean on people, and your intimacy and inside knowledge of her challenges make her anxious. You are a faucet that gets turned on and off. If you decide you want any control of your own, you’re treated like a faucet that isn’t working correctly.
I’m not trying to convince you that your friend is a bad person, or that these experiences aren’t highly subjective. I’m just trying to describe how it feels to stay committed to someone who isn’t reciprocating and probably never will. And it’s strange how even under such stressors, many of us resolve not to break up with the bad friend in question. Instead, we resolve to be better, to take up less space, to be friendlier, to be more grateful, to be less demanding. You do have certain good things in your life, don’t you? Shouldn’t you feel ashamed of how many good things you have? You do have certain qualities and talents, and you are a capable person, aren’t you? What gives you the right to have feelings on top of all of that? What kind of a spoiled, overdramatic freak are you, anyway?
So what’s at stake here? Everything, really. When you have a bad friend who reenacts the conditions of your family life for you (perhaps because your family dynamics have improved or at least you’ve learned to accept and work with them), you have a big, active reminder in life that you should, ideally, make yourself as small and as agreeable as possible. A bad friend reminds you that when you have needs of your own, you are not only hopelessly self-indulgent and insensitive but you’re being mean and insensitive to her far more pressing needs.
You don’t need that shit. And once you stop buying what she’s selling, you’re going to feel like you’ve broken out of the world’s most boring prison.
Sometimes I look back at a bad friend, long gone, and I ask myself, Was it all my fault? Was I the real problem? Was my bad friend destined to symbolize things she shouldn’t remotely have to answer for? I never feel comfortable blaming someone I love for the whole picture. I always feel culpable. I am almost perversely prone to recounting all the mistakes I’ve made along the way. Sometimes I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter. If the friendship is broken, if I don’t feel like I can count on my friend, if I don’t feel loved or respected, that’s really all I need to know. And in some cases, breaking out of that boring prison transformed my whole life. I don’t have that bad-friend voice in my head anymore, telling me I’m blind to myself and everyone else can see what an insensitive fuck I am except me. Is the bad-friend voice really just my voice? Probably! But that also doesn’t matter, because as long as I was accepting into my life and my heart a human being who didn’t seem capable of taking my feelings into consideration — indeed, who saw these feelings as not just an inconvenience but AN OFFENSE against her — then the bad voice, mine or hers, was destined to undermine my happiness.
If you think your friendship is salvageable (which it doesn’t sound like it is, but just in case), you could simply ask for what you want. “I’d like to be able to call you in tears occasionally. I know not everyone wants that kind of friendship, but that’s the kind of intimacy I want.” Or “I need to feel like I can lean on you without feeling embarrassed about it.” Or “I’d like to think that if you’re not there to help me in an emergency, you’ll at least check in with me the next day.”
The good thing about asking for exactly what you want is that, when the bad friend says, “I can’t give you that,” it can’t be spun as a situation where YOU ARE BEING MEAN. You’re just asking, and she’s just saying, “No, I don’t want to be that friend for you.” Perfectly fine. Everyone has the information they need to move forward.
But if you don’t even want to open the possibility of hearing, “Sure, I’ll try!” because you’re over the whole thing, then call her and tell her, “I want friendships that feel mutually supportive and very close. That’s not what we have, even though it feels sometimes like we could. I feel pushback from you on that front. You’ve even said to me, ‘I don’t want to get involved in your personal issues.’ I can respect that, but I’m looking for a different kind of friendship. This friendship really isn’t working for me, and I need to end it.”
Don’t overexplain yourself. You can simply state your values and move on. Don’t argue. Don’t get pulled into a lengthy analysis of who’s to blame for every tiny thing, every missed cue, every bad moment. If you must, you can say, “Yes, I’ve made some mistakes and I’m sorry for that. I’m a flawed person and maybe a slow learner when it comes to friendships.” Short and sweet. Accept culpability, sure, if you can. Let her off the hook if that feels more generous to do. Make space for two flawed humans who didn’t quite work as a team of two. The bottom line is this, though: You state your needs, you state your values, you say good-bye.
Is she a shitty person? Probably not! Maybe you remind her of someone from her family and she needs to work something out with that person, through you. She has just as much of a right to her issues as you do to yours. Issues are just deep, passionate desires covered in shame, dripped in extra shame, boxed up in shame, and tied up in a big shame bow. But once someone treats your issues like a big pile of unnecessary garbage, it’s hard to treat theirs with care, too. Two people with issues and baggage and subconscious confusion and shame in the mix need a lot of generosity and goodwill between them not to feel like they’re perched in the middle of an enormous garbage dump.
But you know what? Some people will welcome your garbage. You’ll knock on their door, feeling small, and they’ll welcome you in and they’ll make you tea and they’ll say, “Let’s go out back, where you can dump all that garbage onto the ground and we can sort through it together.” I know that sounds like a fantasy. But good, smart, patient friends who care a whole hell of a lot are not a fantasy. Be one to someone else, someone who deserves it, and you will find one or two or five or ten in return.
And if you feel sad, after you say good-bye to your bad friend, remember that it’s okay to continue to love something that’s gone, something that never worked to begin with, a broken thing. Endings are not always so neat. Our hearts crave old connections, even when we know they’re not good for us. It’s okay to feel melancholy over the loss of a close friend. It’s okay to not get over it immediately.
What’s not okay is asking for love, over and over again, from someone who can’t give it to you. No more going to the desert in search of a cherry Slurpee.
And strangely enough, when you tell friends what you expect from them, it lets you relax your standards a little and makes space for their shortcomings and flaws. It’s only when you are trying to GET YOUR NEEDS SERVED while simultaneously FEELING CONFLICTED ABOUT YOUR NEEDS and sometimes even HIDING YOUR TRUE NEEDS that you come across as someone with impossibly high expectations. It almost feels like you’re trying to trick people into helping you.
Don’t do that. Live out in the open. State your values. Own them. Repeat them. It doesn’t matter who agrees. It doesn’t matter if some people think you want too much. Let them fucking think that. Say, “Yes, I want a lot. I want a whole hell of a lot. I want life-changing friendships, friendships that feel close and dear and special. I have a lot to give a good friend.”
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