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I’m part of a large group of friends who have known each other for between four and ten years. It’s an amazing group, and they’ve become my family. We moved to the states when I was a kid, so I don’t have any actual extended family. This group of friends has functioned like a family for me, with people joining the family as they date/marry people already in the circle.
One of my friends, Z, and her husband have been part of the group for nearly five years. I love them both deeply, and I’d consider them two of my closest friends. Z has been struggling with depression for a while. They’re also in an open relationship, and I genuinely think that is working for them. The problem is several-fold:
1. Z is all over EVERYONE when we have get-togethers. Sitting in every lap, kissing people on the mouth, being extremely handsy, the works. This isn’t TOO unusual for Z, but when she does it at parties she attends with her partner, the people who aren’t as familiar with their arrangement get uncomfortable. I also feel like this is taking their relationship arrangement and making it EVERYONE’S business by … flaunting it? I kind of hate that word, because it’s got so much shame attached to it, and I don’t think there should be shame about their relationship! I just think, when we’re having a Christmas party or something, she shouldn’t be all over another guy when her husband is across the room, because that’s taking their relationship and making it our deal. (Also, a tiny part of me thinks, Can’t you just … not fuck someone new tonight? Can’t we just relax and hang out together?? Those aren’t thoughts I’m particularly proud of, for all the obvious, slut-shame-y, bad-feminist reasons.) Z’s husband has also mentioned to me that it makes him pretty unhappy when she does that. He’s a lot more private than she is.
2. She also has really intense mood swings. Recently, we had a big birthday party for a friend, and she was … manic, I guess is the best way to describe it. She plopped herself down in my friend’s lap — straddled her, really — while she was in the middle of talking to me. She was making out with a dude at the party in the host’s bedroom. At one point, we were sitting outside with the chairs in a circle so we could all talk, and she picked hers up and put it right in the middle. I know everyone exhibits attention-seeking behavior, but this is to an extreme I don’t know if I can handle.
The next day, she stopped by to pick up some stuff she’d left behind, and if you’d met her for the first time the night before, you might not have recognized her. The intensity was gone, and she was so quiet, deeply sad, almost lethargic. She was blazing hot one day and numbingly cold the next.
3. Her husband has been confiding in me about his struggles with Z. This isn’t unprecedented; we talk about stuff like this all the time. I’ve talked to him when I’m struggling to communicate with my partner, we talk about the existential dread that’s creeping up the older we get, what life is for and why we’re even all here, wandering around confused. He and I are very similar people — neurotic, cynical, overly empathetic — we jive and he needs someone to talk to about her. One of the drawbacks of building a little friend-family is that everyone knows each other, and it’s hard to find someone to talk to when your problem is with another member of the family. He feels exhausted, alone, frustrated, hurt, done.
Long story short, I’m kind of exhausted. I’m exhausted dealing with Z’s extreme highs and lows, her attention seeking and all the other things that come with it. I’m exhausted being an emotional support for Z’s husband, even though I know he feels isolated and that he has no one to talk to. (I’ve told him to reach out to a therapist, and he’s started the search). I worry that I opened the floodgates when I told him it was okay to talk to me about it, because now he’s texting me every time something happens between them. He’s been over twice this week, and he’s already texted me about coming over to talk again.
I know I’m technically “allowed” to tell both of them that I need a break from them and the drama that accompanies them, but I feel like such a bitch for feeling annoyed at them! I love them both! I should be able to give them the love and support they need, right? They’d do it for me if I needed it.
Because these people are family to me, I feel compelled to stick it out for them. They might as well be my blood, and you give everything you’ve got for your family, right? I worry if I give myself permission to disengage from these two, I’ll allow this whole beautiful circle of people I’ve built over years of work to unravel.
How do you balance your love for your friends, their bottomless pit of emotional need, and your own emotional stability?
You learn to say no. You learn to say no without smiling. You learn to say no without apologizing. You learn to say no while thinking “no” and feeling “no,” not while thinking “I’m so sorry!” or “I’m a bad person.” You learn to say no without believing that your “no” springs from something rotten inside of you.
You learn to see that “no” is related to your strengths, not your weaknesses. “No” makes it hard on you for a second, but it makes it easier on you over the course of your life. You learn to see that “no” is your pride. “No” is your self-respect. “No” is your ability to be who you are in a vacuum of praise. “No” is you having nothing to say and no energy to charm or seduce or soothe or mother, and still being confident that you are welcome at the party, at the table, in the room.
“No” is understanding that the world doesn’t depend on you. “No” is recognizing that there are some things that you alone can’t fix. “No” is your right to be less than helpful sometimes. “No” is your right to be whatever you want to be.
“No” gives you permission to search your true feelings without fear. Because underneath all of your loyalty and love, you might want to be less accommodating. You might want to throw a party without worrying about the spectacle of your friend acting like a page out of the DSM-5. You might want to spend a quiet evening alone, thinking about what you really want and need from your life. You might want to spend time with some of your friends but not ALL of your friends. You might want to make that choice without taking a poll of everyone’s feelings first. And you might even find that your very loud and repeated insistence that you love, love, LOOOVE a certain friend is sometimes a teensy hint that you also dislike that person a little bit.
You are a very loyal person, and you’re also someone tempted to believe that she can bend reality using only her mind. You are firmly committed to this story that your friends are amazing and supportive and that their open relationship is working for them. But neither of them is being that sensitive or supportive toward you at this moment, and their relationship choices are quite demonstrably NOT working for them right now. These two people are both unhappy. You don’t put your chair in the center of the circle when you’re at peace. You don’t straddle someone in the middle of their conversation when you have the ability to keep other people’s needs in mind. There’s a big question mark in the air here, one that might just involve words like “borderline personality disorder” and “crystal meth.” But digging into those mysteries, here or in your head, is not your job. It would be corrosive to your sanity to worry about their problems and their dynamics more than you already do. Instead, you need to figure out what you want and need, and figure out how to ask for those things without feeling like a garbage person just for asking.
Because right now, you are one big “yes.” “Yes” is scrambling to help before you even know whether or not you have the time or energy to help. “Yes” is staying on the phone for five hours at a time. “Yes” is not expecting to address any of your own concerns in most conversations. “Yes” is not knowing what your concerns are most of the time. “Yes” is wanting a friend who’s more like an Emotional Disaster Radio Frequency that will broadcast for several hours in a row without reminding you that you are a person with desires and needs of your own that you’d sometimes rather forget.
“Yes” is feeling like you’re probably doing it wrong even as you’re saying “yes.” “Yes” is trying harder to be more helpful, more generous, more likable. “Yes” is believing that merely by asserting your own needs, you could lose all of your friends in one fell swoop. “Yes” is feeling pretty sure you’re fucking it all up no matter what you do. “Yes” is a scarcity mentality, where it takes all of your talents and all of your efforts and all of your generosity just to hold on to the friends you have.
It’s time for you to practice saying “no” and thinking “no” and feeling “no,” without obsessively poring over what the reaction to your “no” might be. Embrace NO. And then go to see a therapist if you’re not already seeing one.
Obviously there are other questions looming here: Is Z’s husband trying to get in your pants? If Z and her husband are in crisis, should you really be in the middle of it, if you want to remain friends with both of them? Are you treating this friendship group as your one and only source of support, and if so, is that a good idea? Because groups are tough. They’re difficult to herd and even more difficult to keep together over the years. Most groups that have only lasted four to ten years dissolve at some point. I wouldn’t bet on a group. Groups let you down.
I know that’s dreary, but it’s true. You need friendships outside this group. It’s important for you to have one-on-one relationships with a few people who are not plugged into this particular matrix, who for sure don’t want to get in your pants, who are not remotely emotionally needy, and who like you even when you’re not hosting a party or listening to their dramatic story. You need regular, everyday friends you can call when you’re happy, sad, blah, and everything in between. Yes, it takes time. Open your eyes, widen your net, and be patient. You need this. Experiment with asking these new friends for what you want without apology. Experiment with “no.” See how good it feels.
As a private experiment, I also want you to write a detailed letter to Z’s husband. Tell him, in detail, in total honesty, why you think he’s selling himself short in this partnership. Explain to him what you believe he truly deserves, and why. Put some real effort into your letter in order to inspire him to ask for more. Inspire him to WANT more. Tell him that he doesn’t have to be loyal to someone who really isn’t loyal to him. Tell him that he shouldn’t have to serve someone who so rarely takes to heart what he wants or needs. Describe to him how much better his life could be if he could just see, with clear eyes, how much he has to offer to other people. He could treat himself as precious and important, maybe for the first time. He could protect himself from this feeling of constant neglect. And maybe he would find some people who might finally appreciate all that he’s bringing to the table, people who wouldn’t just trample recklessly all over everything, people who would thank him JUST FOR BEING HIM. Just for showing up and being there. Just for being who he is, good and bad, charming and quiet, cheerful and fun and also sometimes sad and broken.
Can you do that now, without reading the rest of this reply? Even if the letter is short, take a break and write it.
Don’t read the rest of my reply, because it will unduly influence your letter. By explaining to him what he deserves, you’ll be releasing yourself from this strenuous obligation you’ve set up for yourself. And it’s not like you have endless points to make, right? There are a few important things you end up saying every time you talk to him. Write those down. Remember that the specifics of what he tells you from day to day about his wife are almost irrelevant. You already get the picture. You don’t need the drama or the hard work of analyzing the fine print. And if you DO need that, that says something about you. You must be busying yourself with this shit in order to avoid something else.
Okay, go write your letter. I’m going to wait right here.
Did you write it? Don’t come back here until you’re done. I mean it.
Go do it! Don’t say “no” to this one thing!
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Okay, are you back now? Did you do it? Good.
Now read your letter. You just wrote a letter to yourself. Read it and feel every word of it, like it’s a letter from someone else who really, truly loves you and wants what’s best for you.
I spent my whole life treating some of my friends as family. They could do anything they wanted, and it was my job to show up and be supportive about it. And if a friend was going off the rails or destroying a lot of what they said they cared about or hurting people they said they didn’t want to hurt, I would sidestep the whole thing. I didn’t want to be the one to say it. Friends who weren’t like family were totally different: I told them when I thought they were really hurting themselves and others. But the family types of friends got a pass. Plus, we had so much history! They would only get defensive! I had to back off.
And anyway, I wasn’t perfect, was I? It was easier to bend reality using my mind than it was to admit that I got dumped on a lot. It was easier to just call it a two-way street. It was easier to keep eating shit than to speak up. Because if I kept eating shit, the Emotional Disaster Radio Frequency would keep broadcasting, and I could always feel like The Good Friend for listening.
But because I took away my own voice and played The Good Friend for so long, eventually my resentment came leaking out. (IT ALWAYS DOES.) I seemed resentful. I talked shit about my “family.” This made me look like The Bad Friend to them and to everyone else. And all because I never learned how to say “no” and think “no” and feel “no.” I thought “no” made me a ghoul. I thought “no” emptied me of all value. I thought if I spoke up and said “no,” my friends would leave me.
And then I did speak up. But that’s not the end of the story; it’s the beginning. When you say “no,” you begin a new, healthier friendship. Or you end the old one and maybe a new one doesn’t start. You stop caring quite as much whether it does or not, though, because you’ve started to feel how much strength comes with the word “no.” You start to feel how fucking good it can feel, to value your own emotions and opinions the most. That doesn’t make you selfish or vain like you thought it would. It makes you SANE and HAPPY.
I’ll bet you told yourself the same things in your letter. Can you trust your own words and follow your own advice? Do you have to pretend that the advice is coming from someone else in order to trust it? If so, that says a lot. Do you have the right to opinions and the word “no” at all?
It will take time to stop saying “amazing” and “love love love” and “family” and start saying “great but complicated” and “love and also sometimes really dislike” and “good friends who piss me off sometimes” and “good friends who dumped me the second I made a very direct, polite, but unapologetic request.” It will take time to learn to let people show you who they are before you commit to them. It will take time to walk away when someone shows themselves and you don’t love what you see. It will take time to see that anyone can leave you, at any time, and sadly that part of life is not in your control.
Your friends, many of them, will leave you. In this group, in other groups, individually. You are strong, though, and you deserve friends — new friends, old friends, casual friends. You deserve friends who do feel just like family — but better, because they love you for exactly who you are, even when you’re not giving them exactly what they need. Read your letter again. You wrote it yourself: You deserve better than this.
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