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‘Should I Dump My Toxic Friend?’

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Dear Polly,

I have a longtime best friend/roommate who I feel has turned into a toxic friend. Molly has some great qualities. She’s reliable, a good listener, extremely loyal, and fun to be around. We’ve lived together for five years. We are both successful women in our late 20s. She has always suffered from extreme, irrational jealousy in her romantic relationships. I’m beginning to wonder if it extends to all areas of her life.

I have a wide circle of friends from all walks of my life. Molly absolutely despises some (many) of these friends, especially the ones that we see regularly in the city we live in. She says horrible things about them, judges their every behavior and move, and is constantly talking about them. If she finds out I have plans with them, or have had a recent conversation, she gets extremely upset for being “excluded” and talks about how they never invite her to anything. However, she has never once confronted or talked to these friends about her feelings. When they are together in social situations (usually brought together by me and other mutual friends), she acts as if they are the best of friends. A pattern that I’ve noticed about the people she hates is that they are always exceptionally beautiful and outgoing women, who are naturally attention-grabbing individuals. Although Molly is in a very serious relationship, I wonder if she feels threatened by them and deals with it by acting as if they are horrible people.

Molly is also someone I struggle to talk about my accomplishments with. I hesitate to tell her about promotions at work, big steps in my relationship, or anything happy, really. I know this is a sign of a toxic friendship. She criticizes me constantly, from my choices in my relationship to my exercise routine. She is extremely selfish, asking excessive favors from people close to her and becoming extremely offended when people do not interrupt their entire day or routine to accommodate her (example — requesting that we don’t go to the gym after work so we can come home early and save a parking spot for her boyfriend, because she wants to go to a late yoga class and won’t be home in time). She expects others to go above and beyond for her while she has never demonstrated generosity toward others. I dread coming home because I never know what type of mood she is going to be in. I plan to be away on nights that I know she will be home. We have another longtime roommate and best friend who feels the same way. I feel that me and my other roommate are constantly talking about it, spending energy stressing about it, and letting it affect our quality of life.

I know what you will say — that I am not getting anything positive out of this friendship and that I should cut her out of my life. At this point, we have five months left in our lease and I plan on buying a house and moving out at that point (I won’t even get into the fact that I’m timing my homebuying around her timeline so that it will be impossible for her to move in with me). I need advice for how to handle this behavior for the time I have left and possibly beyond, if I choose to continue to keep her in my life. It’s causing me so much anxiety I can’t take it anymore.

Drowning Roommate 

Dear Drowning Roommate,

Your friend does sound like a total pain in the ass, honestly. But you’re anxious mostly because you don’t know how to set boundaries with her. Instead of telling her what you want and what you will and won’t do, you lie to her, make excuses, avoid her, and let off steam about how awful she is with friends. That’s how most people are in their 20s, and I have a ton of empathy for feeling stuck there. I’ve been stuck there for decades with a few different friends, in fact, because I love complicated women who are full of anger and love to talk a lot of shit. I would never have admitted that when I was younger, but that is totally my type of lady. After all, isn’t the world completely insane and fucked? Who isn’t driven crazy by the enormous mountains of bullshit tumbling down on a woman every goddamn day of her life? Who doesn’t sometimes dislike pretty, confident women who never seem to show their asses, even under duress?

But if you want to know interesting, intense people — and I know I do — you’re going to discover that a LOT of them are also careless and confused and ruled by shame. And you won’t know which of them are complex, difficult, and ALSO amazingly loyal and great, and which of them are complex, difficult, and ALSO totally not worth the effort UNLESS you ask them for exactly what you want and inform them (without shaming them!) when they hurt you.

And even beyond this particular friendship, if you want to grow up and become stronger and more open to the world in general, it’s crucial to learn how to tell people — even difficult people — what you will and won’t do for them and how you would like to be treated. I get that most people don’t talk that way. I get that most people are openly afraid of direct statements like “I don’t think I can do that for you” or “I don’t really want to hash out what’s wrong with my close friends with you. I get that you don’t love them, but I do.” Many people dislike it when you assert healthy boundaries, in fact. As women, we are essentially schooled in the art of NEVER HAVING HEALTHY BOUNDARIES. But fuck that noise. Freedom and happiness are impossible when you can’t ask for what you want and say what you mean without apology. You can be kind about it. You just have to try.

I had a very close friendship that was a lot like yours. When we were roommates, she asked me for a lot of little inconvenient favors, favors she wouldn’t dream of returning. She was always a great listener, but she always bled me dry when a crisis hit — which was often. She used her big problems as an excuse not to show up for me sometimes, and she often seemed oblivious to how vigorously she stepped on my toes.

But looking back, when she stepped on my toes, I rarely said “Ouch!” Instead, I talked shit about her a lot. I had passive-aggressive ways of implying that she was nuts, to her face. But I rarely said, “I love you, but I need more space today,” or “I know you meant well, but you were careless with me and I want you to try to be a little bit more considerate.” I felt guilty and ashamed of my own needs, even when I knew that I was justified in asking for what I wanted. If she ever asked me to do something like save a parking spot for her boyfriend, I would’ve done it repeatedly while resenting it, then I would’ve rolled my eyes and not picked up her calls at the hour when I knew she was going to ask. I was too plagued by shame to simply say (to use your example), “I love you, but I will never save a parking spot for your boyfriend, so don’t ask me to do that, please.”

I always had an excuse for not confronting her. I found her intimidating (even though she often said that she saw herself as very fragile and weak). I assumed that if I said one word, she would explode and make it about what was wrong with me. And honestly, I was afraid to hear what was wrong with me, because I WAS AFRAID THAT THERE WAS SOMETHING VERY WRONG WITH ME. Again, shame makes it very hard to have an honest conversation with anyone. Shame and the fear that comes with it makes everything blurry and confusing and queasy.

Even though I could sometimes see how her behavior triggered some of the issues I’ve had in the past with my mother, I didn’t take much responsibility or even have the slightest bit of empathy for how my behavior triggered HER issues and kicked up her fears and her shame. If I had been more self-aware in the early days of our friendship, I might’ve seen how I went through cycles of holding her close and then pushing her away when she got to be too much for me. I could’ve taken more responsibility for how this pattern made her feel vulnerable. I could’ve recognized that when I implied, indirectly, that she was a mess, she got defensive. She accurately perceived me as someone who always told a story about how OTHER people were fucking up, without looking closely at myself and realizing that I had many of the same flaws, they just manifested themselves in other areas of my life. In other words, even though I would never, in a million years, ask someone to save a fucking parking spot for my boyfriend, I did ask for some things that my friend would never have asked for.

And even though I do think that her confusion had a tendency to lead to her gaslighting me, and that it’s impossible not to feel angry about being gaslit, it’s still a very good practice to let someone know when they’re not taking your needs into consideration at all. It’s a very good thing to learn how to do that, to assert your boundaries, without making it about what’s WRONG and EMBARRASSING about the other person.

Because everyone is difficult, really. If you get to know someone very well, you will get to know what makes them difficult. There’s no avoiding it. Roommates are a tough ride. It is just HARD to live with other people. I say that to my kids all the time. It’s okay to feel angry and frustrated a lot, when you see the same people every day. It’s okay that your sister and your mom and your dad get on your nerves. You shouldn’t have to apologize for that. That’s called being a human being in a family. But you also don’t have to tell a story about why someone is toxic just because they’re going through a time in their life that’s predominated by anger and envy and frustration and alienation. The more patience and compassion you can have for someone like that (while still asserting what you will and won’t put up with), the more compassion you’ll have for yourself when your inevitable hard times arrive.

Looking back, I also see that I was rigid with my friend because I was rigid with myself at the time. I didn’t give myself the space to have flaws. I didn’t believe that it was okay to be vulnerable. I projected that desire for control and perfection onto her, instead of accepting her for who she was.

And even once I started to learn how to accept myself and let my feelings show, our friendship lagged behind that growth. Our relationship was stuck in a very 20-something space. When you have a long history of not telling someone what you want from them, you lose your feeling for them. You stop caring, because caring means feeling powerless.

My friend and I have had periods of not being in touch, and periods of getting to know each other all over again. Plenty of people would assume that our friendship is toxic and we should just end it. Likewise, plenty of people will be more than willing to tell you that your friend is toxic, and you should dump her right now and never look back. But I’m glad that I didn’t proclaim my friendship over at any point in our long history. I’m glad that I started to ask for what I wanted and I started to speak up about the things I can and can’t do. It helped me in so many ways to finally learn how to voice my desires and my limitations, to her and to other people in my life. Even when I was really angry at my friend, I knew that she and I had so much pain and so much shame in common. I knew that my life would be emptier without her.

It’s obvious that your friend is obnoxious and annoying. But you won’t know if she’s still worth it until you speak up, without anger, and state what you need and what you won’t do for her. She will probably still be insecure and bitchy and threatened and a million other annoying things, but she might also learn a lot from the way you stood up for yourself and your needs without making it about what’s wrong with her. That’s the big challenge for most of us, in most relationships: stating our needs without dragging the other person.

When you value yourself, you don’t have to drag anyone. That’s something she doesn’t understand yet. But that doesn’t mean that she’s a bad person. Considering her obvious insecurities, it’s probably pretty hard to live with someone like you, who has tons of friends who love you. She hasn’t learned to be that open and loving yet. It probably feels pretty overwhelming, to have a front-row seat to everything you can’t do because you’re too angry and afraid. Your friend probably admires you, underneath her jealousy and her blame. Give her some love, and she might rise to the occasion and grow up a lot in the process.

And if she doesn’t, it might be time to say good-bye. Either way, she will have brought something invaluable to your life: a chance to calmly stand up for what you want without blame and without apology. It’s one of the hardest things in the world to do, but once you learn how to do it, you don’t have to compromise your quality of life or fear difficult people anymore. Your hands are on the steering wheel.

Polly

Order the Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: ‘Should I Dump My Toxic Friend?’