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‘My Ex–Best Friend Is Talking Trash About Me to Other People!’

Photo: Vicki Jauron/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

I recently ended the closest friendship I’ve ever had. It was mutual — my friend believed I was in the wrong; I feel I’m doing what’s best for me. At a stalemate, we stopped talking. We live in the same neighborhood, and I share a building with mutual friends, who are nice to me in person but secretly believe I am a bad friend, according to other friends. I’ve continued being neighborly, but since learning how they truly feel, I wonder: How do you handle people who have sipped a bit of poison about you? And mostly: Am I a bad friend?

As for what happened with my friend: Her world turned upside down when she discovered her boyfriend was cheating. When she found out, I dropped what I was doing and rushed over to comfort her. As one should! When she finally broke up with him, I spent the evening supporting her, while minimizing that I had coincidentally ended my own relationship that same day.

In the days that followed, we had at least one three-hour call about her relationship, if not more. But a week after their breakup, she called in tears, hurt that I had not been more available. She didn’t want this to impact our friendship but said that it might. I was shocked that our friendship was in question. Her issue: I hadn’t reached out every single day (I had skipped at least one day). I said if a daily check in was needed, that’s what I would do.

She and her boyfriend had broken up before. Previously, I made myself extremely available: answering house calls in the middle of the night, hosting her off and on for a month, cheering on her new sense of freedom and, ultimately, her decision to return to him. But I felt invested in her care — and in some ways, her life — more than my own. That’s no longer who I want to be.

When they broke up this time, I happened to be in a very bad place in my life. Aside from my breakup, I was unemployed and unable to pay my rent, and depressed to the point of feeling suicidal. Her boyfriend’s betrayal did seem like a more acute problem, so I tried to avoid talking about any of my issues and offer as much support as I could. She knew about my relationship ending and my job situation. (My relationship was much shorter than hers, she pointed out, but time doesn’t measure matters of the heart.) She did not know about my bank account (I was too ashamed, at the time, to tell anyone) or the depth of my depression.

As the months wore on, I sensed consistent anger and resentment from her. She had a lot to feel angry and resentful about, but it was directed at me, and I didn’t like that. After initiating most of our contact since she questioned our friendship, I eventually stopped reaching out entirely. We tried to talk about what was happening. I said I wanted to support her but was also in a situation where I really needed to take care of myself. She said that in backing away, I had made the wrong decision.

Since then, I have turned my life around and gotten on track emotionally, financially, and with my career. I have wondered if things are going so well in part because I am entirely focused on my own goals, and no longer putting energy into a friendship that came with a lot of love and support, but also intense emotional drama.

We haven’t spoken for months though I think about her every day. I don’t regret walking away. I do regret not telling her more about why: that I didn’t like the way she was treating me after her breakup. And I’m angry. I’m angry for feeling like my friend is the queen and I am her butler. I also feel like I’ve been kicked out of the club in a way that feels reminiscent of elementary school.

We’re probably both feeling some of the same things: anger, hurt, and deep down, sometimes, missing one another. I don’t think we can talk this through. She’s often at my building with our mutual friends, and well, to be clear: literally hanging out at my doorstep. She pretends not to see me, though they say hello. I’m also a little uncomfortable about these friends, my neighbors, thinking I’m a jerk. But isn’t it up to them to judge my character independently?

Codependent No More

Dear CNM,

People who won’t look at you or speak to you after a breakup should be tagged and tracked by some central Friendship Authority, so that other people can be warned of their movements throughout the friend ecosystem. Unless you sent your friend anthrax in the mail, slept with her boyfriend, or put a severed horse’s head in her bed in the middle of the night, she has no possible justification for that kind of behavior.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you were mildly neglectful of her after her breakup. People give each other inadequate amounts of love and attention every single day. As upsetting as it can be to feel lonely and hurt in the wake of a jarring event, and as disappointed as she might’ve felt with you, that’s an issue of communication. As her disappointment grew, she could’ve told you, “I need more from you.” She didn’t. Saying nothing is fine and understandable in plenty of situations. But saying nothing and then going nuclear is for tantrum-prone children and rabid animals. That’s not how we do it, as we say in my household.

So, should you worry about what this ex-friend is saying behind your back? Should you try to get in your mutual friends’ and neighbors’ ears and convince them of what a selfish freak she can be, how her view of you is inaccurate, how angry and disappointed you were when she didn’t step up and notice that you were having a rough time yourself? No. If they have brains in their heads, they can see very clearly that she is immature and vindictive toward someone she previously treated as her closest friend. It should be obvious to them that her reasons for icing you out are weak at best.

And if these mutual friends don’t know that, or it’s more convenient to just keep the peace with your needy drama queen ex, or they actually find her tirades against you convincing, then you don’t need them in your life anyway. You know you’re not a bad friend. Your paranoia about their attitudes about you is closely related to your codependent urges. Codependent people tend to gather way too much information about what other people think of them. It’s a survival tactic common to those with less power (or those who perceive themselves as having less power) (See also Jean Baker Miller’s Toward a New Psychology of Women). As understandable as it is to want to know what others think of you, at some point you have to recognize when you’re gathering information you can’t use. If we all had perfect intel on each other, we’d never trust anyone again.

It’s time to move past that now. You did your best with your friend under terrible conditions, and it wasn’t good enough. She knows that now. She’s heard directly from you that your reaction was formed from your depression and stress at the time. You say “I do regret not telling her more about why,” but it sounds like you told her everything. Moreover, it sounds like she’s never been that interested in what’s going on with you in the first place. This is another common Codependent Butler behavior: wanting to explain everything, all over again, to people who haven’t shown the slightest interest in learning more about the situation from your perspective. At this point, if she wants more information or closure from you, she can ask for it. That’s not on you.

As a Codependent Butler type, you have to start noticing these patterns of behavior. You have to learn to stop asking questions like “Does she need more information from me?” and instead ask “Does she have my phone number? Does she know where I live? Have I iced her out (the way she’s iced me out) or can she speak to me freely and find out more anytime she wants?”

People like us have a bad habit of blaming ourselves for all of the things. Trouble exists because we did something wrong. People ice us out because we’re bad. And the fact of the matter is that people sometimes ice us out BECAUSE THEY KNOW THAT WE’LL BLAME OURSELVES FOR IT. Narcissistic succubi like your ex-friend can smell weakness from a mile away. I hate to demonize this woman completely, because I’m sure it’s hard to be her, but I’m sorry, she has no case against you whatsoever, and her continued demonstration of babyish horseshit is an obvious sign from the Friendship Gods that you are to sally forth without thinking twice about her. It’s also a clear sign from her that she’s invested in your role as either butler or whipping boy. If you’re in her life, you’re her butler. The second you reject her, you become a convenient target for her frustrations and insecurities.

SHE STILL NEEDS YOU, in other words. She needs you to blame for her bad feelings, her desperation, her loneliness. By serving as a scapegoat for her anger and helplessness, you allow her to stay with her bad boyfriend. You give her empty, sad mouth some words to say, because she’s got nothing else. You allow her to play the victim the way she was born to do.

There is nothing to fix here. You need to stop imagining what she’s saying to these friends and acquaintances. You need to stop imagining what she thinks of you, and what they think of you. You need to stop picturing their reaction to how you act when you see them, after you walk away. Every time you think about asking a mutual friend what someone else thinks, stop yourself. Every time you think, “But if I do x, she’ll think y and they’ll think z,” stop yourself. You can’t invest in what random unproven friends and acquaintances think of you. It’s a massive, self-destructive waste of time. Do exactly what you want at all times without managing their experience of you.

Believe me, I know how big a challenge that can be in your shoes. But it’ll help you in so many ways to mature past this state of wanting to be “good” in everyone’s eyes. It’s just not possible.

The only thing you need to focus on now (along with the work you’re already doing on your life) is cultivating friendships that are honest and real, in which you never feel even mildly butler-y or queen-y. That means you have to speak up for yourself and state your needs. That means you have to notice when all you do is listen (“Well, I’m doing fine, so I don’t need to talk”). Good friendships are always a two-way street, and two people are responsible for that, not just the person who tends to talk a little too much. You have to push yourself to open up and not just serve as a helper because that’s what made you feel loved and valuable as a kid (just a guess!). You have to dare to show up and be you, even when it feels more boring and average than whatever drama your friends have going on. And you have to notice when your needs and feelings are being neglected. You have to notice the first few times it happens, and you either have to react with words or you have to resolve to back away when you witness extreme carelessness in others.

Don’t wait until you’re crying unexpectedly, because you gave too much again and you didn’t notice that your friends were taking advantage of you and not really giving you the same amount of concern and sensitivity back. Learn to pay attention to your own needs, and to ask for what you want from others. This sounds self-centered, but it’s something that all Formerly Codependent Butlers need. You need to ask yourself “What do I deserve?” early and often.

Maybe you deserve friends who you know for a fact won’t talk a lot of shit about you to anyone who’ll listen. Maybe you deserve friends who wouldn’t even dream of befriending or even hanging out casually with someone who’d behave that way. Maybe you deserve friends who consider your feelings, who check in when you’re going through something rough, who say they miss you when you leave town, who invite you to do things with their other friends at their places occasionally, who reach out and ask you how you are, who love hearing about your successes as much as your failures. Maybe you deserve a friend like you, one who knows how to reciprocate.

It’s true that concerned, considerate friends are rare these days. But that’s all the more reason to hold out for them and treasure them once you find them. It’s not up to you to teach inconsiderate people how to communicate openly. It’s not up to you to fix everything with everyone. Write that on your wall. Resist the urge to fix this. I know it’s difficult — holy God, do I know! — but you have to learn to drop your bad, circular thoughts about this woman and focus on your own life instead. It’s no coincidence that you’ve been doing great since you let her go. She will continue pointlessly troublemaking without you, and eventually she’ll get bored and find a new target for her insecurities, and then she might just reappear and try to clear the air. But pray that she doesn’t, because that woman is a giant myopic drama-loving pool of quicksand who will sap your energy and never pause for a minute to consider your needs, and honestly, that rarely changes. I’m not saying that some difficult people aren’t worth a little effort. I have lots of difficult friends who I love a lot. But this woman is a bad friend, full stop. Try to make better ones next time.


Order Polly’s new book, What If This Were Enough, here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘My Ex-Friend Is Talking Trash About Me to Other People!’