Help me figure out how (and if) I should dump a friend.
April 29, 2009 4:15 PM   Subscribe

She wants to escalate the friendship; I want to dial it back but not necessarily end it. How can I handle this without being mean or subjecting my other friends to this tiresome person?

I know a woman who is an acquaintance but seems to want to be my good friend. I have known her for a couple of years since we met through a mutual friend and mostly saw her in a group setting. After I had a falling out with that mutual friend, we didn’t speak for a few months. Then she invited me to a gallery opening, and I accepted. After that she started contacting me on a regular basis. I don’t find her very pleasant to be around, but we share a mutual interest in art, and I didn’t mind going with her to an exhibit every couple of months or so.

Then we went to an out of town exhibition together, and I really began to dislike her. She was very inconsiderate and bossy - bordering on mean - to me throughout our short trip, and I decided to avoid her in the future. She extended multiple invitations to me that I turned down. I thought she would get the hint, but the invitations kept coming. I saw that she is kind of desperate for companionship and just doesn’t read social cues well. I began to feel guilty and eventually I accepted her invitation to brunch, thinking that spending a couple of hours with her couldn’t be too painful.

Unfortunately, during that brunch she brought up the fact that three of my friends and I have season tickets to the opera. We attend performances throughout the year, and our practice is to get together for dinner before each show. I don’t know how she found out about this, but she said that she would like to get her own season ticket and join us. Two of the friends in my group actively dislike her and would be very upset if I invited her along. If she goes ahead and gets a ticket on her own, I could never invite her to the dinners. Then we would have the awkward scenario of seeing her at the performance and trying to avoid mentioning that we all just had dinner without her.

I dodged her request to be included, but I know I will have to address it eventually. Since she made this request she has invited me to yet another event and sent me an email commenting on some Facebook photos of my friends’ and my recent trip to Las Vegas, hinting that she would have liked to come along. Since we re-established contact a year ago, I have literally never initiated our spending time together. I have never even initiated a communication! This problem is obviously not going to go away on its own. If I were to tell her bluntly that I don’t like her or flat out ignore her, I would feel very guilty for being mean to a lonely woman who lacks social skills but definitely isn’t a bad person. My ideal outcome in this situation would be for her to forget signing up for opera tickets and go back to seeing each other every couple of months or so. Is this possible? Is it cruel and cowardly to try to find a middle ground between being bosom buddies and blatantly dumping her? What should I do?
posted by JennyK to Human Relations (30 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I don’t find her very pleasant to be around, but we share a mutual interest in art, and I didn’t mind going with her to an exhibit every couple of months or so.... Then we went to an out of town exhibition together, and I really began to dislike her. She was very inconsiderate and bossy - bordering on mean

Given all that, why are you wasting a minute on this woman? Just because someone wants to spend time with us does not give them any claim to us. You don't want to spend time with her, that's the bottom line. Whatever it takes to communicate that to her, is what you must do. If a subtle, brushoff hint will suffice, then do that. If telling her, "I would prefer not to spend any more time with you" is what it takes, then say that. There is NOTHING wrong with being clear about not wanting to spend time with someone. You don't have to put up with someone's unwelcome advances because they are lonely and sad.

Sometimes, in adult life, it is necessary to tell people things they don't want to hear. Sometimes as an adult we have to hurt people's feelings and disappoint them, even if they are pathetic. Someone who hasn't learned this is not fully functioning as an adult, in my opinion.

Once you get it all out there --- have the courage to disappoint her --- you'll be surprised at how easy it was, and it will be a really liberating feeling for you.
posted by jayder at 4:32 PM on April 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

You don't like her or her company. Even though you share a love of art, it does not sound like sharing this is pleasant for you. I am wondering why you want to find the middle ground and have anything to do with her in the future? My only guess is that you want to avoid the "unpleasant conversation."

If you avoid it now, the problem will only get worse. I do not think you should in any way be mean to her, but you have to set some boundaries. You can do this half-way and tell her no, she will not be included in dinners before the opera. And then no to all of her future overtures at friendship. Each of these converations will be horribly awkward and uncomfortable.

Or you can rip off the band aid and break up with her completely now. You can handle this with class and kindness. But be clear since she does not pick up on more subtle social clues. And yes, you will feel like you are being mean, but you are not. You have no obligation to be her friend.
posted by murrey at 4:34 PM on April 29, 2009

It says a lot about your character that you recognize the dual aspects of this problem: one hand she isn't a bad person, just irritating, on the other you need to ditch her to keep your sanity.

I think the solution comes down to the amount of time you'd like to put into the issue. Most people wouldn't put any time into it, and thus abruptly disengage. The opposite would be to try and engage this person in a way allows her the opportunity to grow.

In other words, take her out to lunch and say, "Look, we share a lot of common interests, and I realize that you want to build friendships, but the fact is I find you a little hard to get along with at times. If it's something you want to talk about further, then I'm game." Of course, in all likeliness this will backfire - as tends to happen with these sorts - but in that end you're no worse off than if you had simply dropped all contact and told her to piss into the wind.

Take a chance, reach out to her in an honest and straight forward way. Maybe she'll learn something from it and grow to be a more agreeable friend.
posted by wfrgms at 4:34 PM on April 29, 2009 [8 favorites]

Oh, one other thing.

It seems clear from your question that you have resigned yourself to spending some time with her just because you feel sorry for her.

Virtually everything you have said about her is negative. You obviously don't like her. This is why my comment was focused on just ridding yourself of her altogether.
posted by jayder at 4:35 PM on April 29, 2009

It's okay to want to preserve her feelings here, and it's also okay for you to not want to spend time with her. Look at it this way: she has some social interaction issues that aren't helped by letting her be socially pushy and inappropriate. You do her a disservice by lettering her continue on, especially if she's under the strange and misguided impression that she may be establishing a real friendship. If done in the right way, letting her know that she can't push her way into others' lives is a favor, although it's one that won't feel good to her initially.

What is that right way? It's hard to say without being in the situation, although part of it is going to have to be blunt, most likely. But if you temper it with kindness, you can at least look back on it and know that you did the right thing for you and her, guilt free. It's not wrong that someone's feelings get hurt, if it's from their own ineptness. We do have a responsibility to try and not intentionally crush people while communicating hard truths, I think. But realize that it's not always entirely possible to spare all hurt feelings; and again, that doesn't make it wrong).
posted by SpacemanStix at 4:46 PM on April 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think it was Miss Manners who came up with the fantastic, "I'm afraid that's not possible." No explaining or apologizing - if she wants to buy tickets to the opera, she's free to do so but that doesn't obligate you to invite her to dinner or to socialize with her out of pity.

Unfortunately, easier said than done. It may help to think it's kinder in the long run than simply tolerating her until the inevitable blowup?
posted by Space Kitty at 4:46 PM on April 29, 2009

Do you spend time with her just out of pity? You don't have to do that. You have no obligation to be her anything. Furthermore, she doesn't have any incentive to stop being inconsiderate and bossy if you keep things the way they are. If you really want to do her a favor, then if she ever asks why you don't seem to want to be friends, tell her the truth. (But you don't have to do that. You don't owe her anything)
posted by moonshine at 4:47 PM on April 29, 2009

Oh, and it doesn't make you a bad person if you don't want to be friends with her. You don't have to be friends with everyone.
posted by moonshine at 4:48 PM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

In any sort of relationship honesty is key. I like wfrgms' suggestion of being upfront with her. If this had been a romance related question all of the answers would be about not leading the other person on. Also, how helpful would it be for this woman, who has trouble making friends, to hear some of the things that cause that trouble. Be nice (as you are clearly a nice person), but be firm. "these things make it hard for me to enjoy time with you..." If she's really desperate for friendship (yours in particular) than maybe that will be the instigator she needs to figure herself out a bit more. Or, as was mentioned above, it could totally backfire and you'll hurt her feelings... and she'll never bother you again.
posted by purpletangerine at 4:50 PM on April 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My ideal outcome in this situation would be for her to forget signing up for opera tickets and go back to seeing each other every couple of months or so.

"When you first mentioned joining us at the opera, I didn't know how to tell you this. But, that is something that only Ann, Betty, Charlotte, and I do together as a group. Just the four of us, so we can take advantage of getting back in touch with each other on these evenings.

Maybe you and I can set up our own event! Would you like to [insert event that happens only once a quarter or so, preferably event that keeps her on the quiet side such as a film]?"
posted by Houstonian at 4:57 PM on April 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

I applaud the OP, and get exasperated every time people on AskMe say that we have no obligation to one another -- as a shortcut to "dump her and don't look back." That answer is meaningful insofar as the OP's "guilt" is predicated on a sense of obligation per se; I tend to assume that it's rather based on an obligation only in the weak sense that we should try, if possible, to be kind to others.

I doubt the Miss Manner approach often works, in the sense of cutting off further dialogue. I think you should emphasize that the group you have going for the opera, etc. works just great as it is. Maybe you can add that some of your friendships are based on a group, and some are more one to one, and you like it like that.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 5:09 PM on April 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

I like Houstonian's answer (maybe because culturally I'm also a Houstonian)-- you preserve your feelings and hers, your nights out with your close friends, and you take control of how often you see her. And you avoid The Conversation.

Apart from Miss Manner's rule of thumb, I would never be able to break ties with an annoying person like that, ever. It would be too painful and awkward for me to bear. That doesn't mean doing so is wrong in any way, I just think it is not going to work for some personality types.
posted by vincele at 5:14 PM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

On preview, I like Clyde's take too.
posted by vincele at 5:15 PM on April 29, 2009

You've been leading her on. At this point, her feelings are going to be hurt by anything you do short of inviting her into your gang. If you don't want to have dinner with her on a regular basis, you need to spell that out.

Thinking that giving into someone you don't want to talk to is "sparing" their feelings is only making *you* feel better. Eventually the truth has to come out and she's just going to be more hurt and bewildered when it does.

Also: If you legitimately don't like this woman, who is in your own words "bossy bordering on mean" then why do you care about sparking HER feelings in favor of making yourself uncomfortable in the first place? I'm not advocating being rude, but putting other people's feelings ahead of your own is a dangerous thing to do when you don't even *like* the other person.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:22 PM on April 29, 2009

I applaud the OP, and get exasperated every time people on AskMe say that we have no obligation to one another -- as a shortcut to "dump her and don't look back." That answer is meaningful insofar as the OP's "guilt" is predicated on a sense of obligation per se; I tend to assume that it's rather based on an obligation only in the weak sense that we should try, if possible, to be kind to others.

I agree. But I would argue that its kinder to offer something more than insincere friendship.
posted by moonshine at 5:24 PM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Or you could just try not returning her emails, calls, etc. If she persists and eventually finally manages to get through to you, just say you're really busy and keep it brief and non-defensive.
posted by Dragonness at 5:45 PM on April 29, 2009

Best answer: I would also find it next to impossible to completely dump someone who I though meant well and just lacked social skills.

In your shoes, I'd make sure that any events I attended with her were very specifically short in duration (no out of town exhibits). I think I could also find a way to tactfully express that the opera is a tradition with that group of friends and that I wouldn't feel comfortable asking to make changes to the group.

You may want to consider changing the settings on any future photo albums on Facebook so that they're not visible to her. No point in giving her any ideas.

I'd also make a gentle effort to direct her attention to any bossiness or inconsiderate behavior on her part. Remaining acquaintances doesn't mean you have to be a doormat, and she could probably benefit from spending time with you.

As long as you're getting something positive from the relationship, then I don't think there's any harm in looking for some middle ground.
posted by contrariwise at 5:46 PM on April 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

Is it worse for you to be honest with her or for her to believe that she has a true friend in you?

Life is too short to spend it with people you don't like or that don't like you. Do her a favor and let her know that you don't see your friendship going any further, and if you feel compelled, express why. If she has acted poorly towards you, and others, she deserves to know that there is a reason why she doesn't have any close friends.

Perhaps name some redeeming qualities, but point out that friendship is about mutual respect, and that her apparent lack of respect for you has led you to feel the same towards her. Maybe she has some sort of disorder, or maybe she has acted this way for a long time and no one has told her, "Hey, that's not cool." It seems like both of you have a lot to gain from honesty, no matter how painful. She may have to most to gain.
posted by anniek at 5:48 PM on April 29, 2009

Best answer: Whatever you do about the conversation, put her on a restricted list on Facebook immediately. No photos, possibly no wall, etc.
posted by barnone at 5:53 PM on April 29, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you so much for all the great input and advice. I get where the "clean break/total honesty" crowd is coming from, but I just don't think I have it in me. I think I am going to try Houstonian's approach to address the opera issue. Then I will see if the invitations continue and address it from there. And I have changed my Facebook privacy settings. Thanks for that suggestion - it's something I never would have thought of on my own.

One thing I have definitely learned from this situation is to nip bad behavior in the bud. I was timid about addressing her rude behavior when we went out of town, and I should have said something immediately. And I never should have accepted any invitations from someone I disliked. Live and learn, eh?
posted by JennyK at 6:04 PM on April 29, 2009

Flat out avoid her. Just keep up at it. Might take a year or so for her to find a new target, but you will not spend much cumulative time doing so. That's as much kindness as you owe this woman. If you are not feeling particularly kind, you can either find her a new target whom you do not like (two birds, one stone) or tell her this next bit:

"You're bossy towards me, bordering on mean. I have tried to give you subtle social feedback to that effect. Either you did not read it or you read it and chose to ignore it. Either way, I am unhappy when you are around. I do not wish to be unhappy. I do not owe you my personal unhappiness or the effort it takes to avoid you."

If you elect towards not volunteering why you're avoiding her, and if she asks anyway, tell her the above.

And, yeah, Facebook seems to be generating some of the strife. When it comes to public disclosure, you have a much better chance of managing contact with people if you talk about where you were, rather than volunteer to everyone where you are going to be.
posted by adipocere at 6:05 PM on April 29, 2009

...I really began to dislike her. She was very inconsiderate and bossy - bordering on mean...

I suppose humoring someone like this does help preserve the social fabric. And you are to be commended, I suppose, for taking on that responsibility.

I just can't help thinking that it isn't really a mercy to her to pretend to be her friend. But maybe for some of us, pretend friends are better than nothing.

On the other hand, maybe telling her flat out what you told us would help her find a real friend some day.
posted by bricoleur at 6:07 PM on April 29, 2009

Moonshine: I agree. But I would argue that its kinder to offer something more than insincere friendship.

anniek: Life is too short to spend it with people you don't like or that don't like you.

Ah hell, so much for AskMe, I guess.

But seriously . . . I think we are in agreement that it is sometimes worse to be insincere, but it isn't always so, and sometimes you can't offer more than imperfect friendship.

As for the life is too short point, that can be used as an excuse for any number of behaviors. ("Life's too short to wait in line . . . or get a degree . . . or wash hands.") It forces the question whether really much of the OP's life will be wasted letting this person down gradually, or at least gently.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 6:09 PM on April 29, 2009

Response by poster: Clyde Mnestra: You make excellent points. This woman either hasn't noticed or doesn't care that our friendship is totally one sided. She obviously gets something out of it that motivates her to continue to pursue it. That's why I don't feel like "dumping" her is necessarily the kindest thing.
posted by JennyK at 6:14 PM on April 29, 2009

Speaking as someone who has spent the better part of my life on the blunt, awkward, socially unskilled side of this equation: thank you for your generosity to her. It is extremely difficult to be socially isolated, even if it is through fault of one's own.

If from your perspective the issue really is a lack of social or emotional maturity, it might help you to think of her as being socially fourteen years old. Young teenagers often do and say things that would be inappropriate in an adult. Sometimes it helps to be patient but very clear with them about how something hurt you or inconvenienced you.

This obviously does not give license to be condescending, but yes, please tell her as kindly but as straightforwardly as possible when she says/does something that is rude or inconsiderate enough to warrant it. It's hard to become a nicer friend if we don't already understand the effects of our words and actions on people.

You shouldn't be her long-term caretaker, though. If you start feeling truly trapped, it's time to go. If her efforts don't improve, it can be an act of kindness to tell her that you won't be able to spend time with her anymore. You can explain why if you feel you need to or if you think it'll honestly help her, but don't feel pressured to do so.

It was difficult for me to start taming my blunt awkwardness because without help from a few people and some books I didn't really know when I was being a doof. Under most circumstances I still feel compelled to monitor everything that comes out of my mouth for social appropriateness. It can be exhausting because it's not one of my native abilities, and there are plenty of times when I'm still unintentionally a complete boor. But I realize that making those efforts is part of being an adult.
posted by jeeves at 8:08 PM on April 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Some people mentioned honesty here. I think the more relevant keyword is integrity. Are you showing integrity in your actions?

When you obliged to go to brunch with her, were you friendly and chatty, somehow indicating that everything was hunky-dory with ya'll?

Did you even want to go to the brunch? Or did you just feel a lot of pressure to respond to her entreaties and let yourself slip into it?

Get your story straight to yourself about what you want out of this relationship, and don't do anything begrudgingly.
posted by philosophistry at 10:28 PM on April 29, 2009

I note that ages aren't mentioned here, which may be relevant, if it's in or close to a range where it can be expected that a relatively high number of people have some sharp edges to smooth off.

Something to be said for the dimmer-switch concept--starting with gently expressing displeasure and going gradually to "no more contact" if necessary, maybe suggesting a book along the way.

No guess if others have reacted to her along those lines, though it sounds like they have. Dunno if people have taken a dimmer-switch approach. Both of those curiosities speak to the question of self-awareness, for what that's worth.

Starting out gently and gradually getting more direct is more than considerate, patient and helpful. No small challenge to make fundamental personality changes, but she at least needs to make significant changes or I reckon she'll go through life isolated and unhappy.

Operationally, the opera question. Theories and feelings aside, as things stand now, it is operationally untenable to bring her into the group. Tough as it may be to say "no," find an effective way to relate as much that works for you, bringing someone into a small group when three people have significantly negative feelings about the person is a really bad idea.

If it helps, consider the other two people, quite possibly over time, the third. Consider it from the perspective of the impact on two maybe three other people relative to the impact on one.

Another operational aspect that may help you: A sense that it would be hard to get a fifth seat so that five people could sit together.

Oh, definitely not cruel or cowardly to seek middle ground or walk away after making a thoughtful, considerate effort--which is more than a lot of people would do--to right the ship.
posted by ambient2 at 11:55 PM on April 29, 2009

"You're bossy towards me, bordering on mean. I have tried to give you subtle social feedback to that effect. Either you did not read it or you read it and chose to ignore it. Either way, I am unhappy when you are around. I do not wish to be unhappy. I do not owe you my personal unhappiness or the effort it takes to avoid you."

This is probably a matter of very personal and possibly cultural difference but for the life of me I cannot picture any situation where such brutal directness would be ok. I don't doubt it can work, but so can polite excuses and avoidance, without all the extra unplesantness of being so brutal. Esepcially if someone hasn't really deserved it. This woman hasn't exactly been horrible, sure she is clueless, she's clingy and annoying with her self-invitations and unaware that it's not really ok to impose yourself on people like that without having any cues that you're welcome - but that doesn't mean one has to react in a similarly - in my opinion - socially awkward way.

Maybe its just me, maybe someone else would see it as cowardice or dishonesty, but I think there's something to be said about manners and social niceties and navigating all the complexities of even the simplest human interaction in a way that doesn't create unnecessary bad feelings. Honesty and directness are not absolute values! If you were to 100% honest and direct with everyone especially in the smallest things you'd end up acting like a jerk at some point.

Personally, I don't see the point of seeing this woman even once every two months just because otherwise you'd feel bad about it. If it's so much of an effort there is nothing in it for you and it's not really nice to her either. It has already given her the impression it's ok to expect more than that, so it's also not working.

So if there's a middle ground between approaching this in the least unpleasant way for both and being honest, then I'd think it's cutting off all contact. It may sound crueller but it really isn't. Sure if she doesn't hear back form you anymore, she may or may not figure out that it's not just because you're actually busy but it's because her company is not appreciated, but at least she'll be spared the awful embarassment of having it spelled out for her and thrown in her face so brutally.

It's not your responsibility to give this woman what she wants, your only responsibility in my view is not to treat her worse than you'd want to be treated yourself. And I cannot imagine anyone who'd want to be on the receiving end of those words "I am unhappy when you are around. I do not wish to be unhappy. I do not owe you my personal unhappiness or the effort it takes to avoid you". It really is too much information!!
posted by bitteschoen at 3:12 AM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

follow up from a MeFite who would prefer to remain anonymous.
When I went to an abusive, bad church, there was a lady there I thought I was friends with. (I was a teenager when I started.) One day after about 2 years of hanging out at her house, calling her regularly, etc., she finally blew up at me and said "I don't like you, I never liked you, the only reason I put up with you is because as a Christian I felt I had to." It HURT. After 2 years of me thinking she was my friend I found out she never was at all. Please, put her out of her misery now. The longer you pretend, the worse it will be if/when she ever finds out.
posted by jessamyn at 6:54 AM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've been in this situation pretty frequently (I wonder what this says about me), finding myself with a person who I thought of as a semi-friend (at best) who suddenly wants and expects a lot from me. It is extraordinarily draining. And because I hate rejection and hate the thought of feeling like I've lead someone on, I tend to take the coward's path. Which is to say that as soon as I get the sense that a semi-friend wants a whole lot more than I'm prepared to deliver...I just go off the grid. Completely.

This was particularly awkward with my most recent example: an ex-boyfriends' roommate, who assumed we'd suddenly become super close friends after only 3 months of rarely seeing each other. I never really liked her, but needed to be civil with her for obvious reasons. Once the ex and I were broken up, she began calling me incessantly--even at the office (which to me was really inexcusable). All of the people I asked for advice essentially told me to grow up and let her know that I just wasn't that into her. I just couldn't bear to do it even though I (logically) knew it would have been a relief to both of us. And then it got to the point that I couldn't even bear to answer the phone when she called. So six months later she finally got the hint.

So I guess I'm writing to let you know that I feel your pain--and that in reading the Hive's responses here I was sort of hoping for some revelatory magic bullet myself. The short answer I suppose is that at the end of the day you need to be able to look yourself in the mirror, and you also need to listen to and respect your gut. I consider myself a pretty brave person, but this is something I've always found extraordinarily daunting.

Incidentally, this just reminded me of something my good friend said to me in college when she found out about a horrible "friend" of mine: Fuck You. Good friend was outraged essentially that I'd put her into the same grouping as the lousy friend. That was eye-opening.
posted by ohyouknow at 1:19 PM on April 30, 2009

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