Internet friendship ends badly. What now?
August 25, 2012 3:23 PM   Subscribe

I'm posting this anonymously because "Angie" read it (unlikely, but not impossible), I think it would genuinely hurt her feelings. Also, I feel like an idiot to be posting this at all. This is kind of long and pathetic. Sorry. Summary: Internet friendship crashed & burned, I feel badly about it, what can I do to get over myself?

Back in mid-spring, I met Angie on an Internet forum. We're about the same age (mid-30s, for God's sake), with many similar interests, and since we were both new to the forums, we had something else to bond over, and we BS'd a lot in private messages and in chat.

Angie has had a lousy summer, with family and job problems. She & her partner moved to a new city in February, and she hasn't met anyone to be friends with, and by her own admission, she has a hard time making and keeping friends; she tends to pick fights with people she trusts not to hurt her. She has a bad family background (emotional/verbal abuse) and is struggling with getting help with her bipolar disorder (she's adjusting meds, but will not go to therapists, having had no help from them before).

I'm generally good with online "relationships". If someone gets hostile or weird, I have no problem with shutting them down. I'm pretty friendly, I don't mind lending an ear to someone who needs to vent, and I try to be supportive when it feels like someone's having a rough time. I fit in pretty quickly on the forums, where Angie had more trouble. She wasn't hostile or anything, just sort of abrasive when she disagreed with someone.

Angie and I got along really well at the start, but the more I started interacting with other forum members, the more she seemed to need validation that I really liked her, too (which I did, and do!). The more I talked to other people in public threads, the worse it seemed to get.

To make a very long story short, we've had four major arguments in the last few months, each one with her trying to insist that I needed to stop talking to specific forum members because they'd been mean to her, and the last two ending with her calling me a variety of names, accusing me of sucking up to people, being two-faced and so on. After each fight, she never really apologized, but her behavior was apologetic if that makes sense. She started getting into minor clashes with other users, too.

Earlier this week on GChat, we got into it again. She tried to insist that I needed to stop talking to certain people (even privately) and that she wouldn't talk to people who'd been mean to me. I pointed out that the only one on the forums who had been "mean" to me was her, with the repeated name-calling. It was juvenile of me, I know. That set her off, things got worse, and I ended the chat, then ignored the follow-up email that started out with more accusations. That was childish, too, but I didn't see any good in trying to keep talking to her. I'm pretty sure that's the end of things. This morning, she posted a "good bye to the forums" thread that nobody responded to.

The thing is, I feel really, really badly for her. I know she's hurting and angry, and that she lashes out without thinking. But I just don't feel like there's anything I can do to help her. I feel guilty about my own part in it. Would it have helped to limit my interactions with other forum members (but that just feels weird and a little crazy)? I don't feel like I've been a bad friend, but I still wish things could be different, and I do feel like I've abandoned her. I'm also pretty sure that if we "reconcile" the cycle will just repeat itself. But I do miss the friend I had.

My questions: 1) What can I do to keep from second-guessing myself and going through the cycle again? and 2) What are some ways to quit worrying about her? I'm avoiding the forums for a while, since I feel really anxious about "seeing" her there, and even pulling up the site makes me feel worse. Is it weird that I'm trying very hard to remember the good stuff and dump out the bad? Should I try to at least email her to wish her well? And what the hell is wrong with me, I'm a grown woman and this is an Internet friendship, for Christ's sake?!

Thanks for anyone who read this. I feel better typing out even if I do feel incredibly stupid reading it.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Since the forums themselves don't seem to play a major role for you, just avoid them one day at a time. Eventually, this will all be in the past.
posted by Ardiril at 3:35 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

1) What can I do to keep from second-guessing myself and going through the cycle again?

Don't get personally entangled or invested with "internet friendships" with people you just met. The kinds of people who make persistent overtures to "be your internet friend" are precisely the sort of people who are going to lead you into personal drama.

She hasn't been abandoned. She's going to join some other internet forum, end up bantering with someone else, start private messaging them, and then going through the whole cycle of drama with her new "friend" all over again.
posted by deanc at 3:38 PM on August 25, 2012 [9 favorites]

1) Stick to your boundaries, but do let her know what those boundaries are.
2) Read Captain Awkward.
3) Only interact with her when she is capable of respecting your boundaries. (Which are totally normal - other people should not be policing their friends' social networks and isolating them. That is a red flag abusive behavior. As is the name calling/etc and then seeming-apologetic cycle.)
4) Don't tailor your involvement in the forums around her behavior.
posted by vegartanipla at 3:39 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't email her to wish her well. I think your behavior has been fine and you should just leave it at that (at least unless she legitimately apologizes to you and wants to move forward on a new, healthier basis).
posted by J. Wilson at 3:40 PM on August 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

The thing with this kind of internet relationship is that there are two parts to it. There is the "real" part, where you interact directly back and forth in whatever format you're into (forum posts, chat, emails, whatever) and then there is the "imaginary" part where you fill in the blanks in the actual interactions with your assumptions and theories and mental models about the other person. Both of you are doing it at the same time. This isn't a bad thing, this is just how relationships work, real-life and internet.

But on the internet, you have quite a bit less direct communication and therefore need to fill in a lot more with extrapolated interaction. So it's super easy, for, say, Angie to be imagining that the people you are talking to in public are talking to you privately, and probably talking shit about her because a) you talk to her publicly and privately and b) people in her previous life talked shit about her behind her back. And it's really easy for you to hear about her life troubles and assume that she's snappish and rude and controlling because she's been through a lot, not because she's just naturally horrible, because you're not horrible but you get snippy under stress. And so you end up in this really unhealthy dynamic that is only partly based on real verifiable things.

The way to get out of it is to clear the table and only deal with the direct stuff. She behaves in a rude and controlling way - that's not ok. You are behaving in a perfectly normal way by talking to a variety of people in this forum. If she sees you and freaks out silently, you will not know about it and should not assume it - it's not your problem. If she sees you and freaks out in email or publicly, then you deal with her actions and her words, not her imagined situation or justification.

When you get to know someone really well, even if its only online, the extrapolated stuff gets more accurate and can be more useful. But it takes a long time and a lot of contact, and you both need to be willing to stay pretty literal for a while. Either she isn't willing or she is really just controlling and rude - in either case, you need to break down that mental model and reconstruct it using her actual behavior.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:45 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I know you mentioned her identifying as having bipolar disorder, but it sounds more like classic borderline personality disorder (the /other/ BPD). One of those symptoms is that you are either all in, with full, obsessive loyalty, or you're out. I've had similar things happen with people who turned out to have it.

You didn't do anything wrong, but maybe looking ahead to people who show the first signs of this might not be unwise, with an eye for prevention in future.
posted by corb at 3:56 PM on August 25, 2012 [8 favorites]

Whether in real life or online, one friend is not allowed to tell you that you can't talk to another person. Angie can remain your friend, if she wants to, but she CAN'T in any way, shape or form regulate your friendships or conversations with other people, and if she can't hack that then that's just too bad for her.

And considering her childish posessiveness ('but you were my friend first!') and her attempts at controlling other people's behavior, I can understand why Angie is having trouble making friends.
posted by easily confused at 3:58 PM on August 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm generally good with online "relationships". If someone gets hostile or weird, I have no problem with shutting them down.

It sounds like you let this one go on too long and you were more emotionally invested in it, but in the end you did what has worked for you in the past. Next time disengage earlier. Clear signs: someone tells you not to interact with other people on the internet, they tell you they have a hard time making and keeping friends and tend to pick fights with people they trust not to hurt them, they call you names.

You're not responsible for anyone else's emotions, no matter how much they confide in you or how alone they seem.
posted by headnsouth at 4:03 PM on August 25, 2012

First of all, I'm sorry you lost your friend.

But honestly, I really think here that the problem is her, not you. For whatever reason, she doesn't seem to be capable of maintaining friendships without acting out, becoming extremely jealous, and doing hurtful things. She can't even maintain polite, civil online discussion. You haven't abandoned her - she's pushed you away. I think your instinct that it's time to end your contact with her is the right one. That instinct is your self-preservation.

1) What can I do to keep from second-guessing myself and going through the cycle again?

Find someone else to interact with, I think is unfortunately the bottom line. Your friendship with her was putting you in a bad place.

2) What are some ways to quit worrying about her?

Time. I don't think there is any solution that will work instantly, but eventually not talking to her will become the norm, and as you get used to not hearing from her you'll get used to not thinking of her. Her happiness is not your responsibility, and in fact it never was.

I think it absolutely makes sense that you want to remember the good parts of the friendship over the bad. That means your time was worth something to you, because you did get some enjoyment out of the friendship. Remember it fondly, sure, but as something in the past.

The fact that it's an internet friendship is really a red herring here. I think all of these things are important no matter what the context of interactions is.
posted by capricorn at 4:26 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

You were not childish to close the chat or ignore the email. Do not feel guilty. Do not engage. I'm sure she's done this before (I hate to use the term, but I think Drama Queen fits the bill).

Just give it time to heal. And do something else to distract yourself when you start thinking about her/the situation.
posted by deborah at 8:47 PM on August 25, 2012

I'm with you. I don't get why this isn't already in perspective for you.

The truth is you never really knew this person, the internet allowed this person to hide some major dramaz for a while, and then their penchant for the dramaz really got the better of them. Don't let the dramaz get the better of you.

You're not supposed to be engaging with people who fling unfounded accusations at you!

You did right. You are not close enough to this person to help them.

Take a moment to wish them well in your heart, imagine them healed, functioning, lucky in life, and happy... and then let it go.
posted by jbenben at 11:43 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

If she behaves badly - name-calling, unreasonable demands, etc. - and you accept it, you are teaching her that some people will tolerate bad behavior. This is not a kindness. It seems unkind to say Calling me a jerk, esp. in a public space, is not okay with me. No ultimatum, just a stated fact. If you want to be kind, recommend professional mental health care. Then move on. You can't fix all the broken things you encounter in life. You can't fix all the broken things you encounter on the Internet, to the nth power.
posted by theora55 at 8:17 AM on August 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

There is one other option, although it takes a strong stomach. You need to show self-respect and set appropriate boundaries particularly since this person clearly has trouble doing that herself. However, you could send her an email letting her know that overall you enjoyed the relationship and if she is interested in re-starting it at some time in the future, you would be glad to hear from her. She may ignore this completely (very likely) If she does contact you, then you need to let her know right away that while you are glad to hear from her, sometimes her language feels disrespectful and when that happens you will be pull back from the conversation. The first time she comments on other person tell her that you have different values about friendship than she does - each relationship is separate and that if she doesn't want to be friends with you because you talk to someone else then that is her choice. In other words, you just tell her what you are going to do (not stick around for insults, not change other relationships based on her feelings) and be totally neutral about she decides to do for herself (stay friends or not). This is likely to produce a lot of drama. If you can tolerate that, there is a chance that you might end being a valuable friend to this woman (or not). If you aren't up for the drama, then just let her go - that too is a valid choice for you.
posted by metahawk at 4:30 PM on August 26, 2012

Just read the link to Captain Awkward above. If you feel like you want to reach out to her again, listen to the Captain.
posted by metahawk at 4:35 PM on August 26, 2012

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