A Decade of Exhaustion
May 19, 2014 2:48 PM   Subscribe

One of my oldest friends is also the most difficult. He consistently wants more of my time and energy than I can give, even when I explain that I'm stretched too thin. I'm fond of him, but I need time apart. Challenge: his support system consists of me and no-one else.

Background, in broad strokes:

John Doe and I are in our mid-20s. We met as teenagers thanks to mutual friends. In high school, we used to spend every weekend together, but always in a group of 3 or 4 people -- never one on one. We went to college in different cities, and during those years we kept in touch through email. I'm now finished with school, climbing the corporate ladder and planning my wedding. He's still in school, in a new city where he's had trouble making friends.

The problem:

Firstly, our lives have diverged in a way that he doesn't seem to recognize. As a student taking a light load, he's glutted with free time, most of which he spends composing intimidatingly long emails to me. I have the standard responsibility unit of job/house/relationship, which leaves me limited time to respond to him in kind. He gets upset when his messages go unanswered for a couple days. This inevitably leads to me feeling resentful and even less inclined to spend an hour every night replying to him.

Secondly, he needs a lot of support. I'm happy to tell him honestly that I think he's a talented person with a good heart and mind. But as soon as one hole is patched, another opens. He's asked me for reassurance about everything from his personality to his sexual performance. (We've never slept together.) This leaves me feeling like a validation machine, and even though I like him, the stream of compliments has started to taste false. He does ask about me, and I know he'd be happy to talk about my life, but I feel like I'd have to do the comforting either way.

Lastly, WHOA inappropriate declarations of attachment! I love my friends, and I value their presence in my life. I also don't want to make them uncomfortable by loudly proclaiming my love at every opportunity, or by catastrophizing about what might happen if they weren't in my life any more.

Bonus issue:

I have a chronic illness, and his well-meaning paranoia about my health puts me on edge. I'm glad he cares, but I'd rather not be treated like glass. If I tell him that I don't need to be monitored, he responds by commenting on my "strength" and admonishing me to "let down my guard".

The question:

How do I disentangle myself from John's life with a minimum of cruelty?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You are not being cruel by doing what you need for your health and sanity. If he fails to thrive, it's by his own hand, not yours. Let go freely, and do not give in if he tries to emotionally blackmail you back into codependency.
posted by Hermione Granger at 2:59 PM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's not ok for him to use you as a crutch to compensate for deficiencies (perceived or actual) in the rest of his life. Clearly articulate your boundaries and reinforce them. If he's able to be a friend to you, he'll respect them. If he's focused on his own needs only, you have your answer. It's fine to be straightforward and tell him much of what you wrote above.
posted by quince at 3:12 PM on May 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think total honesty is what's called for here. You value his friendship, but you have too much going on right now to accommodate his current level of interaction. If you are up-front and straightforward about telling him this and then reinforcing the message, I think you two might be okay.
posted by xingcat at 3:19 PM on May 19, 2014 [6 favorites]

I went through something similar a few years ago with a friend. It became a matter of feeling like my emotional energy was a battery and he was draining it without allowing me time to recharge or absorb anything he was saying or feeling. We discussed that it was his need for me not to reject him that led to his constant checking in and making sure we were still friends. He was aware of it and we talked about it, in depth, but it became apparent to both of us that it was something that neither of us could fix at that time and I had to cut ties and put our friendship on hold.

We haven't spoken in a few years and I think about him, from time to time, hoping he's doing okay but knowing that he was dragging me down with him under the water. Unfortunately, there are some things that cannot be repaired in a friendship without some time and space and true honesty. And there are some things that cannot be repaired even then. You have to make the right call for yourself.
posted by Merinda at 3:32 PM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you suggested he join a support group or seek therapy? He needs more resources.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:35 PM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maybe go with him to some clubs or meetup groups and enthusiastically introduce him to a lot of people and then slowly phase yourself out? He sounds like an okay person from your description, so it wouldn't be like you're pawning some horrible person off on other people.

A lot of people are socially needy, and the solution to that is usually lots of friends. And unless he's completely clueless, he probably feels the impending chill from you already and maybe would even welcome a push in the right direction.

Of course, you could just ignore him and let him find other friends on his own like a grown person, but you said you wanted the least cruel way.
posted by madonna of the unloved at 3:46 PM on May 19, 2014

Is there an online activity you could do with him instead of just being his navel-gazing partner? Could you play a game of chess via email, or words with friends (or whatever the kids are doing these days), or trade short story writing prompts? I don't think having a ready audience for his inner ramblings is doing him any good. Ruminating tends to cement patterns instead of free them, so the more he gets into the habit of writing long emails about what's wrong with him/his life, the more comforting it becomes and the more he will want to do it, instead of growing and moving past it. He's not going to like getting removed from the teat, but c'est la vie.

See if you can set up some boundaries and redirect this friendship energy. Say, "Hey, sorry I don't have as much time for correspondence as I used to. I know my response time is disappointing you. Life has gotten busy and I am not likely to get more free time in the future. I would still like to be friends but perhaps we could play a game instead of just writing long emails? Say, one move (or 10 minutes of play, or whatever) every few days (or weekend or whatever is comfortable), and do quick life updates on the side? I really like to play such-and-such and I don't have a partner."

It makes him feel valued, it sets a boundary of expected contact, it gets him off the moody emails. If he doesn't like it you can tell him that that is what you have available right now, and if he really pushes things you can simply wish him well and withdraw from the friendship.
posted by griselda at 3:48 PM on May 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

Do you just want to scale this back to a level of interaction that feels OK to you, or do you want to basically terminate relations? Decide on that, and then figure out what way to do that you're most comfortable with, whether it's harsh honesty or the slow "yeah, been real busy at work..." fade.

(I give you internet permission to slow fade this guy. From what you've described here, the attention he gives you is not the reciprocation of friendship, it's selfish neediness and it's not cool.)

I get the impression he'll see any attempts to disentangle as "cruel." So do what you have to do.
posted by prize bull octorok at 3:54 PM on May 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

You have (or will shortly) a spouse, a career, a home and a chronic illness--your plate seems pretty full. This guy is a vampire, whose "concern" for you is just a way to keep your attention focused on him, because he has needs and why bother to grow up and make a life for himself when he can just ask you for attention and affection/validation/comfort? I'd do a faster than slow fade, but I also wouldn't suggest any sort of conversation about why you're drawing away, because the drama will just feed him. You can't fix him.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:17 PM on May 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

This is far, far into the unhealthy end of the spectrum as far as what you can expect from a friend goes on his part.

He's asked me for reassurance about everything from his personality to his sexual performance. (We've never slept together.)

And i mean, i'm projecting and making an assumption here based on this bit and the rest of the thing... but are you a lady? That part plus the inappropriate declarations of attachment bit totally sets off my friendzone fire alarm. I only bring this up because several women i know have been saddled with a "friend" who would fit this description.

Because yea, when you look at that way... the entire thing kinda clicks into place as a really deeply unhealthy level of attachment, in that maybe he's actually infatuated with you.

I honestly don't see an easy way out of this. Any attempt to pull back you make will definitely be met with tons of guilt tripping, prostrated begging, and likely even some later "O MY GOD THIS IS AN EMERGENCY I NEED YOU RIGHT NOW" crap to reel you back in.

This is really going to be more of a breakup than a reimagining of a friendship when you try and pull out of this. Prepare yourself accordingly, but know that what you're doing is completely fair, ok, and that what he's asking for from you is unreasonable and honestly unhealthy on both sides. Put on your own oxygen mask first, etc.

Since yea, if the dude wants someone to talk to this much and this intensely about everything he should be paying them.
posted by emptythought at 4:35 PM on May 19, 2014 [9 favorites]

Are you female? Is he in love with you?

Next time he bothers you for not writing back soon enough, send him a firm email telling him that it's inappropriate and you won't be talking to him for a week and would like him not to email you during that time, lest he reset the clock.

This kind of behavioral modification will be extremely effective if he truly relies on you. However, I suspect he doesn't rely on you so much as he enjoys trying to control you and monopolize your time. In that case, you should stop talking to him so that you can focus on people who aren't treating you like an object.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:12 PM on May 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

You can't rescue other people, you can't be responsible for someone else's happiness. Stop giving him so much of your time. Reply to him in a normal way. John, I'm pretty beat this evening, so all I can say is what I've said before - you're totally lovable and blah, blah. If he gets pissy, be honest - John, you're such a good friend, but I have a lot of time commitments, so I can't always write lengthy emails.

Think of some actions you recommend for him, maybe going to a coffee shop where people play games, or joining some activity group, where he can make new friends, and encourage him in healthy directions.
posted by theora55 at 8:16 PM on May 19, 2014

Gotta be firm or get out the newspaper and whack him on the nose.

Anybody expecting ridiculously long email replies every night is insane and has insane expectations. It is hard to reason with the crazy (believe me, I have been forced to try) and you may have to cut him loose if he can't unwrap a little.

And yes, his attachment is definitely unhealthy.
posted by fenriq at 8:19 PM on May 19, 2014

Um. This guy is a toxic asshole.

Seriously. Emails every day? Depending on you for support and validation for every single thing, up to and including sexual performance? His behaviour would be codependent in a relationship, never even mind a platonic friendship.

posted by Tamanna at 8:35 PM on May 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think you'd be perfectly justified just emailing him a "Sorry, this isn't working for me" email and ending the relationship cold-turkey. If you want to try something less drastic, maybe email him a copy of The Spoon Theory and then just consistently respond with "Out of spoons!" or "Low on spoons!" (and let that be the entirety of the message) any time he's pushing boundaries.

You've kind of trained him that you'll do your "You're wonderful!" performing-seal routine anytime he whines, so it's on you to enforce the boundaries you want to set:

I'm happy to tell him honestly that I think he's a talented person with a good heart and mind. But as soon as one hole is patched, another opens. He's asked me for reassurance about everything from his personality to his sexual performance. (We've never slept together.) This leaves me feeling like a validation machine, and even though I like him, the stream of compliments has started to taste false. He does ask about me, and I know he'd be happy to talk about my life, but I feel like I'd have to do the comforting either way.

Stop doing that, even if you're "happy" to do it. Because you're not happy to do it. He's asking you for a favor, and it's well within your rights to say No. Even if he begs and pleads and whines and sulks and pouts and catastrophizes.

In other words, don't explain that you are stretched too thin and then engage anyway; just say that you're out of spoons and then disengage. Stay disengaged even if he amps up the pressure. Ignore any tantrums; proceed when you feel like being in contact with him as if any pouting/sulking/whining/anger never happened.

It's quite likely he'll respond to this approach by getting so wound up and angry that he'll disengage, but there's a chance he'll learn that you're not going to indulge in his overly dramatic pity-fests and that if he wants to keep you in his life, he has to turn down the obsessive neediness.
posted by jaguar at 10:49 PM on May 19, 2014

Stop complimenting him.

By which I mean, stop propping up his ego. If he contacts you less without that, so be it. If you don't have time to address the points in his emails - don't.
posted by Elysum at 1:01 AM on May 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

My best friend has always pushed it with me like this. A couple of years ago she started calling me at 11pm every night, and even when I said I needed to go to bed, she WOULD NOT STOP TALKING.... EVERY NIGHT. And that was on top of numerous other talks during the week.... it was adding up to maybe, 10 hours a week.... when you added on emails.

And it was always the same conversation. I started to cringe and feel awful whenever the phone would ring.

I finally had enough and caught a break. I got a new phone number and informed her that I wasn't sharing the number because the phone was triggering my anxiety... I refused to give her the number for a year, and I did recently, but her number is on silent and I answer it only if she asks nicely and warns me.

And the emails, I started waiting a while to respond to each one, again- limiting access to myself.

So its fine if you don't want this person to have instant and unlimited access to you.

If you say that you are not going to be as available, and he doesn't let up.... Then just STOP being available.
posted by misspony at 1:13 AM on May 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have a really good friend like this. To be fair, we were becoming mutually codependent on each other and took turns being black holes of neediness. I got better; he didn't, so much.

I finally decided (with the help of my therapist) that I needed a time out. For a month. And I held to it. No contact for 30 days. I explained that I needed to do that for my health. And because he genuinely cares about me, he rode it out.

After the month, his emotional grip on me had loosened and I became able to tell him when I needed more room, couldn't talk, whatever.

My friend is not a toxic asshole. He is, like me and like many of us, a damaged person who is doing the best he can but his best is sometimes not healthy for me.

So I have learned to set limits (courtesy of Al-Anon, a great resource for anyone who has grown up or has been/is involved with chaotic, alcoholic and/or addictive people) and have been able to continue having a relationship with a friend who is truly wonderful in many ways. And also extremely needy, at times.

When I can't give him what he needs, I say so. And he backs off. Best of luck in figuring out how to get the space you need.

The Spoon thing, upthread? So fabulous! I'm sending that link to a bunch of people I know. Thanks, jaguar!

I don't have Lupus but I do have ADHD, which is difficult for many people to believe is an actual thing, let along understand how it works. Like, how could there be a limit to my ability to focus if they can focus for 48 hours straight? Now I can call on the Spoon Theory to explain. Yay!
posted by Bella Donna at 2:15 AM on May 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you're like me, you'll feel anxiety when you see his emails/calls even if you have decided to delay answering them and phase him out.

Because that guy's tenacious, man. If you don't react the way he has trained you to, he'll double up on you: "whyyyyyyyyyy "Massivestateofthefriendshipargument, drama, tearful reunion: perfect for feeding his need for closeness.

If it were me, I'd stop giving him what he wants, like Elysum said. When he says something that requires you to reassure him, don't. Instead, say "oh yeah? Oh dear. Hmm." Try to sound as if maybe he may be right when he talks badly about himself. As if you just don't know, man, maybe he really does have major problems, you know?
Say as little as possible. "Hmm and uhuh" are enough. When questioned, say "I don't know what to say." Or "I don't know."
I also like "that sucks. Hm. Have you decided what you're going to do about it? No? Oh. "
You have to get comfortable with silence. His sulky, flabbergasted, hurt silence. You have to get comfortable with him seeing you as the traitor, the one person he trusted who let him down oh noez.

Of course, if you're that cold, you might as well just end the relationship, which is what I did to my own clingy friend.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:17 AM on May 20, 2014

you should take care of yourself and pull back your interaction significantly even though he will get upset and try to make you feel guilty for taking care of yourself. which won't work so well, if you're ready for it and see it coming.
posted by zdravo at 5:46 AM on May 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm really introverted and have little to no patience for people like this and what *I'd* do in this situation is pretty much stop replying to him until he eventually drifts away, so take my advice with that in mind. But with that said, here's my advice:

Snap at him. Really, just get your feelings off your chest. "Jesus christ John, you're starting to make me a feel like a validation machine! It's like you expect me to spend an hour on you every day when you know I don't have that kind of time available! I don't feel like you're being friendly, I feel like you're being an emotional vampire and it's making me so goddamned tired! How do you expect me to care about the shit going on in your life when you're not leaving me any time for my own!? Seriously man, what the hell? Sorry but you really need to step off and stop expecting so much from me when I'm telling you I can't give it. I need more space or I need to get out, period. Friendship shouldn't feel like a prison."

If he flies off the handle or starts trying to emotionally manipulate you, you'll know it's time to dump his ass. It's sad, but sometimes things like that just happen; like you said, your lives have diverged. On the other hand if he has it in him to really consider your own needs and feelings and make changes to how he handles your relationship, you just provided the opportunity for that to happen. Be super honest, don't back down or concede until the problem is fixed or until everything breaks down to the point where you can sever he relationship without feeling guilty. And just to be clear: you have nothing to feel guilty about, here.

Best of luck.
posted by Drexen at 8:28 AM on May 20, 2014

You have the power to pull away, and you don't have to declare anything. Just do it.

He writes you a long email. You reply with a sentence. Only call him when you want to talk and practice saying, "I've got a ton of shit to do, I'm going to let you go now." Don't answer when he calls you.

When he asks for validation, feel free to say, "I'm not playing this game with you. Stop fishing for complements/validation."

When he starts in on you with a health related thing, say, "I've told you, I appreciate your concern, but I don't want to talk about my health with you."

When did you hand over your agency to this guy? Why do you think you're responsible for HIS issues?

Be his friend on your terms, not his. If he starts getting angry and yelling at you, simply say, "I'm your friend, not your lover, not your spouse. I don't owe you anything I don't want to give you. I'm leaving and I don't want to talk to you until you can respect me, my time and my wishes."

If he doesn't want to be in a friendship with you under those terms, oh well, that's on him.

Stop being a doormat and a hostage in this relationship.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:08 AM on May 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Can you not just tell him he needs a support group, but help him find one? He'd prefer you, but it'll let you back off without leaving him unsupported.
posted by Baeria at 12:15 PM on May 20, 2014

In your place, I'd want to disengage myself too. The admonishments to "let down your guard" are what would push me from cordial to ruthless. You need your guard because he's being a creep and trying to force emotional intimacy on you. You would be perfectly within your rights to cut ties right now with a simple "These conversations are making me uncomfortable."

If you want to be gentler about it: is he in therapy and/or does his school have a counselling service? That might be a good place to start the disengagement.

Him: "I'm so worried about [thing]"
You: "Does your school have a counsellor you can see?"

Him: "I'm so worried about [uncomfortably personal thing] and you're the only one I can talk to about it!"
You: "Actually, it would be more appropriate for you to discuss this with someone qualified than with me. Did you follow up with that counselling appointment?"
Him: "No, the counsellor is a loser/jerk"
You: "S/he's still a professional and better qualified to help you find a solution than me."

Then, every time he brings you a crisis, stonewall him with "take this to the counsellor, not me." Possible added benefits: he may begin to sort his life out, and he will have someone in place to go to when you do finally manage to cut ties.
posted by Pallas Athena at 7:08 PM on May 20, 2014

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