slow fade isn't working
June 2, 2014 5:46 PM   Subscribe

I have a friend who I consider to be almost family. We used to be extremely close through middle and high school, and probably most of while I was in college. She had a really rough childhood that resulted in PTSD and lasting issues with relationships. Over the past few years our daily lives have become pretty different and I think as she's had less going on she's gotten harder to talk to. I've been trying the slow fade, but she's noticed and I have to figure out how much to explain.

She's always been theatrical/a performer, but over the last few years it's changed from amusing monologues and conversation to her ranting about things on the internet to be outraged about, her latest illness, who was rude to her this week, the crappy thing her boyfriend did yet again, etc. It feels like non-stop complaints about others, and I can't get a word in edgewise. For literally hours. It's rare to have a phone call last less than 2 hours, usually more like three, and even then I have to be the one to end it. Last time she started narrating a rant she'd been addressing to some friend-of-a-friend on facebook (on a subject I agree with her on!) to me. Sometimes she yells at her poor kid for a while. Sometimes it sounds like she's taken her sleeping pills and is falling asleep. I feel like a jerk always having to cut her off.

I generally prefer hearing more about other people than talking myself, but I'm lucky if she asks how I am. Even when I learned of a big scandalous family secret (mine, not hers), she seemed bored and quickly switched back to the subject of her. I know in the big abstract sense she does care about me, and if I ever needed anything would be there for me, but on the level of actual interaction, not so much. I feel like she just wants an audience for her drama. Her interests are pretty much all related to ways she is a victim, outrageous things the republicans have done, detailed analysis of movies I have not seen and have no interest in, and sex. Thankfully the phase where she was also randomly insulting me seems to have been brief.

At this point, her phone calls really stress me out.

I have mentioned to her that she never even asks how I am, so now sometimes she asks before going off. I've told her I go to bed early, she still calls me late.

All that said, ideally we would still have a relationship that makes me less panicky. I know she's had a horrific childhood and mental health issues, so I don't want to hold it against her. But I'm also really out of patience for it. She's noticed that I've been taking forever to call her, and left annoyed voicemail, and now I feel like I at least owe her some explanation. How much is helpful and not just ranting? While I'm pretty grumpy about all of this, I don't want to be cruel or complain about something that isn't going to help. I really do think of her more as family than just a friend, if that affects answers.
posted by sepviva to Human Relations (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Tell her up front and directly what you can give -- you can talk on the phone X often, you can only be on the phone until X time. When she calls and you pick up, tell her how much time you have to talk and then stick to it. You're not being a jerk or unkind if you set reasonable boundaries and limits and then gently enforce them. If you tell her "I can't talk after 9PM" and she still calls you after 9PM, don't answer the phone. If she leaves you irritable voicemails that otherwise don't have any content, stop listening to her voicemails and just delete them, then call her back when you have time to talk. If you tell her "I can only talk for an hour tonight" and then she's angry with you when you try to get off the phone after an hour, you're not the one who's being unreasonable.

I also have a friend like this -- although one who's less confrontational -- and attempting to get her to change her behavior has never really helped much. All I can do is control my own end of our interactions so that she doesn't tire me out or push me to the point of my getting resentful.

You can care about someone like family without giving in to all of their demands on your time.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 6:02 PM on June 2, 2014 [14 favorites]

Setting boundaries regarding amount of time of the phone, timing of calls, and even subject matter (no negative stuff, please!) is fine, perfectly fair and healthy.

Is your friend in therapy at all? It seems that with a horrific childhood and active mental health issues, she should be getting intensive professional help. If she's not and choosing to call you and rant for hours instead, you may want to gently suggest that talking to a therapist would be good for her. It's not ok to use you as a one-way sounding board for her grievances. Especially if she takes little interest in being a supportive friend to you.

I had a friend who used to call me and behave very similarly to your friend. I found that, not only did I find the calls exhausting, I had an emotional hangover that would last for hours after. The calls would make me feel angry, sad, and very negative. It got to the point where I'd only answer the phone if I felt like I had the strength to endure the entire process and aftermath. I ended up cutting the friend off because I could no longer tolerate the toxic, one-way raincloud.

I understand that you consider her to be family, but even family can be redirected to operate within healthy boundaries. It may be difficult to set the boundaries and she's likely to push back, but be direct and consistent.
posted by quince at 6:39 PM on June 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: The above advice is great. And in terms of enforcing it, it is totally fine to say, at your pre-set time that you've already communicated to her, "Well, ok, gotta go!" and hang up. Even if she's still talking.

She will be annoyed. It's ok if she's annoyed. It's not ok to hold people hostage on the telephone.

She's noticed that I've been taking forever to call her, and left annoyed voicemail, and now I feel like I at least owe her some explanation.

I'd probably say something like, "I know I haven't called you back. I just have a lot going on, and it's hard to find time to have the loooong conversations we tend to have, and I'm starting to feel like your therapist rather than your friend, and it's [exhausting/frustrating]. So, for my own health, I'm going to have to start cutting things short from now on."

She will be annoyed. It's ok if she's annoyed.
posted by jaguar at 8:24 PM on June 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

We can feel empathy for someone's situation without getting pulled into their abyss. The ability to set boundaries is one of the hallmarks of healthy adulthood. Her history is troubling and it's natural to empathize. However, you have a right to call stop if the relationship is damaging to you. Practice saying your boundary setting statements out loud. Mine would be: Your calls focus on the negative and are very stressful to me. I empathize with your situation but I need to be able to relax before I go to bed.

Continue the slow fade. The relationship isn't healthy for you. (And I doubt it's all that healthy for her.)
posted by 26.2 at 8:28 PM on June 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you haven't communicated - in a clear and easy to understand way - to her what the problems are that you're having and what you need from the relationship for it to be healthy for you. Some people might pick up on the slow fade, but that's not something that's universal. So, the slow fade may not be a reliable solution here.

Having boundaries is a reliable solution though, and this will be positive for both of you. If you can work on figuring out what it is that's making you stressed and panicky, you can tell her what you can and can't talk about and when. I agree that this isn't being a jerk or unkind, even though it might feel very difficult at first. She may not respond well, but you can't control how she responds. Relationships are about more than one person, and you both deserve healthy and positive friendships.

Gently encouraging her to get therapy, if she's open to it, and supporting her in that could be great. It's important to remember that therapy won't magically or quickly "fix" her, though, and also that PTSD isn't as easy to treat and manage as other things that people seek therapy for. It also sounds like therapy might be helpful for you too - a therapist might be able to help you figure out what is healthy for you and what's not, where your boundaries should be, and how to kindly but firmly stick to them.

Good luck. I hope what you end up with at the end of this is a relationship that's better for both of you.
posted by Verba Volant at 8:32 PM on June 2, 2014

Best answer: I suggest telling her the specific behaviors that bother you. Because:

1. Since she had a terrible childhood and PTSD, she might imagine reasons for your slow fade that are much worse than reality. Her inner critic might be telling her that it's because she's unloveable and that she could never change that, whereas the real reasons are within her control.

2. Telling her the truth actually shows that you respect her strength. Shielding her from the truth implies you think she can't handle it.

3. If you don't tell her, she's going to fear that everyone might slow-fade on her, because she never knew what caused you to do it. That might give her even more problems in her relationships. At least if she knows why you did, she has a shot at correcting it.

I still think you should slow-fade, since it sounds really unpleasant. But I think you should also tell her why.
posted by cheesecake at 8:49 PM on June 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have a friend who is (I think) doing a slow fade on me right now. Overall the effect is that they rarely ever initiate hanging out anymore, they usually refuse invitations when I extend them (or if they come along they are grumpy and clearly don't want to be there), they don't really engage when I share tidbits from my life anymore, etc. But I can't be sure they're actually fading because at any one time, there's always a reasonable explanation for why they aren't available: this or that other thing to do, this or that responsibility, this or that reason for the bad mood, etc.

I have to say, it's a bit maddening. The frustrating thing about being a recipient of a slow fade, where nothing is ever stated explicitly, is that there is a long intervening time where you wonder if you're being super paranoid or going crazy. If she's picked up on it and is at the point of asking about it, I think the kindest thing to do is to let her know what's going on. I mean, you totally have the right to do the slow fade, and I would do so in your shoes (she sounds pretty hard to deal with)... but I think at this point it might be kinder to tell her something rather than just keep doing it. Especially if she's coming from a childhood of abuse, which often contains gaslighting elements, not knowing what's going on (or even whether something is going on) can be seriously crazymaking.

That said: please don't be cruel when you talk to her. In my case I haven't asked my friend about it because I really don't think I could take hearing about how annoying I am or whatever it is that has prompted the fade. But you can make it clear what level of engagement you're able to deal with, without going into great detail about What Is Wrong With Her (which is probably how she'd hear your criticism). Something like: "I'm sorry Matilda, I know I haven't been engaging much lately. I've just been really consumed with my own stuff and I don't think we're really in the same place in our lives anymore where I can talk very often or spend much time with you. I'd love to [insert whatever you can offer] but beyond that, I've got to disengage a bit."

That will still be a bit hurtful, because the bottom line is, this sort of thing is hurtful. You absolutely have the right to do it -- nobody owes anybody else a friendship. But at least if you go about it this way, it's about as kind as you could possibly be. And at this point, given that she's actually asking you, it's far kinder to say something than to continue to permit her to wonder what is going on.
posted by forza at 9:24 PM on June 2, 2014 [19 favorites]

Well, I like what forza said. I too had a friend like that, but it was a not-so-slow fade, but nothing was acknowledged until I straight out asked her, and long story short, I felt pretty annoyed to the point of being kind of angry at how I was being treated without the courtesy of being told what was up. It's totally maddening. That said, if you did tell her (which I think you should) and she doesn't take the feedback on board, well, you've done your bit. But I think it behooves all close friends to be honest, even if it stings a little - better that than months of being blown off, no one's a mind reader.
posted by scuza at 10:09 PM on June 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have mentioned to her that she never even asks how I am, so now sometimes she asks before going off.

I had a very similar thing happen. Friend was even self-aware enough that they'd say "It's going to be all about me in a minute, so how are you?". She didn't actually care about me, she was only asking about me as a social nicety. Time I spent talking about me was time she couldn't spend talking about her. Also, this: I know she's had a horrific childhood and mental health issues - does not mean she has the right to treat you badly. You deserve more than that.

I've found that with people like this, you can be what feels like quite rude in getting your point across, without actually coming across as rude. Saying something like "your phone calls are stressing me out because of X, Y and Z" isn't cruel, it's just the truth of your situation. If you don't tell someone what your boundaries are, they can't abide by them. Telling them is a kindness, not a cruelty.

That said, don't go into this expecting her to change her behaviour. She might, but she might not. It's unlikely that she will if what she is doing right now works for her - she gets to grumble and complain and then feels better afterwards, and only has to make a token show of caring about the other person. That sounds like a fabulous bargain to me. If she's that self absorbed, she won't be able to take a hint because she will make it all about her. The fact that she's figured out that you're doing a slow fade and responded by complaining, not asking herself (or especially not asking you) what it is she's doing to upset you and make you want to cut her off, speaks volumes. It seems somewhat clear to me that she doesn't actually care, or maybe she'd ask.

It is possible for people to change. But it's difficult and unlikely, especially if the way they're currently behaving brings them a reward of some kind. It's nigh on impossible if they're not ready to. It doesn't sound like she's ready to.
posted by Solomon at 2:07 AM on June 3, 2014

For literally hours. It's rare to have a phone call last less than 2 hours, usually more like three, and even then I have to be the one to end it.

Oh my god no. And she's got a kid at home that she yells at periodically? And she sounds like she's taking sleeping pills before calling you? Maybe she's taking sleeping pills; maybe she's drunk. Maybe it is just depression and PTSD but these phone calls, as annoying as they are to you, are not remotely helping her either. I would pick a time-- maybe the day after next one-- and tell her the calls take too much out of you. There are a lot of people that just don't like talking on the phone, period. You can be one of them.

You can also explicitly friend-break-up but I think if you are not giving her what she wants, she will probably move on.
posted by BibiRose at 3:41 AM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

You need to have an intervention with your friend. Invite her to a quiet place, with no distractions. Tell her "Shelly, I need to set up some boundaries with you because I love you and I want us to be friends for a good long time, but right now our friendship doesn't work for me. Your behavior affects me in the following ways:

1. When you monopolize conversations with long, protracted stories about issues that I'm not a party to, I feel marginalized and anxious.

2. When you only perfuntorally ask me how I am before launching into a lengthy diatribe, it makes me feel that you don't care about me or what's going on in my life.

3. When you call me late in the evening, after I've repeatedly asked you not to, I feel that you don't respect me or my schedule.

4. When you keep me on the phone for hours and hours, I become stressed out because I have things I need to do, and you're keeping me from them.

I want to re-frame our relationship so that it can work not just for you, but for me as well.

1. I will let you know if what you are talking about is not of interest to me. I'll try to be nice about it, but I will say, "Shelly, I don't know who that is. Let's talk about something else."

2. I will let you know if I want to tell you something and I expect that you will listen to me thoughtfully. If this isn't something you feel that you can do, that's fine, we don't need to be in such constant contact then.

3. If you call late in the evening, I will not answer the phone. Please remember that I won't accept any phone calls after 10:00 PM, nor will I allow any phone calls to extend past that time.

4. If the call is going for a long time, again, I'll try to be nice, but I'll say, "Shelly, I have to let you go now, " and then I'm going to hang up.

She may become angry, or upset, but that's a smoke screen. She'll probably be embarrassed because she doesn't realize that she's doing it. Another thing is she may stomp out, vowing never to see you again.

You can say, "I'm sorry you feel that way. I need to have my needs and desires met in this relationship too. If you change your mind, the door is open."

I wish you luck, it's hard, but you can do this.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:41 AM on June 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

Wow. My best friend and I have a phone call every three to four weeks, and my husband teases me when the call goes past the 45-minute mark. And this is someone I absolutely love talking to.

Regarding the phone calls specifically, I think you need to be more firm with your time allotment. When you say hello, also say, "I have 15/30/45 minutes tonight before I have to do X. How's it going?" And then set a timer, and be firm when the time's up. "Sorry, hon, gotta go."

I do not think a drawn-out explanation of your wants and needs will help at all, because I don't think she will hear it. Instead, control your actions to suit your needs. In this case, decide beforehand how much negativity you can take in one phone call, i.e. 15 minutes worth, and limit accordingly.
posted by sillymama at 9:55 AM on June 3, 2014

This person is beginning to consume you and the situation will not improve. It stresses me out just to read your account. Personally, I would cut ties completely.
posted by crw at 4:23 PM on June 3, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone was really helpful!
posted by sepviva at 6:47 PM on June 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

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